Seven months after falling to Wisconsin-Oshkosh — a team that would advance all the way to the NCAA championship game — in the final minutes, the Wittenberg Tigers men’s basketball team returned tothe court this week at the HPER Center.
Unlike Division I teams, Division III teams don’t get to practice together at all in the offseason. Any work they do on the court is informal. The coaches can’t be there. So third-year coach Matt Croci couldn’t wait to get started when practice began Monday.
“We have a lot back, so clearly experience will be there,” Croci said Wednesday. “We’ve got a lot of guys who know how we like to do things, how practice is supposed to be, the drills we’re doing, what our expectations are. It’s easier to get in and out of drills quickly and from one thing to the next. They’ve all been really vocal with the younger guys, which has been good. They’ve really tried to pull them along.”
Wittenberg finished 27-3 last season and won the North Coast Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. It beat Misericordia 91-61 in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Pam Evans Smith Arena before losing 68-60 to Oshkosh, which broke open a tie game with a 12-4 run in the final two minutes.
That loss will motivate Wittenberg when the season begins in November.
“We were certainly happy about some of the things we accomplished,” Croci said, “but we also feel we could have gone farther, so there’s a little bit of a chip on our shoulder in that maybe we didn’t reach our full potential in the NCAA tournament.”
Wittenberg lost one starter from that team, leading scorer Chad Roy (16.0 points per game), and one other key contributor, senior Chris Sloneker (2.8). Everyone else returns, including junior Connor Seipel (11.0), a 6-6 forward who was the MVP of the NCAC tournament.
“He’s more fit,” Croci said. “He spent a lot of time eating right and working out. He’s lost about 20 pounds since he got here two years ago. He’s reshaped his body and refocused.”
Guards Mitch Balser (12.2 points per game), Jake Bertemes (11.0) and Jordan Pumroy (7.0) also return as do three players who made a major impact as freshmen: forward James Johnson (8.8) and guards Landon Martin (6.3) and Rashaad Ali-Shakir (4.9). Johnson could move into the starting lineup spot vacated by Roy.
“They all look great,” Croci said. “They’ve all improved physically and mentally. You can just tell they’re more mature. They have a better approach.”
Wittenberg announced an eight-man recruiting class in June. One of the newcomers is Ridge Young, a point guard who played his freshman season at Marietta College.
“I’m really happy with the class: a lot of length, a lot of athleticism,” Croci said. “Our transfer, Ridge, has had a really good first couple of days. Having a year of college basketball at a good program has prepared him.”