Calvin showing it on the floor

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Calvin has been on the bubble more than once since its last trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2007. Tom Snikkers and the Knights are making this trip last.
Calvin athletics photo 

By Brian Lester

In the end, it’s all about playing basketball.

Respect, or a lack of it in, say, the NCAA Division III regional rankings, doesn’t matter once the NCAA Tournament begins.

But Calvin, in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2007 and having one of its best seasons in program history, was bothered a bit by not being ranked as high in the regional polls leading up to the tourney despite a successful regular season.

“We used it as motivation a little bit,” senior guard Bryan Powell said. “We believe we are one of the best teams and believe we can play with any team. The NCAA Tournament has given us a chance to prove that.”

Indeed. The Knights have earned their way to a Sweet 16 appearance, taking down Rose-Hulman 72-52 in the opening round and then notched a 67-58 win over UW-Stevens Point this past weekend.

Both games were played on the road, and the fact that the Knights were not able to play a tournament game at home is the biggest drawback to not having been ranked higher in the region.

“It’s a little disappointing, but it’s not something we have focused on a lot,” senior forward Tom Snikkers said. “It’s not easy playing games on the road, but we have enjoyed our experiences. It’s great to still be playing basketball.”

Calvin coach Kevin Vande Streek doesn’t look at his team’s situation as if the regional committee was out to get his team. He has been on the other side of the process and understands what goes into it.

And while there are changes he would like to see made to it, ultimately, he wasn’t going to let it become something his team spent a lot of time dwelling on.

“All you can do is the win the games against the team on your schedule,” Vande Streek said. “We talked it through and I told our players that we could be on the road and wish we were playing at home or we can focus on the games. We have stayed focused on playing the games.”

Life on the road won’t get any easier this week. Up next for the Knights (26-3) is a trip to Minnesota and a showdown against St. Thomas, the No. 1 team in the country.

The Tommies (28-1) are 16-0 at home, averaging 81.9 points per outing and shooting a blistering 52.7 percent from the field. Oh, and if that isn’t tough enough to deal with, St. Thomas has held its past 21 opponents to under 70 points.

“They are very good and we have a lot of respect for them,” Snikkers said. “We have to do a good job studying our scouting report and make sure we are ready to play our best, but the most important thing is to focus on what we have to do to play well and put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win.”

Playing solid defense will be vital, and it is on the defensive end of the floor where the Knights have played at a high level.

They are allowing only 57.3 points per outing and have given up 60 only once during their current five-game win streak that included a 77-57 win over rival Hope in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament championship game.

Calvin is holding opponents to 36.4 percent shooting from the floor and two players have 30 or more steals, with senior guard Dave Rietma tallying 36 and Snikkers racking up 33. Powell has come through with 29 steals.

“St. Thomas will definitely put our defense to the test,” Vande Streek said. “We have been a good defensive team all year and have relied on good defense to win games. We are going to have to bring our A game on defense.”

From an offensive standpoint, the Knights are putting up 74.6 points per outing. Snikkers is the leading scoring threat at 13.5 points per game and he is also pulling down 6.1 rebounds per game.

Junior center Tyler Kruis is clicking for 12.6 points per outing and Powell has drilled 57 treys en route to averaging 11.6 points. Sophomore guard Jordan Brink (10.6) is also averaging double figures for the Knights. He has hit 45 treys.

The Knights won’t be changing much in terms of preparation this week, even if they are playing the best team in the nation. At this point, it’s all about execution.

Bryan Powell and Calvin have faced a rabid fan section at Hope, so the atmosphere at St. Thomas shouldn't be unfamiliar.
Calvin athletics photo

“Players have to play. We aren’t going to be adding any new drills or anything like that this week,” Vande Streek said. “We have a lot of experience on this team and they have been in some big games. Our focus is on the game in front of us and we know we are going to have to play our best to win it.”

Powell and Snikkers have been instrumental in Calvin’s success so far behind their ability to be leaders.

“I like to be a vocal leader, but I also lead by example,” Powell said. “In practice, if we aren’t going hard enough, I’ll take it up a notch and get everyone excited about practicing. I am very passionate about the game and the younger players see that in me.”

Snikkers had similar thoughts.

“I do my best to be an emotional leader and the players see how much I time and energy I invest into practices and games,” Snikkers said. “They respond to it.”

For Powell and Snikkers, they have every reason to pour everything they have into each practice and each game. This is their final season with the Knights and their first time experiencing the thrill of playing in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s a dream every basketball player has growing up, and it has taken a lot of hard work to get here,” Powell said. “I could not ask for a better senior season and I am striving to keep it going.”

Snikkers doesn’t want this run to end either and will be ready to be at his best against St. Thomas in a game where a trip to the Elite Eight in Salem, Va., will be on the line.

“The experience has been amazing. Until this year, I never had a chance to play in the tournament and it’s something I will never forget for the rest of my life. I know my teammates and I will go out and lay it on the line this weekend.”