2019 men's tournament preview

By Ryan Scott

Here we are again, folks. It’s March and it’s time for the greatest show on Earth: the NCAA Division III men’s national championship! Games haven’t started yet, but the big winner is already UW-La Crosse – an at-large selection nobody saw coming. On Thursday, they probably thought their season was over, but now they, and sixty-three other teams, have a chance at the title.

The committee gave us an excellent bracket. They spent an extra flight to let Whitman host the first round – a well-deserved honor for what it likely the top overall seed. They did they best they could, given geographical limitations, to keep the best teams apart as long as possible. A potential UW-Oshkosh meeting with St. John’s in the second round is tough, but it also illustrates the importance of winning your conference tournament.

Last year my predictions were royally bad. Only one of my Final Four picks even made it to the second weekend (and it wasn’t the team I picked to win). The 2019 edition may be even more tumultuous with so many quality teams and intriguing matchups. Without further ado, a vision of the future:

Top Left Quadrant

Whitman got to the national semifinals in 2017 and lost to the eventual champs last year in the Elite 8.
Whitman athletics photo

Texas Lutheran (18-10) at Whitman (26-1); Texas-Dallas (24-4) vs. Pomona-Pitzer (25-2)

Husson (17-10) at Williams (20-6); Gwynedd Mercy (19-8) vs. Plattsburgh State (20-6)

Albertus Magnus (20-7) at Christopher Newport (25-3); Alfred (23-4) vs. Ramapo (18-9)

Penn State-Behrend (23-4) at Hamilton (23-4); Moravian (19-8) vs. Keene State (20-7)

Best matchup: Texas-Dallas and Pomona-Pitzer share a hyphen, and each made waves early with wins over perennial powers Whitworth and Whitman respectively. This game will showcase the SCIAC player of the year, Daniel Rosenbaum, a lanky 6-4 guard with a tricky inside-outside game, and UTD’s Dimitrius Underwood, the ASC tournament MVP. The Comets like to run and Sageheans play terrific defense. This should be a great one!

What to watch: Ramapo was a Final Four squad a year ago, then graduated the entire starting lineup and lost another key cog to transfer. It took them a while to really gel this season, but they looked incredibly strong down the stretch and are battle tested from NJAC play. The reserves held their own in Salem last year and could make a run to Ft. Wayne this time around.

Most likely to surprise: Ty Nichols is one of the best players in the country, and most fans have never heard of him. The senior forward from Keene State does it all – ball-handling, shooting, and in the post – he is an individual performer who can really make waves in the tournament. The Owls played Hamilton tough on the road once already this year. Nichols teamed with coach Ryan Cain, who’s taken Keene unexpectedly deep before, look out!

Most likely to disappoint: I really like John Krikorian; I think he’s one of the best coaches in the game, but I’ve been suspicious of Christopher Newport’s schedule all year. I know I’ve given them plenty of bulletin board fodder already, but I’ve just not seen enough to buy them as a favorite. Marcus Carter was heroic in the CAC title game, but he’s had some major injuries since he played in the Final Four, and while they may escape the first weekend at home, I don’t like their chances to survive sectionals.

Who will win: I’m going chalk on this one. Whitman has more experienced, talented players than you can count. Their senior class has already won more games than any other in Division III history and they have a mission to complete. I think we see Williams, CNU, and Keene in the second weekend, but I’m just not sure any of them has enough to beat the Blues (even with some jet lag).

Bottom Left Quadrant

Kevin Dennis is Division III's leading rebounder and became Morrisville State's all-time leading scorer this season as well.
Morrisville State athletics photo

Rosemont (15-12) vs. Amherst (23-4); Farmingdale State (20-7) at Rochester (20-5)

Emerson (16-11) at Rowan (21-6); Middlebury (18-7) vs. Nichols (25-2)

Mitchell (19-9) at Swarthmore (24-3); Skidmore (19-7) vs. MIT (22-4)

Morrisville State (23-4) at Randolph-Macon (25-3); DeSales (21-6) vs. York, Pa. (21-7)

Best matchup: Middlebury has not played Nichols recently, although the Bison are very similar to the Endicott squads that have given the Panthers trouble the last few seasons. There will be lots of three point shooting in this game. The big questions will be how well Middlebury’s big guys survive the pace Nichols is sure to bring. Regardless of the outcome, this will be a first-round showpiece of excellent basketball well worth watching. (And don’t sleep on a potential MIT-Swarthmore matchup Saturday; that’ll be epic, too, if it happens.)

What to watch: Two unsung All-American candidates, Morrisville’s Kevin Dennis (currently the nation’s leading rebounder) and Farmingdale’s George Reifenstahl, will take on traditional powers as road teams. Dennis has been destroying NEAC squads and it will be exciting to see him face a team of R-MC’s caliber. Despite an ability to run the floor, Reifenstahl is a beast on both ends in the kind of half-court game Rochester likes; this match-up sure plays to his strengths.

Most likely to surprise: With different bracketing, Skidmore would’ve been a no-brainer here; I’m just not sure they have the depth to get by MIT and Swarthmore. On the other hand, this is a stacked bracket, where upsets will be few and far between. Middlebury’s capable of winning the whole thing, but that wouldn’t exactly be a surprise. Nichols getting to Ft. Wayne is probably the most surprising result that isn’t so far-fetched as to get me fired.

Most likely to disappoint: It can only be Amherst, right? Swarthmore’s not yet proven themselves, MIT’s been banged up. Randolph-Macon is perhaps a year ahead of schedule and Rochester isn’t quite at their normal level. Amherst is the only team that will be disappointed if they aren’t in the Final Four. Rowan is the most likely top seed to lose in the first round – and that would be disappointing – but the Mammoths have all the pressure here.

Who will win: MIT is the most talented team in this bracket, but they’ve battled injuries and inconsistencies all season and lost twice down the stretch. Swarthmore has played in fits and starts all year, but really seems to have it clicking now. Additionally, they match-up well with both Randolph-Macon and Amherst. I think Middlebury is the surprise team, exacting revenge on Amherst then falling, for a second time this season, to the Garnet. Cam Wiley will be the difference and they’ll meet Whitman in Fort Wayne.

Top Right Quadrant

Nate Schimonitz has missed a few games, but leads Nebraska Wesleyan at 16.2 points per game.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

Eureka (13-14) at Nebraska Wesleyan (26-1); UW-La Crosse (17-9) vs. St. Thomas (22-4)

Sewanee (12-6) at Guilford (21-7); Emory (20-5) vs. Wittenberg (23-5)

Lake Forest (18-9) vs. UW-Oshkosh (23-3); Northwestern, Minn. (21-6) at St. John’s (23-4)

Chatham (19-9) at North Central, Ill. (22-5); Albion (19-8) vs. Loras (21-6)

Best matchup: Emory has come into their own towards the end of the season really pushing the pace and Wittenberg is willing to run. Both teams are playing their best basketball right now and, I think, in Guilford, see a legitimate path to the second weekend.

What to watch: Anders Nelson could very well be one and done with St. Thomas; this bracket is no joke. However, he’s perhaps the best freshman in the country, running the point for the Tommies and leading in a number of statistical categories. There’s a bright future to be had and I think they can get by La Crosse, but it’s not a given and you don’t want to miss a chance to see this kid on a big stage – although, granted, there are three more years to come.

Most likely to surprise: North Central lost two starters* to season-ending injuries this year on a team we weren’t sure was deep enough to begin with. They had some struggles, as you’d expect, but really put on a show running through the CCIW tournament and taking themselves off the bubble. Connor Raridon is a tremendous basketball player, but it’s the ways that Matt Cappelletti and Blaise Meredith step up that could take the Cardinals all the way.

*A quickly deleted tweet on bracket Monday revealed that Aiden Chang – he of a really tragic, gruesome leg injury in December, and a pretty talented point guard – was cleared for full participation in practice this week. I’m not sure what this means, but it can only be good news for NCC, and great news for Aiden Chang.

Most likely to disappoint: I’m taking the “most likely” very literally. Oshkosh is good, but they have a real murderer’s row of potential opponents. Lake Forest has talent. St. John’s is one of the most disciplined, defensively efficient teams in the country and will be at home. North Central and Loras are Top 15 nationally and that’s before a potential national championship rematch with NWU. They have the most difficult path of any of the top seeds nation-wide and thus most likely to disappoint.

Who will win: We all know what Nebraska Wesleyan is capable of, obviously, but with their play this year, I find it hard to believe they’ll be as consistently dominant. The Prairie Wolves aren’t sneaking up on anybody. They may not even get to host the second weekend if Wittenberg emerges. You know who might host? Oshkosh, so despite what I said earlier, I’m playing the long odds and backing the Titans to avenge their Salem defeat and return to the Final Four.

Bottom Right Quadrant

Brett Benning is one of four Augustana starters averaging in double figures.
Augustana athletics photo

Aurora (17-11) at Augustana (24-3); UW-Platteville (18-10) vs. Capital (20-7)

Baruch (22-5) at Wooster (23-5); Hanover (21-6) vs. Wheaton, Ill. (19-8)

Maryville, Tenn. (21-7) at Marietta (20-6); Arcadia (22-5) vs. New Jersey City (20-7)

Salem State (18-9) at Oswego State (22-5); Salisbury (19-8) vs. Baldwin Wallace (20-8)

Best matchup: This quadrant is full of them. Salisbury and Baldwin Wallace is super intriguing. As is Hanover and Wheaton, where Cam Fails may be the second-best player in a game for the first time all year. Platteville and Capital will also be fun to watch. I’m picking Maryville and Marietta here, though. The Scots brought everyone back from an NCAA Tournament team last year; they had to deal with injury, but recovered to get the USAC bid again. Marietta has been up and down in a tough conference and I think these teams matchup in unique ways – couple that with the special atmosphere at Ban Johnson Arena and you have a real treat.

What to watch: Wooster. The Scots hosting the first weekend is a bit of a surprise, but with the way this quadrant is bracketed, they’re in line to host sectionals as well, should they advance. Top seeds have had trouble in Timken before, but this is as clear a path to the Final Four as they could’ve hoped for. I’m sure Steve Moore will keep that far from their minds, because Baruch, Hanover, and Wheaton are all capable of winning that pod.

Most likely to surprise: New Jersey City is entirely capable of beating any team on their side of this quadrant. Sam Toney is a supremely skilled players, but he’s got a better supporting cast around him this year. They are a bit under the radar, so the pressure and attention is off. I can’t say I see them getting to Fort Wayne, but they’re primed to make waves.

Most likely to disappoint: I’m going with Oswego State here. It’s been hard to gauge the SUNYAC this season and Oswego’s nonconference performance was just not that impressive. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got their talent clicking at the right time and they’ve got homecourt advantage for the first weekend, but they’ve also got a lot to prove.

Who will win: Aston Francis has shown up every game this season, even if they lose. I’m not sure his scoring will be enough to beat Wooster at home. Likewise, as much as I want to pick NJCU to the sectionals, Marietta is a tough place to play. Maybe Maryville pulls the first round upset that allows the Gothic Knights through? I’m going to give Oswego the benefit of the doubt, too. In the end, though, I just don’t see the teams in this quadrant beating Augustana. Wooster will be their closest game, but the Vikings are headed back for another shot at the title.

Championship Weekend

This is a powerhouse weekend, with Whitman playing Swarthmore and Oshkosh matching up against Augustana in the semifinals. Outside of the full court press, Whitman and Swarthmore play very similar styles – lots of pace and lots of outside shooting. Both teams like to get to the rim and bang around inside. I just think Whitman is better at it and Swarthmore (with just one senior) will have to wait for next year.

I’ve been told not to pick against Nolan Ebel – for sure the point guard I’d want on my Division III all-star team – but what we have here is really two all-star teams, where nearly every rotation player on both sides has extensive Final Four experience. I believe this is the best single game of the 2019 NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament and that Oshkosh pulls it out in overtime. Superior three point shooting will make the difference. Grey Giovanine will have to wait for his much-deserved title at least one more year.

As for the championship game, I think the depth and talent of Whitman, another squad where many of the key players saw the floor in the sport’s final weekend, will win out. Oshkosh will once again play at the top of their game and, as it was last year against Nebraska Wesleyan, their best just won’t quite be good enough on March 16.

This is my third year writing the D3hoops.com Men’s tournament preview. The first year I correctly predicted Babson to win the title; the second year my pick, WashU, washed out in the first round. All in all, I think Whitman and coach Eric Bridgeland will take 50-50 odds heading into what’s sure to be another exciting Division III NCAA Tournament.