Mens’ D3 national semifinal predictions

FORT WAYNE – First, this is a warning. The last time I won a March Madness basketball pool was in 1980-something. I’m not the best student of the game.

So with that proviso, here are some obvious, some unusual, and some “no brainer” predictions for todays NCAA men’s basketball Division III semi-final games. 

First, some up-front points to ponder:

  1. The winner of the Randolph-Macon vs. Marietta game will automatically be fairly heavily favored in the coaching and the D3 basketball community to win Saturday’s national championship game. Both the Yellow Jackets and the Pioneers have been ranked among the top five teams for much of the season in the D3 polls.  Wabash and Elmhurst are “way down there somewhere” so expect that, even before the semi-final games are played.
  2. A “hot hand” from any one player can negate the best of predictions. Example: Ian Robertson scored 20 points when Randolph-Macon beat Marietta back on November 20 at the Great Lakes Invitational. Robertson is now averaging just 6.5 ppg and 16 minutes a contest. Someone like a Robertson on any of the four teams could be a spark, and that spark could well be a 6th or 7th or 8th man who comes off the bench.
  3. The “home crowd” factor is a consideration. For Wabash, which traveled about 1,400 miles round trip in the first two weekends of this tournament, playing in Fort Wayne is the nearest thing to a home game. There will be plenty of Scarlet in War Memorial. Expect to see quite a few Pioneer blue-clad fans in the coliseum also. The size of this crowd and its vociferousness could well impact the play on the floor, and especially could be a benefit for the Little Giants.

Now to the games themselves:

GAME 1: No.2 ranked Marietta (Ohio Athletic Conference champions) vs. No. 1 ranked Randolph-Macon (Old Dominion Athletic Conference champions):  Both teams come into the semi-finals with impressive win streaks: 25 in a row for the Yellow Jackets, and 27 in a row for the 29-2 Pioneers. In fact, the last Marietta loss was to Randolph Macon nearly three months ago.

Randolph-Macon at 31-1 is a slight favorite for a variety of reasons. Coach John Merkel’s team averages 78 ppg and an impressive 18.5 assists per contests. They have triumphed in their last six games by an average 23-point margin of victory. Senior Buzz Anthony (17.8 ppg) is a player on many D3 basketball observers’ all “First Team” list. Junior Miles Mallory (15.4 ppg) and senior Josh Talbott (12.6 ppg) are the Yellow Jackets’ other top scoring threats.

The Pioneers have had some close calls, including winning two games in overtime during the Division III tournament. Averaging nearly 85 points a game, Marietta has a slightly more balanced offense than Randolph-Macon. Marietta’s attack has four players averaging in double figures.

Senior Lukas Islay (16.1 ppg) is another player who is on many D3 experts all “First Team” list, although senior Jason Ellis has a slightly better scoring average at 17.4 ppg. Seniors Tim Kreeger (11.7 ppg) and Mason Lydic (10.6 ppg) are also key players for Marietta. Ellis and Islay are always three-point threats in Coach Jon VanderWal’s wing-point-post offense, which features a lot of motion. Of personal note is the fact that two players on Marietta’s roster are from Northeast Ohio, Lydic (Cuyahoga Falls, Woodridge HS) and Will Yontek (Independence, St. Ignatius)

PREDICTION: Marietta has phenomenal senior leadership and has been an ascending program. The Pioneers come into the semi-final game more battle-tested than Randolph-Macon, and traditionally the OAC has been a more challenging conference than the ODAC. Marietta is also better from beyond the three-point arc. This game can well come down to the last possession. Marietta 72, Randolph-Macon 70.

GAME 2:  No. 16-ranked Elmhurst vs. No. 15-ranked Wabash.

One could argue that the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) is a top league for Division III basketball. Elmhurst’s appearance is the seventh time since 2012 that the CCIW has a representative in the national semi-finals. At 26-6, the Blue Jays entered the D3 playoffs by winning the CCIW’s post-season tournament.

Elmhurst averages nearly 82 points per game. It also averages 8 treys per game. Wabash makes an average of two more 3-point field goals per contest (10), and the long ball is an integral part of the Little Giants’ offense. Elmhurst and the entire D3 world has figured that out by now.

Senior guard Jake Rhode (17.6 ppg) leads Elmhurst’s balanced offense. The Bluejays have six players averaging 8.5 ppg or better. Senior Thomas Lavon (12.2 ppg) is one of Elmhurst’s big men who’ll be tangling with Wabash’s Kellen Schreiber and Ahmoni Jones all night long. Much of this team is comprised of recruits from the Chicagoland area.

Head Coach John Baines has a very balanced Bluejay attack. His team has perhaps the deepest bench in the tournament. We’ll probably see nine Elmhurst players getting significant minutes in this semi-final game. Elmhurst doesn’t isn’t as tall as the Williams or the IWU Titans which the Little Giants defeated. Elmhurst’s contests were much closer in the tournament, as the Bluejays defeated Calvin 79-77 and then needed overtime to vanquish Mary Hardin Baylor 87-84.

Wabash IS Indiana basketball at its small college finest in this tournament. All its players are Hoosiers, born and bred. The Little Giants struggled out of the gate (4-3 at one point) but made adjustments and improvements to reel off 26 consecutive victories and win the North Coast Athletic Conference regular season and tournament. Wabash has had one very close call in the tournament, escaping from Atlanta with an 87-86 second-round thriller over top-ranked Emory University. Wabash has also been a giant killer, defeating teams with significantly taller line-ups in this tournament.

Wabash brings the highest-scoring offense into this tournament at 89.8 ppg. Everyone knows guard Jack Davidson, another consensus “First Team” Division III guard averaging 25.7 ppg and more than 90 percent from the free throw line. What’s really made Wabash successful as this season has progressed has been the steadily improving play of guard Tyler Watson (16 ppg) and forwards Ahmoni Jones (14 ppg) and Kellen Schreiber (15.2 ppg).

The Little Giants have repeatedly gone inside, both through passes to their big guys and drives down the lane. Williams College demonstrated it could shut down Davidson, but Jones and Watson simply stepped up their scoring and made their opponents pay for the constant double-teaming of Jack. If one looked for the reason why Wabash has made this tournament, a lot of that answer lies in Jones, a strong scoring threat inside and elsewhere on the court.

One intangible plus for Wabash is its coaching staff. The bond between these players and their coaches is intense and powerful. The Little Giants came together and showed complete buy-in to Kyle Brumett, Pat Sullivan, and all after a  loss to Oberlin back in December.  Since then there’s been no looking back, and there’s been a steady and a remarkable improvement in their on-the-court play.

PREDICTION: This won’t be as much of a nail-biter, if Wabash plays as well as it did in the regional tournament at Illinois Wesleyan last weekend. Wabash 79, Elmhurst 71.

And a note: As I said up top, I’m not a good prognosticator. You won’t see a prediction from me for Saturday’s national championship contest until after Friday’s game.

Finally – THANK YOU! I’ve had more than 1,000 views of the stories I’ve written about the D3 playoffs and Wabash College’s second-ever appearance in the Division III post-season this week. It’s been a pleasure to know so many have enjoyed these stories. You can follow me on Twitter (@johnkprof) and on Facebook today, as I will be making occasional social media posts during the games.

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