Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas men’s basketball team is playing just like it wants to in its MIAC schedule, and through 11 games, nobody has been able to stop them.
The Tommies moved up to the No. 1 spot in the Division III rankings after a convincing 94-63 win over St. John’s last Saturday. That was coupled with a loss by North Central College, the previous No. 1. St. Thomas is 16-0, including an 11-0 mark in the MIAC with nine games left. The conference is theirs to lose at this point.
But the Tommies aren’t just beating opponents through those 11 contests, they’re dominating in all phases. In MIAC play, St. Thomas is winning games by just less than an average of 32 points (89.5-57.7). The Tommies have scored at least 90 points in seven of their 11 MIAC games, and none of their opponents have gotten to 70 points.
Coach John Tauer loves the success and his program loves the attention it’s bringing, but they’re expecting much tougher competition the rest of the season.
“The amount we’re beating people by, yes. It’s rare to see those kind of numbers, especially in a balanced league like this,” Tauer said. “The second time around I would expect we’ll have much tougher games and we’re just looking to get better.”
Their most recent contests include a 94-64 win at St. Olaf and a 92-53 home win over Macalester. The Tommies have the weekend off and travel to Concordia-Moorhead on Monday.
St. Thomas is also shooting nearly 54 percent from the field in conference play, including 44 percent from three-point range. The Tommies tied a school-record with 15 3-pointers in the win over St. Olaf. Their shooting percentage both from the perimeter and in the paint ranks in the top five in the nation.
“We’re fortunate to have good players who work really hard. We have nice balance inside and out and to be top five in both is rare,” Tauer said. “Our guys have great understanding of shot selection and they’re willing to give up a good shot for a great one.”
Tauer said the team’s consistent success on offense is clinging mainly to one principle.
“It’s not about who scores, it’s about that we score,” Tauer said. “All that matters is that we score, that’s our mentality and the guys have really all bought into it.”
That’s how a team can score 94 points with five players in double figures, led by Zach Riedeman’s 13 points, just as the Tommies did against Macalester.
What’s also key is their defensive approach with a high-octane, in-your-face pressure defense that comes out of a full-court press. They have a defense that averages creating about 18 turnovers per game, including about five steals and two blocks per game. St. Thomas also limits opponents to 31 percent shooting from three-point range and 46 percent from the field, so it’s rare that a shot isn’t contested.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about the way St. Thomas plays is that for how up-tempo and fast it is, they always seem like they’re in control. The Tommies don’t turn the ball over a lot (about 11 times per game) and get easy shots out of their defensive pressure.
“That’s exactly what we tell our guys. We want to play as fast as we can without losing any efficiency. Our turnovers have really come down, and we practice at that tempo so we’re ready for it in games.”
When it all comes together and is consistent, it’s nearly impossible to stop.
The MIAC has had teams who have dominated. St. Thomas even went 20-0 in MIAC play in 2009 before an undefeated season ended in the NCAA Playoffs. But rarely has there been a time where one team is consistently been beating conference opponents by 20 to 30 points every night. So far, only Carleton has stayed within single digits in a 78-69 loss.
St. Thomas ends the regular season with seven games in a 17-day stretch after traveling to Concordia Monday and hosting St. Mary’s on Wednesday. That stretch includes road games at Carleton, Augsburg, Gustavus and St. John’s. All are potential playoff teams.
Tauer credits a lot of his team’s offensive efficiency to his leading scorer, senior point guard Will DeBerg. He’s averaging 12.6 points per game and is more than willing to share the wealth. He was mostly on the bench during their national title run and is now making the most of his senior year. Tauer said he is averaging about one turnover every 30 minutes, which for a point guard is impressive.
“What he’s done is work diligently and be patient. He didn’t play as much as some freshmen and sophomores do. He waited his turn and now that hard work has paid off,” Tauer said. “His numbers are unbelievable, he’s having the time of his life and I’m really proud of him.”
The Tommies face Concordia in Moorhead Monday night. The Cobbers are third in the MIAC with a 7-3 mark.