2009 Called: Men’s basketball looks to advance past first weekend
After a one-year hiatus, the Washington University men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament.
It’s familiar territory, considering the Bears have made the playoffs nine of the past 11 seasons. But this stretch of consistency comes with a caveat. While the Red and Green usually make it to the big dance, they almost always struggle to tango out of the first weekend. In fact, Wash. U. hasn’t made it past the first and second round of the tournament since 2009—when they won the national championship. With that context in mind, this year’s Bears have as good a chance as any to finally break the mold. Just one ranked team potentially stands between Wash. U. and the sweet 16.
For the opening round of the tournament, No. 9 Wash. U. will travel to Holland, Mich., to square off against Ripon College at the DeVos Fieldhouse (yes, that DeVos) this Friday. If the Bears manage to advance, they’ll stick around to face the winner of No. 18 Hope College and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh the next day.
Here is a primer of what to expect from this weekend:
How did they get here?
The Bears earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament two weekends ago by securing the conference title. Despite having a guaranteed playoff spot, head coach Mark Edwards made it very clear that his Bears would play full tilt in their final regular season game against the University of Chicago. Regardless of the matchup’s importance, it wasn’t exactly a triumphant postseason send-off. Wash. U. missed seven of their last eight shots of the game as the Maroons pulled away late in the fourth quarter for the 81-74 victory.
While the loss may have soured the end of the regular season, the Bears can head into the tournament feeling confident about their offense’s ability to put up consistent numbers. The Red and Green have shot over 45 percent from the floor in seven of the past eight games. Much of that repeatability is thanks to a diverse offensive attack, featuring four shooters averaging over 10 points per game. Junior forward Andrew Sanders has been particularly prolific, averaging 18.9 points per game (ppg) in the month of February.
The Bears’ defense has been less stellar as of late. Last Saturday against Chicago, the Bears allowed the Maroons to shoot over 50 percent from the field. That includes an eight for 20 mark from beyond the arc. Considering that Chicago is the most prolific offense in the UAA in terms of points per game, field-goal percentage and three-point shooting, this isn’t that surprising. What’s slightly more concerning is that Brandeis University tore through the Bears’ defense as well.
The Judges have arguably the weakest offense in the UAA, but against the Bears two Sundays ago, they shot over 60 percent from the field and 17-28 from range. One rough game could be an outlier, and two in a row is something to be aware off.
Given that the Red and Green’s first round opponent has one of the most prolific offensive attacks in Division III, it’ll be important for Wash. U.’s defense to return to form come Friday.
At first glance, Ripon (20-5) is a frightening first round opponent. They lead Division III in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. They also average a healthy 82.2 points per game.
30 of those points come from senior guard Ty Sabin, who, for all intents and purposes, is the Red Hawks’ offense. Sabin averages a Division III-leading 30.2 ppg, fires off a very generous 18.5 shot attempts per game, and leads Ripon in every major offensive category including field goal percentage (min 75 attempts). In his second game this season, he scored 53 points against Loras College.
All of this is very scary looking until you take a look at the Red Hawks’ schedule. 20 of their 25 games this season came against nine conference opponents, five of whom couldn’t even break 10 wins this year. Of the other four, just two had a winning percentage over .600. With such a weak schedule, season stats aren’t a great way to see what Ripon is actually capable of.
For a more accurate picture, Ripon did play three games against ranked opponents this season: one against No. 22 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and two against No. 20 St. Norbert College. In those contests, the Red Hawks continued to shoot well but went just 1-2 with Ripon stealing a win from St. Norbert. The culprit was defense. Whitewater shot 52.5 percent from the floor in a 13-point victory, while the Green Knights’ 49.2 percentage lead to their 17-point win. Even in Ripon’s single victory against St. Norbert, the Green Knights still hit nearly half their attempts from inside the three-point arc.
The Red Hawks earned an automatic bid to the playoffs by winning the Midwest Conference Tournament last weekend. This will be their first time in the bracket since 2002.