|UW-River Falls and UW-Oshkosh are two of the five WIAC teams jostling for Top 25 poll positioning, conference playoff seeding and NCAA regional rankings.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
With three teams ranked in the Top 25 and two teams just outside the poll, there is little doubt that the WIAC is the top conference in Division III men’s college basketball.
While some seasons have featured one or two clear frontrunners who advanced all the way to Salem, this year’s WIAC race is as competitive as ever.
The conference claimed four national championships between 2010 and 2015—two each for UW-Whitewater and UW-Stevens Point—but has not had a team reach the semifinals since the Pointers won it all in 2015.
“It’s been interesting. For quite a while, there was not a lot of parity in our league. It was top-heavy,” said Warhawks coach Pat Miller. “This is the most parity I’ve seen in our league in a long time from top to bottom. Home and away matters less than I’ve ever seen it.”
When the team that finished with just one conference win last season is now one game out of first place halfway through the conference schedule, you know you have a deep and talented league.
“No margin is safe in this league. From top to bottom, you’ve got to bring it. If you’re not focused coming into your game, you’re going to find yourself getting knocked off,” said UW-Platteville coach Jeff Gard. “That’s why this is the best league in the country.”
The Pioneers struggled to a 1-13 conference finish last year, due to an unlucky combination of injuries, youth, and narrow defeats. Eight of their WIAC losses were by single digits.
“We had a lot of learning experiences last year,” said Gard. “We had some key injuries. We took some hits. That’s the pain of growing up. Sometimes when that snowball starts rolling, it starts picking up speed.”
|UW-Platteville has reversed its fortunes this season, while UW-Whitewater is once again squarely in contention.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
To reverse course, the Pioneers welcomed local marines to a preseason practice. The marines put the players through a boot camp that was as much a mental test as it was a physical challenge.
“They jumped on our guys with the ‘it’s not about you, it’s about us’ mentality,” said Gard. “Learning as much as we did last year, our big focus this year from preseason all the way through is that it’s been about us. The big thing was we just tried to get back to establishing our culture. I credit our players because they bought in. It starts with the ‘us’ mentality.”
Even the teams at the bottom of the standings present a difficult challenge every night. UW-Stout only has one conference win, but pushed UW-Stevens Point to a 68-65 finish and UW-La Crosse to a 59-57 game. UW-Eau Claire, the other team with just one conference win, notched it against UW-Oshkosh, one of the league’s top teams.
“In this league, there are no nights off,” said Miller. “We do not have a bye, and there are no figurative nights off. It’s nonstop.”
“If you’re not right on a Wednesday or Saturday you’re going to get it handed to you,” said UW-Oshkosh coach Pat Juckem. “That’s the challenge. The basketball season is a grind. It wears on you physically and emotionally. A little bit is who can survive and stay healthy and continue to improve. That’s the great challenge is to keep rallying and stay resilient, every 48 or 72 hours.”
Then there’s the team at the top. After losing just four conference games over three seasons, the Pointers posted just a 15-13 record in WIAC play over the past two seasons. An NCAA investigation led to self-imposed penalties, including skipping the WIAC tournament last year.
This season, a rejuvenated squad streaked to a 6-0 start to conference play before falling to the Titans on January 24. Army transfer Nate Dodge, who had to sit out all of last season, has been an impact player, leading the team with 13.6 points per game. MJ Delmore, another transfer from a higher division who returned home to Wisconsin, is second at 11.1 points per game.
“Every staff in the league is working, competing for the same recruits. The talent is distributed evenly across the league. There’s impact transfers coming in each year it seems like,” said Juckem. “We’re in a region that really respects Division III athletics and as a result we have a great league.”
Last year’s WIAC champs again raced out to an impressive non-conference start. The reality of WIAC play quickly hit them in the mouth. UW-River Falls began league play 9-0 last year, but lost this season’s conference opener to UW-Stevens Point, 73-48. There was no time to commiserate, and the Falcons bounced back right away with a road win at UW-Whitewater three days later.
“Every year, I try to tell our guys come conference season the intensity level jumps up another notch,” said Falcons coach Jeff Berkhof. “Everybody knows each other so well. We can’t get too high or get too low. That’s really the key is to just stay the path.”
The depth of the conference is also reflected by the depth of each team. There are no longer a handful of star players who can determine the outcome of the conference standings. But there are also some teams who, like UW-Platteville last season, could see their season derailed by multiple key injuries.
“A lot of teams now have guys who can play at a high level, but they may go 1-for-6. It depends on whether or not you can survive those nights,” said Miller. “There’s more parity, but there’s less depth among the teams. I look at our roster, there’s a couple guys that if you took them out of the mix, we’d be in deep trouble.”
Two seasons ago, the WIAC race came down to the final two weeks of the season, when UW-La Crosse finished one game ahead of three teams tied for second. This year’s conference race is shaping up to be just as dramatic. There are four teams within two games of the first place Pointers.
“The great thing as a coach is we don’t have to preach that effort and preparation in practice. The guys know now when you’re in conference play, every game is a big game,” said Gard. “Teams are champing at the bit. You can throw out the conference standings. It’s going to take you’re ‘A’ game every night.”