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Gonzaga's Suggs and UConn's Bueckers: Longtime friends represent MN on big March Madness stage

They've known each other for years on the Twin Cities hoops circuit. Now, they're chasing championships with Gonzaga and Connecticut.
Credit: Molly Manley

ST PAUL, Minn. — Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers are two of the top freshmen in men’s and women’s college basketball, the type of dynamic players who only come along every so often.

Both have embraced the spotlight.

And they’re both the pride and joy of Minnesota.  

Suggs, a 6-foot-4 guard from Minnehaha Academy, has fueled Gonzaga to a 26-0 record as the Bulldogs seek to become the first team since 1976 to march through the NCAA Tournament undefeated. 

Bueckers, the 5-foot-11 Hopkins phenom, has cemented herself as the next legend for a storied Connecticut program by leading the 24-1 Huskies in nearly every statistical category.

At their core, though, Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers are just a couple of kids from the Twin Cities metro area, longtime friends from childhood who consider themselves members of each other’s families.

“Obviously, I’ve known Paige forever,” Jalen’s mom, Molly Manley, told KARE 11 in a Zoom interview from her hotel room in Indianapolis. “It’s like I have two kids playing in the NCAA Tournament.”

Manley has traveled to watch her son’s top-seeded Bulldogs in-person this weekend, starting with a first round game against Norfolk State on Saturday evening inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. On Sunday evening, though, Manley said she’ll be tuned to ESPN to follow Bueckers and Connecticut – also a top seed in the women’s bracket – against High Point.

Suggs and Bueckers have a unique relationship with almost no other comparison in college basketball. They’ve known each other for years through the Twin Cities basketball and AAU circuit, they were both widely publicized in high school and highly regarded as recruits, they’re both national championship contenders as freshmen, and they’re both soaring toward professional careers in the NBA and WNBA respectively.

The two speak frequently, according to Molly Manley.

That’s become especially important during the pandemic, which has kept Suggs largely isolated on the West Coast and Bueckers feeling the same way on the East Coast.

“For Jalen and Paige to be living kind of a parallel life for so long – doing USA Basketball the same years together, winning state championships some of the same years, recruiting at the same time – they’re a  great support system for each other,” Manley said. “I always encourage them to reach out to one another, and make the most of having someone who is going through the same things at the same time.”

Credit: Molly Manley
Suggs (center) and Bueckers (right) have known each other for years from the Twin Cities basketball circuit.

That strong friendship has helped both Suggs and Bueckers reach the pinnacle of their sport in 2020-21, which in turn has significantly raised the profile for basketball across the state of Minnesota.

“I can’t think of two more deserving kids to be in a position like this, and in a position to go out and represent their state in the way that they have,” said Tara Starks, who coached Paige Bueckers in AAU starting in fifth grade but also knows the Suggs family. “My TV all year has been locked into Gonzaga and UConn.”

But, as Starks quickly points out, Bueckers and Suggs are not the only Minnesota natives playing well on the national stage. On the women’s side, fellow freshman Liza Karlen of Stillwater has carved out a nice role for herself at Marquette and will appear on ESPNU this weekend for the 10th-seeded Golden Eagles. At Bradley, a #11 seed out of the Missouri Valley Conference, Elk River’s Gabi Haack and Inver Grove Heights’ Tete Danso will play Monday against Texas. Other names from Minnesota include Iowa’s Monika Czinano, Iowa State’s Kristin Scott, and South Dakota’s Liv Korngable and Hannah Sjerven.

For the men, fifth-seeded Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV of Champlin Park is one of the best players in the Pac-12, and when ninth-seeded Wisconsin faced eighth-seeded North Carolina Friday evening the Badgers’ roster boasted seven Minnesota natives, while the Tar Heels featured another Hopkins freshman named Kerwin Walton.

And coming next year 7-foot-1 Chet Holmgren, once a teammate of Jalen Suggs at Minnehaha Academy, will make some college program very happy when the top-rated high school recruit decides on his future.

Long known for its hockey prowess, the state of Minnesota has recently become a hoops hotbed in both the men’s and women’s game.

“Oh yeah. Lots of growth,” Starks said. “It’s super inspirational to a lot of these young kids. For a while, these kids’ dreams were really small – maybe I could go here, or be OK getting a Division II opportunity. Now, they’re looking at all these kids play in the big stage, on the big screen, and it motivates them. It truly gives them something to reach for, especially for our young women, where these opportunities were not always there.”

A year from now, Minnesota will take center stage again when Target Center hosts the 2022 Women’s Final Four. Starks and many others in the basketball community are already planning for that event, hopefully with the worst of COVID-19 a distant memory by that point.

Starks, whose daughter is a graduate assistant with Bueckers at UConn, said the Final Four will be “huge” for the state.

“We’re anticipating that Paige will be here, but hoping other Minnesota women and other teams will have Minnesota representation on there as well,” Starks said. “I’m excited. If I could fast-forward, it would be here right now.”

First things first, though, Gonzaga and Connecticut cannot overlook their first-round opponents in 2021. Sixteen seeds have defeated one seeds twice in the modern men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament: the Harvard women over Stanford in a groundbreaking 1998 upset, and the UMBC men over Virginia in 2018.

The stakes are high.

But you can bet Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers will help each other handle the pressure of March Madness.

“This is something we’ve always watched as a family. We’ve always watched the Final Four, the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve been making brackets since [Jalen] was old enough to say which team he wanted in there. At three or four years old, he would make a bracket,” Jalen’s mom, Molly, said. “I can’t wait.”

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