MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas men’s basketball team solidified a MIAC title Wednesday night, but the Tommies kept the postgame celebration in the locker room to a minimum.
That’s because St. Thomas still has one regular season game left Saturday, and it’s against one of their biggest conference rivals. It also happens to be against the only team the Tommies so far in the MIAC season, and it’s the last time four St. Thomas seniors will play a regular season home game.
St. Thomas clinched at least a share of the MIAC regular season title last Saturday by beating Concordia 81-67 in Moorhead. The Tommies’ 73-68 victory at Gustavus Wednesday night gave St. Thomas the outright MIAC title and made league history in the process. The Tommies have either won the league title or shared the regular season crown for nine straight years, something no other program in the MIAC has done.
They’ll be the No. 1 seed for the six-team MIAC Playoffs next week and get a first-round bye along with No. 2-seeded St. Olaf.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is just to win the league once,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “It speaks to the consistency and stability of the program which was established by Steve Fritz, the guys buying into a system that works and the guys playing with poise in big games. A lot of things have to go right for that to happen.”
St. Thomas will also play at home as long as it wins in the MIAC Playoffs. At this point, they are all but a lock to get to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what transpires the rest of the way. The Tommies, ranked No. 11 in the most recent national poll, are ranked third in their region behind UW-Steven’s Point and UW-Whitewater.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, but that will take care of itself,” Tauer said of the NCAA Tournament. “These guys are just really enjoying the moment.”
Going into the last regular season home game, the Tommies are 18-1 in the MIAC and 21-3 overall. Tauer is as happy as anyone in the program that his squad went through a tough three-game road stretch (St. Olaf, Concordia and Gustavus) and went 3-0. It solidified the team’s home court throughout the playoffs.
“We’re thrilled to win the conference title,” Tauer said. “Being at home (in the playoffs) is a bi-product of doing things the right away, the focus has really been on the here and now. The guys are just excited because they really enjoy playing together and got good road victories. This is where playing really well all year can pay dividends.”
St. Thomas hosts rival St. John’s Saturday afternoon on Senior Day, where the Tommies will honor Zach Riedeman, Kevin Hannon, Eric Tengwall and Josh Pella. Back on Jan. 20, the Johnnies beat St. Thomas 77-69 in Collegeville. With both teams now having playoff spots locked up, it’s about building momentum for the postseason.
The Tommies have won nine straight games since that loss at St. John’s. The Johnnies have gone 7-2 in that same stretch.
To beat the Johnnies, St. Thomas will have the task defensively of stopping the trio of Alex Schmitt, Seth Marx and Mitchell Kuck. All three average better than 10 points per game, and Marx is shooting 40 percent from three-point range on the season. St. John’s scores about 71 points per game, but the Johnnies are 4-5 on the road in MIAC play and the Tommies have one of the toughest home courts in the MIAC. St. Thomas is 10-0 at home and is scoring about 76 points per game while allowing only about 60.
When the two teams met earlier this year, Patrick Butcher led St. John’s with 20 points. Marx added 16 points and seven rebounds, and Schmitt had 10 points.
“We’re excited to play the Johnnies,” Tauer said. “Fans will probably want to get there early. It should be an incredible atmosphere.”
St. Thomas and St. John’s tip off at 3 p.m. Saturday in St. Paul.