SALEM, Va. — This much we know: Saturday’s Division III national championship game will feature a school that’s never won Division III men’s title against a college that has at least one championship in its trophy case.
That’s just the way the brackets aligned.
Friday’s first semifinal will feature fourth-ranked Babson taking on sixth-ranked Augustana (Ill.) These teams are the two higher-ranked teams of the four remaining, however neither has won a men’s basketball championship before.
|2015 DIII MEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP|
|Moody: Newcomers on one side, experience on the other|
|Bracket: Interactive Printable|
The second semifinal will be a match-up of No. 8 Wisconsin-Stevens Point against No. 9 Virginia Wesleyan. UWSP won the tournament three times, cutting down the nets at the Salem Civic Center in 2004, ’05 and ’10. Virginia Wesleyan won it all in 2006. Both teams are riding winning streaks that saw them win their conference regular season and tournament championships.
Babson (29-2) is enjoying the best season in team history, riding a 17-game win streak coming into the weekend. Playing nine-deep, the Beavers are the biggest team among the final four.
Leading scorer Joey Flannery, a 6-5 sophomore forward, is scoring 21.4 ppg. He leads the team in 3-point field goals and attempts. Senior forwards David Mack and John Wickey both top 6-6 and are listed at 250 and 220 pounds, respectively. Wickey is the second leading scorer for the Beavers, averaging 15.5 ppg.
The Beavers prefer to push the ball inside for close shots and a chance to get to the free throw line. Babson has made more points from the free throw line than on 3-pointers, indicating the style of play the Beavers have used to find success.
Coach Stephan Brennan said there will be more of the same in Salem.
“It’s going to be a battle inside, because Augustana has good size as well. We are going to continue to do our best to play inside-out, and we have to be really cognizant of their transition game and their ability to score at the rim and from the perimeter,” Brennan said.
Augustana (26-4) isn’t much smaller than the Beavers, giving up an inch or two and a few pounds on the front line, but coach Greg Giovanine said the Vikings are accustomed to teams that play all styles.
“We’ve played against so many different styles,” Giovanine said. “We got a good taste of teams that play high speed in the sectionals. We face teams that play ball control or half court. The important thing is that we play the way we want to play.”
Augustana is led in scoring by junior guard Hunter Hill (15.5 ppg), which isn’t a big number for a team averaging 79.1 points, but 10 players are in the regular rotation and all average at least 6 ppg. Ben Ryan of Washington, Ill., is the other player averaging double figures for the Vikings, with 11.8 ppg. On the season, Augustana is averaging 10 more points a game than Babson, but giving up 6.7 more on defense.
For the Vikings, the trip is the first to Salem since the semis and final moved here in 1996, but the team has come close in the past, coming up just a game short of the semis in 2011.
The second semifinal will be a matchup of teams that entered the tournament as at-large bids, having lost in their conference tournaments. Those setbacks don’t seem as devastating now that the teams have earned berths in the semis.
Both head coaches — Dave Macedo of VWC and Bob Semling of UWSP — were on the bench when their teams won national championships in the Salem Civic Center. Semling was head coach of the Pointers (25-5) when they won the championship in 2010, and served as an assistant when the Pointers won their first two titles. Semling took the top job in 2005 when he was elevated to head coach following the retirement of Jack Bennett.
The two former champs might not have the higher rankings this season, but they have made waves in the tournament to date.
USWP was a co-champion of the WIAC, along with Wisconsin-Whitewater, the defending national champion. The Pointers were knocked off in the semifinals of the WIAC tournament by Wisconsin-Oshkosh, but were still poised to make a run deep into the postseason.
UWSP is molded in the Bennett style: defense, defense, defense. The Pointers led Division III in scoring defense, allowing opponents to average just 54.5 ppg. In the sectional championship game that punched the ticket to Salem, UWSP held East Texas Baptist College to 28 points, a record low in the Division III tournament.
Their offense features balanced scoring and a strong perimeter game, but the defense is the key. None of the usual starters is listed as taller than 6-foot-4, but all five are averaging more than 10 points a game.
Four seniors — Alex Richard (12.4 ppg), Austin Ryf (11.7 ppg), Joe Ritchay (11.2) and Jordan Lutz (10.6 ppg) — are looking at this tournament as their mission, hoping championship will culminate their careers.
Despite being unfamiliar with Virginia Wesleyan, defense travels well. Semling said the Pointers need to do what’s been successful throughout the year.
“We know that each of the teams will present something different. So for us, we go through our checklist of being a great team defensively against everything we could possibly face,” Semling said at a press conference before leaving Wisconsin. “The same thing offensively. We go through our checklist, and we’re not going to change who we are. Our guys have bought in 100 percent and that’s important this time of year. Just know and trust that what you are and that what you’ve done all year is going to be good enough.”
Facing that defense will be the Marlins, who come in averaging 77.9 points per game.
If there is a home court advantage, it might belong to the Marlins, although Salem is hardly in their backyard. Despite being in the same state, the Virginia Wesleyan campus is 280 miles from Salem.
Macedo said Salem is like a home away from home for his team. The Marlins (27-5) are members of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, which plays its tournament at the Salem Civic Center.
Of the five losses the Marlins suffered this season, three came to ODAC champion Radolph-Macon, including the tournament final in overtime. Virginia Wesleyan got the last laugh, however, when the Marlins knocked off Randolph-Macon in the Yellow Jackets’ home floor to earn the return to Salem.
Macedo said their tournament run has proven the toughness of his road warriors, playing every game away from home, including two true road games — a sectional final at Randolph-Macon and a win in the regional final at William Patterson.
“We went up to New Jersey in a snow storm and won up there. Then we went to a conference rival and knocked them off,” Macedo said. “I think we’re really ready for anything.”
Sophomore guard Khory Moore sparks the offense, leading the team with a 17.3 ppg average. Two seniors also average double figures: Greg Montgomery (12.8 ppg) and Cam Owens (10.3 ppg) are part of an offense that likes to move fast and score. Are they worried about facing a lockdown defense?
“We just have to do what we do,” Macedo said.