Under the Spell of Division III Hoops

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You can have your Carolinas and your UConns: I have seen the light, and it’s name is Division III NCAA basketball.

Over the last two weekends I’ve seen #3 Wheaton (Ill.) College play in two big games — a conference championship and a regional championship — and I’m here to tell you, this is some great basketball for the fans.

First, you’re right there with the action.  Wheaton’s gym, called King Arena, is pretty small.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been in some bigger high school gyms.  But that just adds to the intensity and excitement when something good happens.  The crowd literally explodes all around you.

20090307_012The game itself is so close it comes alive, right in front of you.  For me, there is no sport quite like basketball for getting close to the action: the sounds and the visuals are so much more compelling than when watching a game on TV, it really isn’t even in the same discussion.  I got down on the floor and took some pics, like this one.  Try doing that at a Duke – Carolina game, without a press pass.

And I may be reaching a bit here, but if the rest of Division III basketball is like what I’ve seen these last two weekends, the style of play is very team-oriented.  Lots of moving without the ball, give and go, exactly the way the game is “supposed to be played”.  Yes, I’m a bit of a purist.  How can you tell?

Next, the athletes are the genuine article:  the often talked about, but rarely seen, NCAA student-athlete.  No scholarships.  No hype.  No scandals.  Just books and basketball.  Unadorned simplicity.

And these guys can play.  I never really bought into the theory that Division I players are that much better than Division III players.  Some of them, yes.  Most, probably.  But not all, and not by that much.  And you get to watch them from 50 feet away, live, with the sounds of the game and the crowd all around you.  That’s a win in my book.

Wheaton shooting guard Kent Raymond is number 24 in the picture above.  His list of records and awards is a mile long.  An All-American last year, he will surely be one again this year.  But they’ve got other good players too.  The players who’ve impressed me the most include Andy Wiele, Andrew Jahns, and Jake Carwell.

20090307_007Here’s Andy Wiele, resting next to the very large Jeff Skemp from Wisconsin-Platteville, that he had to guard last night.  Wiele made a great effort, but Skemp is both taller and wider, and  hung a 38 on him.  Still, Wheaton won the war, in overtime, 74-69.

Wheaton now moves on to the round of 16 against Washington U. next week, again at home.  This next round is going to be a real barn-burner; two games at Wheaton, featuring some of the best teams in Division III:  St. Thomas (29-0) from Minnesota vs. Puget Sound (25-3), and Washington U. (25-2) vs. Wheaton (27-3).  Respectively, they finished 1-7-2-3 in the final Divsion III poll.

So you know I’ll be there.  I’m now a big fan.

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