The Tommies' 12-year challenge

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At age 6, Anders Nelson met Will DeBerg, then a high school basketball player. Now, DeBerg is an assistant coach at St. Thomas and Nelson is the team's standout point guard.

By Ryan Scott

As a high school sophomore, St. Thomas assistant coach (and former player) Will DeBerg, accepted an invitation to a 6-year-old’s birthday party.

That 6-year-old happened to be named Anders Nelson.

“We didn’t know the family at all,” says DeBerg, “My dad got a call out of the blue, it was this woman saying her son was a big fan of mine and all he wanted for his birthday was for me to come and play basketball with him and his friends.”

DeBerg knew Nelson would be pretty good, even at age 6. In fact, this year he’s become just the second freshman in recent memory to start regularly for the St. Thomas men’s basketball team , the other being eventual NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and 2011 All-American, Tyler Nicolai.

“Will would ref the games at my elementary school,” says Nelson. “He saw a spark in me that I still have now.”

Nelson turned down scholarship offers at Division II and walk-on opportunities at Division I to play in St. Paul. “I knew I’d have a chance to play right away,” adds Nelson, “Will being on staff really made a difference.”

“It’s cool to have kids looking up to you, wearing your jersey,” says DeBerg. “I had a blast at the party. Within three minutes you could tell he was good – even at 6 – he had something about him that was unbelievable, the competitiveness and the basketball knowledge he already had at that age. We built a relationship and it’s been exciting to watch him grow.”

"Within three minutes you could tell he was good – even at (age) 6."

– Will DeBerg, talking about Anders Nelson

Nelson has indeed grown into an incredible basketball player, leading the Tommies in points, assists, rebounds, and steals this season, claiming MIAC rookie of the year and being named to the all-conference first team.

None of those accolades tops winning two games in the NCAA Tournament, including a defeat of the defending national champions, Nebraska Wesleyan, on their home court.

“Anders didn’t score a lot this weekend,” said UST head coach John Tauer, also a former Tommie player, “but I thought he played two of his best games of the year.” Nelson averaged nine rebounds and nine assists in the opening two rounds. “It’s come full circle,” says Tauer. “Nebraska Wesleyan ended my [playing] career. They came into our gym, when we had a top-ranked, undefeated squad, and beat us in my last game.”

Relying so much on young players is new for Tauer and St. Thomas, perennially among the best teams in the country and seemingly always full of experienced and talented seniors. On this squad Nelson, along with fellow freshman Riley Miller, and sophomores Ryan Lindberg and Burt Hedstrom contribute significantly and have been instrumental in the team’s success thus far.

“It feels like they’ve been here for four years,” says senior Connor Bair, who was a freshman on the 2015-16 national championship squad and is neck-and-neck with Nelson for the team’s leading scorer. “There was a lot of hype around [Anders] and we didn’t know what to expect, but he and Riley have come in and fit right away.”

In November, Connor Bair and the Tommies defeated UW-River Falls at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Division I men's basketball Final Four will be hosted next month.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

The freshmen didn’t get to join the Tommies on their summer trip to Panama and Costa Rica, which became a formative, bonding experience for the team, but they did make the opening weekend trip to Boston and Brooklyn, where St. Thomas opened the season 1-1.

Anders Nelson handling the ball
Anders Nelson would seem to be a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

“It was crazy fun,” says Nelson. “We took the subway to the game and it was snowing and we were trying to find our way around campus.” The fact that the team lost its opener on a last-second shot was almost secondary. After all, St. Thomas finished the previous season 14-12, ending a streak of 12 consecutive MIAC titles.

With such a young squad, no one expected too much.

“We don’t typically focus on this stuff,” says Tauer. “But I reminded the guys before the first round this weekend that we followed that opening loss with 21 straight wins.”

That streak saw St. Thomas shoot up the national rankings, but there were still some doubts. With only five non-conference games, it’s difficult to gauge just how good a team is relative to the rest of the country. With late losses to Augsburg and St. John’s, a lot was up in the air for this young, largely unproven crew.

“Each of our three seniors [Connor Bair, GT Johnson, and Michael Hannon] were freshmen on the title team,” says Tauer. “They played no minutes in the tournament, but they have that experience; they know what it takes to get there and that is invaluable. How you sustain and perpetuate a culture is incredibly important.”

It’s not enough just to see the banners in the rafters if you don’t know how they got there. Bair and his fellow seniors didn’t have floor experience in a championship, but they had front row seats, gaining wisdom invaluable for preparing to face big moments.

“You know the magnitude of a big game,” says Bair. “But you don’t want to overdo anything, overthink anything. It’s about patience, about going through normal routines. That’s what we learned [during the championship run]. The other thing is to play with confidence; we have a tremendous amount of confidence in everyone on this team.”

A ten-deep roster is also an oddity at St. Thomas, which won its two national titles with very short rotations. “We call them the second starters,” says Tauer, who saw his team go from three points down to fourteen points up against Nebraska Wesleyan during a ten-minute second half stretch that both Nelson and Bair spent on the bench.

“Watching the film” says Tauer, “the announcers kept bringing [Bair and Nelson on the bench] up; they probably would’ve used it to skewer me if we’d lost, but I love how our guys believe and trust in each other.”

Next up is a sectional semifinal matchup with Guilford at UW-Oshkosh, and potentially either the hosts or Loras, which was the only other team in the country to beat NWU this season. Any coach will tell you experience matters and while none of the Tommies has ever played a minute of a sectionals game, they’ve inherited a tradition of excellence.

Whether it’s Nelson, learning from 2011 national champ DeBerg or Bair passing along his experience from 2016, being a part of St. Thomas basketball means knowing what it takes. Says Nelson: “We hear it every day in practice: This is serious. We’re here to win; we’re not here to play around.”

The Tommies proved this weekend that’s not just talk. It’s decades of investment paying off.