January 19, 2012

Not looking like the champs

More news about: Illinois Wesleyan | Knox | St. Thomas
Freshman Conner Nord and sophomore Erik Tengwall are in the St. Thomas starting lineup.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com

John Tauer couldn't think of a better place to coach basketball.

The St. Thomas alum and 11-year assistant stepped into to a program coming of the national championship. Ideally, the interim head coach would have a tremendous amount of depth for a team primed to make another run at the top prize. Ironically, the Tommies do not have a returning starter currently in the lineup, but are 11-4 overall and in a three-way tie for the MIAC league lead at 8-2 after a successful last second 14-foot shot by John Nance gave St. Thomas a 78-77 win Wednesday at St. Olaf.

"I love our guys they play with a lot of passion," Tauer said. "We knew it would be a year with a lot of growth, (but) I'm really pleased with how we are doing."

The Tommies' lone returning starter Tommy Hannon, a senior center, has not played since injuring his knee after the ninth game. Freshman Connor Nord has assumed the role and scored 12 points against St. Olaf and has averaged 6.6 points this year. To add to the Tommies' personnel woes, sixth-man and current leading scorer, junior guard Will DeBerg (12.1 ppg) didn't play Wednesday. But the Tommies continue to plug people in roles.

"One thing we pride ourselves is our depth, we don't rely on one guy," Tauer said. "For all of the years that I have been here, I don't remember guy averaging 20 points a game, part of it we're used to playing 10-12 guys."

Tauer replaced legendary coach Steve Fritz, who stepped down to focus on his duties as the Tommies' athletic director. After the season, Tauer will see if he can earn the permanent top Tommie job.

"After the season there will be a search as there is for every open position at St. Thomas," Tauer said. "I certainly plan to apply for the position. This is my dream job and hope to coach for St. Thomas for a long, long time."

Tauer, who is also an associate professor of psychology at St. Thomas, takes the lessons he's teaches in the classroom and transfers them to the hardwood. He got interested after St. Thomas and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin under the tutelage of Judy Harackiewicz. He teaches social psychology, motivation, cross culture of psychology and general psychology.

"I always been fascinated by what motivates people and how different people are motivated by different types of things," Tauer said. "Specifically trying to understand why some people have such stellar work ethics other with seemingly all of the talent in the world don't have the same drive. As a coach, I think it's incredibly important to strive to understand what makes our players tick and try to reach them to help them to performance both their best individually and collectively."

John Tauer has a tough head coaching job right out of the gate.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com

His focus on the top position at St. Thomas has been made easier as Tauer has had his class load reduced from six classes to two and due to the help of his assistant coaches Jon Hughes, a 21-year assistant, Don Johnson, in his eighth year and first-year coaches Jim Hayes and Mike Keating.

"These coaches have a really high basketball IQ," Tauer said. "Between longevity of our staff knowing our university and our conference, our assistants provide an excellent balance of experience, knowledge and passion that is readily apparent to all of our players."

And now Tauer hopes his team can close out the season with a seventh-straight MIAC title.

"Our goals to be in conference playoffs and national playoffs," Tauer said. "We have some young guys, this is a growing experience, so many freshman and sophomores playing. The other night in the clutch we had one freshman and two sophomores playing. We think the future is bright both this year and in years to come."

Knox takes a page from Grinnell’s playbook

Knox omen's basketball coach Emily Cline wanted to implement a change to the way the Prairie Fire played. She marveled at the Grinnell system, so she implemented parts of it at Knox, a fellow member of the Midwest Conference.

"We want to force the team to shoot within 12 seconds," Cline said. "We try to force tempo. It's all about number of possessions for us and obviously we try to create a lot of turnovers."

 Cline has had the thought in her mind for a while and made her mind up in the spring that they were going to go to it.

"We won six games last year and I thought, 'We have nothing to lose, why not try it,'" she said.

On offense, Knox attempts to get the ball in as quickly as possible without trying to let the ball hit the ground. Each player has a number and they try to run to their spot as quickly as possible. The point guard passes the ball only if she sees open shots.

"We don't want a bunch of passes," Cline said. "The more passes the more likely you turn it over."

Defensively, Knox gets back right away and will press on a make or a miss.

"We press on both ends," Cline said. "We are going to trap you all over floor for 94 feet. We're going to try to force turnovers, if we can't get you to force turnovers we're going to get you to shoot it, it's all about tempo."

On the flip side, opponents have chances at grabbing frequent easy baskets.

"People do get layups quite often," Cline said. "We just want the ball back to go on offensive end, that's got to be our mentality."

The Prairie Fire are currently 2-12, but Cline said her team is improving and completely sold on the new way of playing.

"I think time is going to be a big factor," Cline said. "We'll be much better a year from now. There's still a lot of learning on my part. Just the shift in mentality has gone a long way, goes a long way. We've made huge strides can't see in win-loss record. It's just going to take time."

And the Prairie Fire have been in the limelight a little more with their new style.

"Everybody has an opinion when you play this way, from the grandma in stands that has never played to the parents, to the fans, to the opposing coaches. It's been unexpected. We get noticed, we've gotten a lot of attention."

Titans hot over last 10 games

Illinois Wesleyan put themselves in a tie for the CCIW lead with the way they have played over the last 10 games. Before being knocked off 82-69 at North Central, who the Titans share the league lead with, the Titans won nine straight.

"During our win streak, our overall competitiveness was the key," Titans coach Ron Rose said. "Some games defense was the key component, a couple games rebounds was the difference. We moved the ball around lot and scored a lot of points with our depth of playing nine guys, getting everyone to go. The competitiveness and consistency of our defense, that was really an important thing during our win streak."

Rose said the senior leadership has been crucial. Three of the top five scorers in Jordan Zimmer (team-high 15.2 points per game), John Koschnitzky (9.6) and Eliud Gonzalez are seniors. Stephen Rudnicki, at 5.6 points a clip, is the seventh-leading scorer.

"Your team is only going care as much as your seniors do," Rose said. "Our four seniors are very committed and created the dynamic of the team."

The Titans know they are in for a long battle to see who takes home the CCIW crown. The Titans, Wheaton and North Central all have 4-1 marks and Elmhurst is a game back at 3-2.

"There's a lot that can happen," Rose said. "I do think conference season wears on you with the other teams' intensity level continuing to come at you. Teams get stronger and play better basketball down the stretch, it happens every year. Our goal is to be that team that improves and plays better basketball. We hope our loss refocuses us on what it is to win and to lose in this league."

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Josh Smith

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3sports.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism. Around the West for D3football.com.