SUN PRAIRIE — The Sun Prairie boys basketball team has a deep and talented roster. But top teams need more than ability.
From the season’s start, Sun Prairie boys basketball coach Jeff Boos has emphasized making daily improvement. And as the top-seeded Cardinals brace for a WIAA Division 1 sectional final against fourth-seeded Madison La Follette on Thursday night at Janesville Parker, Boos believes Sun Prairie has had success this season because it possesses good players who have bought into the plan, who play with chemistry and who understand their roles.
The Big Eight Conference champion Cardinals (23-1), ranked second in the final Associated Press poll, also are on a mission: To reach the state boys basketball tournament for the first time.
“I would suspect that’s the mission for all of us at this stage of sectionals,” said Boos, the Big Eight’s coach of the year. “What we need to be able to do is play the same type of basketball we’ve been playing all year. We can’t worry whether it’s the sectional semifinal game or the sectional final game. We have to go out and perform.
“We have to continue to do what we have done. You can look at it, well, we’ve not been there. But it’s a matter of, hey, we’ve got to get it done. Eventually, the kids have to make plays, they have to get some stops, they have to get some rebounds. That’s what it boils down to.
“You’ve got to be fortunate, sometimes. You have to be lucky; you’ve got to catch the break. You’ve got to make free throws. A whole lot of things come into play.”
Sun Prairie came together during the season once players returned from injuries — notably 6-foot-8 Jalen Johnson (stress fracture in his foot) and a few players recovering from the Cardinals’ run to the Division 1 football title game.
“I guess you can say it all started in practice, working hard in practice,” said Sun Prairie senior guard Marlon Ruffin, a first-team all-conference selection who was named the Big Eight’s player of the year by league coaches. “We got big momentum after we beat (Madison) Memorial the second time. After that, we just are in our zone and we’ve been on a mission. We are one step closer to our mission.”
Sun Prairie’s only loss came to conference runner-up Madison Memorial in the Cardinals’ fifth game. Sun Prairie has won 19 consecutive games entering the sectional semifinal matchup with La Follette (19-5), a team the Cardinals defeated twice during the regular season.
“I feel like every game, we’ve gotten better as a team,” said Johnson, a first-team All-Big Eight choice, who, like Ruffin, averages more than 17 points per game. “We have gotten used to each other. Early in the season, we didn’t know each other as well and you can get wins because of talent. Since it’s March now, it’s going to come down to executing. That’s what we need to focus on.”
Ruffin and Johnson each said making improvements on defense have been personal points of emphasis. For Ruffin, that’s meant becoming more tenacious. For Johnson, that’s meant becoming more aggressive with his rebounding and shot-blocking.
“You know how offense is,” Boos said. “Some nights, it comes. Some nights, it’s not there. So, you have to sustain your defense. Your energy, toughness and intensity will be an important part to it.”
Ruffin has interest from colleges, primarily six to eight schools, and said he recently received his first scholarship offer — from NCAA Division II Minnesota-Crookston. Others interested include Eastern Illinois, University of California-Davis and the University of Wisconsin (as a preferred walk-on), he said.
Johnson, a definite difference-maker who is one of the top recruits nationally in the 2020 class, said he’s looking forward to finding out which universities are really interested when coaches can begin calling him June 15.
Third-team all-conference choices Taylor Jansen and Marty Strey also are key contributors for the Cardinals, who often go 10 deep. The 6-3 Strey, a senior forward who’s committed to the UW football team as a preferred walk-on linebacker, is the consummate “glue guy,” who does the dirty work and helps keep his teammates calm.
“I think Marty brings that toughness and leadership,” Boos said. “He keeps everything afloat. He’s been there. He’s been in big games before. He’s a confident athlete.”
The big games continue this week in a strong sectional that also features a semifinal between fourth-ranked and second-seeded Waunakee (22-2), the Badger North Conference champion and winner of 14 straight games, and third-seeded Madison East (18-6), which has won 12 consecutive games.
“East is playing really well right now,” said Boos, whose team has won or shared the past three conference titles. “They have found their stride. You have Waunakee, which is a veteran team, with two outstanding players with (Mason) Steffen and (Mitch) Listau. They’ve been to the state tournament already. La Follette has the capabilities of scoring. They are very athletic on the perimeter. They play a style of ball that can catch you.”
To advance, Johnson said the Cardinals need to play their game.
“We’ve just got to do what we do — do what we’ve done the past 24 games,” Johnson said. “Just keep playing.”