Whitworth University men’s basketball coach Jim Hayford knew long before his Pirates played their first game of the 2010-11 season that he and his staff had assembled a special group of players.
He just wasn’t sure how special.
“My biggest concern back then was whether we could make a postseason run with just one dominant post player,” Hayford recalled Wednesday afternoon, just five days after Whitworth was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III tournament by a 76-66 loss to the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.
“Basically, we were going to have to play four guards and a post, so I wasn’t sure if we were Top 25 special, or Top 10 special,” Hayford said.
How about No. 1 special?
That’s where the Pirates, who finished 28-2, were ranked, nationally, in the D3hoops.com Top 25 poll heading into the tournament. And had it not been for having to travel three-quarters of the way across the country to face fifth-ranked Wooster (30-2) in its own gymnasium, who knows?
“That was disappointing,” Hayford said of the dubious way the NCAA selection committee rewarded the tournament’s top-seeded team for posting a school-record 28 wins, going 26-1 during the regular season and winning a fifth-consecutive Northwest Conference championship. “Otherwise, it was special season, put together by a special bunch of kids.”
After losing all-American center Nate Montgomery and all-NWC point guard Eric Beal from last year’s 26-3 team that advanced to the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament, Whitworth was forced to play smaller and faster – which is what it did this winter after adding Michael Taylor, a 6-foot-4 senior and Montana transfer, to the roster.
Taylor, who led the Bucs in scoring with an average of 20.3 points per game, adapted quickly to Whitworth’s uptempo style of play and, along with fellow 6-5 senior David Riley, played much bigger than his size, providing considerable help inside to 6-8 junior center Felix Friedt.
“In basketball, size kills,” Hayford said, in reference to last year’s team and its two ultra-productive post players. “But so does speed. And we’ve been near the top of the nation in points per game the past two years using both.
“So, really, whoever we add to the mix next year – if it’s a big and we end up being a size-kills team, or it’s another guard and we end up being a speed-kills team – I expect us to be okay, because we’ve proven we can be effective playing either style.”
Adding to Hayford’s optimism is the return of Friedt, a first-team all-NWC selection who averaged 12.4 ppg and a team-high 7.3 rebounds, 6-7 junior wing Jack Loofburrow (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and junior point guard Wade Gebbers (9.1 ppg, 3.4 apg).
“We’ve got an all-conference post player in Felix, an honorable mention scorer in Jack, and I haven’t seen a point guard in Division III that I like more than Wade Gebbers, so that a good play to start,” Hayford said. “I know we’ve won league championships returning a lot less talent than that – plus, I really like the young guys in our program.
“But we’re still probably going to add one or two guys who came come in and play right away.”
All of which would seem to indicate that the Pirates, who are 217-57, with eight 20-win seasons and six NCAA tournament appearances in their 10 years under Hayford’s guidance, are not about to go away.