Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Saturday night promises to be both exciting and bittersweet for the St. Thomas men’s basketball team.
The Tommies (28-1), ranked No. 1 in Division III, host No. 12-ranked Calvin College (Michigan) in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner advances to the national quarterfinals, which are in Salem, Va. Regardless of the outcome, it will be the final home game for seniors Tommy Hannon, Will DeBerg, John Nance, Noah Kaiser and Drew Mathews. St. Thomas is 16-0 at home this season, and the Tommies would like nothing more than to keep that streak alive and move on in the national tournament.
To do that, the Tommies will have to beat a big, physical Calvin squad that has just three losses on the season and won the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association title. St. Thomas coach John Tauer said his team knows where it wants to finish the season, but none if it matters if the Tommies don’t beat Calvin Saturday night.
A win would send St. Thomas to the Elite Eight, which is in Salem, Va., along with the Final Four. The two teams left that will play for a national title will play in Atlanta, Ga., the site of this year’s Division I Final Four.
“It’s always fun but this is certainly a special time of year,” Tauer said. “I give the kids a ton of credit, they stay so focused on the task at hand. They haven’t talked about Virginia all year. They’re just really good at locking in and staying focused.”
St. Thomas is in the Sweet 16 after holding off Wheaton College 68-58 last week in the second round of the national tournament. It was a game where the Tommies got out and led 37-21 at one point, but the Thunder wouldn’t go away and kept it close in the second half before St. Thomas prevailed. It was also a different way for the Tommies to win.
They’re more used to a free-flowing, fast-paced style. Wheaton brought a far more physical approach that at times was described as more of a rugby match than a basketball game.
“Some of it is the intensity of a national tournament. It certainly became very physical, but we have to be ready for any style of play. Thought our guys did a good job of that,” Tauer said.
Calvin College comes to St. Paul Saturday night with a 26-3 record. The Knights have won five straight games and 20 of their past 21. They’re expected to bring a physical approach much like Wheaton did. The Knights have a front line of 6-9, 6-8 and also bring three players who are 6-7 off the bench.
Calvin College beat Rose-Hulman 72-52 in the first round of the tournament, then earned an impressive 67-28 win at UW-Steven’s Point last weekend. Calvin also has plenty of tournament experience with national titles in 1992 and 2000.
Tauer will have to rely on game tape and his team’s own execution to be ready for Calvin. The two teams have just two common opponents: Wheaton and UW-Steven’s Point. They both beat Steven’s Point, while Calvin lost to Wheaton early in the season, but a lot has changed since.
“Calvin is really good, they’re fourth in the country in computer rankings. On paper it’s a game you’d see in the Final Four,” Tauer said. “Their height is solid and their wings are strong and versatile. They have balanced scoring, and there’s really no weakness in their team.”
Tauer said what’s probably most impressive about the Knights is their team defense. They limit opponents to about 36 percent shooting from the field on the season. St. Thomas is shooting 52 percent from the field as a team this season.
The Knights have four players who average double figures in scoring on the season. They’re led by Tom Snikkers’ 13.5 points and six rebounds per game. Tyler Kruis scores 12.6 points per game, Bryan Powell scores more than 11 per game and Jordan Brink gets more than 10 per game. Powell also is shooting better than 42 percent from three-point range on the season.
Calvin uses size to its advantage, out-rebound opponents by a 41-29 average on the season. The Knights also average about 12 turnovers a game and shoot better than 72 percent as a team from the free-throw line.
Wheaton had minimal interest in playing a high-tempo game with St. Thomas. It appears Calvin will have a similar approach and try to make sure it stays a half-court game.
“We’ll need to get the tempo going in our favor and execute in the half court. They’re a very formidable foe. They don’t give up easy or second shots and they’re not going to be phased by much,” Tauer said.
St. Thomas is hoping its home court advantage will play a factor in the outcome since it’s the last home no matter the outcome. The Tommies haven’t lost at home this season and will need their best effort of the season to advance to the Elite Eight. Tauer would also love nothing more than to send his seniors, most of which were part of the 2011 national title run, out with a victory to keep the season going.
“This is their last home game regardless of the outcome and we’ve had great crowds the last few weeks. I expect another electric atmosphere,” Tauer said. “It’s fun to see other teams we’ve never played before. They’re a unique team. We haven’t seen anybody with this kind of length or defensive intensity yet.”
St. Thomas and Calvin tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Anderson Athletic Center.