Ghosts of March past: Men’s basketball eyes NCAA playoff run
A little less than exactly 10 years ago, the Washington University men’s basketball team cut down the nets in Salem, Va. It was March 22, 2008, and they had just beaten Amherst College 90-68 for their first ever national title. The next year, they did it again, this time beating Richard Stockton College in the final.
The year after that, the Bears lost in the second round. And the year after that. And the year after that. In 2011 and 2016, they didn’t even make the playoffs. In 2015 they lost in the first round.
Wash. U. has not been past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since the title run in 2009. Last year, the No. 9 Bears had a great shot to get to the third round, until Hope College’s Cody Stuive rained fire on their hopes in the form of 10 three-pointers and 37 points.
Despite the grim history of the past eight seasons of playoff basketball at Wash. U., there is every reason to believe that they might break the streak this year; the Bears have a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs, which start this Friday at the Francis Field House.
Though the Bears enter the tournament at No. 4, they spent most of the season second in the nation. If their 13-1 mark in the conference does not get quite across their dominance in the UAA, so does the fact that every single member of the starting five—and one bench player—made an all-UAA team.
That starting five is Wash. U.’s greatest asset. Every single member is a senior and that experience will be an asset for a team looking to make a deep run. Kevin Kucera and Jake Knupp make up a very steady backcourt, while the combination of forward Matt Highsmith and center David Schmelter—listed at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9, respectively—give the Bears solid height inside.
The key to the whole operation, however, is senior forward Andrew Sanders. His numbers on the court (16.7 pointer per game on 55.1 percent shooting, with 7.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists) are impressive enough, but when he is off the court it becomes apparent how important he is to the team. Sanders missed the Bears’ Nov. 26 game at Mount St. Joseph University with an injury and missed large portions of the season finale at the University of Chicago with foul trouble. Those two games make up 67 percent of Wash. U.’s losses on the season. When Sanders is on his game, he is one of the least stoppable offensive forces in Division III basketball. When he’s off, the Bears struggle to replicate that production.
The Bears’ secret weapon, like Pablo “Secret Weapon” Sanchez in “Backyard Baseball,” is not much of a secret. Breakout freshman star Jack Nolan is the sixth man for Wash. U., and he has the ability to light up the scoreline from nowhere. He scores 11.3 points per game, but if you adjust that total to per-40-minutes, his 21.0 average is only slightly less than Sander’s minute-adjusted average of 22.8.
As for their opponents, Wash. U. first takes on Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference (NACC) champion Aurora College. The Spartans won the NACC on the back of a nine-game winning streak. That streak came after a very mixed 10-8 start to the season, and Aurora would love nothing more than to cap off their season turnaround with a little bit of giant-killing.
The Spartans are led by guard Marcus Myers (not to be confused with Wash. U. junior center Marcus Meyer) who scored 21.7 points per game this season and grabbed 7.6 boards, a very respectable number for a player who is just 6 feet tall. The task of stopping Myers will more than likely fall to Knupp. Myers turned the ball over 53 times in his 20 starts this year and the Bears will hope that Knupp, who led the UAA in steals with 2.12 steals per game, will be able to snag a few extra possessions from the Spartan’s star.
Should the Bears advance past Aurora, they will face the winner of Nebraska Wesleyan University and Maryville College. Nebraska Wesleyan are the favorites in that matchup, as they have the most Top 25 votes of any school outside of D3Hoops’ Top 25, and an impressive 24-3 record. However, the Prairie Wolves are far from immune from an upset, and all three of their losses on the season came against unranked opposition.
Maryville have an impressive win-loss themselves at 22-6, and have already played in a single-elimination tournament this season. The Scots earned their place in the NCAA tournament by virtue of winning the USA South Tournament bracket, a playoff experience which might help them against Nebraska Wesleyan. Either team would be underdogs against Wash. U., but would still present the Bears with some tricky challenges.
Reading too much into the Bears’ second round matchup is putting the cart before the horse a bit, so to speak. They still have to beat Aurora on Friday night. In 2015, after a strong 20-5 campaign, Wash. U. was upset at home by DePauw in the first round.
The players, however, are certainly hoping that the home court advantage this time around can help propel them past the first weekend of the tournament.
“I think it’s going to be awesome for us to be able to have our home fans at the game,” Schmelter told Wash. U.’s Sports Information Department after the bracket was announced Monday afternoon. “They talk about the fans being like the sixth man and just having that home crowd is going to be great for the atmosphere, and really going to motivate us.”
The Bears will need every little bit of help they can get to exorcise the ghosts of the past eight years. But if they do get past this weekend, we might be looking at a long playoff run. After all, last time Wash. U. got past the second round, they won the whole thing.