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Whitworth Pirates can flat out play basketball

At the Division III end of the NCAA basketball dial, generalities come easy. Typical is the suggestion that the only slam dunks are empty gyms and the starting five making the honor roll.

But at Whitworth, the fieldhouse is full even before the start of spring semester.

Also, the mascot can dunk. And not with trampoline assistance, either.

As for the honor roll, OK – four Pirates pulled 4.0s last term.

“I might be the least- stressed college basketball coach in the country,” said Jim Hayford.

What’s there to stress over? The Pirates are 17-0 and ranked third in the nation.

Of course, any real stress comes at the end of the season.

Hayford still can’t bring himself to watch the tape of Whitworth’s 74-71 loss to Eastern Mennonite, which halted a 25-game winning streak and ended the Pirates’ 2010 season three wins short of the D-III championship game.

“I still think we should have won that one,” Hayford admitted. “A lot of people I respect who know the national Division III landscape said we were one of the teams that could have won the national championship. We just had a bad five-minute run during a Sweet 16 game. But that’s tournament play.”

Regular-season play isn’t giving the Pirates much of a test. Their average victory is 23 points; Friday night, Pacific fell by twice that despite starting guard Wade Gebbers sitting out with an injury.

So how about a hypothetical: How would these Pirates fare against last year’s model?

“Be a five-overtime thriller,” offered Hayford, not picking a winner.

They are different animals, overlapping personnel notwithstanding.

“Last year we were playing with two 6-foot-8 posts, including Nate Montgomery who’s now playing pro, and we could shoot it,” Hayford said. “It was muscle and spacing and shooting.

“We have three dimensions on this team: a post-up game, we can score off the drive – and we can still really shoot it.”

The shooting is borderline ridiculous. Against Pacific, the Pirates made 19 3-pointers – and only broke the school record set earlier this season by one. No one’s made more than 6-7, 225-pound Jack Loofburrow, who spends more time at the arc than on the block.

No wonder the students chant, “You don’t know Jack!” at the opposing bench whenever the big fellow finds the net.

The major tweak to the team’s makeup has been the addition of senior guard Michael Taylor, a 6-4 weapon you won’t find at many D-III schools. Taylor was the Big Sky Conference freshman of the year at Eastern Washington; caught in an unhappy personnel quagmire there, he transferred to Montana and last year played in the NCAA tournament.

But the Gebbers brothers are his cousins, and his fiancé – and now wife – Taylor (yes, Taylor Taylor) plays on the Whitworth women’s team.

That’s quite a recruiting lure, Coach.

“Right – I have a dozen girls canvassing the Pac-10 now,” Hayford joked. “Wait, that might not print well.”

This will. More than one Division I drop-down has showed up at a D-III school and put it on cruise control, and not been challenged by the coaching staff to deliver more. That’s not the case here. When Taylor got beat to a spot, and then to a rebound, by a Pacific player, Hayford got out the hook and told him, “You’re getting outworked.” It turned out to be a 10-second hiccup.

“Coach wants every game to be a step forward,” Taylor said, “and when there’s a lapse, he lets us know about it – and we build on that. The principles we play by offensively and defensively, are pretty easy to measure game by game, regardless of the score.”

The keeping the record unblemished will not be Whitworth’s grail until the postseason begins. That doesn’t mean it’s not a motivation. Until the Final Four, the NCAA tournament gets played on someone’s home court – which at least one visitor can reach by bus. The Pirates had won 25 in a row last year and still got sent across the country to play Eastern Mennonite.

“The X factor is home games,” Hayford acknowledged. “But if we’re undefeated, how can you deny my students a home game? Last year we were seventh in the nation in attendance, so we’re going to draw a gate. With the millions floating around the NCAA, to say to my guys you have to go to the other side of the country because it’ll save $6,000 is not fair.

“I mean, what if Washington could play on their home court all the way to the Final Four? They’re a lot better team there.”

Yeah. But can their mascot dunk?

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