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Men’s basketball seeks to overcome previous playoff struggles in opening rounds of March Madness

| Senior Sports Editor

In seven playoff appearances since winning the national championship in 2009, the Washington University men’s basketball team has not once made it out of the first two weekends.

This weekend, Wash. U. will get another chance at playoff success. The team received an at-large bid to the tournament on Monday after they blew a second-half lead in the season finale and lost the University Athletic Association title last Saturday. The Bears will face Bethany Lutheran College in the first round of the playoffs Friday in Lincoln, Neb.

Wash. U.’s key this season has been its defense. They had the best scoring defense in the UAA, allowing just 68.6 points per game, and were top three in limiting opponent field goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebounds. Saturday’s loss to University of Chicago was just the fifth time since Dec. 17 that the Bears defense has allowed more than 70 points in a single game.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Senior guard Matt Nester sets his sights on a pass against the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Nov. 23. After playing nine games with a brace following a broken hand earlier this season, Nester will be able to play without the brace on Friday.

That defense will prove crucial against Bethany Lutheran, who comes into the game scoring an average of 92.2 points per game, the seventh-best mark in all of Division III. The Vikings, who have a 51.1 field goal shooting percentage, are one of only seven teams in DIII to make more than half of their shots this season.

Head coach Pat Juckem emphasized Bethany Lutheran’s transition offense and their ability to play a quick game as things the Bears have been planning for. He observed that two Viking guards, junior Brian Smith and sophomore Cire Mayfield, have been particularly integral to the Bethany Lutheran offensive success. “They’re faster with the ball than most guys are without it,” he said. “Getting back and getting our defense set, making them play in the half court will be imperative. It’s one of those things that’s easier said than done. We take a lot of pride in and something that we work very hard on is our transition defense, so that will be tested, no doubt about it.

The Bears will continue to be without senior center Hank Hunter, a crucial defender who is out for the season after aggravating a shoulder injury against Case Western Reserve University on Feb. 14.

On the offensive side of the game, senior guard Matt Nester will be a player to watch this weekend. Nester, who last year was third on the team with 10.7 points per game, missed six games with a broken hand earlier this season. Since then, he has not been the same. After scoring in double-digits in six of the Bears’ first 11 games, Nester has not scored more than eight since returning. He had made 40.2% of his shots before the injury, but that mark has been nearly halved since he came back, as Nester has made just 21.7% of his shots since returning. Still, Nester has been in the starting lineup in every game since Feb. 7. His leadership within the team has led to Juckem’s continued confidence in him.

“The reason that he’s on the floor is that he does so many other things,” Juckem said. “Even though he hasn’t shot the ball as well as he has in his career, he’s done a lot of other things that have impacted winning and impacted success. I wouldn’t be on the bus heading to Nebraska if he hadn’t made it back in the lineup with us because he’s been absolutely critical.”

Things are looking up for Nester’s shooting. A doctor informed him this week that his hand has fully healed. He will be able to play on Friday without the left hand brace that has hampered his shooting. “You think about just the importance of your guide hand and shooting: [If] you have a big piece of plastic, it can’t help but affect [your shooting] somewhat,” Juckem said.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Members of the men’s basketball team celebrate during a Nov. 23 win over Coe College. The Bears, who finished the regular season 20-5, will take on Bethany Lutheran College in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday evening in Lincoln, Neb.

In Nester and Hunter’s absences, senior forward DeVaughn Rucker has become a bright spot for the Bears. He has averaged 12.4 points per game, a four-point increase over last season. Rucker has been dominant in the paint, getting to the line more often than anyone else on the team. He will also be someone to watch on Friday.

For the seniors, the playoffs will serve as the culmination of four long years together. So far, the five players—Rucker, Hunter, Nester, Louis Reinmiller and Jonathan Arenas—have led the Bears to an 80-23 record. “These past four years have shown what it means to compete and dedicate yourself to a craft,” Rucker said in an email. “It’s a lot of guys that come in with the same winner’s mentality, and that camaraderie is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. It goes beyond the sports itself, and I have no doubt that the coaching staff and the players will push it to new levels.”

Friday’s game will be Juckem’s first playoff game as the Bears’ head coach. He coached the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to the national championship game in 2017 before the Titans fell to Nebraska Wesleyan University—a team that the Bears could face as soon as Saturday if they defeat Bethany Lutheran.

“You take all of the lessons that you’ve learned along the journey of, for us, 25 games and you make sure that you’re secure in terms of your identity, what you are and what you’re trying to do,” Juckem said. “And then our guys will be very excited. It’s quite an honor to be in the NCAA tournament and to be selected. We’re thrilled to be in and are excited for March Madness.

At the Bears’ NCAA selection show watch party on Monday, sophomore forward Justin Hardy pushed aside critiques of the Bears’ ability to play under pressure in the playoffs. He acknowledged that the team has had trouble getting through the first two rounds but focused on the team’s success this year. “They’re living in the past, we’re going to look forward to the future,” Hardy said of the team’s doubters. “We’re going to take care of business and it doesn’t matter what’s happened in our past. We’ll do what we need to do.”

Additional reporting by Miguel Campos and Dorian DeBose.

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