North Central out to defend CCIW title under unusual circumstances
North Central College has waited a long time to defend its College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin men's basketball championship.
The Cardinals won last year's title with a 14-2 record, two games ahead of Augustana. Illinois Wesleyan (19-9, 11-5), Elmhurst (25-5, 11-5) and Wheaton (15-11, 9-7) weren't far behind. North Central went 23-5 overall.
Because of the pandemic, North Central has been shut down like the rest of the conference. Unlike Division I schools that started playing games in November, Division III teams have made a major adjustment. The Cardinals had a couple practices in October, then didn't return to the court until Jan. 2.
The CCIW will tip off an abbreviated scheduled Saturday. Each CCIW school will play a 12-game conference-only schedule.
"It's been different, no doubt about it," North Central coach Todd Rairdon said. "It feels almost like summer in some capacity other than it's cold. You have some downtime there that's not anticipated."
The players have been on their own to stay in shape.
"The only thing we could do was encourage them as best possible," Rairdon said. "That's easier said than done. To run, you have to go outside in the cold. Lift, maybe there's a handful of fitness centers maybe they could get into, maybe they couldn't. It's just been so different that there's not much from a coach's standpoint you could do with them."
North Central has been testing for COVID-19 three times a week since late December. It had one positive test which sidelined five players because of contact tracing.
While the Cardinals graduated three starters, they do have some key pieces back, most with a strong local connection.
Neuqua Valley grad Connor Rairdon started all 28 of North Central's games last yer, leading the Cardinals in scoring (14 ppg.) and assists (5.3) while ranking second in rebounds (7). He recorded the first triple-double in the program's history, earning first team All-CCIW, the conference's Most Outstanding Player, and D3hoops.com first team All-America.
Junior Matthew Helwig from Metea Valley (8.5 ppg.), Neuqua Valley's Blaise Meredith (9.5 ppg., 5.6 rpg., 2nd team all-CCIW) and Newark's Will Clausel (7.6 ppg. on 53.8% shooting) also return.
"I think the jury is still out," Todd Rairdon said. "Our job we have as coaches is getting that leadership passed on to the younger kids and put together a pretty good product once the season starts. Our kids, like everybody else, are trying to make that happen."
There's plenty of other local CCIW players to watch.
Illinois Wesleyan junior Peter Lambesis (St. Viator) and senior Charlie Bair (Glenbard South) put up big numbers last year. Lambesis made the CCIW second team and was the team's co-Most Valuable Player averaging 12.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals. Bair started 23 of 24 games and led the Titans in rebounding at 8.3 a game, third best in the CCIW, while scoring 9 ppg.
Lavon Thomas (Wheaton North) had a big season for Elmhurst, averaging 13.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. Nick Perry (Hinsdale South) is back after scoring 4.5 points a game as a junior and 5.6 as a sophomore.
Luke Anthony transferred to Wheaton College from Dayton, where he originally went to out of Wheaton North for football. He averaged 10.7 points and 3.6 rebounds last year.
At North Park, Prospect grad Matt Szuba has been a force for three years, averaging 6.1 points last year, finishing fourth in the CCIW in blocked shots, and grabbing a team-high 6.4 rebounds. He averaged 7.6 rebounds as a sophomore and 8.2 points as a freshman.
Maine South grad Fillip Bulatovic averaged 9.7 points for Carthage while Carroll's roster is filled with local players.
At Augustana, the Vikings turn to Batavia graduate Steve Schafer as their first year coach.
While the new schedule isn't perfect -- North Central won't local foe Elmhurst, for example -- everyone is glad to be back.
"At this point we are just happy to have a conference schedule, period," Todd Rairdon said. "We're just looking forward to Jan. 23 and playing."