By Justin Zackal
The Thomas More men’s basketball team is on a roll, so to prepare you for the Saints’ Division III NCAA tournament appearance this week, we’re going with 11 topics with responses from head coach Drew Cooper. Why 11? Well, funny you should ask.
THE STREAK: Thomas More has won 11 straight games, having not lost since a 63-61 setback at Grove City Jan. 21. What happened that made Thomas More double its win total from a 11-6 record to 22-6 in a little over a month? “If I knew I would bottle it up and sell it,” Cooper quipped.
THE REASON: Seriously, Coach, was it a new play? “It’s nothing tactical,” he said. “It’s just the confidence our kids are playing with right now. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen.”
THE EXPECTATIONS: Even though Thomas More is rather young (one senior on the roster, three sophomore starters) and Saint Vincent was a four-time defending champion, the Saints were picked to win the PAC in the preseason poll. Then Thomas More lost three PAC road games, two by a combined four points and one at Saint Vincent by six. “I don’t think the preseason rankings does anyone any favors,” Cooper admitted. “(But) it all worked out nicely.”
THE HURDLE: It did, but not until they finally beat Saint Vincent. The last four seasons ended with losses to the Bearcats in the PAC tournament, including last year’s 65-62 road loss in the finals. Stacking this season’s regular season loss and Thomas More had lost nine straight at Saint Vincent dating back to Jan. 19, 2011. “The experience helped us,” Cooper said. “The experience of losing last year. The experience of losing at their place in January. We had to go through things like that in order to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
THE CHAMPIONSHIP: That came to a head as Thomas More not only beat Saint Vincent at home, 87-78, on Feb. 15, the Saints avenged that road loss by dethroning the Bearcats in the PAC tournament championship game on Saturday, 79-68, to clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Again, it was confidence. “In order to win the championship,” Cooper said, “we had to have young men really make some players and plays were made in the second half in the Saint Vincent game that are not made unless the kids making those plays did it with confidence.”
THE STAR PLAYER: Sophomore guard Damion King was one of those players. A first-team all-PAC selection, King scored 24 points in the PAC finals, including 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. King ranks seventh in the PAC in scoring (14.3 ppg) and he leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage (47.5%). “Damion King has gone to another level,” Cooper said. “He is a kid that just took off.”
THE TOURNAMENT DRAW: By clinching its first PAC title since 2009, Thomas More enters the NCAA tournament by playing No. 23-ranked Guilford (23-5) on Friday at 5 p.m. The game will be held at No. 7-ranked Marietta (24-4), who hosts Calvin (17-10) on Friday at 8 p.m. The two winners will meet on Saturday. “We were pleased to see we had a neutral site game as opposed to a first-round road game,” Cooper said.
THE 15-YEAR DROUGHT: The Saints are trying to become the first PAC men’s team to win an NCAA tournament game since Bethany’s first-round win over Pitt-Bradford in 2002. Saint Vincent was unable to win in the first round in each of the last four years. “We’re hoping our guys return ready to help the PAC more than anything,” Cooper said.
THE OPPONENT: Guilford, champion of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, is making its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2010. The Quakers are led by a pair of sophomore forwards in Carson Long (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Alston Thompson (11.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg). They rank third in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 61.0 points per game, and eighth in the nation with a +9.4 average rebound margin. “They’re very well coached, athletic and strong. They can disrupt offenses similar to the way Thiel does with their length and athleticism,” said Cooper, whose team led the PAC in scoring offense (78.8), average scoring (+9.7) and rebound (+5.4) margins. “They rebound the ball as well as anybody we’ve seen.”
THE PREPARATION: Since Cooper is in his fourth season at Thomas More, he wasn’t around in 2009 when the Saints last made the NCAA tournament. “Everything is a first for all of us,” Cooper said. “A lot of it relates to travel plans and practice plans, but hopefully Friday at 5 (p.m.) it’s going to come down to two 10-foot hoops and a ball and we’ll be ready to perform.”
THE GAME PLAN: No major tactical adjustments got the Saints this far, so the plan to win their 12th straight game is simple, according to Cooper: “Do it enthusiastically and confidently because that’s the way we’ve been doing it.”