Is this tournament really necessary?
The numbers might suggest it isn’t.
But Jim Hayford, whose Whitworth University men’s basketball team is responsible for the most impressive of those numbers, knows otherwise – if for no other reason than what his Pirates did in the finals of last year’s Northwest Conference tournament when they upset Puget Sound 90-80 in overtime after the Loggers had become the first team in 21 years to go unbeaten in league play.
A year later, it’s Whitworth (23-2 overall, 16-0 in the NWC) that brings an unblemished league record into the four-team NWC tournament that tips off tonight at 7 with the top-seeded Pirates entertaining No. 4 Lewis & Clark (10-14, 9-7) at Whitworth Fieldhouse and second-seeded Linfield (12-12, 10-6) hosting No. 3 George Fox (12-13, 9-7).
Hayford’s Bucs come in ranked No. 5 in the latest D3hoops.com poll and riding a school-record 22-game winning streak. They haven’t lost since Dec. 4 when they fell to Pomona-Pitzer 55-54 in the Lopata Classic in St. Louis, Mo., and they breezed through NWC play, outscoring league opponents by an average of 18.6 points per game.
“It’s been an amazing year so far,” admitted Hayford, who is in his ninth season at Whitworth. “And being able to play at home is absolutely huge. But at the same time, I remember us going on the road (to Puget Sound) and beating an undefeated team in a very hostile environment.
“So, anything can happen.”
Mark Sundquist, who steered George Fox to the NWC tournament for the first time since 1998, probably has as much reason for optimism as any of the other three coaches still hoping to find their way past Whitworth and land the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
The Bruins played the Pirates as close as any league foe during the regular season, losing 75-70 at home and 98-88 on the road, but must still get past Linfield tonight to have any chance of a rematch.
“Hopefully, we get to play them again,” Sundquist said of the Bucs. “But if we do, it’s going to take us – or anyone else in the tournament, for that matter – playing 40 minutes of our best, mistake-free basketball and making a lot of shots to beat them.
“What Whitworth has is a guy at every single position who is very, very good. And even the guys coming off the bench, at least three of those positions, are very good, too. They’ve got size, physicality and great coaching, which is a great combination.”
The Pirates head into tonight’s semifinal with four players – senior center Nate Montgomery (16.5), senior point guard Eric Beal (14.4), junior shooting guard David Riley (13.9) and senior forward Bo Gregg (10.4) – averaging more than 10 points per game. They have outscored their opponents by an average of 15.9 points per game and have an average rebound margin of plus-5 per contest.
Whitworth’s season of dominance, according to Hayford, was triggered by a season-opening 101-79 loss to Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the UPS Tip Off tournament in Tacoma.
“I think everyone on the team had really high hopes coming into the season,” Hayford explained, “and I’m convinced that loss made us better, because the sting we got from it never went away. Humble pie doesn’t taste good, but it can sure build some strong muscles, and Stevens Point served us up a big helping.
“That loss really got our attention and seemed to fuel us throughout the entire season.”