The men’s basketball teams at Whitman, Linfield and Whitworth spent the first part of Northwest Conference play separating themselves from everyone else.
This week, those teams will separate themselves from each other.
The first of their three games is at 8 p.m. Tuesday night, when 20th-ranked Whitworth (12-3 overall, 6-0 NWC) hosts Whitman (11-4, 6-0) at the Fieldhouse in the season’s first Battle of Whits.
Linfield (12-3, 6-0) will play at Whitworth on Friday and then at Whitman on Saturday to wrap up the first pass through conference play. No one else is better than 3-3 so far in NWC play.
“It seems like the top is pretty even, and that’s a great challenge for us,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said of the trio atop the NWC.
The Blues beat the Pirates all three times the teams met last year, including a 107-102 victory in the NWC tournament title game.
That loss kept the Pirates out of the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time in 13 seasons and at least partially prompted Jablonski to boost the team’s non-conference schedule, hoping to be better positioned for a potential at-large bid this spring.
This Whitman team, while similar in style and coaching, is very different in personnel.
Four of the Whitman starters from a year ago are gone, and the Blues weren’t as dominant to start the season as they had been the past few seasons. Whitman lost four times in non-conference play for the first time since the start of the 2013-14 season.
Yet the Blues, like the Pirates and the Wildcats, opened NWC play 6-0, and are coming off four consecutive wins in which they have scored at least 105 points.
That will present the Pirates with perhaps their most difficult challenge defensively so far this season. Whitworth, at 72.1 points per game allowed, ranks second in the conference behind Pacific Lutheran (67.1) in scoring defense. Whitman, at 84.6, ranks sixth.
Jablonski has placed an extra emphasis on defense and has gone deeper into his bench than the Pirates did last year under coach Matt Logie. Jablonski has routinely played a 9- or 10-man rotation.
Part of that is due to injuries to senior Jordan Lester (out for the season) and junior guard Isaiah Hernandez, who returned to the lineup in wins over George Fox and Pacific last weekend after missing five consecutive games (concussion).
But that allowed the team’s cadre of sophomores to play much more than expected, which came with its own benefits.
“Obviously, going into the season you’d think you’re just gonna have all those upperclassmen starters, and when you don’t have them early it’s good experience for those (younger) guys,” Jablonski said. “Even in the losses in Ohio (to John Carroll and Wooster), we were still getting good minutes for the young guys, and all that time with the lights on just pays off, and people are more comfortable.”
The Pirates are getting 24.9 points per game from their four main sophomores – Liam Fitzgerald, JT McDermott, Garrett Paxton and Rowan Anderson. Last season, only one sophomore average more than 2 points per game (Hernandez at 8.4).
Jablonski emphasized that every conference game’s importance is equal in the standings, but that this game with Whitman carries a special significance to players.
“This one, with the rivalry and energy, is a fun opportunity more than anything,” Jablonski said. “I don’t need to tell the guys that. They already know. It’s more about enjoying it as competitors and relishing the moment.”
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