It's hard to believe that a team with as much postseason success as North Central would go into the first round of the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament and feel inexperienced.
However, in their first home playoff game in more than two decades the Cardinals came out of the gates with some obvious jitters Saturday against Centre College.
Fortunately for North Central, the overall talent was just too much for Centre to keep up with and the Cardinals won decisively 66-50 led by junior forward Landon Gamble. Coach Todd Raridon's team was steadied after a consistent post presence in the first half.
"We got a lot of good things getting the ball in offensively," Raridon said. "It seemed like it consequently opened up some things on the perimeter. Landon Gamble had a nice game for us. Once he got going it seemed like he was more aggressive offensively."
The Cardinals will need to continue their strong play in the second round against defending national champion and No. 5-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Saturday's game will put streaks for both teams on the line. North Central will come into the game on a nine-game winning streak and a 17-game home winning streak, while Whitewater has its own 10-game streak following a 58-42 home win in the first round against Dubuque.
Although North Central is technically the host team, it won't be playing on its home court at Gregory Arena. Because of a scheduling conflict with the track and field national championships the school is also hosting, the game will be played at nearby Benedictine University.
"We played at their place this year," Raridon said about playing at Benedictine. "Our juniors and seniors have played there at least twice because we have played there every year. They have been outstanding and we are fortunate they have allowed us to host there."
North Central may need the homecourt advantage against a difficult Whitewater team. Raridon expects the game to be slowed down and a defensive struggle with both teams treasuring each possession.
Fortunately for the No. 3-ranked Cardinals, the week between games is giving the entire team time to heal. Senior forward Aaron Tiknis is still recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of practice early in the week, and three players including Gamble are getting over a fight with strep throat.
In the end Raridon said he will be leaning on his team's paint presence once again.
"We will have to play at a higher level than what we played at last Saturday," Raridon said. "They are the defending national champs and there is a reason for that. We are definitely going to have to rebound the ball. When the shot goes up, that's when the game is on."
In the win-or-go-home atmosphere of the national tournament, there is rarely a second to take a deep breath. After winning by the slimmest of margins, the Wheaton College men's basketball team will need to be completely focused on the daunting task waiting in the second round.
It took a second-half rally from a 14-point deficit and a last-second missed shot for Wheaton to top St. Norbert 59-58 in their first-round game Saturday in Wheaton. Moving on, the Thunder will play its first road playoff game this year against No. 1-ranked St. Thomas (27-1) in St. Paul, Minn. St. Thomas dominated Aurora University in their first-round game, winning 91-62 at home.
To pull the upset, Wheaton will need repeat performances from forward Nathan Haynes who tallied a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and guard Brayden Teuscher, who also scored 16 points. St. Thomas has been able to keep scoring to a minimum all year, only allowing the opposing team to reach 70 points twice this year.
Coach Mike Schauer isn't shirking the challenge. Far from it.
"When the brackets came out, everybody said, aw, man, look how tough your bracket is, you're probably going to have to go St. Thomas in the second round," Schauer said after the St. Norbert game. "And my answer was if I was St. Thomas I'd look at the bracket and say, man, we're probably going to get a CCIW team in the second round.
"... They're great, but I don't know if they're significantly better than the best teams in our league. I don't know that I have any more concern about trying to beat them there than I would trying to go to North Central and win or some place like that. I think there are some similarities there. But I love it. I can't wait. I think it's the best thing in the world to be able to go on the road here and try to play the No. 1-ranked team in the country."
North Central will be hosting the Division III Track and field indoor national championships this weekend and will have eight athletes competing in front of the home crowd. Ranked No. 4 nationally, the Cardinals head into this weekend with a chance to claim their fourth straight indoor championship.
Looking to defend his championship last year, pole vaulter Josh Winder will lead the way. Also competing for North Central will be Pat Foley (800-meter run), Zach Heerspink (high jump, Matt Souvannasing (long jump), with Juliano Lodi, Dionte Hackler, Marlen Hamilton and John Crain competing in the distance medley. Crain will also be running the 5,000-meter run, in which he is ranked second in the field.
Orrin Schwarz contributed to this story.