MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - John Tauer remembers being in Sioux Falls this time last year with his coaching staff and administration, taking in his first Summit League Tournament.
Fast forward a year, and Tauer will be on the sidelines Friday night coaching for the first time in a Division I postseason. The St. Thomas men’s basketball team opens its first conference tournament against Western Illinois Sunday night, a team the Tommies split with in the regular season. Tauer is no stranger to the playoffs. He’s one of the few that’s played, been an assistant and then a head coach in Division III Final Fours.
But Division I is a different animal, and a new opportunity.
"I think that’s been one of the neatest parts of this whole experience for them is to just get to do so many different things. A guy like Riley Miller came here with one goal, to win a Division III national championship. That’s morphed into Division I and helping us lead in this Division I era," Tauer said Tuesday. "He and all these veterans have been remarkable in how they’ve adapted in midstream. It’s easy to feel proud of them as a coach."
The Tommies have more than held their own in their second season in Division I. They’re 18-13, tied for fourth in the Summit League at 9-9 and went 12-2 at home. They came into the season with a highly-touted class led by Minnesota natives Ahjany Lee, Kendall Blue and Carter Bjerke, but it’s been Wisconsin native Andrew Rohde that’s led the Tommies at 16.7 points per game. He also leads the team in assists.
"Andrew Rohde has been phenomenal. His love of the game, and what an unbelievable teammate he is. He’s just a connector," Tauer said.
This week is March Madness for St. Thomas. With the leap to Division I comes a five-year wait to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Tommies won’t let that stop them from making the most of their time in Sioux Falls.
"At some level you could say this is our NCAA Tournament. We know this is the end point of our season. I think our guys both of the last two seasons have been phenomenal just treating every game like it’s a one-game season, a Super Bowl, whatever metaphor you want to use," Tauer said. "This year we’ve done it 31 times, and I think part of that is you want to have players who love the game. I think our guys are really good at that, I think they’re really grateful for this opportunity. Getting to do this at the end of the year is a great capstone to the season. While we can’t go to the NCAA Tournament, everything else is right in front of us. it’s not hard to get them excited to play basketball."
It's that mentality, and their four pillars of adaptability, curiosity, trust and gratitude that will take them wherever they want to go in Division I. Just two years in, they’ve already proven they can compete.
Tauer says he’ll appreciate that when this year’s run is over, even if there’s disagreement on that within his own house.
"My wife does a pretty good job of it, sometimes telling me to knock it off, just stop and be an optimist for a little while. When you’re in the middle of a season, you don’t really have time to stop and reflect. I do think there’s a lot of gratitude for how our guys play. The most important thing is how these guys act as human beings and students, and how they compete," Tauer said. "Games are just a lot of fun. They’re intense, but you just get to see these guys play really, really hard for 40 minutes. Even in the games we’ve lost, I don’t know that I’ve walked away disappointed. We always play hard. We’re really excited about where the program is headed and the opportunities that are in front of us."
A majority of this year’s roster will never play in an NCAA Tournament. The Tommies have to wait three more seasons to be eligible. But what matters to Tauer is laying the foundation for sustained future success.
"There will never be a group like these first couple years. They’ll be the guys that I think we look back at and say back in 2021-22-23, these were the guys that were laying the groundwork in Division I," Tauer said. "None of them thought they were coming here to be Division I athletes, not only have they done that but I think they’ve done it incredibly well."
Sunday’s winner likely gets No. 1 seed Oral Roberts in the semifinal round on Monday.