Hoping 2018 starts where 2017 ended

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Kyle Smith helped Central come from behind to beat Ramapo at the D3hoops.com Classic. The Dutch hope that win is a turning point for the rest of the season.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

Even for college basketball teams, there’s something about a new year that sparks resolutions.

It arrives around the season’s midpoint, typically before the conference gauntlet begins and, for some teams, after a refreshing trip.

We’ll soon find out which teams keep their resolutions. But there are plenty of teams out there who didn’t need the symbolic calendar change. For them, 2017 ended on a high note – whether it be the continuation of a strong start to the season or a potential turning point.

Let’s start 2018 in Around the West there. After all, there were no shortage of holiday storylines in this region.

Where does your offense go for answers when your program’s all-time leading scorer graduates?

Central might be figuring that out.

Colby Taylor scored 1,856 points from 2013-17, the most in Dutch history. But they missed the NCAA tournament last year by one game and entered a difficult 2017-18 non-conference schedule needing other scorers to step up.

“Colby’s a great player. You can’t really ever replace that,” Central senior Kyle Smith said. “The guy put up great numbers his entire career here and the guy is just a heck of an athlete and a heck of a basketball player. It’s kind of just by committee, I’d say. We have a couple seniors here like Malik (Wildermuth) and a couple other guys that have really started to step up. That’s kind of what it’s been this whole year. Next guy up mentality.”

Central has taken its lumps. The Dutch lost their first four games and were handed defeats by three ranked teams (UW-River Falls, Washington U. and Augustana) as part of a 3-7 start.

The Dutch started 2-1 in IIAC play, but appeared to be in line for a beating from No. 6 Ramapo in the D3hoops.com Classic last week in Las Vegas. It was 20-2 Roadrunners just over 10 minutes in. Then something changed.

Central rallied to within 40-33 at the half, then held Ramapo to 27 percent shooting in the second half, including one for eight from 3-point range, for a 74-69 win. Central coach Craig Douma talked with Pat Coleman following the Dutch's victory.

Smith led the way with 23 points, including 5-of-10 three-point shooting, and added six rebounds and five assists. He’s one of four players averaging double figures for the Dutch (14.8). But shooting has always been a strength. At the other end is where he feels he can make strides.

“It’s always been defense where I’ve always kind of struggled at times. The coaches challenged me in the offseason and I’ve kind of challenged myself, being a senior leader this year, to step up on that end of the floor,” Smith said. “And especially with rebounding. … Those two areas, if I can step up there individually, that can help us as a team.”

The next day, Central walloped Pacific Lutheran, 71-48, and suddenly this team has a new outlook heading back into conference play.

“There’s just a different feeling to this team now,” Smith said. “Just knowing that we can be down, the way we were down against the No. 6 team in the nation, just knowing that we’re never out of a game. That we can play with almost anybody. That’s something we’ve talked about as a team and something we’ve fully embraced.”

But the highest-ranked win of the week didn’t belong to Central. Hamline took that honor behind the efforts of another Smith.

Zach Smith poured in 31 points on 13-for-19 shooting as the Pipers (5-5) upset No. 5 Williams, 73-71, at Cal Lutheran.

Smith moved into the top 10 of Hamline’s career scoring list with 1,158. He’s one spot behind his head coach, Jim Hayes, who scored 1,240 from 1990-94.

“He’s been obviously a cornerstone for us here,” Hayes said. “Definitely one of the top players in the league. He’s the guy that makes us go.”

Hamline seemingly came out of nowhere with a 7-2 MIAC start last season that included a win over perennial power St. Thomas. The Pipers couldn’t quite keep up that pace, but still finished 14-12 (11-9 MIAC), their best finish since 2010-11 (16-11, 13-7).

“We definitely didn’t see it coming,” said Hayes, who is in his fifth year at the helm. “We knew it was a tremendous recruiting class when we got that group. It was kind of our first real recruiting class … We knew that it was going to be a process and they did a great job of just buying into that process and looking to build and grow together and they’ve done a tremendous job of that.

“There aren’t too many things that they haven’t seen at this point.”

Hamline wasn’t catching anyone by surprise this year. The Pipers beat St. Thomas again, but started 1-4 in the league and were 3-5 overall heading to California.

“They understand the thin line that there is between winning and losing,” Hayes said. “They lost a couple close ones. Last year we got off to a great starting and won a bunch of close games and that kind of snowballed and got us going in a really positive direction last year. Our guys know that it can happen at any point. A close game or two where you come out on top can really springboard you through the rest of the season and that’s what we’re hoping with our trip to California.”

But making a move in the MIAC is always a difficult ask. Just look at what conference mates Augsburg did at the D3hoops.com Classic.

The Auggies (8-2, 3-2) defeated Carroll, 74-69, then handed then-No. 13 Wartburg its first Division III loss, 68-64. Two-time first-team all-MIAC forward Collin Olmscheid had 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists in that one.

“I told (my players), ‘This is a test for us. You think you’re good? Let’s see how good you are, because (Wartburg) has proven that they’re pretty darn good.’ So I think just the confidence that we can gain from knowing that we can compete with a team that has won on the national level is going to be helpful moving forward,” Augsburg head coach Aaron Griess told D3hoops.com after the win.

While Central and Augsburg can make their cases for most-impressive wins in Vegas, top-ranked Whitman probably provided the most entertainment in its come-from-behind 92-90 victory over No. 14 Ohio Wesleyan. You can read more about that one here.

Joey Hewitt was named Most Outstanding Player after totaling 40 points, 16 rebounds and seven steals in a pair of wins.

The Blues will tell you their focus now lies on Pacific on Friday, then Lewis and Clark on Saturday as Northwest Conference play returns.

But we media and fans can look ahead to next Tuesday. No. 1 Whitman vs. No. 8 Whitworth.

The 11-0 Blues will be favored at home, but the 10-1 Pirates will obviously be motivated after losing all three games in this series last season.

Whitman fans will also welcome home a ranked women’s team this weekend that earned a resume win over the holidays.

The Blues racked up their 10th-straight win since a season-opening loss to Eastern Oregon by burying then-No. 19 Trinity (Texas), 82-59.

Casey Poe tallied 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks and Whitman, which rose to No. 7 in this week’s top 25, might be separating itself from the pack in a loaded NWC.

Whitman, though, is not the highest-ranked West Region women’s team. That distinction belongs to Wartburg, which is No. 2 for the first time in program history.

The Knights traveled to California and beat UC Santa Cruz and Cal Lutheran, then welcomed a strong field for their holiday tournament and came away unscathed against UW-Superior and then-No. 11 UW-Whitewater.

Miranda Murphy was named tournament MVP, thanks in large part to her 20-point performance against previously-undefeated Whitewater.

Like the Whitworth-Whitman men’s game in the NWC, IIAC fans might be looking ahead to next Wednesday, when Wartburg hosts Luther.

That game got an extra boost thanks to the Norse’s win over MIAC favorite St. Thomas before Christmas. Luther challenged itself with a rigorous non-conference slate and got off to a 5-5 start. But a 77-72 win over the Tommies in which all five starters scored in double figures was part of a four-game win streak to end 2017.

Before that setback against Luther, No. 16 St. Thomas had just made a statement in the MIAC by handing then-No. 17 Gustavus Adolphus its first loss, 74-66, on Dec. 13.

Like the Central men, UST has had to move on without one of its best-ever players, with national player of the year Kaitlin Langer graduating.

And while the 37-game regular-season winning streak ended in November against Bowdoin, St. Thomas’ 38-game conference winning streak remains intact for the time being.

Junior center Hannah Spaulding has stepped into the starting lineup and made a difference. The 2016-17 MIAC Sixth Player of the Year scored a career-high 29 points against Luther. In the win over Gustavus, she made 4 of 5 shots from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line for 14 points and added five rebounds and three blocks.

Spaulding, 6-foot-2, has led the team in scoring in six games this season and is averaging 18.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

Clearly, West Region basketball fans have a lot to look forward to in 2018. That includes a team that won its final game of the calendar year to improve to 3-9.

The Dubuque women beat Shenandoah 73-56 in Nashville on Saturday. Sunday, assistant coach Justin Smith made the play of the year.

The full account is here, but the synopsis is this: the driver of Dubuque’s charter bus bound for home lost consciousness at the wheel during a medical emergency. After the bus crossed the left lane of Interstate 24 and bounced off the guard rail, Smith raced to take control of the wheel and hit the breaks in time to prevent a tragedy.

“We’re still a little in shock,” Smith told the Associated Press on Monday. “I’m just thankful everyone’s OK. … I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The actual initial accident and me jumping out and grabbing the wheel felt like three seconds.”

It’s a story that puts things into perspective as 2018 begins. Dubuque takes on crosstown rival Loras on Wednesday, and we should all resolve to cherish every player and coach on that court and others around the region.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to D3football.com in 2013.