One step back, two steps forward for Ole basketball, now NCAA bound
After a humbling 79-57 loss to Bethel in the MIAC playoff semifinals this past weekend,
St. Olaf men’s basketball appeared to be finished during a season in which an impressive nine-game winning streak set expectations sky high. Luckily, however, this is no longer the case.
Despite slim odds after not reaching the conference championship, the Oles earned an at-large selection to the Division III NCAA tournament, extending their season at least another week. Failing to advance past Bethel dropped the probability of a tournament bid down to roughly 30 percent, but the Oles were able to squeak into the bracket thanks to an undeniable strength of schedule. St. Olaf defeated the regular season champions of the MIAC and WIAC conferences, St. John’s and UW-Stevens Point, respectively, and played the second-toughest schedule in the West Region outside of conference competition.
“We’ve got three [MIAC] teams in the NCAA tournament,” head coach Dan Kosmoski said. “That says a lot about the conference and how tough it is, so we hope that the conference itself has prepared us for that. Maybe playing against Bethel we didn’t have the outcome, but that game may pay off in the first round. We’ll have to wait and see.”
St. Olaf will have to rebound quickly after succumbing to a Bethel team that caught fire and ran away from them in the second half last Friday. After an intense back-and-forth opening half ending in a 33-33 tie, the Royals’ shooting attack exploded, landing 58.6 percent of their second half shots to take a decisive 62-45 lead with nine minutes left to play.
The last time St. Olaf’s typically superb defense surrendered more than 70 points came nearly one month ago in a 81-74 victory against Carleton. The Royals surpassed that 70-point threshold with 6:19 yet to play in regulation.
“They’ve got some good players, and they had a player who hit three threes [Matt Ambriz ’19] like ‘bang bang,’ and all of a sudden it goes from a three point game to a nine or ten point game,” Kosmoski said. “We became a little bit less patient on our offensive end, and when you’re shooting up quick balls and giving those guys the opportunity … they just caught fire.”
“The shooting, there’s not much you can do in regards to that … The goal is to keep teams out of the paint, a lot of teams that do a lot of one-on-one, which Bethel does.When they pass the ball they cut through. That creates another space for them to drive. When they would cut through, our guard would stay up. Normally we’d switch it and he would stay up high and take the guy with the ball and then the next guy would cut through. But they took deeper cuts. They passed, they cleared out deep so we couldn’t switch anything. It was smart on their part.”
The quick shift in momentum forced the Oles into a more aggressive offensive approach in order to play catch-up, but their shooting went cold at the worst possible time. In the first half, St. Olaf resembled the team that converted 50 percent of its shots during nine consecutive wins earlier this season, shooting an excellent 48.3 percent. That number nosedived to 28.6 percent in the second half, only converting two of 14 three-point attempts while attempting to make the comeback.
“I thought that we were pressing,” Kosmoski said. “They just had to relax and do the best they could in regards to being a little bit more patient offensively and tightening up the defense to try and keep them out of the paint. The power of the three ball … in college basketball you’re seeing more and more teams [shooting threes]. We had our chances during the game, we had some good looks, we just didn’t make them. And that happens.”
Fortunately, the Oles can wipe the slate clean and start fresh, as the season continues in round one of the NCAA tournament against Sul Ross State University this Friday. St. Olaf will represent the MIAC for the fourth time in five seasons together with St. John’s and playoff champion Augsburg, hoping to rekindle the kinetic magic that allowed the team to take the conference by storm over the previous six weeks. Despite an unfamiliar opponent, the excitement expressed by the Oles at getting another opportunity to play has been palpable since the announcement.
“We’ll watch a lot of film and tape for the next 24 hours and kind of see what type of team they are,” Kosmoski said. “We’ll learn a little bit more about them, a little bit more as a team. I don’t see us doing anything different than we have done. Offensively, we’ll continue to do the things that we normally do. Our offense is a solid offense, they’re good players and good defenders.”
“I’m just so excited for the players. It’s kind of a fitting finish … the coaches picked us seventh [in preseason polls] and we finished in a nice, comfortable second. We just kind of slid in there and kept doing our things. We didn’t even know if we were going to get a bid, and now we just slid in there and got a bid. So we’ll see, anything can happen.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. OLAF SPORTS