Expectations high again for fifth-ranked Wittenberg men’s basketball

Wittenberg’s Matt Croci claps during a game against Otterbein on Nov. 25 at Capital University in Bexley. David Jablonski/Staff
Wittenberg’s Matt Croci claps during a game against Otterbein on Nov. 25 at Capital University in Bexley. David Jablonski/Staff

Tigers open season Saturday in Brooklyn

Matt Croci's new office is just steps away from the court at Pam Evans Smith Arena. It's part of Wittenberg's new indoor facility, the Steemer.

Entering his fourth season as head men's basketball coach of the Wittenberg Tigers, Croci likely has had to work harder decorating his office than poring over potential lineups and rotations. For the second straight season, his team returns all but one starter. The Tigers lost senior Chad Roy after a 27-3 finish in 2017-18 and senior Mitch Balser after a 24-6 finish last season.

That means Wittenberg has one of the most experienced teams in the country, which is one reason it ranks fifth in the D3Hoops.com preseason poll. Expectations were high the last two seasons. They're higher than ever now. The season begins at 3 p.m. Saturday against Brooklyn College in New York City.

» RECRUITING: Tigers add three to roster

“You never really know what you have until you you start playing other people,” Croci said Wednesday. “Things could look really good in practice, but you don’t know if it’s your offense or your defense. But I like our team. They’re a really good group of kids and fun to coach.”

Two year ago, Wittenberg started the season 22-0 and won the North Coast Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. It wasn’t as easy last season.

The Tigers won 10 of their first 11 games but then started 1-3 in NCAC play. They rallied with seven straight victories to end the regular season and then beat Wooster 79-75 on a layup by Balser with seven seconds to play on the road in the NCAC championship game to return to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Avoiding that midseason slump will be on Wittenberg’s mind this season.

“We fought through that wall and went on that win streak,” senior guard Jordan Pumroy said. “We saw adversity and took the proper steps. Right now, we don’t want to get to that point (again).”

Wittenberg returns its leading scorer: Connor Seipel (17.7 points per game), a 6-foot-6 senior forward from Groveport Madison who is tied for 31st in school history with 1,028 points.

“We’ll do a lot of stuff through Connor like we’ve done the last couple years,” Croci said. “He’s shooting 60-something percent from the floor. It’s hard to pass that up. We always know what we’re going to get out of Connor.”

Two other returners averaged in double digits: senior guard Jake Bertemes (11.8), a Southeastern graduate, and junior forward James Johnson (11.2), of Cincinnati Roger Bacon. Johnson has scored 600 points in his first two seasons.

“James is playing really well,” Croci said. “He’s going to be really hard for folks to handle.”

» LOOKING BACK: Tigers fall in second round of NCAA tournament

Pumroy (7.7 points per game), of Fairborn, is the other returning starter, while junior guard Landon Martin (7.3), of Columbus Africentric, and Rashaad Ali-Shakir (4.9), of Cincinnati Purcell Marian, have earned significant playing time their first two seasons.

“From an experience standpoint, we’ve gone from being a bunch of freshman and sophomores (two years ago) to being a bunch of juniors and seniors,” Croci said. “They know what to expect every day. They know what the work ethic needs to be like. Attention to detail and all those kind of things, we’re still harping on that kind of stuff. There’s a feeling sometimes when you get a lot of returning guys, they want to pick up right where they left off and skip steps and move ahead and get into big games at the end of the year, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to go back to the beginning and work our way up to that point.”

The top newcomer last year was freshman forward Levi Boettcher, an Urbana High School graduate who averaged 5.3 points. This year, Croci expects one freshman to play major minutes: Bryce Hill, a 6-5 forward from Cincinnati Seven Hills.

“He’s adjusted really well to the college game, the speed of it and what’s necessary,” Croci said. “His dad’s a high school coach, so he’s been kind of wired that way for a long time, but he’ll help right away.”

About the Author