Playoffs came early for Wartburg

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Jordan Cannon and the rest of the Wartburg offense was on-target all weekend in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Photo by Wade Gardner,

By Ryan Scott

Wartburg isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone; they just want to win basketball games. “We always have confidence in our guys,” says senior captain Jordan Cannon, “It doesn’t matter who we play, as long as we play our game we know we can play with anybody.”

The season has been a roller coaster  for the Knights. They opened the season by going 8-1 in non-conference play, with wins over nationally ranked UW-Eau Claire and UW-Oshkosh and their one loss to North Central (Ill.) in double overtime. Then they launched into the conference schedule where they went 8-8 and needed to win their last two games just to qualify for the conference tournament.

“I think it’s reflective of the success our league had from top to bottom,” says 20-year head coach Dick Peth, “Our league had a ton of success in crossover games, more success than we’ve had in the past.” The IIAC finished with the best non-conference record in the West region and twelfth nationally at an almost .600 winning percentage.

Still, despite injuries and a tough schedule, the Wartburg men don’t feel their conference record is reflective of the team’s ability. “We knew what we were capable of. But once conference play started, we needed to turn it up another notch and we didn’t do that right away,” says senior captain Nick Webber.

Jordan Cannon adds, “We had a couple team meetings outside of practice and that’s when we laid down what our roles are to each other and what can we do from this point on to help our team win. What was done was done; we lost those games, but that didn’t mean we had to lose the next one. That’s when the wins started coming.”

Nick Webber made all his free throws and the Knights didn't miss many shots as a team against Benedictine.
Photo by Wade Gardner, 

The Knights have basically been in tournament mode for a month now, having to win every game since February 15 just to have a chance to be where they are. While the second half against Benedictine, when Wartburg shot an ungodly 80% from three (9-11) to secure their first NCAA tournament victory since 1991, was surely anomalous, the rest of the weekend looked very much like typical Wartburg basketball.

In six of the last seven games, the Knights shot better than their 38 pecent season average from beyond the arc. Beating two Top 10 programs like Benedictine and UW-River Falls by almost 30 points per game seems dominating, and it is, but the margins were so large not because the offense was other-worldly, but because the Knights showed up on defense.

“We knew if we focused on defense and rebounding that’s how we could have the most success,” says Webber, “Those were the areas that clicked well for us this weekend, which is why we had such success, but those were two great teams and I think we may have caught them on some off shooting nights, too."

This run may seem out of nowhere, but the Knights were ranked in the Top 25 around the holidays and anyone who played them would tell you they’re not an easy out. Cannon is the leading scorer, but four of Wartburg’s ten-man rotation scores in double figures. No one averages even five rebounds per game, but six players average more than three. No player averages even three assists per game, but six average more than one. Nobody hits even two 3-pointers per game on average, but the team hits almost ten each time out.

“We’re peaking at the right time,” says Peth, “We’ve been much more consistent towards the tail end [of the season]."

It is a relentless attack, averaging more than 80 points per game, with contributions well down the bench. Wartburg lost the conference championship game the last two seasons, but found a way to break through this season. “We’re the road dogs,” says Cannon, “We enjoy playing these teams on the road and beating teams in front of their home crowds."

If they want another road victory this weekend at Hope, the Knights will have to get through Augustana first – a rematch from the round of sixteen back in 1975 (yes, that’s the first ever Division III basketball tournament), when the Knights lost 61-62.

“We know they’re a solid team from a strong conference and they have a lot of good offensive players,” says Webber, “They’re pretty similar to us in the fact that they’ve outscored teams a little bit this year; I’m sure they’re trying to focus on defense just as we are. I’m sure it will be a pretty even matchup."

In many years seeing the IIAC matched up with the CCIW would look lopsided, but things are changing at Wartburg. The women’s basketball squad made an impressive run to the final four last season and their wrestling team has been dominant for a while now. “We have a lot of good athletic programs here,” says Webber, “We want to live up to that tradition."

“I couldn’t be happier for our team,” says Peth, “But I’m elated for our seniors.” For Webber, Cannon, and fellow seniors, JT Rottinghaus and Lenart Kalan, this is the run they’ve been dreaming of, but not a run of dreams. It’s clear they’re confident in themselves and their teammates and don’t see this as any kind of Cinderella story.

Often the difference between winning a title and missing the tournament is focus and attitude. “We’ve been playing every possession like it was our last for a couple weeks now,” says Webber, “I think that’s why we’re playing the way we are.” However far this run takes them, one thing’s for sure: it won’t be a surprise to the Wartburg Knights.