Two of DIII's most storied programs meet today in NCAA Tournament

Two of DIII's most storied programs meet today in NCAA Tournament

By Chris McManes

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Since NCAA Division III was founded in 1973, two of its most storied programs are Williams College and Catholic University. They will meet for the first time this afternoon at 4 p.m. in a second-round NCAA playoff game at Chandler Gymnasium.

The stakes are high with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.

“We’re thrilled to be here and privileged to play in a game that at the Division I level would equate to Kansas and Indiana squaring off in the round of 32,” Cardinal Coach Steve Howes said. “It means a lot to our players and alumni, and I know it means a lot to Williams as well.”

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No. 9 CUA (25-3) earned the right to be here with a 67-61 victory over the College of Staten Island on March 2. The No. 8 Ephs (24-4) advanced with a 79-78 win over Wesley College.

“I can’t imagine a better matchup in the second round,” Williams Coach Mike Maker said.

The two programs share remarkably similar histories. Consider:
* The Cards won the national championship in 2001; Williams in 2003
* CUA is making its 14th NCAA Tournament appearance; the Ephs have 13
* Since 1995-96, the Cardinals have enjoyed 12 20-win seasons; Williams has 10
* CUA has four 25-win campaigns in that time; the Ephs six

Williams, largely on the strength of its six Final Fours, has an overall NCAA playoffs record of 34-11. The Cardinals are 15-14. The Ephs advanced to the NCAA championship game in 2010 and returned to the Final Four a year later. Their record over that span was 59-5 (.922).

Maker has a five-year record of 117-26 (.818). In 2010, he was named New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Coach of the Year. In addition, Basketball Times honored him as co-national Coach of the Year.

Three of his team’s four losses this season came to its archrival Amherst College, including two weeks ago in the NESCAC championship. Williams is 10-2 at home.

Maker isn’t too pleased with “a second-round game against a Top 10 team. The only thing I’m happy about is that we’re at home. I’m not happy to be playing Catholic.”

Howes, in his ninth year at CUA, has a record of 175-78 (.692). This is the most games he has won and the most at the school since George Washington University Coach Mike Lonergan directed the Cardinals to a 26-3 mark in 2001-02.

Howes is 2-2 in NCAA Tournament games and has gotten to know Maker while recruiting.

“I have great respect for the job he’s done and the type of young men that he has in his program,” Howes said. “And that makes this game even more exciting – to test yourself against a great coach and a great program. And we certainly think that we have a great program with great young men as well.”

Maker was an assistant under Michigan Coach John Beilein when he was at West Virginia and worked under Oregon Coach Dana Altman at Creighton. He thinks highly of the program Howes has constructed since taking over for Lonergan in 2005.

“We have such great respect for Catholic,” Maker said. “Its history, like ours, is rich. They have a passionate following – very well-coached, disciplined; they’re going to be difficult to beat. I think in a lot of ways we’re mirror images of one another as programs, and a little bit as teams as well.”

The Cards lost their last game a month ago today and have since won five straight, including their first Landmark Conference regular-season and tournament championships. The season began with two victories over preseason Top 25 teams. CUA will face a Williams team that is strong in all areas and features Taylor Epley (18.3 ppg) and Michael Mayer (17.3 ppg, 9 rpg).

Howes is quite familiar with Epley because he tried to recruit him. The junior forward from the basketball hotbed of Louisville, Ky., is the 15th player in Ephs’ history to score 500 or more points in a season (512).

Senior Chris Kearney is the Cardinals’ leading scorer (16.7 ppg), rebounder (7 rpg) and shot blocker (2.1 bpg). A 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior center from Centreville, Va., who wears size 17 shoes and hopes to play professionally overseas, he was named Landmark Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

He and Mayer are among 10 finalists for the Jostens Trophy, awarded annually to “an outstanding Division III men’s and women’s basketball player who excels on the floor, in the classroom and in the community.”

Today’s encounter between these tradition-rich programs will bring one team’s year to its conclusion. One should be careful not to judge an entire season based how it ends.

“A real good team is going to advance, and there’s going to be a really good team that’s heartbroken,” Maker said. “I think the team that loses, as heartbreaking as it’s going to be, has had a wonderful year. It’s hard to explain that to your players. The finality can be difficult, and I think with both programs, in this game, it’s even more so because there’s expectations.

“I think both fan bases are passionate – probably somewhat spoiled – because the teams have been so good and the programs are so proud.”