It was Dec. 8, 2016, and the St. Thomas men’s basketball team was left for dead.
St. Thomas lost at Augsburg, 72-61, on Dec. 3. Four days later, the Tommies lost at home to Hamline for the first time in three decades. That’s right, eight months removed from winning a national title, it appeared there would be a shift in the programs to take over the MIAC.
But coach John Tauer and the rest of the team had a message for the MIAC: Not so fast. Facing plenty of adversity, the Tommies went onto win 13 of their next 14 games. After beating Concordia-Moorhead last Saturday, St. Thomas finished the regular season at 15-5 in the MIAC to share the regular season title with Bethel. The Tommies beat Bethel in both meetings this year to secure the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
St. Thomas will host rival St. John’s Thursday night, with the winner advancing to the MIAC Championship Saturday night. The playoff winner earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The Tommies are looking to get back to the Division III Big Dance after losing four of its starting five from last year’s national title squad.
“We lost a lot of guys who were all outstanding. We had some early losses and we were batting youth, and we had quite a few injuries,” Tauer said. “Our guys have performed with a lot of poise and they just have trust amongst each other. It’s actually very similar to what we faced after the 2011 national title.”
This year’s end result is still very much up in the air, but the 2011-12 team got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and lost at UW-Whitewater in the second round.
A critical juncture came pretty early in the season for St. Thomas. The Tommies had lost to Hamline at home for the first time in 30 years, and they were staring at a potential three-game losing streak with St. John’s coming to town. The season could have caved in, but St. Thomas got an 82-69 win over the Johnnies, then took down perennial power UW-Steven’s Point 73-64.
Then right after Christmas, they lost senior starting point guard Grant Schaeffer to a sprained ankle. St. Thomas was without him for three straight road games. The win over St. John’s was the start of a five-game win streak that turned into winning 13 out of 14 before the final stretch of the season.
“We knew it would be tough if we lost that game,” Tauer said of the win over St. John’s. “We played phenomenally well and it gave us an idea of how well we could play. Those three games when Grant was out showed our whole team we can be without our leader and still be competitive.”
St. Thomas is a far more methodical team now than they have been in previous seasons. The 2011 national title team pressed, applied pressure defense and scored in transition at every available opportunity. Last year’s title team played up-tempo, but was also efficient in the half-court.
This year’s team plays almost exclusively in the half-court and is extremely patient on offense. They’re fundamentally sound on defense and don’t take a ton of chances on defense. It’s partly due to personnel, but it’s worked for the Tommies this season.
For the season, St. Thomas is shooting about 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range. Their defense has gotten them to where they are now. The Tommies are second in the MIAC in scoring defense and second in field goal percentage defense. They’re also largely taking care of the ball with only about 10 turnovers per game on average.
Coming off a national title, the Tommies were getting every team’s best shot on a nightly bases. Schaeffer’s injury gave other players a chance to step up, and they responded.
Entering the playoffs, St. Thomas is ranked third in the West Region and needs to beat St. John’s Thursday night to potentially secure an at-large bid if they don’t get the automatic berth. The Tommies are receiving votes in this week’s top-25 poll. The only likely scenario for the MIAC to get an at-large bid is St. Thomas losing in the title game.
The Tommies have won or shared 12 straight MIAC regular season titles, and they’ve won eight of the last 11 MIAC Playoff titles. That said, nothing is guaranteed.
“People sometimes forget how competitive our league is. The guys have a target on their backs and it’s not entirely their fault,” Tauer said. “But they embrace that challenge. There’s really nothing magical about it. We have to play better defense and take care of the ball.”
Schaeffer leads St. Thomas at 16.2 points per game, while Ryan Boll is averaging about 14 points and six rebounds per game. Michael Hannon adds about 13 points a game.
In addition to the 82-69 home win over St. John’s, the Tommies beat them in Collegeville 74-65. Thursday’s winner advances to the MIAC title game Saturday night. In the other semifinal, Carleton travels to Bethel. St. Thomas split its season series against Carleton, and swept Bethel.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Tauer said.