The outlook sure has changed for the Carroll University men’s basketball team.
A few weeks ago, it looked bleak for the Pioneers.
Now, nothing can go wrong.
And it appears everything has fallen into place for Dave Buchanan’s upstart team at the right time as it continues to prepare for its first round game of the NCAA Division III tournament against Transylvania (Lexington, Ky.).
It won’t be easy, though, as the game, which is at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Friday, will be at Transylvania and these Pioneers are new to postseason competition. It’s the first time since 2007 that Carroll is playing in the NCAA tournament.
But what the Pioneers (16-9) have on their side is that they are battle-tested and enter the tournament with a wave of confidence and momentum.
Let’s revisit how Carroll got here. After all, the Pioneers were in danger of missing its own four-team conference tournament.
If that had happened, their NCAA tournament drought would have definitely continued, because an at-large berth would not have been in the cards.
On Feb. 11, the Pioneers had just suffered a three-point loss to St. Norbert – their fourth defeat in seven games – dropping their record to 8-8 in conference play.
And with Ripon at 10-6 and in fourth place with two games to go, the Pioneers needed help and had to run the table just to squeeze into the Midwest Conference Tournament.
Well, that happened and the Pioneers continued their remarkable run, winning both games in the conference tournament upsetting the first and third seeds along the way to earn the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
The Pioneers have gotten contributions from many players during this run, but Dan Kratz, a junior forward who played his high school basketball at Waukesha South, has been very instrumental.
He has started only nine of the team’s 25 games and averaged just 8.7 points per game in just more than 20 minutes per game.
But he has made the most of his starts during the conference tournament.
In the two wins, he averaged 19 points per game, including leading the team with 21 points in Carroll’s big 77-70 semifinal victory over No. 1 seed, Lake Forest (20-4, 16-2 Midwest Conference), who was hosting the tournament.
He was also very efficient over the two games as he combined to shoot 56 percent from the field (14 of 25).
Kratz earned another start after seeing 35 minutes in the semifinals and was just as impressive. He scored 17 points in 33 minutes while also collecting nine rebounds in Carroll’s 87-65 thrashing of St. Norbert (16-9, 12-6).
Kratz and Co. will have to keep it going if it is going to win its first NCAA tournament game since 2007. That year, the Pioneers advanced to the Sweet 16.
In order for that to happen, they have to get past Transylvania, a team that won its regular season conference championship at 16-2 and a team that has the Heartland Conference’s Player (junior forward Ethan Spurlin) and Coach (Brian Lane) of the Year.
While Transylvania, also nicknamed the Pioneers, enter the tournament at 23-4 overall and boasted two separate winning streaks of 10 and 11 games this year, it does enter the NCAA tournament with the sting of a loss in the conference tournament championship game.
Unlike Carroll, Transylvania had to wait until the selections were announced on Monday to see if it did enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
Transylvania was also blown out in their regular season finale, 83-65, on the road to Bluffton University. So despite the disparity in the two teams’ records, Carroll actually enters the tournament as the hotter team.
If Carroll – which only has two seniors on its roster – can pull off the upset, they will face the winner of the Wittenberg (21-6)/Birmingham Southern (25-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday for the right to play in the Sweet 16 on March 9.
Carroll players honored: The postseason awards were announced Wednesday and two Carroll sophomores were recognized.
Forward Alec Molter, who led the team in scoring (14.3 points per game) and rebounding (8.4), was named second-team all-Midwest, while Kevin Hurd, a 6-foot guard, earned honorable mention.
Molter, a Greenfield High School graduate, finished among the league leaders in many statistical categories, including a conference-best 46 blocks (1.8 per game). He also shot 57.3 percent from the field, a mark that was fourth best in the Midwest Conference.
Hurd, a Portage High School product, averaged 11.8 points per game, had a team-best 87 assists and led four players in double figures in Carroll’s conference title game with 22 points. He also had the flair for the dramatic.
With the score tied at 73 and the clock winding down in the fourth quarter against Illinois College on Jan. 20, Hurd drilled a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Pioneers the road win.
Hurd was at it again a few weeks later when his layup at the buzzer gave the Pioneers a 67-65 victory over Beloit College on Feb. 15. That game, coincidently, started the four-game winning streak that the Pioneers are currently on as they enter the NCAA tournament.