With four NCAA tournament wins already under its belt, the St. Thomas men’s basketball team will take on Middlebury College in the Final Four Friday in Salem, Va.
The Tommies are making their first trip to the Final Four since 1994.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” coach Don Johnson said.
Assistant coach John Tauer was a junior guard on that year’s team. He said he hopes this year’s Tommies will be able to impose their identity on Middlebury.
“That identity is focused on playing an up-tempo game on offense and defense,” Tauer said. “We really believe in a team effort that we hope is going to wear other teams down over 40 minutes.”
St. Thomas has won its last two games against top-10 opponents, defeating No. 3-ranked Wisconsin-Stevens Point Friday, March 11, and then beating No. 7-ranked Augustana Saturday, March 12.
“What we were able to do against Augustana on their home court was really impressive,” Tauer said.
It will be even more impressive if St. Thomas can keep its championship bid alive against the No. 2-ranked Panthers, who are in the Final Four for the first time in the school’s history.
Who are the Panthers?
The New England Small College Athletic Conference champions’ path to the Final Four was slightly shorter than St. Thomas’ after receiving a first-round bye. Since then, Middlebury, which is located in Vermont, has won its three NCAA tournament games by 26-, nine- and 15-point margins.
Middlebury’s defense has been stifling, holding opponents to a 34.4 field goal percentage, which leads the country.
“That’s about the lowest I’ve ever seen at any level,” Tauer said.
It’s not difficult to believe, looking at Middlebury’s front line. Six-foot-10 senior center Andrew Locke and 6-foot-8 junior forward Ryan Sharry lead a Panthers team that had 25 blocks in its last two games, 12 of which came from Locke.
Locke’s length has given opponents fits as he has racked up 109 blocks this season. To put that in perspective, that’s 19 more blocks than St. Thomas’ entire team has had all year. Tauer said the Tommies “relish the challenge” of going against Locke and Middlebury’s defense.
“We know if it’s a half-court game, and we’re exclusively trying to score in the paint, that’s not going to work,” he said. “We want to get up and down the floor and turn things up-tempo.”
Tauer said playing against big-time shot blocker Carl Hipp of Hamline should help St. Thomas be prepared, as well as last Saturday’s game against Augustana’s 6-foot-9, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 front line.
“We don’t want to shy away because they’ve got some behemoths in there that can block shots,” he said.
Part of the test will be how much Middlebury is able to disrupt St. Thomas’ game plan. The Tommies’ offense has flowed through senior All-American Tyler Nicolai this season. His assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best in the country, and he has contributed to St. Thomas shooting more than 50 percent in the last three games.
Cranking up the tempo of the game could also help St. Thomas counter Middlebury’s rebounding advantage. The Panthers enter Friday’s game with a plus-29 rebounding edge in their three NCAA tournament wins.
“We know they have a lot of big guys, so we’re hoping to use our speed and quickness, especially on the press, to hopefully force some turnovers and get some good things going our way,” senior Alex Healy said.
Tauer said matching up with Middlebury is important, but in the end it comes down to St. Thomas executing its game plan.
“Once the ball goes up Friday night, nothing matters who we’re playing,” Tauer said. “We just go out and play our game the best we can.”
The rest of the field
St. Thomas and Middlebury are joined in Salem by the No. 5-ranked Fighting Scots from the College of Wooster and the No. 4-ranked Ephs of Williams College.
Wooster beat No. 1-ranked Whitworth last weekend to advance to the Final Four and is led by Ian Frank’s 18 point-per-game scoring average. A win for Wooster and St. Thomas would set the stage for a Tommie-Fighting Scots rematch after the 2009 national championship baseball game St. Thomas won in extra innings.
Ephs’ James Wang and his 18.5 points-per-game stand between Wooster and the championship game. The two teams will square off at 5 p.m. Friday, followed at 7 p.m. by St. Thomas and Middlebury.
Jordan Osterman can be reached at email@example.com.