After playing through an uncertain 2020-21 season that ultimately had no postseason for any Division III teams to build toward, appearing in the NCAA Tournament last year was a great accomplishment for the Whitworth men’s basketball program, even with the first-round exit.
This season, though, the Pirates want to take the next step.
“I do think this team felt like we accomplished a lot by getting our share of the regular-season (title) and winning the conference championship,” Whitworth head coach Damion Jablonski said. “I do think this is a year where while we still can’t pass up any steps, our team can look farther along with the hope and prospect of making a deep run in the tournament.”
Whitworth’s most recent advance past the first round of the NCAA Tournament came in 2020, when the Pirates got to the Sweet 16 before the rest of the event was canceled. Two players from that 2019-20 squad remain on the roster in JT McDermott and Rowan Anderson, and another – Reed Brown – is now a Pirates assistant coach.
McDermott and Anderson lead a core of returning players the Pirates will lean on this season.
“I think all of those main rotation guys are going to have bigger roles, and we’ve got a couple of really great pieces that we know can step in,” Jablonski said.
One of those is Sullivan Menard, a 6-foot-3 junior guard from Alaska who started his college career at Division I DePaul. Another is senior transfer Michael Smith, also a 6-3 guard, who last season started 20 games for Division II Sonoma State and averaged 8 points per game.
The team has eight freshmen on the roster who form a strong and also long class, Jablonski said. Five of them are at least 6-6.
In his four years as head coach Jablonski (58-15 overall) has again put together a difficult nonconference schedule. This year it begins Nov. 11 in Ohio against Mount Union, a team that also reached the Sweet 16 in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
On Dec. 20 and 21, Whitworth will host Saint John’s (Minnesota) and then Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas). Both of those teams (as well as Mount Union) played in last spring’s NCAA Tournament; Mary Hardin-Baylor lost in the semifinals.
“Yeah, it’s tough. I will say that,” Jablonski said of the schedule. “We’ve got four-plus games that are, on paper, really, really difficult games. But that’s kind of been our MO of giving our guys a test to compete nationally and build a resume with a good strength of schedule.”
One other notable change is on the coaching staff. Kenny Love, the team’s top assistant last year and a member of the staff since 2017, is now the women’s basketball coach at Whitworth.
Love also had a notable playing career with the Pirates, named to the NWC’s first-team three times and the NWC Player of the Year in 2015.
Elijah Gurash, already on staff, was promoted to top assistant.
“I’m excited Elijah is in our top spot,” Jablonski said. “That’s going to give him an opportunity to blossom.”