East Stroudsburg coach Jeff Wilson (above) and the Warriors will make the first Elite Eight appearance in school history on Tuesday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Before the season started, East Stroudsburg head coach Jeff Wilson knew he’d be making a trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the middle of March.
As the chair of the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Committee, Wilson visited Sioux Falls, the location of the Division II Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship, last season and has been to the event, held in different locations, as part of the Atlantic Region Advisory Committee in years past. His duties were set to take him there again this year.
Wilson made the trip on Saturday, but it was a little bit different from those in the past. He’ll be joined by his team and his coaching staff as East Stroudsburg (27-5) competes in its first ever Elite Eight against Northern State (S.D.) at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
“I’d much rather be coaching,” Wilson said. “I’ve gotten to see the region’s champions go out there and play in this tournament and you always want to get your team there, so this has been really gratifying in my last year as chair to be able to hand over those responsibilities to somebody else and bring my team out there and play."
This is East Stroudsburg’s sixth all-time NCAA Tournament appearance and the fifth appearance under Wilson’s watch, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014 when the Warriors won a program record 30 games. Their only other Sweet 16 appearance came in 1990.
Heading into this season, East Stroudsburg hadn’t been back to the tournament since that 2014 campaign. It was a three-year hiatus for a program that had made NCAA appearances in four of the previous five seasons.
After losing two of the top scorers from last year’s team, Wilson knew some players would have to step into new roles for the Warriors. He said a blowout loss to Shippensburg on Jan. 31 was when he found out he might have something special.
After the game, co-captains Steve Harris, Kitt Najee Walls and Jakwan Jones held a team only meeting. Since then the Warriors have won 13 straight, claiming a PSAC East title, PSAC tournament title and an Atlantic Regional title along the way.
“They got the guys honed in on doing some of the things we’ve been preaching all year,” Wilson said. “I think that they never really let off the accelerator. They’ve held guys really accountable in the locker room, on the practice floor, during games.”
Harris, a redshirt-senior forward, has been of particular importance to the Warriors. The 6-foot-7 forward played just seven games in 2016-17 before an ankle injury sidelined him for the year with a medical redshirt.
Wilson said Harris wasn’t even sure he was going to play this season after dealing with injuries throughout his career. Harris instead decided to come back and has put together a career best season. He leads the team in scoring (15.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 rpg).
After earning MVP honors during the PSAC tournament, the senior took home tournament MVP for the Atlantic region, averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 70.4 percent from the floor in wins against Gannon, West Chester and Shippensburg.
“To see him be able to come through this, have the year that he’s had, obviously that’s been gratifying,” Wilson said. “But for me I think the biggest thing with Steve has kind of been watching him evolve as a person and his leadership…Steve has kind of taken this team on himself.”
East Stroudsburg’s strength comes from its depth. Ten players average more than 12 minutes per game, while no one averages more than 26 minutes per contest. Each player scores more than five points per game for the Warriors, who boast the No. 6 scoring offense in Division II at 92.6 points per game.
Harris and Jones, a redshirt-junior guard averaging 9.5 points and 5.7 assists per game, are joined in the starting lineup by sophomore forward Kobi Nwandu (12.3 ppg), junior guard Nick Giordano (11.2 ppg) and sophomore guard Montrel Morgan (5.3 ppg).
Walls, a junior guard, comes off the bench to average 5.9 ppg and 3.8 apg as part of a two-headed monster at the point guard position with Jones. Senior guard Ryan Krawczeniuk (9.1 ppg), senior forward Ralik Wise (8.6 ppg), redshirt-junior forward Josh Williams (7.8 ppg) and freshman guard Marc Rodriguez (6.9 ppg) are also key contributors off the bench.
Wilson’s press and run style requires a deep rotation, but it also means some players may not see the number minutes they might get at other programs. He said recruiting players who can put that aside is at the root of now six 20-win seasons, five PSAC East titles, five NCAA tournament appearances and three PSAC championships and this year's historic run during the past decade.
“I think that’s been the major success for us is finding those guys that want to sacrifice maybe a couple extra points a game to try and win games,” Wilson said.
The road to the Elite Eight has been filled with familiar faces for the Warriors. When they got to the tournament, the Warriors essentially had to make another PSAC run.
They opened the tourney with a 78-69 win against Gannon, who they had defeated in the PSAC title game just six days prior, and took down PSAC East rival West Chester 90-76 in the second round. Another PSAC East rival stood in the Warriors’ way of an Elite Eight appearance, but East Stroudsburg took care of Shippensburg, 84-72, to make history.
“That’s a different run through,” Wilson said. “I think it really shows the quality of our conference this year. No doubt about that. The fact that all those teams we split with, we had to find a way to play our best basketball down the stretch.”
Northern State will be making its first Elite Eight appearance since 1998 on Tuesday. The No. 3 seed Wolves enter the game with a 33-4 record and had a No. 6 ranking in the National Association of Basketball Coaches before the tournament.
Led by 6-foot-4 redshirt-senior guard DJ Hollard (12.9 ppg), Northern State has five scorers in double figures. Former South Dakota State transfer Logan Doyle, a 6-foot-8 forward, and senior 6-foot-10 center Carter Evans anchor a defense that ranks No. 16 in Division II with 66.1 points per game allowed.
“It’ll be the first time we haven’t seen anybody familiar in a long time, but I know our guys are excited about it,” Wilson said.
“They play at a different pace than we do, so the tempo’s going to be important in this game as it’s been for us all year,” Wilson added. “We’re going to have to try to find a way to get the tempo of this game up. At this time of the year, there are no bad teams, there haven’t been any bad teams the past three weeks. It’s a different challenge, it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to having the opportunity to meet. We’re just at this point, very happy and privileged to be still playing.”