Rolling into February

Nobody has run the table in the CCIW in 40 years, but Illinois Wesleyan has started the conference season 9-0.
Illinois Wesleyan photo by Jeff Findley

More than halfway through their respective seasons of seeing the basketball gods align the sun, the moon, and the stars, the men of Illinois Wesleyan and the women from both Louisiana College and Montclair State find themselves chasing perfection against challenging conference schedules.

Their pursuits of flawless league records — and in Montclair State's case, overall perfection — are not without trials and tribulations. Even with a three-game lead with five games remaining in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin still on tap, Illinois Wesleyan men's coach Ron Rose cracked that he kids with other coaches, “I'm running out of Tums. It's that time of year.”

With the Division III season getting late as January ended, we checked in with three of the conference unbeatens in their continuing quests to run the table — an arduous task even in a softer league, although each program plays in what are considered power conferences — and found a trio of compelling stories.

Balance buoying the Illinois Wesleyan men

Success is cyclical: Within the span of a recruiting class, sometimes several times within the same season. At Illinois Wesleyan (17-3, 9-0 CCIW), success has been consistent, even with the graduation of All-American Jordan Zimmer who powered the Titans' Final Four march last March.

Instead of ensuring Zimmer would take most of the shots, Illinois Wesleyan now does its damage by committee. Up and down the roster, to a man the Titans believe in a communal approach to scoring, rebounding, and especially winning, that predates the Rose era back to when Dennie Bridges served 36 distinguished seasons as bench boss.

Proof comes in six different players averaging more than eight points per game, with only the trio of Pat Sodemann (11.8 points), Brady Zimmer (11.2), and Andrew Zimnek (11.0) in double figures. However, Dylan Overtreet (9.4), Victor Davis (8.3), and Michael Mayberger (6.4) have also provided game-high point production over the first 20 games. Six players have also led the way in rebounding.

“We didn't have to do a sell job on that,” Rose said matter-of-factly. “We're very fortunate that we have great kids in our program that are unselfish and want to be part of something bigger than just themselves.”

Another case in point that points to a another potentially special season in Bloomington: The case of junior forward Eric Dortch, who went from starting the season's five games to becoming a seldom-used reserve in the ensuing weeks. 

Then came Wednesday night at Augustana. With the Titans trailing by 16 with 9:31 remaining, their aspirations of a perfect CCIW season about to evaporate, Dortch tallied five of his nine points during a decisive surge that ultimately resulted in a stirring 71-65 victory.

“The excitement his teammates exhibited (for him), as a coach, is as good as it gets,” Rose said.

It could get better for the Titans, who have all but locked up the CCIW regular-season crown regardless of whether they end up flawless against league rivals. There is the conference tournament, potentially a return trip through the Division III NCAA Tournament brackets.

Of course, no coach ever admits to peeking into the future. And Rose, like any bench boss, only sees in terms of tunnel vision. Although even he admits being more than halfway through the CCIW slate still unscathed is something special.

“Early in the conference (schedule), there's always an ebb and flow of every conference when you have home games versus away games, who you're playing and when, all those things,” Rose said. “I think it was great to get off to a good start. Early in the conference season, we were as healthy as we've been all season. Good fortune plays a role in any season.

“And momentum. You win some game, you gain some confidence, you win some close games ... (however) in a conference like the CCIW, we have a three-game lead (over No. 7 North Central and No. 20 Wheaton) with five games to go and it's uncomfortable. With five games to go, we have a lot of work to do.”

Turning the page with the Montclair State women

Since last May, the Montclair State athletic department has enjoyed some of its finest hours, finishing as runners-up for the NCAA Division III softball and field hockey championships before this women's basketball season beckoned and delivered the Red Hawks into what just might be their finest campaign on the hardwood.

Before looking into how the Red Hawks (21-0, 13-0 New Jersey Athletic Conference) have dominated a conference that includes perennial national contender William Paterson and not winning a game by less than the 75-62 margin produced Jan. 23 when Karin Harvey's squad hosted the Pioneers, you should know where this improbable run toward what will surely be the program's first NCAA invite since 1995 commenced.

It all began when Harvey, in her sixth season on the Red Hawk sideline and trying to elevate her program above finishing ahead of March Madness fixtures William Paterson and Kean, came across “The Team Captain's Leadership Manual” by Jeff Janssen. After perusing the pages, she gifted her captains with a copy apiece, meeting with each individually every two to three weeks to discuss specific chapters and concepts until the start of this current school year.

“It gave me an opportunity to know (her captains) better,” Harvey said. “It gave me an opportunity to hear what they sort of think a team should be like, what it means to be a captain, sort of get an idea of their vision of how they think the season should go.

“I thought it was the best thing I've ever done in terms of having a concept of how we should move forward.”

From a 19-win campaign a season ago, the Red Hawks are riding their longest winning streak ever as their captain incorporated those leadership lessons for a roster that includes eight new players. Even when junior point guard Jenny Malone was lost for the season after an ACL injury the day before its first scrimmage, Montclair State recovered because it could still look to its other two captains, senior forward Taylor Jeffers and sophomore forward Melissa Tobie.

“When it happened, coach said she saw the season flash before our eyes,” said Tobie, the 2012 East Region Rookie of the Year who is best friends with Malone, her former teammate at nearby Roselle Catholic. “But then you have to get over it and find a new way to deal with it.”

Tobie (14.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.0 steals) and Jeffers (10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) anchor a potent frontcourt, the backcourt trio of sophomore Janitza Aquino (10.6 points, 3.1 assists), freshman Shalette Brown (10.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 steals), and junior and Seton Hall transfer Nicosia Henry (9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 steals) has helped the Red Hawks compile the type of statistics that suggest a tough out in March:

  • A 28.9-point average margin of victory (74.0-45.1)
  • An average of 18.6 steals and 29.9 turnovers forced per game.
  • 17 contests where opponents scored less than 50 points, including seven of 40 or fewer.

“I'm confident we're one of the best defensive teams in the country,” Harvey said. “I'd put us against any defensive team in the country.”

Montclair State looms as a national championship threat, even if the Red Hawks will need to play NCAA games away from home because of NCAA policy banning postseason championship games in New Jersey because of sports betting.

Regardless, Harvey and Tobie and Jeffers are focused on leading the Red Hawks to even greater heights. Before practice Tuesday, Harvey showed her players the latest Top 25 that represented their highest perch in the poll.

“We try to celebrate the little things: when we move up in the poll, alright, let's celebrate for 30 seconds and then let's get to work and start practice,” the coach said.

Then Harvey added, with a chuckle: “Alright, 15 seconds. We pat ourselves on the back and then we start practice.”

There is still plenty of season to go, and Erin Monahan-coached William Paterson could test the Red Hawks in the NJAC tournament. For now, the Red Hawks are continuing to rely upon the lessons and leadership learned this past offseason, hoping it leads them to their first NCAA Tournament trip in 18 years.

“I would say that we worked so hard every day since school started. We're just getting rewarded for all the hard work we put in,” Tobie said. “In practice, we don't take a drill off ...  it's what comes with hard work.”

Louisiana College women's system, homecourt advantage

Down on the bayou, the No. 15 Louisiana College (18-1, 13-0 American Southwest Conference) women deliver two of the most unique in-game experiences seen on the Division III level, male or female, between their hyperactive “system” and their 45-game, regular-season homecourt winning streak inside of their stifling old fieldhouse.

We will break down both phenomena. That is not hyperbole — both are phenomena not often seen.

The Homecourt: The outside of H.O. West is a testament to 1960s architecture, which is to say it became outdated, by design standards, soon after its construction. More than the 500-plus that pack in to watch the Lady Cats play among the most frenetic 40 minutes of basketball seen on any level, there are the metal beams and other architectural tributes to yesteryear.

Among them: No air conditioning.

“It will suck the life out of you. Because when it's hot, it's very hot, buddy,” head coach Jason Tinsley said. “We're down here in Louisiana and there's two climates: hot and hotter.”

Although the Lady Cats lost in last year's ASC tournament title game to Concordia (Texas), the 45-game, non-conference tournament victory run on their home floor dates back to a 64-62 loss to Texas-Dallas on Jan. 29, 2009, well before Tinsley and the “system” arrived in Pineville, La.

The System: Astutely, Tinsley noted that there are no original ideas. The “system” — read: full-court pressing and trapping regardless of make or miss, shots often hoisted inside of five seconds up the floor — has numerous disciples and variations.

Tinsley learned and refined his version after coaching under Tom Barr at Southwest Missouri State at West Plains, an NAIA program, then tweaked it along the way to create a squad that plays 12 players, substitutes in waves of five, and creates the sheer chaos across 40 minutes that has the Lady Cats six games away from a perfect ASC regular season.

“Everything we do is about tempo: creating pace, making sure the other team is going up and down,” Tinsley said.

Last season, Louisiana set a Division III record with 1,081 3-pointers attempted. This season, the Lady Cats are averaging 88.4 points, swiping 19.1 steals, and forcing 32.1 turnovers per 40 minutes while allowing only 59.4 points per game. So this is not just a fad system that resembles an all-star game, putting on an offensive show while forgetting about defense and fundamentals.

Most remarkable, no one plays more than the 22.2 minutes per game senior Natosha Gottlieb (16.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.0 steals, 2.9 assists) sees, with 11 others averaging at least seven minutes of run per outing, including the efficient floor leadership of senior Shaina Howard (3.5 points, 3.7 assists), who ranks among the top-five nationally with a 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.

One would think recruiting high school standouts while offering only the promise of, maybe, 20 minutes of run would prove problematic. Not so much. Tinsley has two five-player units that are on the court no longer than two minutes per shift. Three other reserves step in as a combo guard, wing player, and post depending upon foul trouble.

Sophomore forward Kaci Willis (6.5 poins, 5.6 rebounds), who won a Louisiana state championship under her mother at Starks High School, questioned this during her recruitment considering she played about 30 minutes a night in high school.

Then he showed her some video of the Lady Cats in action.

“You think you were playing hard? You're really not playing that hard,” Tinsley laughed.

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon