SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - When one visits Las Vegas or Disney World having a good time tops the list.
Add learning experience to the fun when the trip is centered around playing basketball.
When No. 11-ranked West Texas A&M (32-3) ventures into territory never experienced in the school history at 6 p.m. tonight meeting No. 1-ranked Ferris State (36-1) for the 2018 NCAA Division II Elite Eight men’s national semifinals, it does so knowing the ropes of playing back-to-back games in a short period of time.
This is not by accident.
West Texas A&M fourth-year coach Tom Brown is no stranger to Elite Eight success. Brown was an assistant at Winona State when it won D-II national titles in 2006 and 2008, while finishing national runner-up in 2007.
Brown knows in order to win a Lone Star Conference tournament, a D-II regional, or the national tit teams have to be able to handle playing three games over a short period of time of three, four or five days.
That’s why in Brown’s four years at WT the Buffs have played back-to-back games on consecutive days at December tournaments in places like Las Vegas and Florida.
“It’s just different than when you play conference games,” Brown said of the quick turn around to games. “That’s exactly why we go to tournaments. Players learn how to take care of their bodies. You learn how to adjust quickly and play against the different styles you see. And really just get a better feel for how things are in the tournament format.”
The strategy is paying off.
Last year WT reached the South Central Region finals losing only to Colorado School of Mines on its homecourt.
This year the Buffs had their best LSC Tournament showing under Brown winning all three games and the title, then did the same 3-0 in the South Central Regional qualifying for this Elite Eight held at The Pentagon in South Dakota.
WT starting senior guard Gach Gach scored 10 points in the Buffs 87-73 national quarterfinal win over Le Moyne on Tuesday. The Buffs play Ferris tonight and if their future holds a championship game that’s on Saturday which would mean three games in in about 90 hours.
Gach said the players do learn lessons from those early tournaments and he sees it as a benefit in handling the busy schedule.
“I think it did helps us in the LSC and at regionals,” Gach said. “Most guys when you start in college haven’t played back-to-back-to-back games since AAU back when you are 16 or 17-years-old. And AAU isn’t nearly as physical. When you play in one of those December tournaments it gives you familiarity of what it’s going to be like. So it definitely helped us in the conference tournament and helped us in the regional tournament. Hopefully, it helps us in the Elite Eight.”
The Buffs will find out soon enough as Ferris State brings serious credentials to the table.
Ferris has won 24 games in a row, is ranked No. 1 in D-II, was handed the No. 1 seed in this Elite Eight, and has 6-foot-10 All-American Zach Hankins anchoring the middle.
Ferris opened with an 87-84 win over Barry in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
“Obviously this a big one with Ferris,” Brown said. “They have one loss on the year and are No. 1. We have our hands full. ... they press us and will try and wear David (Chavlovich) down. We haven’t been pressed much this year so I think if we handle that, the defense, the shooting and the passing will come around.”
Ferris coach Andy Bronkema, his team in the schools’ first-ever national semifinal like WT, said he expects a shootout with the Buffs.
“WT has some really talented players,” said Bronkema. “All the stories are special at this point. They have a special, special story and I expect to be a great game and one that everyone should come out and watch. I expect a great game.”
Brown echoed Bronkema in saying this one will be intense.
“When you have the chance you have to put your foot down and go,” Brown said. “This team has depth, they have length, they have a big kid in the middle and that’s why they are the No. 1 team in the nation. To be the best you have to the best.
“This has been a great ride. To be honest I haven’t felt pressure because we have accomplished so much this year. You can’t play the game guessing, or having second guesses. Go out there and put it all on the line and may ther best team win. If we do that I think we have a really great shot.”