Southern Minnesota Basketball Academy gains popularity

By Jeremy Behnke

Journal Sports Editor

NEW ULM – Chances are that anyone who’s attended more than a few high school basketball games in the past few years have seen Kory Kettner watching from the bleachers.

It doesn’t matter who is playing it seems, Kettner’s love of the game has him traveling Southern Minnesota to watch the best teams and players the area has to offer.

The former Division II basketball player at Mankato State University has become a teacher of the game at all levels thanks to an AAU league he’s running, and he’s hoping his new business continues its strong growth.

Kettner’s love for basketball extended beyond his playing days. A star at Nicollet High School (1991 graduate), he went to MSU and played (1992-96) before going back home and coaching boys basketball at Nicollet from 1999-2004.

After a brief stint of calling college basketball games in Mankato (2004-2012), he got back to doing one of the things he loves most: teaching basketball basics.

He started the Southern Minnesota Basketball Academy (SMBA), which is a developmental program providing opportunities for athletes (boys and girls) of all ages to improve their basketball skills through individual or small group training sessions, 3-on-3 leagues and two AAU teams.

In other words, Kettner couldn’t stay away from basketball very long after he stopped doing radio broadcasts.

The SMBA has become a success, one that even Kettner didn’t envision just a short while ago. During these late summer months, Kettner just recently finished up the 3-on-3 leagues and getting ready for next year’s crew of basketball players who are looking to improve their skills.

SMBA is aimed at teaching youth basketball players, beginning at fifth grade all the way up until their senior year, the basics and giving them playing experience in situations they might not see during the course of a summer without organized practices. There are teams for various age levels, both boys and girls, and the high school players and coaches in the area seem to have welcomed it with open arms.

Kettner’s SMBA teams are made up of players from area high schools across southern Minnesota. The players form a team that represents SMBA and they compete in tournaments with other teams state-wide.

The weekend tournaments eat up a majority of Kettner’s spring and summer schedule. But anyone who knows him knows that the gym is home away from home.

The beginning

Kettner was a successful coach at Nicollet High School for a number of years, but after stepping aside from coaching, he still had that instinct to teach younger players the game.

After talking with a number of coaches in the area for a while, he figured it was time to keep some of the local, talented players closer to home to work on their game, rather than drive to the Twin Cities a few times every week to play and practice.

SMBA was born two years ago, and it has grown every year, meaning Kettner’s belief in basic fundamentals for the younger players is catching on all over south central Minnesota.

“I just kind of saw, and talking with some local high school coaches, that there was kind of a need around here,” Kettner said of starting SMBA. “A lot of kids, and they still do, they’ll drive up to the Cities for practices. I’m trying to keep the kids around here instead of driving up there.”

So Kettner began to put a plan in place. He waited a little while, talked to a lot of area basketball coaches and weighed some options before coming up with the SMBA.

He just completed his second year with SMBA and he’s watched the number of teams and participants grow each year. This means he’s spending more and more time on the basketball court, He almost sounded overwhelmed at times with all of the work he’s been doing. One of the many things that he’s in charge of is lining up practice schedules at area gyms for all of his teams, which is a difficult battle in itself.

“It’s really time consuming,” he said. “I did not expect the difficulties of practice scheduling. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t foresee how tough it would be, with last-minute cancellations.”

While his first year kept him plenty busy, SMBA grew from eight teams in the first year to 13 teams this past summer for AAU teams and from 19 teams a year ago to 49 in the 3-on-3 league. And while he’s plenty busy with all of the teams, he mentions right away that the coaches he has helping him have been very important to maintaining the success of what everyone is trying to do.

“I’ve been blessed with some great coaches, the coaches I have are phenomenal,” Kettner said. “I can’t really tell you how lucky I am. I have former college coaches, current college coaches, former high school coaches. I never dreamed I could get this high of quality of coaches.”

He started getting the word out by sending an email to high school coaches in the area to see what their interest was with helping out.

“I sent out an individual email rather than a mass email and I hoped that the word of mouth would spread,” Kettner said. “It’s growing this year and hopefully next year I can take that next step – I’m actually looking for coaches for next year already anticipating the growth.”

Success at the local level

SMBA is not just playing games and tournaments, but Kettner also offers workouts for individuals too. He also would like to host local tournaments one day and he knows the opportunity for continued growth is there.

As of now, SMBA teams practice wherever they can find gym space. Organized practices are in locations such as Mankato, Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School, Vogel Fieldhouse. Kettner anticipates adding locations for practices next year.

The players come from high schools in Mankato, Belle Plaine, Faribault, Granada-Huntley-East Chain, Cedar Mountain/Comfrey, Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop and Springfield to name a few.

These days, playing any high school sport can be a year-around process. Athletes play in their current high school season and then in other sports they participate in during the school year. During the summer, they will do a significant amount of traveling for camps and AAU tournaments to keep pace with everyone else. Just taking one summer off can be tough for a potential college recruit to get back on track with the rest of the prospective recruits.

Colleges are attending AAU tournaments across the country and the money involved with AAU basketball continues to grow. Kettner said that his SMBA offers those who want to improve their game a chance to do so locally, rather than travel across the state for practices.

Kettner said that the AAU game has changed significantly in his playing days 20 years ago.

“The numbers [of athletes] are unbelievable,” he said. “When I was playing, it was just getting big and now you can’t turn around without running into a tournament up in the cities.”

Kettner said that there is also a lot of one-on-one involvement for players in a lot of camps and AAU. Kettner stresses to his coaches that he’d like to keep SMBA focused on the team and less on the individual player.

“You’re going to have standouts, that’s just going to happen, but to me, I like to see ball movement when I go into the gym and sharing the ball,” Kettner said. “That’s really what we as coaches and staff, we really want to stress in practice to make it about the team, because I really believe that’s the way the game was meant to be played. I think they learn the overall part of the game and it’s not just one area.”

Kettner admits that running the SMBA is probably the most challenging thing he’s ever done. But he admits that it’s not like a job for him, and the rewards always seem to outweigh the challenges running the show.

“It’s been a fun process, but this really isn’t a job at all, it’s been fun and sure you learn a little bit as you go, but it’s just fun,” he said.

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