Bears enter March Madness: Men’s basketball to host NCAA first round

| Managing Editor

Hayden Doyle shoots a three in front of a packed house at WashU’s 2022 tournament games. (Photo by Clara Richards | Student Life)

Last year, the Washington University student body flooded into the field house in packs for the NCAA basketball playoff game. Students on the track team yelled at the top of their lungs for their friends on the basketball court. The energy pouring from the green bleachers of the field house was electric as the starting five battled until late Saturday evening. It was the most charged environment then-senior Charlie Jacob had ever seen in his four years at WashU.

“Not even close,” he said. “It was by far and away the most energy I’ve ever seen in that place. It was unreal.” 

This year, the team will have the chance to compete in the NCAA tournament on its home court again. A combination of a competitive resume, wins against ranked competition, and challenging conference play put WashU high enough in the ranking to claim one of 16 host positions for the first round. The team will take the court at the field house on Friday, March 3, 2023 against Coe College at 6:55 p.m., hoping for two weekend wins to stay alive in the postseason.

Coe is a familiar team for head coach Pat Juckem. Before he started coaching at WashU, even before he coached at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, he was the head coach at Coe from 2005 to 2012.  On Saturday, February 25, when Coe nabbed a spot in the tournament through an automatic qualifying spot, he got a text from a former player. “Coach, how cool would it be [if the two teams played each other]?” In his head, he considered the proposition. “I suppose it’s possible,” he thought.   

Two days later, his former institution popped up below WashU on the bracket as its first-round opponent. 

“I really loved my time there,” he said.  “You spend seven years somewhere, then it’s near and dear… I know we’ll have a really good opponent on Friday.” 

Five teams from the United Athletic Association, or the UAA, were named to the 64-team bracket. Playing many of Division III’s top powerhouses prepared the WashU’s team for the opponents that it’ll face in playoffs. It finished second in the conference with a 10-4 record playing a schedule that “felt like we played 14 straight tournament games,” Juckem said. 

“There were some really high-level games across the board. It’s a point of pride. And now, all of [the UAA schools] feel the same way. We just gonna get done beating each other up for eight weeks. Now, let’s see how we can translate that against other competition,” Juckem said.

Juckem has a lot of experience in the postseason with the Bears, having qualified in three out of four eligible years. Each class he’s coached has been a little different; last year, he had a senior-heavy squad with graduate student sharpshooter, Jack Nolan, shooting over 20 points per game. This year, three out of the five main starters were underclassmen. 

Yet, the whole group has gotten a lot of experience this season in close games. Ten of the team’s 25 games have been decided by one possession. 

“We’ve been in so many close games and high-pressure moments this year with Yogi [Oliff] and Will [Grudzinski] and everyone else,” sophomore Hayden Doyle said. “We’ll be ready for the make-or-break points.”  

Jacob doesn’t see the team’s youth as a drawback; he sees it as a strength. 

“This team is really young, and I think that plays to our advantage,” Jacob said. “The young guys that we have are just fearless. They play with such confidence. They’re never scared of any moment. Never once have I sensed any kind of fear or anxiety or anything in any of these guys in any of these big moments. I just feel like, we come in [and] we play with joy.”

Juckem cycled through similes — “tightening the screws, sharpening the saw, to use every coaching cliche,” — before landing on what he wanted to focus on in the five days before the team’s first game in March: playing to the team’s identity. In practice, he outlined rebounding, taking care of the box to prevent high turnover games, and playing with a bounce in the team’s step. The rest, he hopes, will take care of itself.  

“It’s not letting the circumstance be bigger than what it is,” he said. “We’re playing basketball. We’re competing. We’re trying to win possessions. But I want the guys to enjoy that and the reward of earning the right to play on their home floor [and] defend their home wood.”  

Jacob echoed Juckem’s focus on process. He’s been using the final week to re-center around the foundational principles of the team, like valuing possessions and limiting turnovers. As a fifth-year, he’s had a lot of lasts over the past few weeks.  But he doesn’t feel any nerves — at least, not yet.  

 “Will they come later in the week?” he said. “Like, for sure.  That’s part of it, but that’s good. You can use that to your advantage.  And that’s part of being alive.  If you don’t have butterflies in moments like this, you don’t care enough.”

Look through Student Life’s coverage of the team from the 2022 – 2023 season: 

Basketball unbeatable for second-straight weekend

Halfway through conference play, basketball wins big on the road

Charlie Jacob makes the most of his fifth year as basketball’s leading scorer

Men’s basketball faces SEC powerhouse Missouri in exhibition match

 

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