SALEM, Va. – Coach Johnny Tauer repeats several words -– “unselfish” and “great senior leadership” -– over and over when he analyzes the three St. Thomas men’s basketball teams that have advanced to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Division III tournament in the last five years.
2008-09? Unselfish, he says. The undersized team with no starter over 6-foot-4 outscored opponents by an average of 19 points and went 30-0 before losing to eventual national champion Washington University of St. Louis. The core included seniors Al McCoy, Lonnie Robinson, B.J. Viau and Brett Tuma, the first three as starters.
2010-11? Unselfish, Tauer says again. The 30-3 team wasn’t as dominant statistically as two years earlier but got on a roll at the right time and won its last 12 games, including the 78-54 finale over Wooster in Salem to win the national championship. Four seniors – Tyler Nicolai, Alex Healy, Teddy Archer and Anders Halvorsen – started every game alongside junior Tommy Hannon, and senior Brady Ervin came off the bench for 19 minutes a game.
2012-13? Unselfish, Tauer says one more time. The 29-1 Tommies are led by seniors Hannon, John Nance, Will DeBerg, Noah Kaiser and Drew Mathews. They lead the country in scoring margin (21.1) and field goal percentage (.527), and are No. 3 in 3-point proficiency (.427), but no player finished among the top 15 in MIAC scoring average.
Tauer pauses to reflect on inevitable comparisons between the trio of Elite Eight teams and throws in an adverb to embellish his “unselfish” description.
“Three things characterized all three teams,” he said. “They had senior leaders who were incredibly unselfish and set an unbelievable example. Actions always speak louder than words. Tyler never said, ‘This is how we play.’ He just played that way. And it caught on.”
Tauer expects to see more of the same unselfish play beginning Friday, March 22, when the top-ranked Tommies face No. 8 Williams at 11 a.m. (Watch the game live.) The winner will meet the St. Mary’s (Md.) and Mary Hardin-Baylor survivor at 5 p.m. Saturday to advance to the title game April 7 in Atlanta.
Balance Comes Through
Unselfishness usually translates to balance when it comes to scoring, as do Tauer’s deep bench and the second-year coach’s penchant for an up-tempo game and pressure defense:
- DeBerg’s 12.5 points per game leads a team that has averaged 81.3 points a game, just 1.4 points off the school record of 82.7 set in 1973-74 by the legendary Terry Mikan-Bob Rosier team. Hannon follows at 11.4, Nance at 9.6 and junior Zach Riedeman at 9.1.
- The starters have combined for 47.3 points a game, meaning the bench scores 34. Starters averaged 48.3 in 2008-09 and 52.9 in 2010-11.
- Nance and DeBerg are the only players who have logged more than 700 minutes – or 28 per game – and 11 players average 10 or more minutes a game.
- Nationally, only one player ranks in the top 100 in any individual statistical category: DeBerg is No. 95 in 3-pointers per game at 2.38.
“It took until the final week for one of our guys (Hannon) to win MIAC Player of the Week, and then we got it because we won the playoffs,” Tauer said. “But they don’t care! It’s how we do as a team that concerns these guys. It’s pretty (here comes that word again…) unselfish.”
Holding records of 51-8 overall and 8-1 in the postseason during his two years as coach, Tauer exudes quiet confidence heading into the matchup against Williams. His team is riding a 13-game winning streak since losing its only game 54-52 to Concordia two months ago in Moorhead and has loads of playoff experience – 21-4 in MIAC and NCAA playoff games since 2009.
Coach pic“I like two statistics about this team,” he said. “We are No. 1 in Division III in field goal percentage (.527), meaning we are taking good shots, and we are No. 2 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.62). We play hard, we play smart and we play together.”
The Tommies’ ranking and pursuit of a record eighth straight MIAC regular season title have left targets on their backs all year long. Tauer marvels at their maturity in handling both game-to-game expectations and tense moments such as last Saturday’s 63-62 Sweet Sixteen win when the Calvin player who had scored 31 points missed a shot before the buzzer.
“It’s how they handle physiological arousal,” said Tauer, who also is a psychology professor. “Guys laugh when I use those words, which have to do with how your nervous system responds and your heart beating faster. Some players thrive on it and some shy away from it.
“These guys like it! We talk all year about competing for a national championship, and that grows on them. It also helps that we recruit players from winning teams. They are used to playing in big games in the state tournament or sectional finals.”
One might think the emphasis on balance and knowing they have to wait their turn might dissuade star players from enrolling at St. Thomas, but Tauer hasn’t found that to be the case.
“We are up front with guys,” he said. “We recruit excellent players who we know will be good teammates, and we tell them that we expect to win a lot of games and that they’ll get a degree from a great university.”
Tauer eventually turns the conversation back to one of his favorite topics – his five seniors – and extols their contributions:
- Kaiser, 6-foot-5 forward, Henry Sibley: He started the first 12 games but sat out eight games after a hand injury and hasn’t returned to the starting lineup. “He accepted that as being best for the team,” Tauer said. “It demonstrates what I mean when I say this team is unselfish.”
- Nance, 6-foot-4 forward, Cretin-Derham Hall: He has become the team’s best defender and an effective passer who leads the team in assists (75), steals (46) and blocks (12) while hitting 55 percent of his shots from the field.
- Hannon, 6-foot-8 center, Cretin-Derham Hall: A knee injury sidelined him for the 2011-12 season after nine games, and there were questions whether he could recover and be effective in his final year. He has responded with a season almost identical to 2010-11, when he averaged 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game and won a spot on the All-Final Four Team.
- DeBerg, 6-foot guard, Edina: The two-year all-MIAC sharpshooter leads St. Thomas with 69 3-pointers, nearly twice as many as anyone else, and Tauer says he has played tougher defense.
- Mathews, 6-foot-4 forward, Faribault Bethlehem Academy: He has played 36 minutes in 11 games, with six points and four steals. After appearing in only 13 games last year and undergoing hip surgery over the summer, many didn’t expect him to return. “But he did,” Tauer said. “He couldn’t play right away, but he came to practice every day the first two months. Young guys see that and it makes an impression because it’s so unselfish.”
This story originally published at TommieSports.com.