Playing in March has become almost tradition for the Wheaton College men's basketball team. For the third consecutive year and fourth in the last five years the Thunder will play in the Division III NCAA Tournament.
After defeating Illinois Wesleyan in Saturday's CCIW Tournament championship game, the Thunder knew the season would continue, but it wasn't until Monday that the bracket was released. Wheaton will be heading to Hope College in Holland, Mich., for its first- and second-round games. It will square off against Rose-Hulman in the first game.
"They are led by a young man named Julian Strickland who is one of the best guards in the country," Wheaton coach Mike Schauer said. "They are one of the top teams defensively and very well-coached. This time of year every team is very, very good."
Like Wheaton, Rose-Hulman has appeared in the last three NCAA Tournaments and won its conference tournament. Schauer said the experience level on both teams would be a push and there is really no familiarity in the style of play between Rose-Hulman and previous Thunder opponents.
Wheaton is one of three teams to represent the CCIW at the national level. Joining the Thunder will be the two teams it had to beat to earn the CCIW championship, Illinois Wesleyan and Augustana. Schauer said it just shows the talent of the league throughout the year and traditionally that they were once again able to send three teams.
With the CCIW Tournament win the Thunder earned the automatic qualifying bid into the tournament, so the surprise of the selection show was much more subdued, Schauer said. Instead, he invited any team members who weren't in class to watch the Monday afternoon show with him in a classroom by the athletic offices. Schauer said it was a businesslike atmosphere.
If Wheaton can handle its first game it could set up a potential rematch from earlier this season against Hope College. The two teams play each other every year and in early December the Thunder beat Hope 81-60 in Grand Rapids, Mich., during the MIAA/CCIW Challenge. Schauer, however, said his team will have complete focus on its first game and even the coaching staff has done little scouting on a potential second-round matchup.
If the Thunder does make a run through the postseason it will have much to do with the play of senior guard Tyler Peters. The CCIW player of the year was named a finalist for the 2014 Jostens Trophy. He is one of 10 Division III players who will have a chance to win the award, which is given to the most outstanding basketball player of the year, considering basketball ability, academic prowess and community service. Peters led the CCIW in both points and assists.
Wheaton will take the court at 4:30 p.m. Friday. While it's an earlier game than usual, Schauer said the Thunder has some experience playing at that time after the semifinal CCIW game.
"Since it's the NCAA Tournament we get a little more time to travel and prepare," Schauer said. "By the time the game rolls around our guys will be ready to play."