MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas men’s basketball team is seven games into its season, but John Tauer will have a much better idea of the team he has this year after Saturday night.
The Tommies, ranked No. 7 in Division III, head to No. 1-ranked UW-Steven’s Point Saturday for their final game of 2013 before they enter the full grind of the MIAC season. Since losing its season-opener at Pomona-Pitzer, St. Thomas has won six straight games. That includes a 3-0 start to the MIAC season with early wins over at Augsburg, at Macalester and against Hamline.
Tauer said halftime of the Tommies’ win at UW-River Falls, where they came away with a 75-69 win. Since that night, St. Thomas has not allowed more than 57 points in four straight wins.
“It was a turning point as far as our defensive intensity,” Tauer said. “We’ve been playing better defense since and I’ve been impressed with our tenacity.”
The Tommies will need their best overall effort of the season Saturday night in what will probably be their toughest game of the season. UW-Steven’s Point annually contends for the national title, and it’s a rare early-season non-conference game between a pair of top-10 teams.
The Pointers are averaging about 82 points per game and their closest margin of victory is 19 points. They beat St. Olaf 88-66 and St. John’s 71-51. Tauer said he expects a full house and a great environment on the road Saturday despite it being close to Christmas.
“The neat thing about Steven’s Point is the community support they have. One of the reasons we scheduled this game is it simulates a national tournament environment in every aspect,” Tauer said. “It’s a barometer for the rest of the season.”
St. Thomas will have to find a way to defend Tyler Tillema and Trevor Hass, the top two scorers for Steven’s Point. They are both guards who can shoot from anywhere on the court. Tillema is averaging 22.5 points per game, while Hass is scoring more than 17 points per game. Hass is shooting 26-of-40 (65 percent) from three-point range in seven games so far.
As a team, Steven’s Point is shooting nearly 59 percent from the field on the season.
“Some of their stats look more like video games, their numbers are truly astounding,” Tauer said. “Without a doubt they are the No. 1 team in the country, and it will be a great challenge for us. It’s definitely something the guys are excited about.”
Through seven games, Tauer is getting the scoring balance he has always strived for in an up-and-down, high-octane approach to the game. The Tommies have three players averaging double figures and one more in junior guard Erik Tengwall scoring more than nine points per game.
Conner Nord leads St. Thomas in scoring and rebounding with 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Marcus Alipate is scoring 12.4 points per game and shooting 47 percent from three-point range. Zach Riedeman is averaging about 11 points and is shooting 46 percent from the field.
“It’s nice to have that balance and the capability that anyone can lead us on a given night,” Tauer said.
Tauer said Tengwall has been the unsung hero of the team in the early stretch of the season. Tengwall has about a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 27 assists and nine turnovers in seven games. He also has 15 steals on defense.
“He makes us go on both ends,” Tauer said.
St. Thomas will have a lengthy break after Saturday’s game. The Tommies won’t play again until resuming MIAC play on Jan. 4, hosting Carleton. Tauer said he plans to give his team more than a week off from the court to spend the holidays with their families and heal any early bumps and bruises.
“Many teams are done (for holiday break) right now and our guys have been going hard so we’ll give them nine days off and then get back after it,” Tauer said.
The new year will start with four games in a seven-day stretch against Carleton, Bethel, St. Olaf and St. Mary’s.