SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Two teams which prefer to be the aggressor - and have had much success in the process - collide today in the Tom Byron Classic at Westmont College's Murchison Gymnasium.
The intriguing test of wills features No. 1-ranked Illinois Wesleyan, which has outscored its opponents by nearly 17 points and outrebounded foes by more than 11 per game while winning its first eight games.
Providing the opposition in the 7:30 p.m. (CST) tournament opener is No. 5 Puget Sound. The 7-1 Loggers average 98.9 points and force a mind-boggling 33 turnovers per game with a relentless fullcourt pressure defense.
"We want to dictate the tempo and be the aggressor," Puget Sound coach Eric Bridgeland said.
"I don't want them to dictate everything we do," said IWU coach Scott Trost. "We still have to play how we play."
Today's second game features two NAIA Division I teams in host Westmont (6-3) and Berry (7-4). Friday's third-place game begins at 7:30 p.m. (CST) with the title game to follow at about 9:30 p.m.
Located in Tacoma, Wash., Puget Sound has advanced to the NCAA Division III Tournament's Sweet Sixteen the past two seasons only to fall to eventual national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point each time.
The Loggers' press is built on constant trapping with four players up and one back to prevent the long pass over the press. When a Titan grabs a defensive rebound, he can expect to be immediately trapped by two defenders.
That formula helped Puget Sound record the first victory of the season by a Division III team over a Division I squad in a 115-111 decision over Cal-Riverside on Dec. 21. The Loggers had seven players score in double figures, forced 36 turnovers and shot 54 free throws.
"It will be a challenge. It should be a great game," said Trost. "We put in a couple of different wrinkles, a different press breaker and such. We'll try to get the ball out and go with it, try to break the press before it gets set.
"If we do break the press, we're going to get good shots. We want to be aggressive and attack the basket."
Puget Sound opponents are shooting 53.8 percent from the field. The Loggers, however, have attempted 134 more shots than their foes.
IWU's ballhandling ability will be enhanced by the return of senior guard Matt Arnold, who sat out the Titans' first eight games while serving an NCAA suspension.
While point guard Adam Dauksas and fellow guards Mike McGraw, Jason Fisher and Arnold will be counted on to avoid an abundance of turnovers, the Titans' forwards and centers also will be forced to handle the ball at times by the Loggers' frenzied defense.
"There's no greater test for a point guard who wants the ball in his hands," Dauksas said. "It should be fun and challenging. It's something we can do. Our big guys do handle the ball well.
"They try to mess with your head. They try to speed you up and slow you down and make you make mistakes. When we see a crease, we have to attack the basket."
Offensively, the Loggers use four players on the perimeter and one inside, usually 6-foot-6 senior Zack McVey.
McVey averages 14.3 points, while 6-2 senior Chase Curtiss is the team leader at 15.4. Other key players include 5-10 senior Josh Walker (11.1), 6-1 sophomore Taylor Marsh (10.4) and 6-7 freshman Jason Foster (10.4). Ten Loggers average at least 12 minutes of playing time.
"They try to break you down off the dribble and create opportunities for each other," said Trost. "We have to defend the dribble drive."
The Titans are led by 6-6 senior Keelan Amelianovich (18.0), 6-7 junior Zach Freeman (16.1, 7.6 rebounds) and Dauksas (13.0, 7.6 assists).
"They are so talented in so many areas," Bridgeland said. "Their two All-Americans (Amelianovich and Dauksas) are good, but they have three or four other really good players.
Westmont runs a Princeton-style offense emphasizing back cuts and ball movement.
"We run it a little more fast-paced. We score more in the 70s," said Warriors' coach John Moore. "It's a lot of precision. The detail is very challenging to pick up. Maybe that's why we're struggling a little more. I don't think we've had three losses at this point in a long time."
A 6-4 senior, Nick Debban paces the balanced Westmont attack with 11.6 points. Santiago Aguirre and 6-3 senior Kevin Bartel add 11.3 each and 6-3 freshman Tyler Dutton chips in 9.6 off the bench. The 6-8, 245-pound Aguirre averages 8.7 rebounds.
"He is very skilled," Moore said. "He was offered some Division I opportunities. He's a local kid, and fortunately we were able to get him to stay home. He's perfect for this offense. He's a great passer and he can step out and shoot a little bit."
Among Westmont's victories is a 72-69 overtime win Nov. 25 over Carthage, a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin rival of IWU.
Based in Mount Berry, Ga., Berry is a "young team still trying to find an identity," according to Coach Jeff Haarlow.
"We are a team that has not hit our stride offensively, but have been disrupting some teams defensively," Haarlow said. "We are a very balanced team that prides itself in our motion offense and playing sound defense."
The Vikings have five players scoring in double figures in 6-0 junior Tramaine Aaron (13.6), 6-3 sophomore Lee Burrell (11.4), 6-8 sophomore Jess Mullens (11.2), 6-3 sophomore JD Pollock (11.0) and 6-5 senior Mitch Webb (10.5).