Story by STEW SALOWITZ ’76
At the end of the conference tournament, the Illinois Wesleyan men's basketball team was unsure of even getting to play in the national tournament. After finishing third in the league regular season and losing their first game in the conference tourney, their fate rested in the hands of the NCAA committee.
But once they did receive an at-large berth, the Titans made the most of it, going on a four-game winning streak that propelled them into the final round of four teams in Salem, Va.
IWU's bid for a second men's basketball national title was thwarted by Cabrini, 81-78, in the semifinals on March 16. No third-place game is contested in Division III men's basketball, so the Titans will settle for "semifinalist" on their upcoming Shirk Center banner.
The Titans' tournament confidence grew exponentially with a 108-101 double overtime win over No. 1-nationally ranked Hope College in the regional finals. It ended Hope's 23-game winning streak and sent IWU into a new level of confidence.
"It was a magical run with an absolutely great bunch of kids," says Ron Rose '88, who finished his sixth season as head coach at his alma mater. "They were able to dispel any doubts that we belonged in the tournament. I'm unbelievably proud of my team. They were a hardworking, intelligent group and I loved coaching them."
Rose loses four seniors who were key to the late-season successes, including career and season three-point record holder Jordan Zimmer. But he sees the younger players already angling for a way back to the final four.
"I was planning to give everyone several days off with no training or conditioning," Rose says. "But I walked by the weight room yesterday and saw two or three guys in there working out, getting stronger and ready for next year."
Athletic Director Dennie Bridges thinks the men's team made a significant step by playing in the final four. "The women's basketball team, I think, really benefited from having been there last year. That was the case in 1996 and 1997, when we went in '96, got third, and went back the next year and won the national championship."
Asked about the recent run of national titles for the Titans, now totaling six, Bridges says, "I think it's really talented coaches recruiting to an outstanding school, with outstanding facilities, and a great educational academic-athletic balance.
"I also think national success feeds off itself. And I can see other sports that we have that are getting closer, knocking on the door for a national championship — the women's golf team got third and the men got second last year — so it just seems like everybody understands that Illinois Wesleyan is now a national player."