CLAREMONT, Calif. – Following a thrilling victory over Cal Lutheran in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament Final, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men's basketball team (22-4) now face a greater challenge as the pursuit for the national championship begins. The Stags will head to Walla Walla, Wash. for an NCAA Regional hosted by Whitman College. CMS will open up its tournament run against Whitworth University (23-4) of the Northwest Conference on Friday, Mar. 3 at 5:30 p.m. PST. If the Stags win their opening match, they will face the winner of Rhodes (17-10) and the host, Whitman (27-0), the next day on Mar. 4.
The Stags' journey to the tournament has been quite a wild ride. The men got off to a hot start early in the season, going 13-1 until an unfortunate setback hampered the team's progress. Senior Scott Lynds (CMC) was dealt with a wrist injury on Jan. 26 against La Verne, leaving a void in the starting point guard position. The Stags managed to win their next four games, but felt his absence when they got blown out at home against cross-street rival Pomona-Pitzer. The Stags went 3-3 in their final six games of the regular season, and entered the SCIAC Tournament with hopes of not only earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but also regaining the swagger that was once lost. After several adjustments to the lineup, the Stags showed why they were the best team in the SCIAC, coming back from an 18-point deficit to defeat Pomona-Pitzer 70-64 in the semifinal and edging out Cal Lutheran 77-71 in the SCIAC Final to punch their ticket to Walla Walla.
Junior Michael Scarlett (CMC) stepped up in his role as a facilitator, finding open teammates at the right moment and keeping defenders weary because of his 3-point shooting. The shooting guard is 47.5 percent from beyond the arc this season and leads the team with 17.7 points per game. His classmate Jack Ely (CMC) emerged as the X-factor for the Stags given his tenacious defending and ability to run the offense, allowing Scarlett to expand his offensive capabilities by playing off-ball. The Stags will also rely on their big center, junior Kendrick Morris (CMC), to exploit mismatches in the paint and anchor the defense. Morris is averaging 12.8 points per game and is scoring at an extremely efficient 63.9 percent from the field this season.
The Stags are well-prepared for the National Tournament, understanding that the contests will only get tougher from here on out. With the 13th best defense in the nation, limiting opponents to 64.3 points per game, the Stags know how to throw their opponents off with their physicality and ability to slow the game down to their preferable pace.
Whitworth, the runner-up in the Northwest Conference, presents a unique challenge for the Stags. The Pirates love to play at a fast tempo and trade punches on offense, and slow the game down with their physicality, depending on whether the 7-0 Drew Sears is on the floor. While size is not an issue for Morris, who managed to outplay the 7-1 Mac Sashin from Emerson College, the Stags need to be wary of Whitworth's ability to score from 3-point land, as the Pirates boast four players (Kyle Roach, Ben College, Christian Jurlina, and CJ Johnson) in their rotation who shoot above 40 percent from behind the arc. Sophomore swingman Roach has been one of team's most reliable two-way players, leading the team with 16.1 points and 1.4 steals per game. However, Kenny Love, who dished out 4.4 assists and scored 11.9 points per contest, is the focal point of this offense and has served as the primary ball-handler for the team.
The Pirates score at a high rate, averaging 81.7 points per game, but has paid the price of their fast-paced offense by committing 13.6 turnovers per game. Although history has not been kind to the Stags, as they are 1-3 against the Pirates, they can change their fortunes around if they slow the game down to their usual playing speed and stifle Love's effectiveness as a facilitator, forcing a different player to run the offense.
Whitman University enters the Regional bracket as the No. 1 seed after winning the Northwest Conference over Whitworth. The team currently sits 27-0 and is the only program in the nation to be undefeated. Most of its success is attributed to the team's defensive versatility, featuring multiple players ranging from 6-1 to 6-6 that can guard four different positions. The team thrives on forcing turnovers, ranking fifth in the nation with 21.44 forced turnovers per contest. Tim Howell is the Blues' leading scorer, averaging 20.2 points per game, while Jase Harrison has been elite from the a 3-point line, shooting 48.2 percent.
Rhodes College may seem like the weakest team in the bracket, going 17-10 in the Southern Athletic Association; however, the team boasts several key strengths that gained national attention. The Lynx rank second in the nation in forced turnovers, bullying opponents into 27.56 turnovers per game. They also have the third-best offense in the nation, scoring an eye-opening 109.6 points per contest. The Lynx have a balanced attack led by Anesu Nyawata who averages 13.4 points per game and Brennan Sullivan who has scored 13.0 points per contest. Playing time is widely distributed as 15 players average double-digits in minutes per game, indicating that the Lynx will use every ounce of energy from every player to put maximum effort on defense and offense.
With a battle-tested core of young players and a highly focused veteran leader in senior Riley Hall (CMC), the Stags do have the maturity and mental toughness to compete against any team in the country. Having won 10 games by six or less points, the Stags have a fair share of experience on their side when the game comes down on the line.
By Young Kim
Sports Information Assistant
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