By Gordon Mann
At this point it's hard not to think of the 2018-19 season as "The year that Thomas More..."
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It started in the late spring as the year that Thomas More announced it was leaving Division III to join the NAIA. Whenever the Saints play their last game this season, it will be last game in the NCAA. Teams occasionally leave Division III, and some even leave the NCAA altogether. But those programs are rarely as successful as Thomas More women's basketball has been the last decade.
Then it became the year that Thomas More played a Globetrotters-like schedule, with 12 games in eight states during December. Many of those games were played against ranked opponents or recent NCAA Tournament participants, and all of them were Saints' victories.
Then Thomas More disappeared from the headlines completely. The rapid succession of big road games gave way to weeks without any meaningful games.
And that allowed other teams to step into the spotlight.
Bowdoin showed that its run to the NCAA Tournament title game last season was not a fluke by nearly running the gauntlet through the NESCAC. That's the conference whose teams beat almost everyone in the tournament by double digits last season, including Thomas More. And lest we think that 2018-19 is a two-team race to the top between Bowdoin and Thomas More, Tufts beat Bowdoin and defending national champions Amherst in the NESCAC tournament last weekend.
The ASC showed that it is becoming one of the newest power conferences in Division III basketball. On the heels of East Texas Baptist almost reaching the 2018 natinal semifinals without a national ranking, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Texas-Dallas established themselves in the Top 25. Texas-Dallas enters the tournament as one of the hottest teams and its most impressive performance was arguably a near-victory over you-know-who.
St. Thomas showed that it is the most dominant team within a particular conference, pushing its winning streak against MIAC foes into the 70s behind All-American power post Hannah Spaulding.
Trine showed that it's ready to step completely out of Hope's shadow in the MIAA, at least for this season. Wartburg showed that it is a formidable program, and not just a formidable senior class that graduated last year. Washington U. showed that you can turn around a sour season during conference play, even if that conference has the most grueling travel schedule in Division III.
And now we'll have six days of basketball stretched over three weekends where someone will show us how we should really remember this season, when they win a national championship.
So let’s break down the 2019 Tournament bracket in our usual way. For each quadrant we’ll pick the best first-round matchup, a surprise team that could win both games on the road this weekend, a disappointment that may not live up to its seeding or ranking this weekend and a projected winner.
The only guarantee for these picks is that some will be very wrong.
Thomas More quadrant (top left)
|Emily Schultz gives Thomas More a versatile low-post presence that complements All-American Madison Temple and creates space for the Saints' three-point shooters.
File photo by Thomas More athletics
St. Vincent (23-4) at No. 1 Thomas More (27-0); Emory (19-6) vs. No. 5 Trine (25-2)
Piedmont (23-5) at No. 18 Transylvania (25-2); Oglethorpe (22-6) vs. No. 23 Chicago (19-6)
Texas Lutheran (19-9) at No. 16 Texas-Dallas (24-4); Rhodes (17-11) vs. No. 12 Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-3)
UW-Whitewater (18-9) at No. 22 Washington U. (19-6); Greenville (23-4) vs. No. 8 George Fox (24-3)
Best first round matchup: There are a lot of similariites to the seasons that Whitewater and Wash U. have had. Both were ranked in the Top 25 in the preseason. Both took their lumps in tough non-conference schedules and dropped out of the rankings. Both play in really strong conferences where good teams routinely lose multiple games. And both teams went on impressive winning streaks and reached the Big Dance. One of these teams will have its bounce-back season end on Friday night.
Most likely to surprise: Mary Hardin-Baylor could definitely win both games at Texas-Dallas this weekend. If the Crusaders play the host Comets on Saturday night in an ASC three-match, it'll be a matchup of teams who each won on the other's floor. George Fox is probably favored to win both games at Wash U. It looks like the Bruins may be the de facto top seed in that pod who were blocked from hosting by travel budget limitations. The real surprise would be if three road teams advanced through this weekend's games.
Most likely to disappoint: Transylvania has had a great season and head coach Juli Fulks has already demonstrated the same program-building prowess that she did at Lewis and Clark. Plus who would've guessed that the real stakes in the Pioneers' win over Trine back on December 29 was the right not to play Thomas More in Kentucky on Saturday night. But this time of year favors battle tested teams and Chicago played a tougher schedule in the UAA than Transy did in the HCAC. Plus this weekend is the Maroons' last chance to meet the preseason expectations that this team could make a Tournament run.
Who’s going to win: The good news for Thomas More is the Saints are well positioned to host next weekend's sectional rounds of the Tournament. The bad news is that, to get there, the Saints have to beat No. 5 Trine in a second-round matchup that is either extremely exciting or disappointing, depending on whether you're affiliated with Trine. And if the Saints pass that test, they'll likely have to beat an ASC foe whom they've already played this year or a George Fox team they played in prior tournaments. It's a good thing Thomas More knows how to beat lots of really good teams in a short period of time. They'll do it again here.
Scranton quadrant (bottom left)
|Landmark Conference Player of the Year Makenzie Mason pushed the Lady Royals to yet another conference title.
File photo by Scranton athletics
New England College (19-9) at No. 9 Scranton (25-2); Eastern Connecticut (19-8) vs. Johns Hopkins (22-4)
Christopher Newport (23-5) at Gettysburg (22-5); Westfield State (18-9) vs. Mount St. Mary (22-5)
Hilbert (22-5) at No. 7 Messiah (26-1); Baldwin Wallace (19-7) vs. Rochester Tech (20-7)
Western New England (20-8) at No. 4 Tufts (25-2); Rosemont (24-3) vs. Haverford (21-6)
Best first round matchup: Rochester Tech won two games on the road in last year's NCAA Tournament, including a thrilling victory over host TCNJ. The Tigers have had a sandwich season with a great first month (7-0) followed by a dreadful second month (1-6), followed by a great finish (12-1). Baldwin Wallace can relate. The Yellow Jackets also had a very good season except for a stretch where they lost three games in a row. Plus, if you like dynamic undersized point guards, then this is the game for you: 5-foot-4 All-OAC guard Kasey Hughes battles 5-foot-2 All-Liberty League guard Cori Okada.
Most likely to surprise: Christopher Newport should advance through its pod at Gettysburg where the Bullets stumbled into the Tournament with 30- and 22-point losses in two of their last four games. The records suggest that Mount St. Mary is actually the top seed in the pod, and the Knights lost three of the four games against tournament teams other than conference foe Merchant Marine by double digits. Meanwhile the Captains looked like their fun-and-gun selves against Southern Virginia on Saturday and are peaking at the right time.
Most likely to disappoint: I'm wary of teams with high winning percentages that haven't been tested in a while, and Messiah fits that bill perfectly. The Falcons have won 26 games in a row since losing their opener against York (Pa.). But their last win over a really good team was a five-point win over Emmanuel in Florida on Christmas Eve. The MAC Commonwealth had a down year this season and, even then, the Falcons didn't blaze through it like DeSales did on the other side of the MAC. Alecia Rohrer is a double-double machine, but I worry about Messiah's ability to win a close game against Baldwin Wallace or Rochester Tech.
Who’s going to win: In 2016 Scranton hosted the sectional round and lost to a NESCAC team at home (Tufts). In 2017 Scranton went on the road in the sectional round and lost to a NESCAC team on the road (Tufts again). In 2018 Scranton was back at home for the sectionals and lost to a different NESCAC team (Bowdoin) right after Tufts won its game. So maybe the fourth time's the charm for the Lady Royals, with All-American Bridgette Mann battling through an injury-plagued season and leading Scranton to victory over Tufts in the sectional finals.
St. Thomas quadrant (Top right)
|Eh, what the Eck -- We'll pick Madeline and Amherst to win this stacked bracket.
File photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
Ripon (19-8) at No. 2 St. Thomas (26-1); Wisconsin Lutheran (26-1) vs. No. 17 Illinois Wesleyan (23-4)
Husson (19-8) at No. 6 Amherst (23-3); SUNY Geneseo (23-4) vs. Vassar (21-6)
Pomona-Pitzer (22-5) at No. 13 UW-Oshkosh (24-3); Loras vs. No. 19 DePauw (24-4)
Bethany Lutheran (22-6) at No. 11 Wartburg (24-3); No. 21 Wheaton (Ill.) (22-5) vs. No. 10 Hope (23-4)
Best first round matchup: We usually get at least one matchup of Top 25 teams in the first round each year and it's often in this bracket where geography makes it hard to separate all the ranked teams. Last year we got two, one of them played at Wartburg (George Fox vs. St. Benedict) and the other involving a MIAA team (Trine vs. DePauw). This year we get the combination of the two when the MIAA team involved (Hope) plays at Wartburg against Wheaton. This is a matchup of likely All-American post players as Hope senior Francesca Buchanan battles against CCIW Most Outstanding Player Hannah Frazier.
Most likely to surprise: Pick a ranked team! Could Illinois Wesleyan win two in St. Paul? Sure! Could the Hope/Wheaton survivor beat Wartburg? You bet! How about Loras or DePauw over Oshkosh? Why not! Amherst's pod is the only one where the home team is the overwhelming favorite.
Most likely to disappoint: UW-Oshkosh's success is a testament to team defense and good coaching. But, unless your mascot is the Jumbos or Mammoths, there's a limit to how many games you can win by scores like this or this or this. If Loras comes out of the first round game against DePauw, then I like the Duhawks to avenge their season opening loss to the Titans.
Who’s going to win: This is the toughest bracket to predict because of the potential for second round upsets and the presence of the two-time defening national champions. Do the Mammoths have the depth to win back-to-back games on the road in the sectionals? They looked out of gas when they played Bowdoin in the second game of the NESCAC's Friday-Saturday double-header earlier this year. But they also play the type of soul-crushing defense that could ruin St. Thomas' evening in the sectional semifinals. And they have a knack for shutting down All-American post players, like Rochester's Alex Leslie last year, so maybe they can do the same with Hannah Spaulding? And Madeline Eck is the type of player who thrives in Tournament games because of her length and athleticism. And Amherst is the safe pick because there's no guarantee the other hosts even get through this weekend. I think I just talked myself into Amherst winning this quadrant.
Bowdoin quadrant (lower right)
|Abby Kelly was named the NESCAC Player of the Year, becoming the second consecutive Bowdoin player to take home that honor.
Photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
Hunter (18-9) at No. 3 Bowdoin (26-1); Merchant Marine (22-3) vs. Smith (21-6)
Shenandoah (16-13) at No. 15 DeSales (25-2); Middlebury (19-7) vs. John Carroll (22-6)
SUNYIT (23-5) at Ithaca (22-5); No. 14 St. Joseph's (Maine) vs. MIT (21-7)
Rutgers-Newark (16-12) at No. 25 SUNY New Paltz (23-4); Emmanuel (23-5) vs. Hartwick (23-4)
Best first round matchup: There's a handful of good ones here. Middlebury/John Carroll is intriguing because we don't get a lot of NESCAC/OAC matchups. It should be interesting to see how St. Joseph's bounces back from its loss in the GNAC title game. But the one that interests me most is Emmanuel versus Hartwick because it has a an exciting player who has been mostly off our radar this year. Yuleska Ramirez-Tejeda would be the GNAC player of the Year, except she's in the same conference as St. Joe's All-American lock Kelsi McNamara. She is aggressive and impressive and the only player in that conference to average a double-double. Can she keep it going against the Hawks (first Hartwick and then maybe SUNY New Paltz)?
Most likely to surprise: Either Emmanuel or St. Joseph's has the best chance to win on the road because of their singular stars, but I don't think either will. The hosts win all four pods in this bracket, with the Monks coming the closest in a nailbiter against Ithaca.
Most likely to disappoint: No one. All the home fans drive home happy in this one.
Who's going to win: This is Bowdoin's bracket to lose, partly because geography makes it hard to push more than one upper tier team into the Sectionals to challenge Bowdoin (DeSales), partly because Morrell Gym is a scary place for underdogs to play and partly because the Polar Bears are legit. They have depth in the post, quick guards on the perimeter and a great scorer in Abby Kelly. The Polar Bears should win this one going away.
So that leaves us with Thomas More and Scranton on one side and Bowdoin and Amherst on another.
If Thomas More's guards shoot well from three, I think there's only team in the country that can match up with them and that's Bowdoin. And I think they'll get the chance in the national title game after Thomas More beats Scranton and Bowdoin scratches by Amherst.
The Polar Bears have skill and size up front with Maddie Hasson, Hannah Graham and Cordelia Stewart to match up with TMU forwards Emily Schultz and Shelby Rupp. Taylor Choate, who was NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, could chase some of those Saints off the three point line.
And then there's Madison Temple. She's the most complete player in Division III this year -- she can distribute, score on her own, defend on the perimeter and score at the rim.
At one point early in the season Temple was the leading scorer in the country, playing for one of the best teams in the country. It is extremely rare that the national scoring leader plays for a team with national championship aspirations. Temple won't win the scoring title. She enters the weekend ranked fifth in the country (23.6) and almost four points per game behind Rivier's Kaylee Kacavas (27.3) whose team went 4-19. But Temple will probably be the highest scorer on a team that reached the NCAA Tournament, unless Emmanuel's Yuleska Ramirez-Tejeda (21.0 ppg) goes bezerk.
Temple is the difference in a matchup between Thomas More and -- well, anyone.
At the end of the Tournament, we'll remember this season as the year that Thomas More left Division III as national champions.