Matt Croci doesn’t have nearly as much facial hair this January as he did a year ago at this time. He decided not to shave until the Wittenberg Tigers lost a game last season, and by the time they suffered their first defeat on Feb. 10 after 22 straight victories, he looked more like a lumberjack than a basketball coach.
While Wittenberg didn’t come close to matching that streak this season — they won their first four games before losing 84-74 at No. 8 Marietta on Nov. 28 — this team, ranked 11th in the D3Hoops.com poll, could be just as successful as the group that finished 27-3 last season and won the North Coast Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships.
» EARLIER COVERAGE: Croci excited about third season
“I think we’re playing better every game and every week in practice,” Croci said Wednesday. “I love the fact that we’re improving. We don’t really talk about record. We have goals we want to hit. We want to win our league, and we want to get into the NCAA tournament. That’s what we talk about more.”
Here are 10 things to know about the team’s 10-1 start.
1. Balanced scoring: Wittenberg has eight players who average between five and 15 points per game.
“They’re unselfish,” Croci said. “They really just want to win. They don’t care who gets the shots and who gets points.”
2. Deep bench: Nine players average between 14 and 29 minutes.
“We don’t need to ride two or three guys for 30 minutes,” Croci said, “which should help us as the season goes on.”
3. Go-to guy: Junior forward Connor Seipel leads the team with 14.9 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game while shooting 67.6 percent from the field. His importance grew with the graduation of Chad Roy, the leading scorer last season (16.0).
“I think Connor knew he was going to take on that responsibility of kind of being our first option offensively,” Croci said, “and he’s thrived in it.”
4. Lone defeat: Wittenberg has won six straight games since its loss to Marietta (11-1).
“A loss is a loss, and nobody obviously wants to lose,” senior guard Mitch Balser said, “but Marietta is a great team and our young guys got to experience a great atmosphere, so that’s something we really can build off. That was a big learning game for us.”
5. Dominant performances: Wittenberg took a week off for Christmas and then won the Kiwanis/Wittenberg Holiday Classic at Pam Evans Smith Arena, beating Bryant-Stratton 94-60 on Friday and Wilmington 74-52 on Saturday.
“We had great practices when they came back,” Croci said. “You get worried as a coach about sending them away for six or seven days, but they came back in good shape and were sharp, and I think we that showed last weekend.”
6. Top freshmen: Urbana High School graduate Levin Boettcher, a 6-5 forward, leads the freshman class in playing time. He averages 5.7 points in 15.6 minutes per game. He leads the team in 3-point shooting percentage (12 of 19, 63.2).
“Levi’s had had a great start to his career,” Croci said. “He’s really shooting the ball well and is skilled offensively.”
7. Top transfer: Sophomore guard Ridge Young, a transfer from Marietta, averages 3.3 points in 14.8 minutes per game.
“Ridge has got a year of college basketball under his belt,” Croci said, “so he was ready to go right from the beginning.”
8. Improved group: The three freshmen who made such a big impact last season — James Johnson (9.5), Landon Martin (7.5) and Rashaad Ali-Shakir (6.8) — have combined to average 23.8 points per game. Last season, they averaged 20.0 points per game.
9. Problem spots: Wittenberg ranks second in the NCAC in scoring offense (81.3) and second in scoring defense (65.7). It ranks sixth in turnovers (13.3 per game), and that’s an area where the team needs to improve.
“It’s not an alarming rate,” Croci said, “but it’s higher than what we would like.”
10. Road ahead: Wittenberg is 4-0 in the NCAC, one half game behind No 21 Wabash (11-1, 5-0). The Tigers continue conference play this week with a 7 p.m. home game against Denison (4-6, 1-3) on Thursday. Wittenberg then plays Hiram (6-6, 3-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Pam Evans Smith Arena.
Next week, Wittenberg plays at Wabash on Wednesday and then hosts No. 14 Wooster (9-3, 4-1) on Jan. 12
“It’s going to be tough,” junior guard Jordan Pumroy said. “Any one of these teams can beat any other team.”