Centre College basketball coach Greg Mason called Saturday’s matchup with North Central “a great learning experience,” but the Colonels are also heading up to Naperville, Ill., with plans on beating the No. 3 Cardinals in the first round of the Division III NCAA Tournament.
“We can do some things to score it and we’re working on that right now,” Mason said. “I know this, the guys are excited we’ll compete at a high level. With this team and their youth, a lot of this is a learning experience. It’s just a great opportunity.
“We do match up reasonably well with North Central. They’re big, but big doesn’t bother us as much as quick does, and that’s not North Central.”
But Mason said the Cardinals (24-3) do a lot of things well.
“North Central has aspirations to win the national title. They’ve been number one part of year, and one of their losses was when two of their best players were hurt,” he said. “They are a very good team, and junior and senior dominated.”
The Cardinals are averaging 69.4 points per game and allowing 58 points per game. Mason was impressed with their assists-to-turnover ration of 418-341.
“That may be the best in the country,” he said. “Any time you’re above 1-to-1, you’re a good team. They are top 15 in the country in field goal percentage and top 20 in defensive field goal percentage, and that’s a sign of a pretty dominant team.”
Derek Raridon, a 6-6 senior guard/forward who is the son of coach Todd Raridon, leads the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game. Raridon is 34 of 71 from 3-point range, but Mason said that’s not his game.
“Raridon is easily the best shooter we will play this year, he’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen in Division¿III. If he gets his feet set, you might as well mark it down,” Mason said. “He doesn’t take many 3s. If he gets them he makes them. He’s really good from 15 to 17 feet.”
Landon Gamble, a 6-6 junior, averages 14.4 points per game, and Mason called him a “fringe All-American.”
Vince Kmiech, a 6-4 junior guard/forward, was 46 of 144 from 3-point range and averaged 10.9 points per game. “He’s a dead 3,” Mason said.
Mason said Aaron Tiknis, a 6-6 senior forward who leads the team in rebounding (6.6) and averages 9.8 points per game, reminds him of former NBA player Tony Kukoc.
“He’s a lefty, and he can drive and post you up,” Mason said.
But Centre prides itself on defense. The Colonels are holding teams to 37.8 percent shooting on the season to rank in the top 20 in the country, and 57.6 points per game.
“We do have length. Bryon Ellis is great at guarding shooters. But Raridon is 6-6 and Bryon is 5-10. We just have to try and make them earn everything they get,” Mason said. “We’ve been a first-shot defensive team. We just have to keep them out of transition and keep them off the offensive glass.”
The Colonels are averaging 66.5 points per game and are shooting 44 percent from the floor.
Freshman center Blake Scinta averages a team-high 12.7 points, pulls down 5.3 rebounds and blocks 1.3 shots per game.
Sophomore forward Josh Karsner averages 11.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and Ellis averages 10 points per game. Junior Donovan Whiteside contributes 9.2 points per game and Tyler Wesley leads the team in rebounding at 8.6 per game and blocks at 1.5 while scoring 7.8 points.
“We’re going to have to play inside-out. We’re going to have to establish an inside presence to free our shooters up. We’re going to have to be good, we’re going to have to be sharp,” Mason said. “We do have to get it through Blake. And somehow we’re going to have to get inside with Chris Taylor and Donovan Whiteside.”
This will be Centre’s sixth trip to the NCAAs in the last seven seasons, and Mason said it is a reward for the resiliency his young squad has shown this year.
“It’s awesome. Being a very young team, and a team this year more than any other team I’ve coached, there’s a continuing changing of roles, a continuing changing of rotations,”¿Mason said. “Blake has been coming on as the year goes, Josh Karsner has become a different player. We’ve had so many things to go through, to win another conference championship in the regular season and the tournament with a group learning so much as the season goes on.
“It’s doesn’t defy expectations, but at the same time, to do it is pretty great.”
Scinta was named conference newcomer of the year and four Colonels were also honored on the All-Southern Athletic Association basketball team.
Ellis and Karsner were named to the second team, while Scinta, Whiteside and Wesley were honorable mention All-SAA picks.