Wittenberg hopes home-court edge pays off in NCAA tournament

Tigers play Misericordia in first round Friday


Marietta plays Oshkosh in other first-round game Friday in Springfield.

One member of the Wittenberg Tigers knows his way around the NCAA Division III tournament.

Junior guard Mitch Balser played in the tournament the last two years with Wooster. He even started four games for the Scots as a freshman during their run to the Elite Eight.

Now Balser is playing for Wittenberg and helping his teammates prepare the NCAA tournament.

“They’ve been asking me questions about how the process goes, what you’ve got to look for, what it’s like,” Balser said Tuesday. “Practices are different. You only get an hour and half. There’s someone in there watching you, making sure you don’t touch the basketballs (before practice). It’s a whole different experience. It’s pretty cool. I just told them to look forward to it, embrace it and have fun.”

» RELATED: Seipel a big reason for Wittenberg’s success

The tournament returns to Pam Evans Smith Arena this weekend for the first time since 2006. Marietta (21-6) plays No. 24 Wisconsin-Oshkosh (20-7) at 5:30 p.m. Friday. No. 3 Wittenberg (26-2) plays Misericordia (17-10) at 7:30 p.m. The winners meet at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Wittenberg improved to 15-0 at home with an 82-70 victory in the North Coast Athletic Conference championship Saturday and it is 28-10 at home in the Division III tournament. The Tigers could play as many as four home games in the tournament if they advance to the Elite Eight. Following that is the Four Four in Salem, Va.

“Playing at home is great for us,” Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said. “I think the NCAA rewarded us for our season and our resume in giving us the second round. I think we understand that’s really all we have. Everybody is 0-0, and there are nothing but really good teams left playing for the national championship. There are 64 really good teams.”

» NCAA TOURNAMENT: Wittenberg plays Misericordia on Friday

Wittenberg’s first-round opponent, Misericordia, will travel 496 miles from Dallas, Pa., to Springfield. The Cougars have never won a NCAA tournament game. This is their fourth appearance since 2012.

Misericordia’s star is Jason Kenny, a 6-4 junior guard who averages 20 points per game. Three other players average in double figures: 6-6 senior guard Tre Fields (13.4); 6-5 sophomore forward Tony Harding (12.7); and 6-7 sophomore forward Noah Rivera (10.2).

Misericordia’s third-year coach, Willie Chandler, is one of Division III basketball’s all-time greats. He ranks second in D-III history in scoring (2,898). He played for Misericordia from 2000-03.

The other matchup in Springfield is one of the better first-round games in the tournament.

Marietta, making its sixth NCAA appearance in eight years, was in the top 25 until losing to Ohio Northern in the Ohio Athletic Conference championship game. The Pioneers made the Sweet 16 last season.

» NCAC TOURNAMENT: Wittenberg wins first title since 2006Photos of championship game

Oshkosh is playing in the tournament for the third straight year. It comes from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which includes Wisconsin-Whitewater, Wisconsin-Stevens Points and Wisconsin-Platteville, three teams that have combined to win 12 national titles since 1984.

Croci will worry about Marietta and Oshkosh if his team gets by Friday’s game.

“One of our assistant coaches will start watching film on those two schools and get things ready,” Croci said Tuesday, “but from a practice-time standpoint and the focus of our players, everything will be for Friday night’s game.”

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