ROCK ISLAND — With a home victory over Elmhurst on Tuesday, the Augustana men's basketball team earned the right to host the CCIW Tournament that begins this evening with a pair of semifinal games.
While Augie (20-5) was earning its share of a fourth straight title, Illinois Wesleyan was losing at home to North Central to help the Vikings secure the hosting rights.
“Our guys are clearly excited about playing the conference tournament at home,” said Augie coach Grey Giovanine. “That was one of the, what we call destinations that we wanted to reach. To get in a position to host is a terrific accomplishment, and I think they're excited about that.”
“It's an amazing feeling, we're pumped,” said junior guard Nolan Ebel of getting more shots on the Carver Center court. “The fans have been unbelievable all season. They deserve this as much as we do. This was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, so to be able to check that off the list is great.”
We will see this weekend if getting to host the event — which earns the champ the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Division III National Championships — ends up being a good thing or bad thing. The way the regular-season played out, the home court really wasn't a decided advantage — for any of the teams.
In addition to the NCC upset of IWU on Tuesday that set up tonight's first semifinal rematch at 5, a majority of the losses endured by the four tourney teams came on their home courts. Augie finished 12-4 in the league and suffered two of those losses (to Wheaton and Carthage) at home. IWU (19-6, 12-4) lost to Carthage, Wheaton and NCC at home. NCC (18-7, 11-5) lost to IWU, Augie and Carroll at home. Wheaton (17-8, 10-6) lost to IWU, NCC and Augie at Shirk Center.
“The challenge is to take advantage of it,” said Giovanine of the home-court edge. “It doesn't do you any good to play at home unless you play with great energy and enthusiasm and get the crowd ignited.
“We know how hard it's going to be, but obviously, there are nine teams that would love to be hosting it. We earned it, and I think our guys are excited about that.”
Giovanine appreciated the community support the team has received. That was apparent Tuesday as the Vikings closed out the regular-season without students on campus during break.
Augie will need that local support again as it shoots for its sixth title in its 13th CCIW Tourney appearance. The Thunder bring in a dangerous team led by Fred Young Most Outstanding Player Aston Francis. The junior guard led the league in scoring, averaging 27.4 points per game. He torched the Vikings for 77 points in the two games.
“He's a load and was the MVP for a reason and is really a challenge,” said Giovanine, noting the Thunder is more than a one-man team.
Still, the focus will be on at least “containing” Francis, according to the coach.
“It's a collective effort. You can't have one guy guard him — you have to have guys willing to switch,” said Giovanine. “We'll mix it up on him — we'll try to deny some, try to double-team some, try to force him off the 3-point line some and hopefully keep him from getting in a rhythm. … You have to make him earn it; you can't let it come easy.”
Nothing, though, has been easy for the Vikings this year — at home or on the road. Winning this weekend will be a challenge as these four have proven all season that anyone can win anywhere against anyone.
“I think it's four teams, any one that can come out on top,” said Giovanine. “It's interesting that the home court hasn't been as dominant this year. That's unusual.”