College basketball: No. 3 Wittenberg off to 11-0 start

Wittenberg University’s Connor Seipel shoots a jump shot during their game against Kenyon on Saturday afternoon at Pam Evans Smith Arena. The Tigers won 75-65. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY MICHAEL COOPER
Wittenberg University’s Connor Seipel shoots a jump shot during their game against Kenyon on Saturday afternoon at Pam Evans Smith Arena. The Tigers won 75-65. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY MICHAEL COOPER

While expectations are high for the Wittenberg University men’s basketball program this winter, they’re not looking too far ahead.

The Tigers, ranked third in the d3hoops.com poll, are off to an 11-0 start this season — the second time the program has started undefeated in the past three years. Wittenberg won 22 straight to start the 2017-18 season.

The key, said fourth-year coach Matt Croci, has been staying focus on the task at hand.

“It’s a credit to the guys,” he said. “They really do take it one day at a time and come in and work hard at practice. We don’t really think big picture at this point. We just work on things every day, come in and compete. They’re a hard-working team. They love to be in the gym.”

The Tigers beat Kenyon 75-65 on Saturday afternoon at Pam Evans Smith Arena to improve to 4-0 in the North Coast Athletic Conference.

Wittenberg was led by James Johnson, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. Connor Seiplel had 11 points and 13 rebounds, while Rashaad Ali-Shakir scored 14 and Jake Bertemes and Landon Martin each scored 10.

“We’re happy with 11-0, but we’re still fixing stuff every day,” Bertemes said. “We’ve been to bigger games the last couple years and we want to get back to those. Even when you’re winning, you have to make sure you do it the right way.”

With 12 returners from last year’s team, the Tigers have plenty of experience playing together.

“We’re pretty balanced,” Croci said. “They’re unselfish bunch. They don’t care who gets the credit, who gets the shots. They really do just want to win. We move the ball, we spread the floor and make it tough for teams to key on certain things.”

After several years of being a young team, the Tigers “can finally say” they’re a veteran team, Bertemes said. Team chemistry has been key to the undefeated start, he said.

The Tigers exploded when Boettcher, an Urbana grad, broke away for a dunk in the second half against Kenyon.

“We’ve played a lot of games together,” Bertemes said. “We’re enjoying not only our success but others as well.”

The Tigers have advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, but have lost in the round of 32. This year, Wittenberg hopes to make an even deeper run into the postseason.

“You want to look ahead, but as a veteran team, we’ll realign our focus on the next game knowing that’s going to get us there down the line,” Bertemes said.

Wittenberg travels to Denison (4-7, 1-3 NCAC) on Wednesday night. The Big Red beat the Tigers in Springfield last season.

Wittenberg is currently one game ahead of 24th-ranked Wooster (9-2, 3-1 NCAC) in the league race. The Scots fell 65-60 at Ohio Wesleyan on Saturday. Five teams are two games back at 2-2 in the conference — meaning the Tigers must be ready to play every time they take the floor.

“The league is probably the deepest it’s ever been,” Croci said. “Most teams brought most of their guys back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this strong from top to bottom. It’s going to be a battle every night.”