If the Nebraska Wesleyan men’s basketball team wants to defend its NCAA Division III national title, the Prairie Wolves will first have to win one against the Gipper.
Eureka College (13-14), the alma mater of Ronald Reagan, gets first crack at the No. 1-ranked Prairie Wolves (26-1) in a 7:30 p.m. first round NCAA tournament game Friday at Snyder Arena. The other two teams headed to Lincoln for the opening weekend — No. 9 University of St. Thomas (22-4) and Wisconsin-La Crosse (17-9) — will square off in the 5:30 p.m. contest.
The Friday winners will play in the second round Saturday at 7 p.m.
Lincoln was one of 16 opening weekend sites announced when the 64-team bracket was released Monday. Wesleyan is making its 16th NCAA tournament appearance but is hosting tournament games for the first time since 1998.
Clay Reimers, the lone newcomer to NWU’s starting lineup this season, said he’d never heard of Eureka “until just now.”
The Red Devils, however, were already on Coach Dale Wellman’s radar screen on Sunday as a potential first-round opponent. The preliminary work of putting together a scouting report had already begun before Monday’s late morning NCAA selection show watch party at the Smith Curtis building on NWU’s campus.
Despite a losing record, Eureka has won six of its last seven coming into the tournament, including a 70-69 upset of top-seeded Webster in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship game Saturday. It was Eureka’s first-ever SLIAC title and first time to reach the NCAA tournament for the school.
Eureka won an NAIA national title in 1994.
The first-round game will match up two of the highest scoring teams in the nation. The Red Devils average 93.6 points per game, scoring 163 in a 17-point win over Greenville in the conference semifinals. NWU enters the national tournament averaging 91 per contest.
“I’m just happy that our guys get another chance to play in front of our home fans,” said Wellman, whose team wrapped up an automatic bid into the NCAAs with a 97-79 win over Loras in the American Rivers Conference tournament finals Saturday.
“Eureka is a very dangerous team that can score a lot of points. You can ignore their record because they’re playing extremely well right now,” Wellman added. “Both St. Thomas and Wisconsin-La Crosse are quality teams, so it should be a great weekend of basketball.”
St. Thomas won NCAA Division III national titles in 2011 and 2016.
This year’s draw will be a different path than what NWU took to the crown last year when all six games were away from home. This whole experience is something new for Reimers, the 6-foot-7 junior transfer from Concordia and Lincoln East graduate who has developed into another inside-outside weapon for the Wolves, averaging 11 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc.
“Seeing who we got matched up with was interesting and fun; I’d never gone through something like that before,” said Reimers, one of the few first-timers on the team to go through an NCAA show since NWU had just one senior on the squad last season.
“I’d definitely like to see us make a run (through the NCAAs) just like we did last year. The way we’re playing right now, I think we could.”
Reimers was strictly a post-up player inside for Concordia his first two years of college, but the Wesleyan offense gives Reimers the freedom to play out on the wing and either shoot outside or drive it to the basket in certain sets.
“You could tell early in the season Clay was a little hesitant and a little unsure of himself in what he was supposed to be doing offensively,” Wellman said. “He’s more confident here second semester. He’s picked up a lot of nuances we have in our offense and has become much more aggressive.”