MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Most teams that lose four starters from a squad that was one game away from playing for a national title would consider the next season rebuilding.
But the St. Thomas men’s basketball program isn’t like most squads. For coach John Tauer and the team, it’s a program that’s simply reloading. While there are some new faces and even a few new coaches, the goal is still the same: Excellence by getting better every day. For a squad that had as many as 12 players see court time last season, a new year means new faces will emerge and take over where things left off last season, or least that’s the goal.
The Tommies lost starters John Nance, Tommy Hannon, Will DeBerg and Noah Kaiser to graduation. They also lost Drew Mathews, who didn’t see a lot of live game action but was a pivotal practice player.
“It means three things. Guys are asked to step into leadership roles that they haven’t had, they’re expected to do more on the court and in the midst of being a leader, they don’t have those seniors to help them anymore,” said Tauer, who is in his third year leading the program.
St. Thomas enters the 2013-14 season with a top-15 national ranking after making it to the Division III national semifinals last yeawr, where it had a late lead slip away in a heartbreaking loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Tommies tied a school record for wins with a 30-2 record. St. Thomas has won eight consecutive MIAC regular season titles, which had never been done in the 90-year history of the conference. They’ve also won seven of the last eight MIAC Playoff titles, including the last three.
Tauer said that doesn’t guarantee anything heading into the season. Each team gets a little better every year, so they have to do the same to stay at the top.
“Our guys certainly don’t feel entitled to anything other than the opportunity (to defend the MIAC title),” Tauer said when asked about team goals this season. “I think our guys have done a good job of staying in shape and they worked hard over the summer. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for those opportunities and for some new guys to step up and be mentors to the younger guys.”
The Tommies started their regular season last weekend with a trip to the west coast for games against Pomona-Pitzer and Occidental.
St. Thomas couldn’t hit a late game-tying shot last Friday in an 80-77 loss to Pomona-Pitzer. Conner Nord led the Tommies in that game with 18 points and seven rebounds. Zach Riedeman, Taylor Montero and Marcus Alipate added 10 points each.
Saturday night, St. Thomas built a 40-29 lead against Occidental and pulled away for an 82-65 victory to improve to 1-1 on the season. Alipate scored 18 points to lead St. Thomas, which used a 14-2 run in the first half to take the 11-point lead at the half.
Tauer said he added two new coaches to the program since last season, and one was to replace Jim Hayes, who departed to be the new head coach at Hamline. The Tommies added Jay Pivec and former player Al McCoy.
“I’ve known Jay for 20 years. It’s pretty rare when you can get an assistant who has more than 600 wins as a head coach,” Tauer said.
McCoy was on the 2008-09 team that went 30-1 and was ranked No. 1 for most of the season. That squad was undefeated heading to the Elite Eight before losing the eventual national champion.
From the first two games, it appears the Tommies have four starters set in Erik Tengwall and Montero at guard as well as Nord and Riedeman at forward. Josh Pella started in the season opener, while Alipate started in the second game. Riedeman is the team’s top returning scorer from last season. Tengwall takes over as the captain of the offense at point guard. He’s started 58 games the last two seasons and has a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Nord, in 60 games so far, is averaging about seven points and six rebounds per game.
Tauer said as many as 12 players could see significant time this season, which is needed with the Tommies approach of a high-octane offense and full-court pressure defense.
“Our guys 12 to 14 aren’t far from being in that rotation. They’ve got to earn it every day and they have a great appreciation for that,” Tauer said. “It’s certainly one our calling cards, we want to play up tempo and it’s how we’ve wired the program. The guys like playing that style.”
First year players that could have an early impact include guard Grant Schaeffer of Eden Prairie amd forward Ryan Johnson of Eagan.
St. Thomas travels to River Falls (Wis.) on Saturday before opening its MIAC schedule at Augsburg Dec. 4.