Gene's Blog: UST Hoops' spring road trip rolls on
March 15, 2011
St. Thomas basketball is making an historic late-season run in 2011. (Mike Ekern file photo)
Cancun, San Diego or Fort Lauderdale will have to wait.
The Tommie men’s basketball 2011 spring tour is coming to a city that’s not near you.
UST’s players, coaches and fans couldn’t be more excited to delay spring break and live out of a suitcase.
Last weekend, Coach Steve Fritz’ Tommies trekked six hours south to the Quad Cities and Augustana College. The gym is just a few miles from the Davenport ballpark where Joe and Jake Mauer were once pro baseball teammates.
The team bunked at a Ramada hotel in Bettendorf, Iowa, the hometown of Brent Longval. Brent? All he did was lead his UST team to the Final Four as a senior in 1994 and make the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
That karma set up St. Thomas’ Sweet 16 and Elite Eight wins across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Ill., against two tradition-rich teams with four combined NCAA basketball championships. No. 3-ranked Stevens Point captured last year’s national title and had won 14 games in a row coming into last Friday. No. 7-ranked Augustana, which started 20-0 this season, came in Saturday’s showdown 14-1 at home.
It would rank among the best 48 hours of basketball in Tommie men’s history. The 66-64 victory over Point and 72-56 win over Augustana secured a berth in the national semifinals.
St. Thomas passed the Rock Island test. Its next NCAA cultural experience begins with a Wednesday afternoon flight to Greensboro, N.C., via a connection in Atlanta, and a two-hour bus ride to Salem, Va. (That is, unless you’re among the UST contingent connecting through the Newark, N.J., airport to reach Greensboro.)
The last groups to visit Rock Island, Greensboro, Atlanta, Newark and Salem in the same week, I think, were the American Basketball Association’s Kentucky Colonels, and REO Speedwagon during its “Keep on Lovin’ You” tour in the summer of 1978.
The No. 8-ranked Tommies (28-3) play No. 2-ranked Middlebury (28-1) Friday at 7 p.m. Minnesota time. If they win, they'll play Saturday at 2:30 for the national championship against either No. 4 Williams or No. 5 Wooster.
Ask the Gene-ius
To celebrate the St. Thomas march through March, we present a special “Ask the Gene-ius” Q&A segment that will serve as your FFFF (Fritz’ Final Four Forecast).
Q: What does a UST-Middlebury matchup bring?
A: St. Thomas and Middlebury share a common bond in ice hockey and ice cream. The Tommies and Panthers rank 1-2 in all-time victories in Division III men’s hockey. The Middlebury campus is a short drive from the home of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, while UST is near the corporate headquarters of Dairy Queen.
In men’s hoops, the Panthers are 12-0 in February and March. That 12-game winning string is currently tops in Division III, just ahead of UST’s 10-game streak. Middlebury won its Sweet 16 game on the opponents' court at Rochester, and overcame slight halftime deficits to beat Rochester and St. Mary’s (Md.) to qualify for Salem.
Second-half comebacks are something the Tommies know all about, since 14 of their 28 wins have come that way.
This marks UST’s second Final Four, and Middlebury’s first.
Q: What’s the scouting report on Middlebury?
A: Tall, athletic shot blockers, stingy on defense (56.2 ppg), and balanced on offense (just one player scoring more than 10 ppg). The roster includes natives of nine different states. The Panthers’ lone loss has come against conference rival Williams, which will also be in Salem to play in the Final Four. Middlebury avenged that loss three weeks ago on Williams’ home court.
The fact that Middlebury hasn’t played in many close games is either good news or bad news for the Tommies. Of MC’s 28 wins, 27 have come by six or more points. The Panthers have limited their last seven opponents to 27 or less points in the second half, including holding one team (Green Mountain) to six points after halftime. Junior Ryan Sharry averages a double double in points and boards, and Andrew Locke is blocking more than four shots a game.
If the Panthers have a liability, it might be their 66% free-throw shooting.
Middlebury and fellow NESCAC teams only began competing in national tournaments in the mid 1990s, yet in the last 16 years the Panthers have won 31 NCAA team titles in eight different sports.
Q: Will this trip be as glitzy as a D-I Final Four?
A: The Division I extravaganza means sit-downs with CBS and ESPN announcers, large-scale press conferences, and open practices before 25,000 fans. This weekend, in true Division III fashion, our Final Four qualifiers will spend part of Thursday doing a service project at local schools. Really. There’s no live telecast from Salem (live video webcasts will suffice), yet these players and coaches still chase their One Shining Moment as passionately as their Division I counterparts.
There’s one other connection. Last year, Division III basketball eliminated the third-place game, so only Friday’s winners move on to Saturday.
Q: What intangible has helped the 2010-11 Toms?
A: Besides depth and athleticism, St. Thomas’ roster has several guys that have played on championship teams. Tyler Nicolai (Hopkins) and Teddy Archer (DeLaSalle) each played on 2006 Minnesota state champion squads, and Peter Leslie (Henry Sibley) was in the 2008 title game. Throw in an Eden Prairie guy and two Cretin-Derham Hall players, and you have a collection of tested athletes.
The Middlebury game will mark Brady Ervin's 21st career postseason game (football and hoops) in his three-year Tommie career, including his 16th NCAA playoff game. It's the 18th basketball postseason game for UST's other four seniors (13-4 record).
Two of Archer’s DeLaSalle teammates are playing this weekend for Wofford in the Division I field of 68. Nicolai’s Hopkins High had alums this season playing at Notre Dame, Minnesota, Arizona State, Iowa State and Santa Clara.
Q.: What has sparked the Toms’ late-season run?
A: Five seniors playing key roles… an ability to wear down opponents… consistent 3-point scoring… improved foul shooting…and Tyler Nicolai playing like a first-team All-American.
Nicolai leads the Division III tournament with 15 made 3-pointers. In his last seven games he’s knocked down 30 treys while averaging 20.4 points. With 249 career threes, he needs two to move into third on the conference career list.
In Nicolai's era, UST is 9-1 in postseason play when he scores in double figures. His big-play resume is deep. It started in just his fourth college game when he scored 19 points in the 83-82 overtime upset of Division II national champion Winona State. As a sophomore, his 3-pointer with :13 to go tied Division II Concordia, and UST won in overtime. Later in that season’s 30-0 start, he scored 10 late points to help UST rally from 14 points down with 7:30 left to beat Bethel. Early last season, Nicolai scored 20 in the 31-point win at Wooster. This winter, he’s had three significant baskets in the final seconds to win or extend games to overtime.
Q: Which Tommie has the best timing?
A: Last Saturday’s win at Augustana was No. 592 on Steve Fritz’ career and let him pass Hamline legend Joe Hutton and move into second on the all-time victory list for conference basketball coaches. Fritz qualified for four trips to NAIA nationals as a star player and assistant coach. He’s taken 12 Tommie teams to the NCAA playoffs in a 31-year head coaching tenure marked by only one losing season.
In his 20th year as St. Thomas athletic director, Fritz oversaw the opening of the $52 million, 180,000 square-foot Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex last August. He watched two coaches he hired lead UST football and volleyball into the NCAA Elite Eight during last fall’s playoffs. Now his basketball team is set to hit Salem for the Final Four.
These days, it’s good to be Fritzie. And it’s great to be a Tommie.
PHOTOS: Steve Fritz in old Schoenecker locker oom in 2009 (Mike Ekern photo)