11 Topics to Preview the Thomas More Men in the NCAA Tournament

2017 PAC champion Thomas More men’s basketball team.

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.”

Sophomore guard Damion King has taken over as a “go to” player during the 2017 seasons.

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.”


Thomas More’s National Title Defense Starts at Home

By Justin Zackal

2017 PAC Champion Thomas More Saints.

After Thomas More has a Eureka moment to start the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament, there could be Hope that the Saints will continue a run to defend their national title.

Those are two of the teams that will play at Thomas More’s Connor Convocation Center this weekend as the second-ranked Saints open with the tournament against Eureka (20-7) Friday night after Hope (22-4) plays Wisconsin-Whitewater (21-5). The two winners will meet Saturday in the second round to advance to the NCAA sectionals.

The Saints have been here before, undefeated and starting the national title quest at home. Last year, Thomas More won four games at home before winning it all. The Saints are 11-5 at home in the NCAA tournament since 2008, not including four wins from the 2015 national championship run that they later vacated.

Thomas More may benefit from being in a familiar spot, but there’s also the excitement of the unknown based on the dichotomy of the Saints’ lineup.

“There are some similarities, but they are different,” said Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans, citing the three returning starters, juniors Nikki Kiernan (14.7 ppg) and Abby Owings (16.0 ppg) and sophomore Madison Temple (15.7 ppg).

Thomas More senior Kristen Paul.

Of the seven remaining players who average 10 or more minutes per game, two are freshmen and the other five are averaging more or nearly double the minutes they did last year. The two new starters are sophomore Michaela Ware (4.0 ppg) and senior Kirsten Paul (6.9 ppg). Paul has quietly made a difference, according to Hans.

“She’s been healthy this year and she’s taken full advantage of her opportunities,” Hans said. “She’s been a silent leader for us and running the floor and getting some easy baskets, but also defensively in doing what she needs to do with the rebounding part of it.”

Thomas More’s specialty is how the Saints protect and distribute the ball. The Saints’ have led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio the last four years, including this year with a phenomenal 1.87 ratio that is a whopping 0.51 better than the next best team.

This statistic isn’t just a byproduct of success.

“It’s the culture of how we want to do things,” Hans said. “I think it is having players that buy into being unselfish knowing that if I set my teammate up for a better shot then the next time down they are going to set me up. That’s the style we want to play to make it fun for our guys.”

Ware leads the nation with a 4.55 assist-to-turnover ratio and Temple is fifth at 3.10.

Another statistic that Thomas More dominates is its 35.9+ average scoring margin. Amherst (32.3+) is the only other team with an average margin greater than 25.0+. Thomas More’s 13-point, 66-53 win over Saint Vincent in Saturday’s PAC tournament championship game was the Saint’s closest conference game all season and the tightest gap since a 77-70 win over Illinois Wesley on Dec. 29. Illinois Wesleyan (18-9) is the only NCAA tournament team TMC played this year.

Should the lack of close games and games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams concern Thomas More?

“No. I don’t think so,” Hans said. “Because of practice and our travel situation to go to Western PA and Bethany nine times, we’ve got to be mentally prepared and mentally tough on those days. I think we talk about that part of it, how that helps us.”

The driving distance for conference games — no opponent within 250 miles — is wider than the scoring margins.

In addition to Amherst, there are two other undefeated teams, Ohio Northern and St. Thomas. If the higher seeds advance, Thomas More and Ohio Northern would meet in the second sectional (national quarterfinal), which will be hosted by one of the participating institutions March 10-11. The national semifinals and finals will be held March 17-18 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Five Things to Watch in the PAC Men’s Basketball Tournament

By Justin Zackal

The 2016-17 PAC Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament starts tonight at 7 p.m. with the four higher seeds hosting the four lower seeds in the quarterfinal round, followed by the semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. and the finals Saturday night at 7:30.

The PAC Sports Network will broadcast Tuesday’s Grove City at Thiel quarterfinal matchup. Check the broadcast schedule for details about later-round coverage.

To preview the tournament, here are five things to watch:


Saint Vincent junior guard Jason Capco.

Saint Vincent (19-6, 15-3 PAC) won the last four PAC titles, but this was supposed to be the year the Bearcats loosened their grip on the trophy after graduating their top five scorers from last year and having only one senior. But here they are, the top seed for the fourth time since 2013.

“Every year is different and every team is different,” said Saint Vincent coach D.P. Harris. “It’s new to most all these guys in the locker room. We’re the champion until somebody beats us, but we had turnover because of graduation. So we brought new guys in and they are finding their way through.”

Three of the top six scorers are first-year players and four started their playing careers at other schools, including junior guard Matt D’Amico (13.0 PPG), a first-year starter who transferred from Clarion before playing as a reserve for the Bearcats last year.

The Bearcats open against eighth-seeded Chatham (10-15, 6-12 PAC), a team they beat 87-53 and 75-61 this year.


Awaiting Saint Vincent in the semifinals could be fourth-seeded Westminster (15-10, 11-7 PAC), which hosts fifth-seeded Bethany (14-11, 9-9 PAC) in the quarterfinals. As the seventh seed last year, the Titans advanced to the semifinals, losing to Saint Vincent, 70-65. Westminster is even better this year, enjoying its first winning season since 2007.

“Our goal is to move on further than we did last year,” said Westminster coach Kevin Siroki. “That means getting to the finals and, who knows, once you get to the finals anything can happen.”

Westminster is a tough out for any team in the PAC because they are good both on the inside and the outside. The Titans are the only team to rank in the top three in 3-point shooting percentage (35.3) and rebounding (39.3 per game) this year, led by junior forwards Deontay Scott and Jarret Vrabel, who rank first and third in the PAC with 9.4 and 8.0 rebounds per game. Although, they lost twice against Saint Vincent this year, 89-68 on Jan. 14 and on Saturday 73-66.

“I expect to see Westminster come back up the road Thursday night,” Harris said. “They are a tough matchup. They shoot it so well and it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year.”


Grove City junior forward Andrew Beckman.

Because the teams reseed each round, any upset in the quarterfinals would prevent Westminster from playing Saint Vincent. One likely team is sixth-seeded Grove City (12-13, 8-10 PAC) who plays at third-seeded Thiel (15-8, 11-7 PAC). Thiel has played without its top two scorers the last three games, PAC leading scorer Tyriek Burton (18.0 PPG) and Josh Lumbus (12.0 PPG).

“I don’t know if they are going to be back for the tournament or not, but they are really good inside,” said Grove City head coach Steve Lamie. “Really big, very strong, great defensive team.”

Grove City is the best defensive team in the PAC, limiting teams to 66.0 points per game. They’ll have to deal with junior forward Clandell Cetoute, who averages 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, with double-doubles in his last two games, including 11 and 11 in a 65-60 win over Grove City.

“Our defense has been really good this year,” Lamie said. “That transcends being away or home.”

“Grove City always runs their system really well and they’re tough to play against,” said Siroki, whose Westminster team beat Grove City in overtime Jan. 11 and lost by five on Feb. 8.


Like the streaky nature of tournament play, Lamie said a 3-point shooting specialist could change any game. It’s just tough to predict which player that will be. More consistent play takes place underneath.

Saint Vincent’s 6-foot-5, 245-pound forward Tom Kromka (11.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) is coming off a 15-point, 13-rebound performance against Westminster Saturday. He also scored 14 points against Thomas More Feb. 15.

“Kromka has changed this league,” Harris said. “He is a force, he’s big, he’s physical.”

Saint Vincent may also need him to enter the starting lineup if 6-6 forward Austin Dedert can’t play this week. Dedert left Saturday’s game at Westminster with an ankle injury, making the win even more important for Saint Vincent knowing it can win without a key player.


Second-seeded Thomas More (19-6, 15-3 PAC) is clearly the hottest team, having won eight straight. But will that carry over into the tournament against seventh-seeded Geneva (10-15, 7-11 PAC)? Teams play more desperate in the tournament with the season on the line.

Here’s what three coaches had to say about tournament play:

“We always say Tuesday is the get-through game, Thursday is the get-there game and Saturday everybody wants to win a championship,” Harris said. “Everybody plays their guts out. For us, we get everybody’s best game.”

“It’s survive and advance. That’s what it’s all about,” Siroki said. “All you need to do is win three games, that’s the great thing about it. Everyone’s played each other twice in the league. It’s a matter of stopping runs and executing. Everybody knows which plays everyone is running and who the players are.”

“If you play well for five days, you’re immortal,” Lamie added. “You can redeem a bad season. It’s not like we’ve played poorly; we’ve been up and down. But (winning the tournament) could make a decent season really, really great. Maybe that is more of a motivation than anything else.”


Five Things to Watch in the PAC Women’s Basketball Tournament

By Justin Zackal

The 2016-17 PAC Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament tips off tonight with a pair of first-round games at Grove City and Bethany, followed by action Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Here are five things to watch:


Thomas More sophomore guard Madison Temple.

Top-seeded Thomas More (25-0, 18-0 PAC), the No. 2-ranked team in the country, claims nine PAC titles. The Saints haven’t lost to a PAC team since 2012 or in a PAC tournament game since 2006. They receive a double bye and hosting rights for the final two rounds on Friday and Saturday.

The Saints are led by their “Big Three” of junior guard Abby Owings (16.3 PPG), sophomore guard Madison Temple (15.9 PPG) and junior forward Nikki Kiernan (15.0 PPG). No other player entered the season having averaged more than 10.3 minutes per game, so there are some new contributors, but the results are the same.

“It’s a matter of getting some freshmen acclimated during the year,” said Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans. “I think those guys have really grown up in January and February to gain that experience to where they are ready to help us make a run.”

To name a few, freshmen Emily Schultz (6.8 PPG) and Kylie Kramer (4.2 PPG) come off the bench and average around 13 minutes per game.

Other than earning the automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs, what Hans is looking to achieve this week is getting his team clicking, particularly working on defensive chemistry and not giving up easy baskets.

“You work all year long to play your best at this time because it is win-or-go-home time,” Hans added. “We want take care of our business.”


Thomas More is most likely to advance to the championship game, but who will the Saints play in the finals?

Last year’s finalist Washington & Jefferson (16-9, 13-5 PAC) has dealt with injuries this year, most notably junior guard Amirah Moore (14.0 PPG), who hasn’t played in nearly a month. However, the Presidents also have a double bye and they played Thomas More moderately close on Saturday, trailing by only four points with seven minutes to go in a 73-50 loss. As a point of reference, Thomas More outscored PAC opponents by an average of 42 points per game, including W&J and third-seeded Saint Vincent (16-9, 13-5 PAC) by a 26-point average.

Saint Vincent, which last played in the finals two years ago, can avoid Thomas More in the semifinals, which is how the Bearcats ended last season. Saint Vincent must play a quarterfinal game Wednesday to set up a game against W&J in the semifinals. The Bearcats lost to W&J twice this year but by a combined six points.

“We were right there: two possessions and one possession,” said Saint Vincent head coach Jimmy Petruska. “We have to get a couple more defensive stops and offensive takes.”

Petruska complimented W&J senior guard Taylor Cortazzo (12.4 PPG), along with Danielle Parker (14.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG) and Rachel Bellhy (12.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG) as the best post players his team faced all year, but Petruska hinted that W&J’s lack of depth could give Saint Vincent a good chance to beat the Presidents on the Bearcats’ third try.

“We definitely want to get to the conference title game.” Petruska said. “I think we have the team to do it. We’re playing well right now, so anything short of getting into that title game, then obviously winning it, is the minimum I want for this team.”


Bethany’s Sammie Weiss is a talented transfer from D-II Cal-U.

To get to W&J, the Bearcats will need to win at home Wednesday against the winner of Monday’s game between sixth-seeded Bethany (12-13, 10-8 PAC) and seventh-seeded Chatham (12-12, 7-11 PAC).

Bethany, which easily defeated Chatham twice this year, has the second- and third-ranked scorers in the PAC in junior Kelsea Daugherty (18.1 PPG) and senior Haley Holenka (17.5 PPG). However, when asked about the Bison, both Petruska and Hans first mentioned Sammie Weiss (16.3 PPG), who entered the lineup midway through the season.

Bethany’s version of the “Big Three” combined for 53 points in a 65-46 win at Saint Vincent Jan. 5, and 51 points in a 69-64 loss to the Bearcats at Bethany Feb. 8.


No Saint Vincent player averages more than 13 points, but keep an eye on Saint Vincent freshman Paige Montrose, who Petruska said is playing “phenomenal basketball the past six or seven weeks.” She averages only 5.1 points and she doesn’t even start, but she’s averaged 8.0 in her last three games and she scored a team-high 16 against W&J.


Perhaps it’s a recency bias because Saint Vincent just beat Westminster, 60-46, on Saturday, but Petruska said to watch out for the eighth-seeded Titans (10-15, 5-13 PAC).

Westminster beat Bethany, 67-60, three weeks ago and was within five points of W&J in the fourth quarter in a 72-60 loss. Westminster plays Monday at fifth-seeded Grove City (14-11, 10-8 PAC), a team the Titans lost to twice this year but only by a combined eight points.

If Westminster wins, the Titans will travel to fourth-seeded Waynesburg (15-10, 11-7 PAC) Wednesday.


Quarters or Halves? Two PAC Coaches Weigh In

By Justin Zackal

Give women’s college basketball teams a dollar and they’ll give you four quarters. Give men’s college basketball teams a buck and you’ll get two fifty-cent pieces.

Which change would you rather keep?

Prior to the 2015-16 season, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved on a recommendation from a women’s basketball rules committee to move the women’s game from two 20-minute halves to four 10-minute quarters, along with modifications to timeouts to account for the extra stoppages. This change left American men’s college basketball as the only level of the sport that plays two halves, as the international, professional and high school levels play quarters.

Earlier this week, the NCAA announced some experimental rule changes for next month’s postseason National Invitation Tournament (NIT) that could indicate the first step in men’s basketball calling for quarters, although any rules changes by the committee in the upcoming offseason wouldn’t be implemented until the 2018-19 season. While the NIT games will still be two 20-minute halves, team fouls will be reset after the 10-minute mark of each half, and the bonus threshold for free-throw shooting will be two shots after five fouls instead of 1-and-1 after seven and two shots after 10. This is an effort to speed up the pace of the game, especially in games with a lot of fouls early in each half.

So, what does this mean for Division III, which follows the same NCAA rules as Divisions I and II? We asked two PAC coaches their thoughts.

First, we asked Thomas More women’s basketball coach Jeff Hans how he likes the rule change. His team played quarters during a 10-day tour of Costa Rica in 2013 and he returned later for international coaching clinics where quarters were used.

“I love the change because it’s more like those rules,” Hans said. “It’s like someone taking a timeout at 10 minutes of the half. That’s all it boils down to. I like the fouls resetting because you can be aggressive early in the game and not stand at the free-throw line for 13 or 14 minutes.”

Hans said some coaches miss the pressure of putting players at the free-throw line for 1-and-1 situations, but even that is only three times a half at the most. Additionally, he anticipates the men’s committee switching to quarters soon.

“That’s how it usually happens,” Hans added. “The women will try something for a couple years and the men will modify it, or the men will try something and the women’s committee will modify it to fit our game better.”

Grove City men’s basketball coach Steve Lamie agrees.

“I have a feeling, knowing how the rules committee works, that they will,” said Lamie, the 19th-year head coach who recently surpassed the 250-win milestone. “The preseason and postseason NIT has been the experimental venues for any rules changes that we’ve had. Everything is driven from Division I on down.”

Although he doesn’t have a strong preference on either quarters or halves, Lamie’s one lament is the continual attempts to make basketball the same at all levels.

“If this is just a way of making every level of basketball uniform, I’d be against it,” Lamie said. “College basketball is a unique game and I don’t want it to be like the pro game with quarters (and other rules like the shot clock). I’m all for speeding up the game, especially at the end when there are so many timeouts and fouls. In terms of strategy or tactics, I don’t think it affects the game.”

It hasn’t affected the women’s game. According to Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, in the years before and after the switch to quarters, women’s games still averaged nearly the same amount of fouls (17.52-17.55) and free throws (18.13-17.15) per game and the lengths of the games were roughly the same.

For what it’s worth, the change in quarters amounts to the same. And, thanks to Hans and Lamie, we didn’t even need a penny for their thoughts.