MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas men’s basketball team welcomed a week off from game action, especially since winning a MIAC regular season title is what got them there.
The Tommies (24-1) are the top seed for the MIAC Playoffs and earned a quarterfinal bye along with Concordia-Moorhead as St. John’s and Augsburg faced off, as did Carleton and Bethel. Home court proved to be an advantage Wednesday night as both home teams in Carleton and Augsburg won their quarterfinal games.
That means St. Thomas hosts Carleton (16-10) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Anderson Athletic Center. The winner advances to face either Concordia or Augsburg Sunday afternoon for the MIAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The Tommies, regardless of how the MIAC Playoffs pan out, are a lock to get in. They are ranked No. 1 in the West region and have a two-game lead over the next-best team.
Winning the MIAC Playoffs should assure them home court through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But right now, the focus is on beating Carleton Friday night. Coach John Tauer said his team is healthy and ready to get back on the court.
“Everybody is finally back to being as healthy as they can be at this time of year. It’s the first time in five weeks we’ve had that,” Tauer said. “It was nice to focus on ourselves for a few days, but we’re excited to host Carleton. They’re always well-coached, disciplined and a smart basketball team.”
St. Thomas should have every reason to be confident facing Carleton. The Tommies swept the season series against the Knights, winning 78-69 in St. Paul and running away with a 74-52 win in Northfield. They’re also undefeated at home this season.
Carleton advanced in the playoffs by grinding out a 48-43 win over Bethel where the Knights shot just 31 percent from the field. Tom Sawatzke led the Knights with 19 points in the win.
In both victories over Carleton this year, Zach Riedeman has been of the top scorers for St. Thomas. He scored 16 in a home win and tied for a team-high 15 points with John Nance in Northfield. It sets up a good match-up between two teams who have seen each other a lot in recent years in the playoffs.
Tauer said there really hasn’t been much new that the Tommies have been working on leading up to the game. The two teams know each other well and there aren’t a lot of secrets, but there is plenty of mutual respect between the squads.
“I wouldn’t say there’s anything magical that we’re working on in practice. It’s just about creating tempo and balancing our game inside and out, Tauer said. “I think we feel good about who we are. We’ve had a nice rivalry with Carleton over last decade. They’ll always provide a good test. Coach (Guy) Kalland does an outstanding job with that team. We’re excited to be at home and to play and we’re not looking ahead, that’s for sure.”
Sawatzke leads three Carleton scorers who average double figures with 18 points per game. Scott Theisen adds 16.6 points per game and Shane McSparron scores about 12.
In St. Thomas’s first win, Sawatzke and Theisen combined for 42 of Carleton’s 69 points. In the second meeting, Sawatzke had 11 points and Theisen had 12 as they combined to shoot 7-of-26 from the field.
Tauer said the Tommies can maintain their success against Carleton by doing what they’ve done in their other 22 wins this year: Dictate the tempo and create easy scoring opportunities.
“They vary their offensive sets and use a lot of cuts and screening. It’s very much inside-out,” Tauer said. “We need to make sure we pressure them and not let them get comfortable in how they run their offense. We need to create our tempo.”
A 24-1 regular season doesn’t mean much anymore for St. Thomas. Tauer and his team know that now that everything is on the line in the playoffs. That’s where home court advantage and previous experience come into play.
St. Thomas enters Friday’s contest 12-0 at home this season and 22-2 there over the last two seasons.
“It’s certainly nice to have home court,” Tauer said. “We have common goals and we know what it takes to get there. Our previous experience in the playoffs shows the discipline and intensity you have to have. We’re just trying to get better each day and have our guys be great teammates.”
St. Thomas and Carleton tip off at 7:30 p.m. Friday in St. Paul. The winner plays for the MIAC Championship Sunday afternoon and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.