- David Jablonski Staff Writer
The beat rolls on for the Wittenberg Tigers. The list of superlatives is a long one: 14 victories and counting, a No. 10 national ranking, first place in the North Coast Athletic Conference, etc.
On some level of course, the Wittenberg men’s basketball team will always be judged by how it performs against its biggest rival, Wooster, and the first of two games against the Scots comes Saturday when Wittenberg (14-0, 7-0) plays at Wooster (11-3, 5-2) at 6 p.m.
The rivalry peaked in the early 2000s. There was a six-year stretch (2001-06) when Wooster and Wittenberg played in the North Coast Athletic Conference championship five times. The Scots have dominated the series in recent years, winning nine of the last 10 games. Still, Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said it still an important game for all involved.
“The one difference from 10 years ago is the rest of the league is really good,” Croci said Thursday. “Ten years ago, it was Wittenberg and Wooster, and that was it. Now there are some other good teams in our league. Every game is a tough one. That’s changed the dynamic of the game a little bit, but make no mistake about it, it’s still a big game for us, and I’m sure it is for them as well.”
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This is an important game for Wittenberg in part because of the one-sided nature of the rivalry in recent years and because the Scots swept two games from the Tigers in Croci’s first season. Wooster needs the victory to improve its chances of contending for the NCAC regular-season championship, which it has won or shared 10 times in the last 13 seasons.
Wittenberg has a two-game lead over Wooster, No. 17 Ohio Wesleyan (10-4, 5-2) and Hiram (9-5, 5-2). Hiram beat Ohio Wesleyan 88-79 on Wednesday in Delaware. Wooster lost to Denison and Wabash earlier this season.
Meanwhile, Wittenberg keeps winning. The Tigers beat Wabash 72-58 on the road Wednesday. It was their ninth double-digit victory of the season. For the third time in the last four games, Wittenberg broke open a close game with dominant performance in the second half.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily playing poorly in the first half,” Croci said. “I think teams have shot well in the first half, or we haven’t guarded as well. I think our guys kind of settle into the game as it goes, and they just get better and better defensively. I think our scoring has stayed where we need it to stay. The defense is what picks up in the second half, which is nice to see.”
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One key to Wittenberg’s success has been efficiency on offense. The Tigers rank second in the NCAC in scoring (82.4 points per game) while leading the league in field-goal percentage (50.7). Four players average in double figures: Chad Roy (14.7); Mitch Balser (12.1); Connor Seipel (11.4); and James Johnson (10.2).
“I think we preach a lot to get the best high-percentage shot we can get,” Croci said. “We don’t care who it’s from or where it is on the floor. They’ve bought into that. They don’t mind sharing the ball. They really don’t care who gets the shot as long as it’s a good one. With all that being said, we do have some guys are pretty skilled. When you share the ball and you’re balanced and you have skilled players, that makes you hard to defend.”
The return of Balser to Wooster adds an interesting subplot to this game. The junior point guard from Centerville played the last two seasons at Wooster, starting 17 games as a freshman and averaging 9.1 points per game.
“He is a fierce competitor no matter who we are playing and what we are dealing with,” Croci said. “I’m sure his nerves and excitement level will be extremely high. It’s just kind of how he’s wired. I think we’ll talk to him the next couple of days and certainly quite a bit on Saturday about staying with the plan and what he needs to do. He’s been great about that all year. I don’t anticipate that changing just because of him facing his former teammates.”