Always an adjustment

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Tommy Hannon is the one remaining starter from 2011 and is averaging 11 points and 6.7 rebounds in just 21 minutes per game.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,
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By Brian Lester

John Tauer and his coaching staff at St. Thomas have talked often about the adjustments that need to be made to deal with the NCAA tournament format for this season.

The Tommies are the No. 1 team in the country and their depth is something they like to use to their advantage. During their 2011 national championship run, they were able to wear on teams as they played two games each weekend in the tourney on the road to the title.

But with the national title game scheduled to be played at Philips Arena in Atlanta on April 7 as part of the 75th anniversary celebration of March Madness, a date that falls two weeks after the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds are played at the Salem Civic Center in Virginia, this bracket is set up quite a bit differently.

St. Thomas (27-1) played its NCAA tournament opener this past weekend, rolling to a 91-62 win over Aurora, and won’t play again until this Saturday when it hosts Wheaton, Ill. (21-6).

“The old schedule worked in our favor because of our depth, but the reality of the situation this year is that we can’t control it,” said Tauer, a former player for the Tommies who spent 11 years as an assistant at the school before becoming the head coach a year ago. “We’ve had light days in practice and we’ve had days where we have cranked things up. It’s definitely forced teams to make adjustments.”

If there is an advantage, it is that teams do have time to prepare for the next opponent rather than have to deal with getting only one day to get ready for the next round.

Of course, with every team in the tourney in the same situation, the advantage only goes so far.

“Having a whole week to get ready does give you a certain comfort level in being ready for the next game,” Tauer said. “You don’t have to worry about how you are going to divide up your scouts for the next opponent. But your opponent also gets a week to get ready, so it’s not a big advantage.”

Senior guard Will DeBerg, who saw limited minutes as a sophomore on the 2011 team but has become one of the top players in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, earning All-MIAC honors twice, said the extended layoff hasn’t been a problem.

“It’s not really a big deal for the players,” DeBerg said. “We practice harder at times because we only have to get ready for one game and I think we have adjusted well to it.”

DeBerg has played a major role in the rise of the Tommies this season. He only scored seven in the tournament opener but is averaging a team-best 12.4 points per game. The veteran has knocked down 64 3-pointers and has tallied 36 assists and 24 steals.

Once a freshman who barely saw playing time, DeBerg has become a go-to guy for the Tommies.

Will DeBerg is the Tommies' leading 3-point shooter. He gets about three times the playing time he did in 2011.
University of St. Thomas photo by Mike Ekern

“He has had a tremendous career for us,” Tauer said. “He almost never turns the ball over, he is a phenomenal shooter and is a great teammate. He has also improved his defense significantly and is a great example of a guy who has worked his way up from a freshman who played sparingly to a veteran who can play with anybody in the country.”

DeBerg said his early years, especially being a part of the national championship team, played a huge role in his growth as a college basketball player.

“It took a lot of hard work to get to here and I learned a lot from those older players on the national championship team,” DeBerg said. “I saw how good they were and how hard they worked to be successful and it pushed me to be the best player possible.”

As good as DeBerg is, he doesn’t have to worry about carrying the Tommies on his back. This is where the depth of St. Thomas becomes a benefit.

Senior center Tommy Hannon is clicking for 11.4 points per outing and senior guard John Nance is dropping in 9.7 ppg.

Junior forward Zach Riedeman (9.3), Conner Nord (7.6), sophomore guard Marcus Alipate (6.4) and junior guard Erik Tengwall (6.1) are all averaging at least 6 points per outing.

A total of 13 players scored in the NCAA opener, including a 14-point, 13-rebound effort by Hannon. Riedeman paced the scoring attack with 16 points.

St. Thomas is averaging 82.4 points per outing and shooting an impressive 52.9 percent from the field.

“One of the most important parts of our success is our depth,” DeBerg said. “We have seven, eight, nine guys who can lead our team in scoring on any given night. It’s tough for teams to prepare for us because you don’t know who is going to step up.”

Not only does the depth take pressure off the Tommies from an offensive standpoint, but it allows the players to give it all they have on the defensive end of the floor.

St. Thomas is giving up 60.2 points per outing and has forced 425 turnovers. Opponents are shooting only 43.5 percent from the field and just 28.1 percent from 3-point range.

“We wear teams down with our depth because we know we can play as hard as possible and not worry about not getting a chance to rest,” DeBerg said. “All of us play with a lot of energy and understand how important defense is to success.”

Tauer said he doesn’t hesitate to apply pressure on defense, knowing that the relentless effort on defense often translates into success on offense.

“Our defense feeds into our offense,” Tauer said. “We like to pressure teams and crank up the tempo.”

The Tommies have won 11 consecutive games since a 54-52 road loss to Concordia-Moorhead on Jan. 21. While the streak is impressive, the players haven’t become over-confident because of it.

“Our team believes we can play with anyone in the country, but they also respect every team they play,” Tauer said. “We have played against some very good teams in our conference, and every team you play in the tournament is tough. You can’t take a night off. You have to play your best in every game.”

DeBerg said staying focused on the task at hand hasn’t been a problem. He is determined to help the Tommies win a title, which would certainly be the perfect ending to a stellar career.

“My time here has been awesome,” DeBerg said. “I didn’t get to play a lot when I first got here but I’ve learned so much and it’s been a special four years. I would love to win another championship. It would be a great way to end my career. But for now, our focus is on Wheaton. We know we have to be ready because every team is going to give us their best shot.”