I have mentioned, several times since the first of this year, that Wheaton College, my alma mater, has a great basketball team this season. The Thunder finished 24-3 and ranked in the top five nationally. They were ranked number one for some weeks in December and January. They lost three games in a row when their All-American star, Kent Raymond, went down with an ankle sprain. When Raymond returned they got better in every game. They even won the conference title last Saturday when they were trailing rival Elmhurst in double digits very late in the game only to win dramatically at the end, 67-63. These guys seem to know how to win, even when their best game is not there for them. They are experienced, battle tested and really ready to play.
Tonight Wheaton opens the NCAA Division III tournament at home. They play the Fontbonne University Griffins (18-8) in the opener. Who knows where Fontbonne is located? I did not until I read the Wheaton College sports Website. Fontbonne is a small school in St. Louis and they compete in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC). They appear to have the weapons to match up against Wheaton well so the Thunder cannot overlook them or anyone else. If the Thunder beats Fontboone then they will play the winner of Hope College (21-7) and the University of Wisconsin-Plattville (22-5), both highly ranked teams as well. Wheaton beat Hope College 91-79 on December 6. This opening bracket is intriguing and should bring great excitement to Wheaton's King Arena tonight and tomorrow.
I love this sport but particularly at this level of competition. There are no players getting athletic scholarships in Division III. Everyone plays for the sheer love of the sport. The action is great, the players smaller but the competition is just as intense as at the Division I level.
This is Wheaton’s 11th postseason appearance and the sixth time that
head coach Bill Harris has led Wheaton into the postseason; he also
guided his 1994-95, 1995-96, 1998-99, 2004-05 and 2007-08 Wheaton teams
to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Last year’s team advanced to the
“Elite Eight” of the Division III Tournament; 12 players on this year’s
team participated in last year’s tournament run. This alone makes this year's team better prepared for the pressure and the challenge.
All-American Kent Raymond leads the Thunder with 24.3 points per game.
Raymond, one of only three players in league history to earn the CCIW
“Most Outstanding Player” award three times, is second all-time at
Wheaton and sixth in CCIW history with 2,246 career points. Senior center Andy Wiele has
scored 14.5 points per game this season and shot a team-best 63.0%
(131-208) field goal percentage. Wiele, a two-time Second Team All-CCIW
selection, has a team-high average of 8.5 rebounds per game this year.
Wiele is seventh in Wheaton history with 780 career rebounds.
So the unheralded small colleges of Division III begin March madness earlier than the other schools you read about everyday in the major sports coverage. I will be watching and cheering this tournament, and Wheaton's journey to potential greatness, with huge interest. I believe the Thunder are good enough to go all the way this year. It should be fun no matter what. Even if they do not advance very far they had a great season and could have very easily been undefeated if Raymond had not gone down in January with the bad ankle.
But all of this is ancient history. The fun begins all over tonight.