|John Tauer has the Tommies right where he wants them -- on a return trip to Salem, Va.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
|In addition to the Tommies' balanced scoring, the team also brings Jimmy Remke off the bench for added energy and offense.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Andrew Lovell
John Tauer has been here before.
Three times, actually, and each at a different point in his basketball career. First in 1994 as a player, again in 2011 as an assistant coach, in 2013 as a head coach, and again now. The Final Four will never get old for the longtime St. Thomas staple.
"Certainly you do pinch yourself," Tauer said. "The other night after beating Augustana there was a moment where we were able to savor it with a few seconds left and realize the accomplishment."
- More men's playoff coverage
- Amherst: How did that happen?
- CNU has six simple rules for winning
- Tauer's Tommies enjoying the ride
- Benedictine: No burden in unbeaten
Tauer's Tommies defeated the top-ranked Vikings, 86-76, this past Saturday in the Elite Eight to clinch their third trip to the Final Four in the last six seasons. The 2011 trip ended with the program's first-ever national title, while the 2013 trip ended with a loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals. St. Thomas faces Christopher Newport, making its first-ever appearance in the Final Four, in the semifinals Friday night. Two-time national champion Amherst and Benedictine meet in the other semifinal.
The Tommies' success can be attributed to the steady hallmarks of the program -- tough defense and unselfishness on offense. St. Thomas has held opponents to 65.5 points per game and 43.3 percent shooting, while also forcing nearly 11 turnovers per game. On offense, junior guard Grant Shaeffer, senior guard Cortez Tillman, senior guard Taylor Montero and senior center Ryan Saarela all average between 13 and 14.5 points per game.
It's balanced, it's consistent, it's by design -- it's the St. Thomas way.
"They buy into a system where they know it's going to be predicated on tough defense and unselfish play on offense," Tauer said. "That's not for everybody."
Getting to know St. Thomas
Shaeffer and Tillman form a dynamic duo in the backcourt, with both players capable of creating their own shots. Montero has solidified himself as one of the top shooters in the country, checking in with season averages of 54.5 percent from the floor and 47.5 from 3-point range. Saarela is an all-around force in the post, capable of guarding any player on opposing teams. Sophomore forward Ryan Boll has started all 31 games and continues to make strides, while senior forward Jimmy Remke provides instant energy and versatility off the bench.
Tillman, Montero, Saarela and Remke, along with fellow seniors Thomas Sjoberg and Cullen Ogren, were all with the program for the Final Four trip three years ago. Of those six, however, only Tillman and Montero saw any playing time, so this time around will be different.
"It's actually pretty loose," Tillman said of the team's mood. "We're just trying to have fun and soak it up because you don't get there every year. We're just trying to make the most of it, as much as we can."
The Tommies extended their streak of MIAC first-place finishes to 11 this season, but the path wasn't without a few speed bumps. In just the fifth game of the season -- shortly after a pair of hard-fought games against NCAA Tournament teams Emory and Southern Vermont in the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic -- St. Thomas was stunned in the final seconds in a 67-66 loss to Carleton.
They then rattled off 16 straight wins and won 20 of their next 21 before falling to St. Olaf in the MIAC conference tournament title game.
"This team, through 31 games, has been really, really consistent," Tauer said. "I can only think of two halves out of 62 halves that we've played where I felt like our effort wasn't either very strong or exceptional."
Now, St. Thomas sits just 40 minutes away from a chance to play for a national championship. But before that happens, the team will travel down to Salem, Va., on Wednesday and take care of its Final Four weekend requirements on Thursday. This year that includes local volunteer work, a team practice, on-site media availability and a banquet featuring the four remaining teams.
"That's pretty incredible when you see, out of 400-plus teams, the four teams left standing at this time," Tauer said. "You just take a moment to look at all the hard work that's gone into that journey by the players, the coaches, the trainers and everyone involved with the program."
St. Thomas followed up the 2013 Final Four appearance with losses in the first rounds of the last two NCAA tournaments, so Tillman said he will continue to stress to the underclassmen to appreciate and relish the experience.
"The biggest thing I'm going to say is 'just enjoy it,'" Tillman said, "but make sure that they're still putting the work in."
Tauer, a recently published author and psychology professor with a master's degree and a PhD in social psychology, said the team remains a tight-knit, focused group despite the mounting pressure of the combination of midterm assignments and a Final Four trip. Tauer has studied group motivation, an ideal background for a coach.
"It's like a chemistry experiment meets a psychology experiment meets a sociology experiment," Tauer said of coaching. "How you push all those buttons during the course of a year and how it all turns out, that's the beauty of it. ... There's no doubt that you want the players to be able to stop and smell some of the roses while still being very focused."
The Tommies have gone 104-15 since the arrival of Tillman, Montero, Saarela and the other seniors back in 2012. They now have a chance to close out a season that, Tauer said, truly began with a preseason trip to Costa Rica during last summer, with a second national championship.
"This team, I thought, had a chance to be really special," Tauer said.
As it turns out, Tauer was right.