SALEM, Va. -- To a man, the members of the Williams College basketball team are where they need to be as they approach today's first game in the NCAA Division III Elite Eight.
"We're playing our best basketball right now, there's no question," Williams senior guard James Klemm said. "Down the stretch is when teams finally start to hit their stride.
"Effort, communication, the flow of our offense is all clicking right now."
That's got to be a good thing for the Ephs, because their Elite Eight matchup is against the No. 1 team in the nation. Williams opens play today at noon against St. Thomas (Minn.), with the winner advancing to Saturday's national semifinal round.
"We are ecstatic" to be back in Salem, said Klemm. "We get the star treatment. It's a blessing to be here. For a third time for our senior class, it's great."
The winner of today's noon game will play the winner of the second game of four. St. Mary's (Md.) plays Mary Hardin-Baylor at 2:30 today. The winners will go Saturday at 6 p.m. in the first Final Four game.
Williams and St. Thomas were in the Final Four here two years ago. The Ephs lost in the national semifinal to the College of Wooster. St. Thomas beat Middlebury and then defeated Wooster to claim the national title.
"No one's talking about it, but this is the bracket of darkness," Williams coach Mike Maker said during Thursday's Media Day in the Salem Civic Center. "There's not a lot of hope in it. It was the most difficult collection of teams on our side that we've faced in my tenure, without question.
"Not a lot of people have us having a remote chance of beating St. Thomas."
The Ephs arrived here having knocked off two of the top teams in the Mid-Atlantic region in Wesley and ninth-ranked Catholic. Last week, Williams beat the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, Virginia Wesleyan, and will play the current No. 1 team in the Tommies.
St. Thomas enters the Civic Center having lost only once in 30 games. That was a 54-52 loss to Concordia-Moorhead back on Jan. 21. The Tommies have won 13 consecutive games and advanced to Salem with a 63-62 win over Calvin on March 16.
"As a coach that's preparing for them, I don't see any weaknesses, certainly on the offensive end," said Maker. "Defensively, they're very disruptive. They have a lot of depth and a lot of talent."
At the top of that talent list is senior guard Will DeBerg. The 6-footer from Edina, Minn., is the Tommies' top scorer at 12.5 points per game. That number is a little misleading, however, since he only averages 24 minutes per game. That's in part because 11 Tommies play double-figure minutes per game and since they are plus-21 in scoring margin, they have had a lot of blowouts.
Maker said that with the Ephs' short bench, DeBerg might average 22 points playing for the Ephs.
What concerns Maker the most are the facts that St. Thomas makes more free throws (468) than its opponents take (441) and that the Tommies have 516 assists to only 326 turnovers.
The last time the Tommies were in Salem, second-year head coach John Tauer was an assistant on Steve Fritz's staff.
"I was fortunate to play in a Final Four [at St. Thomas] as a player and then as an assistant coach be here," said Tauer. "Now, we're in the Elite Eight back in Salem. It's a lot of fun. One of the things we walk about with our team is that everyone has roles.
"While my role has changed a little bit, we're all integral pieces of this puzzle."
Tauer and his staff will have to contend with four double-figure scorers. Taylor Epley (18.6 points per game) and James Klemm (11.1) both went over the 1,000-point mark last week in the 84-75 win over Virginia Wesleyan. Michael Mayer (17.8) and Daniel Wohl (10.2) are also double-figure scorers while Nate Robertson (9.1 points per game) has 146 assists. That figure is second only to Amherst's Aaron Toomey among Elite Eight point guards.
"Their five starters, from one to five, can all score it. Their center [Mayer] is a really tough matchup," said Tauer. "There are a lot of things that concern us about them.
"It's exciting to play teams like this at this time of the year. There are 417 [Division III] teams, and we're down to eight."
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