Senior Carter Smith leads the Skyhawks into tomorrow's national quarterfinal matchup with West Liberty. (PHOTO BY Mike Tureski/SportsPix)
Stonehill College basketball coach Chris Kraus had great expectations for his team when it opened the season more than four months ago. On Wednesday, the Skyhawks will meet Western Liberty University in Frisco, Texas, in the NCAA Elite Eight of Division 2 college basketball.
EASTON – Great expectations.
Third-year Stonehill College men's basketball head coach Chris Kraus had them before his Skyhawks tipped off their 2015-2016 season by defeating Pace University, 81-67, at Merkert Gymnasium more than four months ago.
"I knew in preseason we had a chance to win the league," said Kraus. "I knew we had a group that could definitely compete at a very high level and had a chance."
The Skyhawks may not have won the Northeast-10 Conference – Bentley edged them out by one game to win the conference's Northeast Division during the regular season, then defeated them in the semifinal round of the NE-10 tournament before bowing to Southern New Hampshire in the championsihp game – but they have a chance to do something even greater this week.
Sporting a record of 24-8 after claiming the NCAA Division 2 East Regional championship, the Skyhawks are one of eight teams that have made the trip to Frisco, Texas, where play at the Elite Eight will tip off Wednesday.
Seeded fifth, the Skyhawks will take on 30-3 and fourth-seeded West Liberty University in a quarterfinal-round game at Dr. Pepper Arena at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday (to be webcast live on ncaa.com with links available through stonehillskyhawks.com).
"I don't think any of us have any idea what we're walking into in terms of the spotlight, but I'm sure it'll be a joy, it'll be a great opportunity, and I think we are ready for it," said senior guard Carter Smith, whose performance in the three-game regional earned him the tournament's most outstanding player honor. "We feel we're ready to attack it and go after it. We feel we've got nothing to lose."
To be sure, West Liberty presents a formidable opponent, one that leads the nation in scoring, averaging 99.0 points per game.
No strangers to the Elite Eight, the Hilltoppers are making their fifth appearance in six years, one of those seasons ended by the Skyhawks, 91-90, in a quarterfinal-round game four years ago in Highland Heights, Ky., that marked the last time Stonehill got this far.
Junior Ryan Logan is the Skyhawks top scorer and assist man, ranking second for rebounds. (PHOTO BY Tom Weishaar)
West Liberty advanced to the national championship game in 2014, but lost to Central Missouri, 84-77.
Averaging 25 points per game (sixth in the nation) and shooting 57.9 percent from the field, senior forward Seger Bonifant, the program's all-time leading scorer with 2,223 points, leads the team in that department.
Junior guard Devin Hoehn is averaging 15.6 points a game, freshman guard David Dennis Jr. 13.7 PPG, and junior forward Zac Grossenbacher is averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
"They lead the country in scoring and shoot it at all five positions," said Kraus. "They try to pressure you full court for all 40 minutes. So we've got to make sure we take care of the basketball.
"They're going to try to play up-tempo. Hopefully we can slow it down and play more at our pace. We've done a good job of controlling the tempo and playing more where we want to, and there's going to be no bigger time to try to do that than Wednesday."
Making their third appearance in the Elite Eight since 2006, the Skyhawks have advanced to the Final Four in each of the previous two (2006 and 2012).
At 17.7 points per game, junior forward Ryan Logan tops the Skyhawks in scoring and is their second-leading rebounder (8.3 per game). Smith backs Logan in scoring at 16.3 PPG.
Senior forward Pierce Cumpstone is averaging 14.3 points and leads the team in rebounding with 9.7 per game. Senior guard Adam Bramanti and junior forward Jimmy Walsh are averaging 10.7 PPG, but Walsh has been sidelined with a concussion since December.
The winner of Wednesday afternoon's Stonehill-West Liberty game will advance to the national semifinal round and a game against either top-seeded Lincoln Memorial (32-2) or eighth-seeded Barry University (26-6) on Thursday night at 7 (the semifinal-round games will be carried by CBS College Sports).
The other quarterfinal-round pairings match Augustana College (31-2) against Tarleton State (24-8) and Western Oregon (30-3) vs. Saginaw Valley (25-7).
The national championship game, to be televised live by CBS, is set for 3 p.m. Saturday.
"We're going to take it one game at a time," said Kraus. "We've actually treated every single game this year as if it was the last one of the season and we're going to treat West Liberty as if it's our national championship game, hopefully that goes as planned and then we can treat the Final Four as if it's the national championship.
"Treating every game as if it was the last has been a big part of our M.O. and what we've done this year."