|Nine months after raising eyebrows as an at-large entrant into the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UW-Oshkosh is raising expectations that the Titans will contend for the title in 2018.
Photo by Steve Frommel, d3photography.com
By Gordon Mann
The calendar says that this is the beginning of the end of 2017, but the schedule says this is the end of the beginning of this basketball season.
The holiday break marks an unofficial turning point in the season as teams finish up their non-conference schedule with one more Top 25 showdown, like No. 3 Augustana at No. 10 Washington U., or one more trip to a faraway location like the D3hoops.com Classic in Las Vegas.
- D3hoops.com Classic: UW-Stout women, UW-Stevens Point and Carroll men head to Vegas
Then we turn the page to 2018 and turn our attention to conference play. Every Central Region team but those in the WIAC has at least a few conference games under its belt, but January marks the real beginning of the race for conference crowns. Whether your team is off to a slow start in that race, a fast start or hasn't started at all, here are five storylines plus one bonus question to follow the rest of the way.
Can anyone hang with Augustana in the CCIW?
The question isn’t whether anyone in the CCIW can beat Augustana. No team has run the table in the CCIW since the Vikings themselves did it in 1973.
But can any team in the CCIW win consistently enough to challenge Augustana over the course of the season, like North Park and Carthage did last year when they split the conference crown three ways with the Vikings?
Augustana maintained the momentum from last season’s run to the national championship game and finished the first semester with a 9-1 record, including conference wins over Carthage and North Central (Ill.). The Vikings have three guards who can score in different ways in Chrishawn Orange, Nolan Ebel and Dylan Sortillo. Sophomores Micah Martin and Donovan Ferguson provide size down low and Brett Benning is a versatile wing.
Entering the season, North Central (Ill.) seemed like a good bet to challenge Augustana since the Cardinals have two preseason All-Americans in Alex Sorenson and Connor Raridon. But the Cardinals have been uneven at 6-4 and already have two losses in conference.
After two games in Georgia, Illinois Wesleyan opens the New Year at home against Augustana. Also keep an eye on Wheaton (Ill.) who has a fearless scorer in Aston Francis and entered the break with two impressive wins at No. 7 Whitworth and George Fox.
WIAC women: Oshkosh or Whitewater?
The Titans and Warhawks have taken two very different paths to identical 9-0 records.
UW-Oshkosh has overwhelmed all but one of its opponents and rung up a 40-point average margin of victory. But only two of those first semester foes had winning records last year and only one (Luther) is likely to contend for a title in its own conference this season.
Oshkosh graduated three seniors who started every game last season, including All-American Taylor Schmidt, so a relatively easy non-conference schedule gave the Titans some space to redefine themselves. So far senior guard Emma Melotik has stepped into a bigger scoring role, upping her production from 5.4 to 12.1 points per game. Senior forward Eliza Campbell provides steady play in the front court.
Meanwhile UW-Whitewater has beaten three of the four CCIW playoff participants from a year ago, including a 62-60 win over No. 25 Illinois Wesleyan. The Warhawks are 2-0 against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and will play two more this week. UW-Whitewater opens Wartburg’s tournament against No. 17 Gustavus Adolphus and then will play either the fourth-ranked hosts or UMAC champions UW-Superior on Saturday. The Warhawks are led by Brooke Trewyn (12.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 20 assists) and Malia Smith (10.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 50.0 3-pt percentage) who each do a lot well.
We won’t have to wait long to find out which team has the upper hand in the WIAC race. Whitewater hosts Oshkosh in the conference opener on Jan. 3.
WIAC men: Oshkosh or Whitewater…or River Falls?
Remember last season when UW-Oshkosh was a surprise entrant into the NCAA Tournament with a 16-11 record?
That’s not going to be a problem this season. The Titans (9-0) look like a national title contender with a rare blend of skillful size, precision passing and sharp shooting guards. All five starters are averaging double-figures in scoring and, at any point, each of them can look like the best player on the court. Ben Boots leads the team in scoring, Charlie Noone has great range and Jack Flynn is a smooth 6-foot-8 center.
No. 11 UW-Whitewater is 8-1 and also has four players averaging double-figures led by David Sachs (13.0 ppg). Preseason All-American Chris Jones has not played yet and we don't know when he'll return. The Warhawks played a relatively easy first semester schedule, but that will change very quickly over the next two weeks. Assuming the favorites advance through the first round of St. Norbert’s tournament, the Warhawks will play the Green Knights, Oshkosh and UW-River Falls in consecutive games.
Speaking of River Falls, don't forget that the eighth-ranked Falcons are actually the defending WIAC champions. The Falcons have the best all-around player in the conference in Alex Herink who leads the team in scoring again. Brennan Witt (13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) has upped his production since entering the Falcons’ starting lineup after coming off the bench all of last season.
And, because this is the WIAC, each of these teams will likely suffer an upset loss or two along the way.
What do the Wisconsin Lutheran women have to do get some respect?
The Warriors are 7-1 with an 11-point loss in the season opener to No. 13 DePauw and a 13-point win over No. 23 Washington U. one night later. The Warriors also have a 10-point win over a quality Elmhurst squad in their only other non-conference game against a Division III opponent.
Unfortunately that all adds up to just a handful of votes in the most recent Top 25 rankings.
That’s because the candid answer to the question above is, “Run the table in the NACC and then we can talk.”
The Warriors have proven their mettle this year and won an NCAA Tournament game on the road a couple seasons ago. Concordia (Wis.) has put together a bunch of 20-win seasons over the last decade. But the NACC is so large that the teams in it spend most of their time playing each other, giving none of them a chance to make a lot of noise in non-conference play. It doesn’t help that the NACC champion is routinely eliminated from the NCAA Tournament after the first weekend so the best teams in this conference stay off the national radar.
Maybe this year will be different, but first things first for Wisconsin Lutheran. The Warriors open the New Year at Concordia (Wis.) and then host Benedictine (7-2) two games later.
Who will score more – Grinnell or Greenville?
Grinnell is off to a very Grinnellian start. The Pioneers are 7-2 with tons of points against overmatched out-of-Division foes and two losses in conference to Lake Forest and Cornell. David Arsenault, Jr., whose father introduced the System offense to Division III, is the Pioneers’ interim coach one more time before he takes over the program on a full-time basis next season. This season Grinnell is led by Vinny Curta who has taken almost one-third as many shots by himself (201) as the Pioneers’ opponents combined (649). He’s scoring 36.2 points per game and is one of 11 Grinnell players playing at least 10 minutes per game.
Greenville came painfully close to riding its System offense to the NCAA Tournament last year. The Panthers went 21-6, won the SLIAC regular season title and then lost to Westminster (Mo.) 128-121 in the conference tournament final. This season the Panthers are off to a slower start with a 5-4 record, but more importantly they are one of four teams with a 3-1 record in conference. Greenville, which has a more balanced approach than Grinnell, has used 13 players as starters nine games into the season.
For the record, here's your score so far: Grinnell 1141 (126.8 per game), Greenville 1108 (123.1 per game). The Pioneers and Panthers don't play each other this season, but Grinnell does have a matchup with fellow high score-connoisseur Nebraska Wesleyan this weekend.
Bonus question: What’s Wash U’s ceiling?
Nov. 18: Washington U. 98, Tufts 94 – Hm. That’s a good win for the Bears over an NCAA Tournament team ranked in the preseason Top 25.
Nov. 26: Mount St. Joseph 94, Washington U. 76 – Ouch. This game was never close in the second half.
Dec. 17: Washington U. 95, Illinois Wesleyan 69 – Wow. Neither was this game. The Bears outrebounded the Titans by 16, outscored them in the paint 45-18 and tallied 27 assists.
So which of these versions of Washington U. is the one we’ll see the rest of the way? Probably all three of them at some point.
Like UW-Oshkosh, the Bears have great balance and a bunch of guys averaging double figures. Andrew Sanders (19.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Kevin Kucera (12.7 ppg, 59 assists) were both first-team all-conference last season. If they continue to produce at that level, the Central Region will have another national title contender.