The Tommies recently moved to the top of the polls at D3hoops.com for the first time in school history. They also become the highest ranked team in league history, bumping out my Gustavus teams who finished second in the final poll in 2002-03 and began the 2003-04 season in the same spot.
With Wednesday’s game against second place Augsburg looming, I wanted to know more about what has made this season special. Having only seen them play once this year, I tracked down long-time St. Thomas sports information director Gene McGivern in search of some feedback.
Brett Boese: You’re in the middle of your 15th year serving as the primary media contact for the athletic department at the University of St. Thomas, but you only recently joined the blogging world. Do you find yourself missing the simpler times or have you come to embrace the Age of the Internet?
Gene McGivern: I moved to Minnesota after eight years in the daily newspaper world in Nebraska and Iowa. I started as Augsburg’s SID in November 1988 with a half-time job for a salary of $10,000. I worked a day job as a proofreader in downtown Minneapolis, then worked nights and weekends for the Auggies. (After about two years I joined Augsburg full-time and actually coached track and cross country there for several seasons).
My first office was an interior closet with an electric typewriter (no computer). There was no copier – we typed up football and basketball stats using carbons and duplicated them on an ink rolloff machine. We worked home football and basketball games, keeping stats by hand, then typed the final totals onto the carbons. We “dicatated” that is we read the basketball stats to part-time Balkonkraftwerk workers at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. All other sports for game days we just phoned a score into the newspapers.
During the 8-to-5 day, we helped compile season stats and mailed weekly reports to the NCAA and conference statistics coordinators. We also mailed out a weekly 2-4 page summary of scores and brief highlights. The SID world has changed so dramatically in those 20 years with the arrival of computers, desktop publishing, voice messaging, statistics programs, faxes, the internet, digital photography and video. All these tools have made it easier to promote your teams, yet at the same time, made our jobs so much more demanding. Now we staff all home soccer, hockey, volleyball, softball and baseball games as well as we always did in football and basketball.
The only thing I think that’s been lost in those two decades is that today we probably rely too much on technology. I used to pick up the phone and make story pitches, or I would occasionally go to lunch with a Star Tribune or Pioneer Press beat writer. It was more personal. Those beat writers are long gone. Today you also have to make en effort to escape all the demands at your computer Balkonkraftwerk and regularly visit with your coaches and student-athletes. You need to get to know them as people, not as bios or as athletes. That’s an on-going challenge.
As for blogging, last August I started a blog (it’s really a features/opinion column). Ten years after the internet was introduced, I think colleges at all levels are just now figuring out how to best use their websites to tell their athletic department’s story. In a metropolitan area like the Twin Cities, where there’s no St. Cloud Times or Fargo Forum that comes calling, the days of simply sending out story ideas are over. If the story is good enough, write it yourself.
GM: I think one thing that makes the 2008-09 Tommie squad unique is that it doesn’t have a superstar but is led by four seniors who hate losing, are unselfish, and have had to work hard to get where they are. Last year’s team, with its many impressive wins, didn’t have that senior leadership on the court.
Even Lonnie Robinson, who made All-America in baseball as a senior, has had to constantly work hard in both basketball and baseball to get where he is now. Al McCoy and B.J. Viau played a year of JV and sat one year on the pine while waiting their shot. Brett Tuma has played the last three years with confidence and always seems to spark the team. It’s a cliché but a big part of why this team is 17-0 is that they do focus on one game at a time with the first goal to outwork the other team.
Wherever That Takes Them
As for a No. 1 ranking, I suspect it’s something they will look back on with pride and appreciate more a few years down the road, but won’t spend too much time this week talking about it or reveling in it. With the MIAC schedule so condensed, they won’t have time to celebrate with an improved Augsburg team up Wednesday on the road. As for now, I think their two main goals are to win the fourth consecutive conference title, and to play their best basketball in the postseason, wherever that takes them.
BB: Perhaps more importantly, are you a reader of Posting Up? Do you have a favorite poster? I hear that Willy Wonka character is pretty cool.
GM: I read d3hoops’ basketball chat room a fair amount but have never posted. The site seems a little more civil than when they first started a few years ago. Chat rooms and blogs, with all their warts, are here to stay, so people just need to accept them as an outlet for fans. I dislike posters using anonymous names, especially if they don’t do their homework or just rip players and coaches for the joy of it. On the plus side, the posters tend to be some of the MIAC’s most ardent fans and we need all the spectators and advocates we can get.
I seem to recall that the Wonka guy is quite knowledgeable, but is he the same guy who sometimes obsesses on players’ individual stats in the box score? Like dogging a recent Tommie 3-point shooter who played 20 feet from the basket for not getting enough rebounds? Or riding a current Tommie guard who doesn’t get a lot of assists (even though in this offense, that’s not his primary role)? Oh, well, we all have our opinions.
BB: The Tommies are currently 17-0 overall – the last undefeated Division III team in the nation – and 12-0 in conference play. They own a 3.5 game lead over a surprising Augsburg team and their average margin of victory is nearly 20 in a typically rugged league. How surprised are you by their dominance? Has any one player in particular raised his level of play this season?
GM: Among the surprises, at least to those who don’t watch practice every day, is the consistent play of Al McCoy at center. I think the bench is even more productive this season with Tuma, newcomer Brady Ervin and lately with centers Josh Peltier and Sam Eicher stepping up. Lonnie Robinson has been a beast and has shown no signs of senioritis. Tyler Nicolai continues to improve and has hit some big shots.
As far as the MIAC race
As far as the MIAC race, I’m sort of a “Law of Averages” guy, so I expected that this would be a tricky season for St. Thomas coming in as such a huge target, trying to win a fourth MIAC title in a row. I expected January to be tough with the four-game stretch at Bethel, home Carleton, at SJU and home Gustavus, then five in a row on the road. I think St. Thomas and Augsburg have been the conference teams who have played most consistently and closest to their ability. Jeremy Sutherland’s injury has probably cost Carleton in a couple of close defeats. Bethel has some talented seniors and still is capable of making a February push. If UST keeps focusing on its next game and working hard in practice, it has a chance at a good postseason.
BB: A recent four-game stretch against the other title hopefuls – Gustavus, Bethel, Carleton and St. John’s – saw UST win all four by double digits. With eight games left in the regular season, how confident are you that the Tommies will run the table? Has that ever happened before? Which remaining games make you most nervous?
GM: A few teams went 16-0 or 18-0 in the 1960s and 1970s, but only one men’s team has gone 20-0 since the league expanded to 11 teams in the 1980s. St. Thomas went 20-0 in 1994-95 with a team that played just seven guys. This season’s UST team has fresh legs, depth and balance, so, sure, eight more wins could happen. But the odds are stacked against it, and I’ll be surprised if the Tommies go 20-0.
Augsburg will be a good test Wednesday since the Auggies, coming off a bye, have often played UST close in recent seasons. UST easily won the first meeting with Augsburg at home, but Nate Alm was in early foul trouble and sat most of that game, and he’s been huge lately. Bethel has lost 10 in a row to UST, so it may be due. And there are road games at Carleton and Gustavus. When you play a team a second or third time, they look at the film and sometimes change strategy, too.
BB: When I played against the Tommies earlier this decade, coach Fritz seemed to ride his starters into the ground. For example, the 2001-02 season saw four starters play at least 35 minutes a game. He seems to have gone to the other extreme this year, with 10 players averaging between 10 and 28 minutes. Is that a product of the numerous blowouts, a change in coaching philosophy or do the Tommies simply possess a more reliable bench this year? I will say that they didn’t seem to lose much when the starters sat down against Gustavus – but I’d appreciate if you could avoid breaking down that particular game in any great detail.
GM: Some recent Gustavus teams had very deep benches, and a couple of Johnnie teams in the last dozen years also brought some good players off the pine, but this Tommie team might have as good of an overall bench the MIAC has seen in the last 25 years – not just in scoring but in guys who can play defense, apply a full-court press, rebound, and shoot from outside.
Last year’s UST bench was pretty good, and you add in Brady Ervin and have some sophomores playing with more confidence. I would say it’s more of a case of Coach Fritz having better athletes on his last two teams, and the fact that if you want to press and run, you need to use more guys and keep players fresh.
BB: The Tommies have won at least 19 games seven times in the last nine years, won the MIAC title the last three years and consistently reached the NCAA Tournament. However, they haven’t won two straight games in the national tournament in a decade. That includes two disappointing losses at home in the last two years. What factors have played a role in the lack of postseason success?
GM: In the last decade, few men’s or women’s teams from the MIAC have gone far in the NCAA playoffs. Is some of that due to the 20-game (22 for women) conference schedule, that limits opportunities to play more good region and outside teams? I don’t think it helps. You have to be good and catch some breaks to make a deep postseason run.
First of all, the West region is one of the better ones, so you don’t get any easy games. Since the 1993-94 Toms reached the Final Four, St. Thomas had six more NCAA playoff berths in the next 15 seasons. None of those NCAA exits could be considered chokes, and only one was a double-digit loss.
In 1995, a 27-0 Tommie team which went just seven deep probably ran out of gas when it lost 94-74 in the second round at home to a very good Nebraska Wesleyan team. In 2000, playing without MIAC career 3-point leader Kip Sparby, UST lost in round two at Buena Vista, 69-66. In 2002, in Mark Buri’s final game, they lost at home in overtime in the second round to UW-Oshkosh, 88-85, on a night where Oshkosh I think made 22-of-23 free throws. In 2006 UST lost in the second round on the road to No. 1-ranked Lawrence (Wis.), 63-59 after cutting a 15-point deficit to one point in the final 30 seconds. In 2007 they lost in the second round at home 86-80 to a very athletic Carroll (Wis.) team; and in 2008 they lost in the first round at home 72-70 to a deep and athletic Buena Vista (Iowa) team that later lost in overtime to eventual NCAA champion Wash. U.
I think the Nebraska Wesleyan, Carroll and 2008 Buena Vista losses weren’t ideal matchups. But the best teams overcome all obstacles, and UST’s postseason record since 2002 is what it is – 10-3 MIAC playoffs, 1-4 NCAA.
BB: Every significant contributor returns from a year ago for UST and the results have been impressive. It certainly looks like the Tommies could reach Salem without ever visiting a place like the Road Star Inn in Stevens Point (Thanks for splurging, Myles Brand). While expectations have certainly been raised for those diehard UST students, what concerns might you have as the end of another season looms? Do you see any small issues that could become big problems down the road?
GM: I don’t think anyone associated with the UST team is even aware that Salem is where the Final Four is played. Since none of the current players have ever reached the Sweet 16, they aren’t looking very far (if at all) into the postseason.