ROCK ISLAND — On their way to last year's NCAA Division III national championship game, members of the Augustana men's basketball team learned a valuable lesson.
“Last year, the way we ended the season, we kind of came into the tournament just happy to be there,” said senior Dylan Sortillo. “That allowed us to play loose and free and really just go out there and have fun. There's certainly some lessons to be learned from that tournament run coming into this year.”
That was an easy approach to take last March. The Vikings struggled down the stretch, losing their last three regular-season games to lose the CCIW regular-season outright crown and finish in a three-way share. After beating North Park in the CCIW Tournament semifinals, a 69-64 loss to North Central left the Vikings on the tournament bubble.
However, playing with a “nothing-to-lose attitude” after getting an at-large tourney bid, the Vikings cruised all the way to the Final Four in Salem, Va., and within a bucket of a coveted national title.
Augie's 2018 tourney trek begins Friday when the 22-5 Vikings host high-scoring Greenville (19-7) at 7:30 at Carver Center. With the Panthers averaging 126.6 points per game, the Vikings may not have much time to think about being tight as the action will be fast and furious.
This season, the Vikings come into tournament play under a totally opposite set of circumstances. Coach Grey Giovanine's team has won six straight (and 11 of the last 13), including a must-win victory in the regular-season finale that earned it a share of the CCIW title. The Vikings are coming off two tough wins — over Wheaton and North Central — to claim the school's sixth CCIW Tournament title in the 13 years of the event.
“We're coming into the tournament with a little momentum and getting those two championships,” said junior Chrishawn Orange, who enjoyed the spotlight in last year's national tourney with two game-winning, buzzer-beating buckets. “It's fun coming in with a little momentum. Better than what we did last year.”
“I think our confidence is a lot higher this year, knowing we finished well this year,” said junior Brett Benning, who again is playing his best ball at the end of the season. “We're just trying to take that over into the tournament knowing that we are in a strong push right now and want to keep that going as opposed to last year when we kind of struggled to get it going.”
While the confidence is high, those on the team admit that the success puts them in a different position of being the hunted instead of the hunter. Other teams can't look past a 20-win club that captured titles in arguably the best small-school conference in America and comes in ranked No. 9 in the country.
“When you have more expectations and pressure … you can play not to lose,” said Sortillo, who is back in familiar territory, playing in his fourth NCAA Division III Tournament. “We're just going to try to continue to play confidently and trust each other. Fly around and have some fun like we did last year.”
Fun could be the key. Although there are expectations for this team to repeat last year's tourney run, the players know what it takes to be successful.
Orange said that the key is to push aside the pressure and just play.
“We're still going to go out there and have fun playing basketball,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's just basketball, and that's the way we have to think of it. … (The pressure is) on our mind, but we can't really think about that and just go out and play our game.”