Steven Weidlich (above) and Susquehanna are in the program's first Sweet 16 since 1986. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Vincent Lungaro (@VinceLungaro)
Frank Marcinek has seen and done a lot at Susquehanna University.
Now patrolling the sidelines for the River Hawks for the 28th straight season, Marcinek is the program’s all-time winningest coach.
He’s led Susquehanna to the postseason 18 times and finished with a winning record 21 times.
Saturday presents a new challenge for Marcinek though, as he guides Susquehanna into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III Tournament for the very first time in his tenure, Friday against Williams College (Mass.).
The River Hawks (23-5, 11-3 Landmark) face the Ephs (21-8, 5-5 NESAC) at 5:30 p.m. from Middlebury College’s Pepin Gymnasium, with a spot in the Elite Eight up for grabs.
The winner of the early game will face the winner of the second game between Middlebury (VT.) or Endicott (MA.) for a trip to the Final Four.
Just a few weeks ago it seemed the River Hawks were destined for another early round exit in the tournament, losing two of their final three games, including the semifinal of their conference tournament.
It didn’t turn out that way, however, as Susquehanna responded with back-to-back wins to open its tournament, restoring the same level of confidence that guided the River Hawks to a stretch of 12 straight wins earlier in the regular season.
“I think the more you win, the more confidence you get and this is a pretty confident group right now,” Marcinek said. “You could say we sort of limped to the finish line at the end of the regular season, but our past two games, we’ve looked like the Susquehanna team that I saw throughout most of the year.”
One of the big reasons the River Hawks have gotten to this point is the play of senior Steven Weidlich, a 6-foot-1 guard from Watchung (N.J.) who Marcinek described as one of the best players he’s ever coached.
Weidlich leads the team in scoring (21.6 points per game) and has been the engine of the Susquehanna offense all season long. That was on full display in the team’s first two wins of the NCAA Tournament.
In the 89-82 opening round win over Medaille, Weidlich paced the River Hawks with 31 points. In the second round, a 72-67 triumph over East Connecticut State, Weidlich again led the River Hawks with 25 points.
“With Steve, going into last Saturday’s win, it was kind of like going into game seven of the World Series with your best pitcher on the mound,” Marcinek said. “You feel pretty good about your chances. He’s a senior and he wants to keep this run going. I have the utmost confidence and trust in him.”
Part of what makes Weidlich so difficult to guard, is his ability to hurt the opposing defense in so many different ways.
While some players get taken out of a game mentally if their shot isn’t falling, Weidlich does really well to figures out other ways to make an impact even if his shooting touch is off during a game.
“He scores even when he’s not having a great offensive night,” Marcinek said. “He'll have four steals that he converts into layups. He’ll score off the drive. He’ll get offensive rebounds and put it back in. He gets to the free throw line. He contributes in so many different ways.”
If the River Hawks are going to get past Williams, then Weidlich will almost certainly have to be on his game against a potent scoring team like the Ephs.
Ryan Traub (33) provides a significant post presence for the River Hawks. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Susquehanna will also need center Ryan Traub, who is second on the team with 17.5 points per game, to share some of the offensive burden with Weidlich.
The burly 6-7 big man is the only other River Hawks player averaging double figures in scoring on the year.
Dalton Reichard of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania is third with seven a game.
Guard Tyler Hoagland is fourth on the team in scoring, but his biggest contributions come from sharing the wealth with Weidlich and others. The Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania native leads the team with 119 assists on the year.
It’s unlikely Friday afternoon’s meeting will be a slow, defensive battle. Similar to Susquehanna, Williams can score the basketball as well as any team in Division III.
The Ephs, who average just a shade under 77 points per game on the season, blew out Becker in the first round, 91-63. They followed that up by dispatching Scranton 80-53 in the second round, a game in which Williams hit 11 three pointers in the first half alone.
“They are a really, really fine tuned offensive machine,” Marcinek said. “They run good sets. They execute at a high level and they have skilled enough players to execute their offensive system with. They may be the best offensive team we’ve seen all year.”
Marcinek compared Williams’ two-guard motion offensive philosophy and execution with that of coach John Beilein's at Michigan, mixed with a little bit of a Princeton-style attack.
The leader of the Ephs’ offense is senior guard Daniel Aronowitz, who averages 17.4 points per game and shoots 50 percent from the field.
What makes Williams so dangerous is much simpler than the complexity of what type of offense they run though, according to Marcinek.
“They just make shots and that’s what this game ultimately comes down to,” Marcinek said. They read what you do defensively very well. They space the floor very well. They have multiple guys who can score. They’re a handful.”
Like every other team still playing in the tournament, the goal for Susquehanna is ultimately to win a national championship.
Friday’s game is the biggest hurdle yet toward obtaining that goal for the River Hawks. But because it’s the program's first taste of the Sweet 16 under Marcinek, and its first overall since 1986, the veteran coach said having gotten to this point is still a special accomplishment.
“While we’re not satisfied, I’ve been appreciative enough to look around and go ‘wow, this is pretty neat,’” Marcinek said. “I’ve been telling my players for a long time, enjoy the moment. So I guess it’s my turn now to sort of tell myself, enjoy this moment.”