Each winter I try to see several Wheaton College Thunder basketball games. Wheaton is an NCAA Division III athletic program. This means that no single player ever receives any scholarship aid for playing a sport there. This also means that the players are generally smaller, less highly recruited by Division I and II programs and play purely because they love the sport. The action is never quite as crisp or fast and powerful as the at the big-time schools but it is often very good in its own way.
Wheaton has had some very good basketball teams in recent years, a few advancing quite far in the NCAA tournament in March. This year’s team is clearly as good, or better, than any since the 1950s, when Wheaton won its own national title in men's basketball. Wheaton is presently ranked No. 1 in the nation. The team is undefeated. They have a good mixture of young players and two really, really great All-American seniors who carry the team. I am particularly interested in the team because my nephew, a former All-American himself, is the assistant head coach. Family gatherings often lead to discussions about the team.
So, last Wednesday night I went to see the Thunder play their arch-rival, Illinois Wesleyan University. The Wheaton coaching staff decided to hold out Andy Wiele, their big man in the middle, because of a toe issue. Andy is 6’8” and weighs 235, a really big man at this level. A senior, Andy averages 19.0 points a game and nearly 10 rebounds. He is a true force in the middle. Holding him out meant Wheaton might lose to a very good rival but they would not take a risk of losing Andy later in the season when it would really matter even more.
Wheaton struggled throughout the January 7th game. They fell behind by 13 at the mid-point of the first half and then recovered to hold a one point lead at the half. In the second half they held a small lead for awhile but Wesleyan roared back and took the lead late in the game. Then I saw what I rarely see in any sport. One player lifted the entire team on his back and carried them to a win. Senior Kent Raymond, an All-American last season, became the go-to player. His performance was memorable. I have seen Michael Jordan play many times, quite a few in person. I have seen big-time stars shine in big college games over my lifetime, including the late Pete Maravich. But Kent Raymond, at this level at least, was as big as it gets. He did everything. He stopped the key play-maker on the other team, rebounded, pushed the ball up court, hit three-point bombs, drove the lane making impossible shots and drawing fouls, sank almost every free throw he took in the clutch and in general said to his teammates, “Give me the ball and we will win this game.” I watched the coach of Illinois Wesleyan. Several times he stood up and could not find it in himself to yell at his helpless defense. He just smiled and threw his hands up in the air. There was no one who could stop Raymond. He was, as we say in such scenarios, “in the zone.”
This amazing performance made a fun evening quite memorable. My companion, Rich Johnson from the ACT 3 board, agreed with me that we had seen something quite special. The talent level might not be the Big Ten but the play was as good as any I have ever seen under such circumstances. Wheaton won 74-70 and Raymond had 38 points. Do the math. He scored almost a point per minute and more than half the points for his team. And when he didn’t score he was feeding the ball to someone wide open who could score.
Watching such a performance is much like seeing art. It made for a great evening for the two of us. I will go back again to see if this team advances to a possible national championship this season. They sure seem good enough. And they get their big man, Andy Wiele, back in the middle in the games to come. Having proved that they can win under incredible stress now they will need to keep their composure and intensity to stay the course. This will make winter a little more tolerable here in Wheaton! Go Thunder!