CLEVELAND, March 5 — It never should have happened. Those who analyze basketball data and trends will tell you that after a high-performing college team loses 65 percent of its scoring power due to graduation, chances are against that team returning to top-tier status the following season.
Take Wabash College. After a 28-4 season, 24 wins in a row, and a trip to the NCAA Division III national semifinals in 2021-2022, the Little Giants lost four graduating seniors. One of them was Jack Davidson, the 2022 Josten’s Most Outstanding Male Basketball Play of the Year. Davidson completed his Wabash career as the all-time leader in career scoring for the Little Giants with 2,464 points. Davidson (at 25.5 ppg), Tyler Watson (15.9 ppg) and Kellen Schreiber (15.0 ppg) combined for 56.4 points every time out for Wabash.
No way that those points could be replaced. The Little Giants had no chance of repeating as North Coast Athletic Conference champs and returning to the NCAA National Tournament.
DEFYING THE ODDS
So how did Wabash do it? It was a combination of excellent returning players stepping up, playing with more aggressiveness on defense, and having that WAF (Wabash Always Fights) attitude late in contests – in the last two minutes – when the game was on the line.
This year’s Little Giant team surrendered an average of just 72.8 ppg, nearly 5 points a contest less than the 2021-2022 squad. Four players, led by returning starters Ahmoni Jones at 16.1 ppg and Edreece Redmond (10.7 ppg), combined to score nearly 51 points a game. Vinny Buccilla (14.3 ppg) and Sam Comer (10.4 ppg) were the other main scoring threats.
When it came down to crunch time this season, Wabash usually answered the bell and played at its best. In 12 of this season’s 29 contests, the outcome was a difference of four points or less, or was determined in overtime. Wabash went 8-4 in these close battles.
Brian Lester at D3 Hoops.com wrote an excellent feature on how Wabash carried out a reloading instead of a rebuilding. Take a look at his fine story:
“We have a great foundation,” said Kyle Brumett, Wabash head coach, after Wabash’s 90-83 loss to Wisconsin Whitewater in the opening round of the NCAAA Division III national tournament on Friday night. “This team needs to have its sights (next season) on winning the conference, hosting the conference tournament, and then in turn to host the (first rounds) of the NCAA tournament (at Wabash).
Junior Sam Comer, who lead Wabash with 19 points in the season-ending loss, echoed his coaches’ sentiment. In the post-game press conference, he said the team needed to take a few days off and then get back into the gym, working out and getting better and stronger. “We’ve established ourselves as a legitimate program in Division III,” Comer added.
You can see the Wabash vs. Wisconsin Whitewhater post-game news conference here:
You can download and listen to the presser here:
This marks the 12th time in Wabash’s storied basketball history that the Little Giants have won 20 games or more in a season, and the first time since the ’97-’98 years that they’ve won 20 two years in a row. With 100 percent of the team returning in 2023-24, chances ahead are high for a three-peat of 20+ victories.
CLUTCH SHOTS & MILESTONES
No one player beats the entire opposing team, but Wisconsin Whitewater’s freshman guard Miles Barnstable came awfully close to doing just that over the weekend at Case Western Reserve University. He played eight minutes in the first half of the contest against Wabash, never even taking a shot, but came out with guns blazing after halftime. He scored 12 of the Warhawks first 16 points in the second half, transforming a 33-30 deficit into a 46-39 advantage with 16:09 left in the contest.
For the game, Barnstable’s line score was 9-13 from the field, 2-2 from the 3-point arc, 6-7 on free throws, and 26 total points.
The next night, Barnstable added 27 more points in Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 78-75 upset over Case. He was 8-15 from the field, 6-12 in 3-pointers, and 5-6 on free throws. Not many freshmen will score 53 points and be the difference-maker in two consecutive NCAA Division III playoff games, but he did. It’ll be interesting to see how Johns Hopkins on Friday sets out to stop Barnstable, who now leads Wisconsin-Whitewater in scoring with a 16.2 ppg average.
Of course, perhaps no one has a hotter hand than Mary Hardin Baylor’s Josiah Johnson. When it comes to last-second game winning shots, Johnson has quite a few. Here’s the latest, copied from the Twitter feed of Akiva Poppers, one of the many excellent Division III men’s basketball weekly poll voters, as host Mary Hardin Baylor wins over East Texas Baptist University 72-70 on this bucket. (For Wabash fans, Mardy Hardin Baylor vs. East Texas is akin to the Little Giants vs. Wooster in men’s hoops.)
But let’s not forget about Wabash junior Ahmoni Jones either. Playing with a banged up wrist, Jones had 18 points and 9 rebounds in the loss to Wisconsin Whitewater. Along the way, he became only the 14th Little Giant player to score 1,00 or more points and take down 500 or more rebounds in his career. He’ll climb up the ranks in this distinct category next season, but he’d also gladly trade this milestone for a victory in the playoffs.
COULD THE SELECTON PROCESS BE BETTER?
Many Division III basketball observers believe that the University Athletic Conference laid an egg in the first two playoff rounds. Highly touted, and with an unprecedented five teams in the tournament, UAA’s squads went 2-3 in the first playoff round and 0-2 in the second. All five of them are now out of the tourney.
I reached out to two of my veteran D3 hoops observers for their opinion on this. Bob Quillman (@iwuhoops) is an Illinois Wesleyan graduate and unabashedly roots for the Titans and the Collegiate Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW). Ryan Whitnable (@OACBballshow), a Marietta College alumnus, a proud Ohio Athletic Conference backer, and the creator of the Great Lakes Invitational. Both are D3 poll voters, also involved in podcasts, and are Tweeting regularly about D3 Hoops.
“The UAA has some advantages being spread out, for sure, but I think this year is an anomaly as opposed to a regular occurrence,” Whitnable says. “I would be opposed to a ‘cap’ on teams from one conference getting into the tournament.”
“I don’t think there should be a cap,” Quillman adds. “I think as many who have (a case) should be able to get in (to the tournament).”
But Quillman also makes an interesting point about winning percentages. “I think a 0.640 winning percentage is too low (for the tournament),” he adds.
Quillman also provided the list (below) of conference leaders all-time in NCAA Division III men’s basketball “Final Four” appearances, from when the tournament began in 1974-75 through 2021-22. Here is that list:
1. CCIW 21
2. NESCAC 18
3. WIAC 17
4. NCAC 16
5. NJAC 12
(Based on current conference affiliation.)
It is certainly easy to contend that rankings are good predictors of outcome. The Massey Ratings have been ranking college basketball and many other sports for many decades. When one looks at this years NCAA Division III “Sweet Sixteen” in men’s basketball, the top seven teams in the rankings and 10 of the top 12 squads are among the 16 colleges still in the tournament. There’s a pretty strong correlation between Massey and playoff reality in D3 Hoops this season. Take a look:
COULDN’T DO IT WITHOUT THEM
Kevin Smith and Jon Schwartz are two excellent leaders. They direct sports communications at the College of Wooster and Case, respectively. Without them and their outstanding support teams, quality Division III basketball events such as the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament and the NCAA Division III first/second round games at Case do not run smoothly. They take care of 101 little behind-the-scenes details to help these event run well. They also provide game notes, statistics, and help with post-game interviews.
I’ve had more than 2,000 views on my recent basketball posts about the NCAC Conference and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Cleveland. Without Kevin and Jon, the stories aren’t nearly as good. Thanks guys, and thanks to your teams as well.
This is the end of the road for me writing about D3 men’s hoops this season. I’ll be on spring break soon, and after that I have a busier-than-usual academic load. I also need to complete my work on the Jesse Owens book project I began a year ago. If you’re interested, here’s a glimpse of a couple pieces/parts of Jesse Owens’ story: