Two-time SCAC All-Tournament selection Zach Behr (16.3 ppg, 5.3 reb.) hopes to help TLU notch the first NCAA Division III tournament win in school history tonight.
(Abilene) - The Texas Lutheran men's basketball team hopes the third time is the charm in tonight's NCAA Division III tournament opener against Emory University at the Hardin Simmons Mabee Complex in Abilene.
The Bulldogs, 19-9 under first-year head coach Mike Wacker, are in the Field of 64 for the third consecutive season after winning their third straight Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference championship last weekend. TLU tries to clear the first-round hurdle for the first time in program history after falling to Claremont Mudd Scripps 79-55 and Hardin Simmons 97-81 in the 2015 and 2016 NCAA openers, respectively.
"One huge advantage for us is that this is the third consecutive year that we've been in this first round game," Wacker said. "They desperately would like to advance, and I've always been a big proponent of 'if you knock on the door, knock on the door, knock on the door, then you can make a run.' That's been my experience watching college basketball, and it's also my experience in the high school playoffs, so I'm really excited about where we are, and I'm really looking forward to this weekend."
Wacker has good reason to be excited, in large measure due to TLU's "Big Three" - the accomplished senior trio of point-guard Sterling Holmes, shooting guard Jordan Kouremetis, and forward Zach Behr. Holmes, a 2016 All-American and three-time All-SCAC and SCAC All-Tournament selection who was the SCAC Player of the Year and Tournament MVP as a junior, is averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game this season. Kouremetis, a three-time All-SCAC selection and two-time SCAC Tournament MVP, averages 14 points and hits 38.7 percent of his threes, and scored a season-high 28 in the Bulldogs' conference championship win over Schreiner last Sunday. Behr, a 2017 All-SCAC and two-time SCAC All-Tournament honoree, is averaging 16.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Emory is making its fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance under 10th-year head coach Jason Zimmerman. The Eagles went 18-7 during the regular season and finished third in the University Athletic Association with a conference record of 9-5. Emory is no stranger to NCAA tournament success after advancing to the Sweet 16 each of the past two seasons and the Elite Eight in 2014.
The Eagles feature three impressive frontcourt players who can score inside and on the perimeter, and one the best passing point guards in the nation distributing the ball among them. Adam Gigax, a 6'7" junior, averages 18.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and shoots 40.2 percent from three-point range. Jim Gordon, a 6'5" senior forward, averages 15.6 points and 4.3 rebounds. Junior center Christopher Avant checks in at 6'8" and 225 lbs, and produces 12.1 points per game while hitting 40 percent of his threes and coralling a team-high 6.7 rebounds per outing.
The floor general who sets up Gigax, Gordon, and Avant with scoring opportunities is 6'0" junior point guard Whitt Rapp. He ranks third nationally in assists, dishing out 8.5 per game, and contributes 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per outing as well.
"The first thing, we're going to have to make sure we keep the ball out the paint," Wacker said while mapping out the defensive game plan for tonight's matchup. "We can't allow easy baskets in transition. Those bigs run the floor extremely well, the point guard pushes the ball extremely well, as evidenced by the number of assists he has. He has blind vision - blind justice as we call it - and he pushes it ahead as quickly as we can. We're going to have to pick him up, slow him down, and all of our five guys on the floor are going to have to sprint back every single possession, otherwise they're going to exploit that weakness."
Both teams play at a relatively quick tempo, with Emory averaging 80.4 points per game and TLU 79.9. They each make 9.1 threes per game, and the Bulldogs rank 34th nationall in three-point shooting percentage (.385).
Tonight's opening tip is slated for 5:30 p.m. The game will air live on KWED 1580 AM and Seguintoday.com, with pre-game coverage slated for 5:15. The winner of the TLU-Emory game will face the winner of Hardin Simmons and LaGrange on Saturday at 7 p.m. KWED will broadcast that contest as well if the Bulldogs advance.