Wittenberg starts season Friday but learns there will be no NCAA tournament in 2021

Wittenberg players and coaches, including head coach Matt Croci, center, stand for the national anthem before a game against Denison on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. David Jablonski/Staff
Wittenberg players and coaches, including head coach Matt Croci, center, stand for the national anthem before a game against Denison on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. David Jablonski/Staff

Tigers open 10-game season with two games against rival Wooster

Two days before the opener of the 2021 season for the Wittenberg Tigers men’s basketball team, it learned there will not be a NCAA Division III tournament this season.

The NCAA cancelled all Division III winter championships on Wednesday, citing “low participation numbers among member schools.”

“I kind of assumed that we were going to get that news at some point,” Wittenberg coach Matt Croci said Thursday. “It’s still tough to get. When you’re dealing with so many challenges and our kids and staff are going through so much, to have something at the end to play for to keep them engaged, to keep them going through the protocols and testing, to have something to gear up toward was definitely something we were hoping to have. It’s very disappointing but not surprising.”

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The NCAA wanted at least 60 percent of member schools participating in basketball, and the number was 48.6 for men and 46.2 for women.

“While some institutions have been able to safely return to sport, the recent declaration form data show that more than half of our division has not returned to winter sport practice and competition to be in a position for NCAA national championship participation,” said Fayneese Miller, chair of the Presidents Council and president at Hamline University in a press release. “This was a very difficult decision to make, and we are saddened to do so. However, none of our winter sports meet the championships committee’s established thresholds of participation to hold a championship. We are committed to ensuring that our student-athletes have the best possible experience, and, for us, this means having a meaningful number of competitions. We hope this is possible for our spring championship.”

This is the second straight year there will not be a national champion at the D-III level. Wittenberg was preparing to play at Mount Union in the Sweet 16 last March when the tournament was cancelled.

Still, there will be a regular season in 2021, and it starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Wooster for Wittenberg. The Scots then play Wittenberg at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield at 4 p.m. Saturday.

No spectators will be allowed at either game, though Croci said the games will be streamed online. The six North Coast Athletic Conference teams participating in this season will play a 10-game schedule. The season will end March 6. There won’t be a conference tournament.

“They’re definitely excited to play,” Croci said. “Prepared is a whole other part of the conversation just because of how quick (the preseason) has been. We’re definitely excited to be on the court together. I’m sure Wooster feels the same way.”

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Wittenberg and Wooster split the regular-season series last season, and then Wooster beat Wittenberg 87-63 in the NCAC tournament championship game.

This will be the first game in the series in decades without Witttenberg graduate Steve Moore leading the Scots. He retired after last season as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. His longtime assistant, Doug Cline, replaced him.

“I’ve got a world of respect for (Moore) and know Doug,” Croci said. “We played against each other in this game and get along really well and have a lot of respect for each other. I think Doug will do a great job for their program and maintain the tradition they have.”

Wittenberg finished 28-2 overall and 17-1 in the NCAC last season. Wooster finished 21-8 and 12-6. Croci expects Wooster senior Keon Scott, who ranked third on the team with 13.6 points per game last season, to be Wooster’s top player.

Wittenberg had several top returners withdraw from school when the status of this season was up in the air with the intention of returning next season, but it does have senior forward James Johnson on the roster. He averaged 14.8 points per game last season and has scored 1,043 points in three seasons. Johnson plans to play next season, too, because this season doesn’t count against anyone’s eligibility.

“He’s been playing fast,” Croci said. “He’s stepping up in a leadership role. In my opinion, he’s the best player in the conference.”

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