By Erik Buchinger
However this season ends for the Benedictine Eagles men's basketball team, it certainly has started differently than last season.
Last November Eagles entered the season unranked, ripped through the regular season with a 25-0 record, won the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC) tournament, and went all the way to the national tiitle game where they came up just short against St. Thomas, 82-76.
This season expectations are much higher for head coach Keith Bunkenburg, whose team was ranked No. 6 in the D3hoops.com preseason poll. And while the Eagles didn't lose a game until the last day last season, Benedictine has dropped two of its first three games, albeit to ranked opponents.
On Saturday the Eagles came from behind at home to take the lead late against No. 4 St. Norbert, only to see the Green Knights pull out the victory. On Monday night Benedictine lost at home to CCIW favorite and 13th ranked North Central (Ill.)
“The difference is you have the target on your back from the get-go, so there’s a different pressure,” Bunkenburg said. “Being ranked so high, people are looking at you a lot differently, and they want to beat you badly because they want to get to the same place you are. They want to get to that mountain, and they want to knock you off.”
Going into last season, Bunkenburg did not know how good last year’s team was until the third game of the regular season.
Benedictine held a preseason scrimmage against Lake Forest, and Bunkenburg said his team did not look very good. The Eagles then played another scrimmage with Augustana, which came off a national title appearance with all five starters back. Benedictine played much better, and Bunkenburg thought his team had a chance to play at a high level.
“For me, the game that kind of gave me a feeling like, ‘Wow we can have a pretty special year’ was at Elmhurst,” Bunkenburg said.
Elmhurst was ranked No. 8 and returned nine seniors from a Sweet 16 team the year before, while Benedictine remained unranked at the time.
“We probably had one of the best halves we ever had,” Bunkenburg said. “We were up about 25 at half and beat them. I remember going home to my wife, and I’m a pessimistic guy at heart. I’m one of those guys that you have to show me. I don’t say this too often, but I said, ‘We could be pretty good, and we could have a pretty special season.’”
Benedictine went on to finish the regular season 27-0 and made a big run in the NCAA tournament.
“There were so many great memories, but the Final Four was unbelievable,” Bunkenburg said. “As a coach, I think you always strive to get there, but getting there is so hard.”
In the sectoinal finals Benedictine beat Alma by 20 points to make its first Final Four in team history.
“After we beat Alma, it was really one of those surreal moments,” Bunkenburg said. “You couldn’t believe that you were going and didn’t know what the expectations were when you got there. All the expectations of getting there lived up to the hype, and it was a really phenomenal experience for us.”
Benedictine defeated Amherst 63-60 to earn a spot in the national title game, and the Eagles lost to St. Thomas 82-76 in the championship.
Bunkenburg was named the national Coach of the Year, and Benedictine star Luke Johnson was selected as the Player of the Year.
At least in theory, Benedictine has to replace the production of Johnson, a versatile 6-foot-9 forward who could do just about everything on the basketball court. In reality that's hard to do.
“You can’t replace him,” Bunkenburg said. “What you do is you have kids who are committed and are unselfish and willing to share the ball. You’re not going to make up what he did with one player, but you can make up what he did with a collection of players, and that’s kind of what we’re hoping for.”
Benedictine also needs to make up for the loss of NACC Defensive Player of the Year John Dodson and sixth man Tim Reamer.
“We have a different team this year, and we’re trying to find our own identity,” Bunkenburg said. “We’re trying to find out who we are, trying to figure out our roles a little bit. Early on in the season is we always play a really good schedule, and that’s the case again this year.”
Benedictine beat Wheaton (Ill.) on the road to open the season, followed by the aforementioned pair of one-possession home losses to ranked teams. Benedictine will play its third ranked team in a row at home against No. 21 UW-Oshkosh on Saturday, Nov. 26.
“I’m looking to see if we’re good enough,” Bunkenburg said. “I think the key for us is we really have to forget about last year and focus on this year, find out who we are and what we need to do to be successful.”
Though he’d like the players to focus on the future and not the past, Bunkenburg said last season’s success story was huge for the long-term success of the program.
“We now know how to get there,” Bunkenburg said. “It’s a huge step for the team; it’s a huge step for our program.”
Bunkenburg hopes his team can capitalize on last year’s experience and make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“We want to go back to the Final Four,” Bunkenburg said. “That’s our goal. Our returning kids that have been there want to go back. Anything less than that, I think we’d be disappointed if we weren’t able to reach it.”
Benedictine is projected to be the favorites to win the NACC men’s title by head coaches and sports information directors following their magical season. On the women’s side, Wisconsin Lutheran is projected as the team to beat, slightly ahead of Concordia (Wis.).
After making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, UW-Oshkosh men’s basketball is predicted to win the WIAC, according to preseason projections conducted by the conference’s sports information directors and head coaches. UW-Oshkosh is also projected to win the women’s conference, as the Titans go for their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
In the CCIW, North Central (Ill.) edged out Illinois Wesleyan to be the favorites to win the men’s conference in a poll done by head coaches, and Wheaton is projected to win the women’s side a few votes ahead of Illinois Wesleyan.
Nine men’s head coaches voted for the MWC season projections, and all nine picked St. Norbert, who comes into the season winning 64 consecutive conference games. The St. Norbert women were also a unanimous selection, as the Green Knights seek their fourth straight conference title.
The Central region is well-represented in both the men’s and women’s D3hoops.com preseason Top 25 polls.
Five men’s teams from the region make up one-fifth of the initial rankings. St. Norbert is the top-ranked team from the region at No. 4, followed by Benedictine at No. 6, North Centrlal at No. 13, Augustana at No. 18 and UW-Oshkosh at No. 21.
Check these out
We’ve already had several big games in the college basketball season, and here are four more Top 25 matchups to keep an eye on over the next week.
#14 Alma @ #13 North Central (Ill.) (MBB) - Wednesday, Nov. 23 – North Central (Ill.) is coming off a big win over Benedictine on the road, while Alma has lost two in a row at home. Expect a high-scoring contest in this one.
#21 UW-Oshkosh @ #6 Benedictine (MBB) - Saturday, Nov. 26 – After two one-possession losses to ranked teams, Benedictine has its last chance to make a statement win out of conference. UW-Oshkosh will look to validate its preseason hype.
#22 UW-Stevens Point @ #6 St. Thomas (WBB) – Sunday, Nov. 27 – St. Thomas won its first two games by more than 30 points, but the Tommies will get their first real test against a UW-Stevens Point team that has beaten two quality opponents in Illinois Wesleyan and Luther.
#20 Washington U. @ #18 Augustana (MBB) – Sunday, Nov. 27 – Augustana has come into the season hot with a 3-0 mark, including a road win over No. 14 Alma on Friday. Washington U. comes into the week 2-0 with a couple close wins to start the year.
What’s your story?
Do you have a story that you would like the D3hoops community to know about? I am on the hunt for Around the Central stories, but I could use the help from the readers. Be sure to reach out for broken records, approaching milestones, breakout players or any other storylines from the region. Or just drop me a note to let me know what you think of the column. All ideas and feedback are welcome. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance for your story to be told or reach out and follow me on Twitter @ImErikBuchinger.