Credit the “Augie ego’’ with helping the Vikings play their way into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament for the third straight year.
It’s that sense of team that develops over the summer, continues through the grind of preseason practices and throughout the season that has positioned the Augustana program to play on again into March.
The Vikings face Wartburg in a 4:30 p.m. sectional semifinal game today at Holland, Mich., where teamwork will again be the name of Augustana’s game.
It is among the reasons that sophomore guard Nolan Ebel and freshman post player Micah Martin have blended quickly with players who returned with significant experience from a team that reached the national quarterfinals a year ago.
“The thing that I noticed right away here last year as a freshman was how the seniors treated us as equals and were willing to help us any way they could to bring us along,’’ Ebel said. “It’s a team game here. I saw that when I was being recruited. I see it now.’’
So does coach Grey Giovanine.
“We call it the Augie ego, putting the team first, and our guys have really bought into that idea. I’ll see guys in practice working with our younger players to help them pick something up, even if it means that it ultimately might cost them a couple of minutes of playing time,’’ Giovanine said.
“Our two seniors, Michael Hoekstra and Jacob Johnston, and Dylan Sortillo coming back, made a concerted effort to help bring those young guys along and they did a terrific job of it. This is a team game and if we’re going to reach our potential, we need the entire team from seniors to freshmen to make it all work.’’
Ebel and Martin have accomplished that this season, part of a group of young Vikings including freshmen Lucas Simon and Donovan Ferguson and sophomore Brett Benning who have helped Augustana build a 21-8 record.
A hard-nosed 6-foot-1 defender from Denver, Ebel averages 10.3 points per game and leads the Vikings with 41 steals and an average of 3.3 assists per game in 22 starts this season.
Martin has started 19 games for Augustana and the 6-10 Iowa City High grad has used a better than seven-foot wingspan to lead the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin with 47 blocks this season. He also averages 4.5 points and is the Vikings’ third-leading rebounder at 3.8 per game.
“The competition here every day is so good, it forces you to get better,’’ Martin said. “It’s not just the games. We go at it practice, too. Everybody competes and everybody helps each other, too. That makes a big difference.’’
Ebel sees that as well.
“The expectations here are that we will compete at a high level and that as a team we are able to compete against the best teams in the country,’’ Ebel said. “The older guys, they set the example of what it takes to get there. Watching them work has helped all of us move forward and play at a high level.’’
Understanding roles and embracing them are a part of the equation.
“My job is to rebound and defend,’’ Martin said. “That’s why I’m on the court and this season, that’s my role. It’s how I can help the team and it’s working out pretty well for all of us.’’
In Wartburg, the Vikings face a team which has won its last seven games to improve to 21-9 on the season.
Led by three-time all-conference pick Jordan Cannon, the Knights average 85.5 points per game and help themselves with a 38.8-percent touch from 3-point range.
“We know they’re playing at a pretty high level right now, going to (Wisconsin-River Falls) and taking down the fourth-ranked team, so we know we’re going to have to bring our best this weekend,’’ Ebel said. “Beating St. Thomas and (Wisconsin-Whitewater) last weekend on the road gives us confidence, too. We just want to keep it going as long as we can.’’