The USCAA Men’s Division II national tournament starts on March 13. Below are four teams that could make a deep run, perhaps all the way to the Final Four in Petersburg, Virginia.
The Hamilton Harriers head into the 2022-23 postseason with a 20-8 record and a strong mentality. Head coach Michael Piatt hopes to lead the Harriers even further this season than last year’s Elite Eight appearance.
"Our goal was always to get into the national tournament – if you are not in it, you can not win it," Piatt said.
After a rough 2-5 start in 2022-23, the Harriers turned it around and are seeded No. 3.
Piatt credits his team’s success to the fact that they are hard to guard and are unselfish.
"We share the ball, and we share it a lot,” Piatt said. “We are a motion-based team. We have five guys putting up near double digits, which makes it really hard to stop us."
Junior Ryan Marchal leads the Harriers at 17 points per game and 4.5 assists per game, continuing the excellence on the court that garnered him First Team USCAA All-American honors last season. Marchal is a quick player who beats opponents with both speed and flashiness.
"Marchal leads us in scoring, but it is a byproduct of the player he is,” Piatt said. “He really does not care about that. He just wants to win."
Piatt says his team’s success starts in practice.
"We want each game to look like how we train,” Piatt said. “Our goal is to dictate the game.
"We start with defense,” Piatt said. “If we can defend, we are going to win games."
The Harriers are limiting opponents to just 63 points per game this season.
Although defense may be the key to advancing deep into the tournament, Hamilton can also score the ball effectively. The Harriers lead the USCAA in 3-point shooting at 40.1 percent, a feat they are repeating from last season.
Practice also consists of a lot of five-on-five reps designed to get shooters open shots.
"We are a motion-based team,” Piatt said. “The only way to learn is by repetition."
Miami-Hamilton has climbed near the top of the USCAA men’s Division II poll and is still trending upwards. They also have experience from last year’s tournament run and the same can be expected this season if things fall their way.
"We are what we are at this point in the season,” Piatt said.” We are not going to drastically change how we are going to play.
"It is going to come down to who can execute their game plan the best and limit the other team's best player,” Piatt said.
Penn State Mont Alto
As the #2 ranked team in the tournament, Mont Alto head coach Jack Schenzel knows his Nittany Lions are not a sleeper team, but their rise to 21-7 in 2022-23 was no easy feat. Mont Alto is scoring 63.3 points per game, but are allowing 61.9. Not many highly-ranked teams have that slim of margin in scoring differential.
The Nittany Lions came into 2022-23 with something to prove after falling in the semi-finals of last year’s tournament to Southern Maine CC. Success is expected at Mont Alto and the Nittany Lions have had to rely on some intangibles this season to fuel that success.
Helping Mont Alto through many battles this season has been an electric atmosphere at home. Mont Alto ranks No. 3 in USCAA attendance.
The Nittany Lions also needed players to step up this season after losing 2022 USCAA Division II player of the year Quintyn Flemiste. Every player in the senior-dominated rotation accepted the challenge. Five players are averaging in double figures this season.
Schenzel, who garnered 2022 USCAA coach of the year honors, says that senior Cameron Williams is the team’s unquestioned leader.
Williams is averaging 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. These numbers are even more impressive considering Williams had his appendix removed in mid-December, and currently is battling an unhealthy knee.
"He (Williams) is our guy,” Schenzel said. “He scores when we need, distributes the ball well, and is probably the best rebounding guard at our level."
Sophomore Caleb Eckert has had a breakout year. He is scoring five more points per game (12) compared to last year (7) and has contributed to each of their wins.
What has also contributed to winning with such a small margin for error is the Nittany Lions’ defense.
"(Defense) is what Mont Alto is all about," Schenzel said. "One thing that has been a key to our run is our lockdown defense. Sometimes we struggle offensively, but our defense always travels with us. Everything in practice is defensive-orientated."
The Nittany Lions are an experienced and cultivated team that is locked in on making a deep run.
"We are focused on what is in front of us that day,” Schenzel said. “We do not want to look too many steps ahead, or then we will lose focus on what is right in front of us.”
The 5th-seeded Golden Eagles may be the hottest team entering the tournament with a seven-game win streak, putting them at 20-9 on the season.
Head coach Richard Tharp said the team's late-season momentum is primarily attributed to his “big three” seniors, who "have done everything for us.”
Those leaders are guard London Cobbs, who leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game, forward Kameron Shockley at 14.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and center DeJuan Lawrence, who averages a double-double at 10.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
“They have been the consistent beacons that we have been able to count on,” Tharp said, “showing up day in and day out on both ends of the court."
Those seniors have assumed mentor roles to help the ten underclassmen improve morale and performance.
"It is something that is just a part of our program,” Tharp said. “We really teach them how to mentor some of the younger guys."
One of the younger guys receives mentoring from his older brother. Kyle Shockley, a sophomore, is the team’s fourth player scoring in double figures at 12.6 points per game.
Tharp likes to boil this year’s success down to the basics.
"All our practices are very fundamental,” Tharp said. “Each day, we challenge them through individual or team development or strategy."
Tharp has a unique offensive philosophy.
“Our defense is our offense through their practices,” Tharp said. “We know we cannot score unless we take the ball from the other team."
The Golden Eagles have seen their motto – if you will – come to life, scoring over 100 points five times this season.
"We have great defensive athleticism, and that lets us light up from three-point land on the other end," Tharp said.
Tharp led the Golden Eagles into the quarterfinals of last year’s tournament before falling to Mont Alto. He hopes that last year's experience will propel Tuscarawas into a deeper playoff run this year.
"We were never used to playing on a big stage last year,” Tharp said, “but this time we will be ready."
Going into the tournament, Tharp is instilling a “live for today” mentality.
"1 and 0,” Tharp said. “Only the day marked on the calendar is the one that matters. We have a word that we live by, and that is ‘oneness.’
“The concept is simple,” Tharp said. “As we go forward and play, we are going to go 1-0."
Penn State Wilkes-Barre
Losing two USCAA All-Americans from last season and a first-round exit in the national tournament may have made some head coaches nervous, but Wilkes-Barre’s LeShawn Hammett has built a solid program that has allowed him to take it all in stride.
Hammett has regrouped in 2022-23 and led the Nittany Lions to a 22-8 record and the #1 seed in the tourney, now that Penn State-York has been forced to forfeit 25 wins this season for using an ineligible player. Wilkes-Barre may ride into Petersburg with a chip on its shoulder after losing on March 6 in the PSUAC championship game to Penn State-Greater Allegheny.
Hammett’s 2022-23 squad is outscoring their opponents by 15 points per game (80.9-65.7) and are holding their opponents to under 40 percent shooting. Wilkes-Barre is led by a solid core of three big-time players.
First-team All-PSUAC guard Anthony Picott is averaging 17.2 points per game, while connecting on a very efficient 40.5 percent clip from downtown. Junior Jalen Willis is a well-rounded forward who puts up 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game. Senior forward Jaymes Jackson is averaging 10.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 59.4 percent from the floor.
Wilkes-Barre might be the team to beat in this year’s tournament. They have the experience and the pedigree.
Hammett has led his program into the national tournament in five of his six seasons at the helm, including the 2019 USCAA Division II National Championship. It was the first national title for the school and the first in men’s PSUAC history. Hammett was also named USCAA men’s Division II coach of the year in 2019.
Hammett and the Nittany Lions might just be cutting down the nets for the second time on March 16th in Daniel Gymnasium at Virginia State University.
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