Lack of familiarity with their opponent will not be an issue for the Whitworth Pirates today when they meet Wheaton (Ill.) College at 3 p.m. in the third round of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament at DeVos Fieldhouse in Holland, Mich.
The Bucs (21-6) beat Wheaton 70-67 in the championship game of its Lee Pfund Memorial tournament early last season. That win not only vaulted Whitworth into the top 10 of the d3hoops.com national rankings, but also gave Pirates coach Jim Hayford a first-hand look at the three players who define the Thunder (21-7) again this season.
Kent Raymond, Andy Wiele and Ben Panner all played major minutes for Wheaton in that game, and they have done all of the heavy lifting for coach Bill Harris again this season, leading the Thunder to a second-place finish in the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin and an at-large berth in the D-III tournament.
Raymond, a 6-foot-3 junior guard and d3hoops.com All-American, is averaging 23.4 points per game and was recently named the CCIW’s Outstanding Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. Wiele, a 6-8, 230-pound junior center, is averaging 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds, and Panner, a 6-3 sophomore guard, is averaging 13.5 points and shooting a team-best 46.3 percent from 3-point range.
The talented trio has taken more than 73 percent (1,122) of Wheaton’s shots and scored more than 74 percent (1,478) of its points. Raymond has scored more than 30 in eight games and had 36 in the Thunder’s 76-73 second-round win over Loras College last Saturday.
“They get most of their scoring out of a motion offense,” Hayford said of the Thunder. “They’re not really running set plays for those three guys, but most of the possessions end with one of them getting a field-goal attempt.”
Hayford is especially impressed with Raymond, who played all 40 minutes of last year’s Pfund title game against his Pirates and finished with a team-high 22 points and seven assists.
“He’s had some amazing games again this year,” Hayford said. “He gets to the free-throw line, maybe, as much as anybody in the country. He’s a driver, but he can also shoot the 3 from deep. We’ve got a lot of respect for him and Wiele, who’s a big, physical player in the post.
“(Panner is) a better player because of all the defensive attention that gets put on those other two, but you’ve got to respect him, too, because he can put the 3 down,” Hayford said.
Whitworth, after losing four starters off last year’s team, will be a bit of a mystery to the Thunder. The Pirates are led on offense by senior forward and Northwest Conference player of the year Ryan Symes, who is Hayford’s only returning starter this season.
But the Bucs have plenty of other players to watch, including versatile all-NWC forward Colin Willemsem, another senior, and freshman guard David Riley, who has developed into one of the nation’s best perimeter shooters.
“We’re playing well right now,” Hayford said. “We respect all of our opponents, naturally, but we’re not in awe of any of them. We feel like we can play with any team in the country.”
The winner of this afternoon’s Wheaton-Whitworth game will face the winner of today’s other sectional semifinal between tournament host and No. 1-ranked Hope College (25-3) and Ohio Wesleyan (22-7) in Saturday’s 4 p.m. sectional title game to determine a berth in the D-III Final Four March 21-22 in Salem, Va.