Clash of the conferences: RMAC, Northern Sun battle it out in Central Region
As the bracket was being filled out on the big screen Sunday night, you couldn’t help but notice how the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament was shaping up.
It’s the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference vs. the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Winner take all.
“I think it’s kind of neat,” Mesa State coach Jim Heaps said about the 4-4 split in the regional field, with an RMAC team pitted against a Northern Sun team in every first-round game Saturday in Mankato, Minn.
“It’s kinda cool to see head-to-head, go play and see what happens. There’s that competitiveness between the conferences and regions.”
The Mavericks (22-5) face Winona State (20-9) at 1:30 p.m. (MST) on Saturday, the second game of the day. When Heaps and associate head coach Andy Shantz sat down to watch film of the Warriors, it was like looking at the Mavs, only in purple and white uniforms.
“I told the kids they shoot it really well from the floor, shoot a lot of 3s and shoot it well,” Heaps said. “They’ve got a good post player, play man defense. They’re a little bigger than we are, I think we’re a little quicker. Otherwise, it’s just mirror images, very similar teams.”
Strangely enough, both teams lost their top guard late in the season to an ankle/foot injury. The Mavericks were without Jase Herl for 3 1/2 games, three of those losses, after he sprained his right ankle early in the game Feb. 9 at Western State.
The Warriors lost their leading scorer, David Johnson (19.1 points per game), to a left foot sprain less than a minute into their game Feb. 27 against St. Cloud State.
The biggest difference between the teams is their tournament history.
Mesa State is 0 for the regionals, losing five games in four previous trips.
Winona, on the other hand, is making its sixth consecutive trip to the regionals, going 11-3 and winning three regional titles (2006, ‘07, ‘08). In that three-year span, Winona went 8-1 in the Elite Eight, winning the national championship in 2006 and 2008 and losing in the title game in 2007.
All season, the Mavericks pointed to reaching the regional and beyond. Heaps believes that’s possible, despite their late-season slump.
“We’ve done the regional thing before, and as a No. 2 seed, it’s important we go up and represent well,” he said. “I want to go up and see us play like we were playing earlier this year, run our stuff and play together and defend, and do all those things we’re capable of doing. I want us to perform.
“It’s just important, if we’re going to earn a No. 2 seed, we go up and play like a No. 2 seed. There’s no excuse not to.”
He believes all eight teams are capable of reaching the Elite Eight.
“The key is not making the regional your goal to end-all,” Heaps said. “I don’t want us satisfied, ‘Hey, we’re going to the regional.’
“No. We don’t get satisfied to go to a regional, I want to win a regional. This team is capable of doing that.”
Here’s a look at the eight regional qualifiers, listed in order of seeding:
Minnesota State-Mankato (24-4)
Nationally: No. 8
Qualification: At-large bid; won NSIC regular-season title, lost in first round of NSIC tournament.
Stat rat: The Mavericks score 87.2 points per game (7th nationally) and have a 5.5 turnover margin, third in the nation. ... Four players average double figures, Travis Nelson (6-11 center) at 16.7; Jefferson Mason (6-6 guard) 15.9; Jermain Davis (6-6 guard) 12.2 and Marcus Hill (5-9 guard) 11.3, who comes off the bench. ... The Mavs are ninth in the nation in field goal percentage (50.3) ... Mankato won 17 straight to open the season.
Mesa State College (22-5)
Nationally: Not ranked. Second team receiving votes
Qualification: At-large bid; won RMAC regular-season championship, lost in first round of RMAC Shootout
Stat rat: Mesa State is 5-0 against the rest of the tournament field, with two wins over Metro State and Highlands and one against Colorado Mines. ... Michael Dominguez (6-3 guard) scores 21 points a game, reaching double figures in all but one game this season (he had nine against Quincy, Ill.) The RMAC and Central Region player of the year has 95 assists and is second in rebounding at 4.7. His 47.2 percent field goal average is fifth in the nation. ... Jase Herl (6-3 guard) averages 12.8 points and 7.5 rebounds and has 109 assists. ... Mesa is 11th in the nation in field goal percentage (49.9) and sixth in 3-point shooting (41.6). ... The Mavericks have had 20 or more assists in nine games this season, and twice had assists on all but two baskets (19 assists on 21 baskets Feb. 26 vs. CSU-Pueblo and a season-high 24 assists on 26 baskets vs. Metro State on Dec. 13) ... The Mavs, who have six seniors and go 10 deep, had winning streaks of nine and 11 games this season.
AUGUSTANA COLLEGE (22-6)
Nationally: No. 25
Qualification: At-large bid; lost in first round of NSIC tournament
Stat rat: Cody Schilling (6-5 guard) averages 14.8 points per game; Cameron McCaffrey (6-1 guard) averages 12.8. David Foster has scored 1,145 points in his career, 19th all-time at Augie. He’s second in career 3-pointers made with 188. ... The Vikings’ longest losing streak of the season was two games; longest wining streak was eight. ... Augie is playing in its third straight regional tournament. ... Augustana coach Tim Billeter has 13 years experience as a Division I assistant coach, taking the head coaching job at Augustana after spending five seasons at Texas A&M. He’s also been a head coach at North Dakota State and was an assistant at Arizona, Rice and St. John’s. ... Augustana is 6-0 in regional first-round games under Billeter.
St. Cloud State University (25-5)
Nationally: No. 16
Qualification: Automatic bid; won NSIC tournament
Stat rat: Senior Matt Schneck (6-7 center) is in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding at St. Cloud. He’s fourth in rebounding with 835 (10.8 per game this season) and ninth in scoring with 1,502 (18 ppg this season). ... Taylor Witt (6-2 guard) averages 15.7 points and with 341 career assists (152 this season), he’s 10th in school history as a sophomore. Brett Putz (6-1 guard) adds 10.1 points a game. ... The Huskies rattled off win streaks of 10 and nine games during the season. ... Head coach Kevin Schlagel played for St. Cloud and was an assistant coach for 18 years before being promoted in 1997. ... Schlagel is the winningest head coach in the program with 262 victories. ... St. Cloud and Metro have played each other four times, with the Huskies winning three, including last season’s opening game of the season (82-71).
Metro State College (24-6)
Nationally: No. 21
Qualification: Automatic bid; won RMAC Shootout
Stat rat: Metro has reached the regionals 13 of the past 14 years, the most of any Division II school during that time, and won the national championship in 2000 and 2002. ... The Huskies and Roadrunners won the two automatic bids to the regional by winning their respective conference tournaments. ... Donte Nicolas (6-5 forward) averages 17.6 points per game, Reggie Evans (6-3 guard) 16.3 and Brian Minor (6-3 guard) 12.8. ... Evans broke Metro’s single-game scoring record in January when he scored 40 against New Mexico Highlands. ... Teams do not want to trail at halftime against the Roadrunners — they’re 81-8 when leading at halftime under coach Brannon Hays.
New Mexico Highlands (20-10)
Nationally: Not ranked
Qualification: At-large bid; lost in championship of RMAC Shootout
Stat rat: Roman Andrade (6-2 guard) averages 22.9 points per game, eighth in Division II. Andrade shoots 47.5 percent from the field, 41 from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free-throw line. ... Highlands is the highest-scoring team in the tournament at 88.2 points per game, which is fifth in the nation. ... Chop Tang (6-7 forward) averages 13.9 points, shooting 51 percent from the field and averages 5.3 rebounds per game. Midaugas Markevicius (6-4 guard) scores 10.5 points per game and shoots 80 percent from the free-throw line. ... This is the first NCAA Division II basketball playoff appearance in school history for the Cowboys.
Winona State University (20-9)
Nationally: Not ranked
Qualification: At-large bid; lost in semifinals of NSIC tournament
Stat rat: David Johnson (6-2 guard) leads the Warriors in scoring at 19.1 points per game, but sprained his left foot at the end of February and the status for the seniors, who has scored 1,380 points in his career, is uncertain for this weekend’s tournament. ... Ben Fischer (6-1 guard) averages 10.7 points and Jon Walburg (6-5 guard) 10.5. Fischer scored 19 points the night Johnson was injured and had 24 in the Warriors’ most recent game against Southwest Minnesota State. Walburg led Winona with 23 points in their first-round tournament win over the University of Mary. ... Winona State played one RMAC school this season, defeating Adams State 60-53. ... Winona has only one senior (Johnson) and three juniors on the roster.
Colorado School of Mines (17-11)
Nationally: Not ranked
Qualification: At-large bid; lost in first round of RMAC Shootout
Stat rat: Colorado Mines won 10 straight games after starting out 6-9. ... Four of the Orediggers’ starters average double figures. Dale Minschwaner (6-6 center) averages 16.8 points and 7 rebounds a game, Sean Armstrong (6-1 guard) 15.1 ppg, Drew Hoffman (6-3 guard/forward) 11.6 and Brett Green (6-4 guard/forward) 11.3. ... Green is shooting 83.8 percent (88 of 105) from the free-throw line. ... The Orediggers are making their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. ... Coach Pryor Orser is in his ninth season and has built the program into a contender in the RMAC with six consecutive winning seasons. ... Mines has only one senior (Levi Hamilton) and four juniors on the roster.