SALEM, Va. – The two head coaches set to square off in the first semifinal at the Division III national championship are coaching the schools they attended – Ron Rose of Illinois Wesleyan and Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Pat Miller.
Miller starred at Wisconsin-Whitewater from 1986 to '89, capping off his Warhawk career as a senior with a DIII title. He headed over to play in Europe and then coached high school for a couple of years, before returning to Whitewater as an assistant in 1993.
He’s been there ever since, took over as head coach in 2001 and won another title two seasons ago. The Wisconsin-Whitewater women’s basketball team is also in its national semfinals this season, vying for the title in Stevens Point, Wis. on Friday.
“In my position, I represent obviously the university, our basketball program and all the people who have played here,” Miller said. “That’s why it’s meaningful to me. I feel that I serve on behalf of them. We have great kids, and I want them to experience what it’s like to win their last game and be crowned national champions. It’s a great feeling. From an athletic perspective, that’s as good as it gets.”
Just 180 miles away in Bloomington, Ill., Rose was playing at Illinois-Wesleyan at almost the same time – he graduated in 1988, so he jokes and says that he’s “old.”
A few of the professors he had as a student-athlete are still around, and they’re now friends. He made it to the national quarterfinals as a player, but couldn’t quite get over the hump and win it all.
Not once, however, has he thought of what it would mean to him personally to bring the national championship trophy back to campus. He was coaching high school in town when the Titans won their only crown to date, back in 1997.
“Having the opportunity to coach at your alma mater is very special,” Rose said. “I had such a great experience as a student and as an athlete at Illinois-Wesleyan. It really is a family atmosphere. Coaching the kids that I have the opportunity to coach here makes it extra special.”
Rose is quick with a quip. He insists he’s no relation to Pete, Axl or Derrick Rose, and when asked what he knows about Wisconsin-Whitewater, the answer is swift.
“Enough to know I’d rather not be playing them,” he said with laugh.
The schools did not play one another this season, but during the 2012-13 campaign, Wisconsin-Whitewater handed Illinois Wesleyan its only home loss during the regular season.
In 105 years of Illinois Wesleyan men’s basketball, only two other teams have surpassed this year’s 27 victories. A particular strength has been strong shooting, both from the outside and in the paint.
The Titans have pumped in 297 three-pointers so far this season, shattering the former record of 235 set in 2005-2006. Its total of 2,565 points is tied for fourth most in school history, and would break the record with just 55 more points Friday.
Again, Rose had a quick one liner.
“When the ball goes in, it makes basketball a lot easier,” he said, again with a chuckle. “Pretty profound, huh?”
Rose’s game plan is not all that hard to understand, really. It’s all about balance.
“If you can have five guys on the floor who all can pass, catch and score in their respective positions and then play ridiculously unselfish, that is a really good formula for success,” Rose added. “One of the big keys is taking quality shots. If you’re taking open, in bounds, in rhythm threes and sharing the basketball, that certainly is a big part of our offense.
“The other side of it is we’ve got guys who can score inside. You can’t just focus on one or the other. If you focus on our inside, it opens up the three-point shots. It’s a lot easier to stop a team that shoots a lot of threes if they don’t have guys who can score in the paint. We’re very fortunate to have some size inside as well.”
Five current members of the Wisconsin-Whitewater squad – Merg, Quardell Young, Cody Odegaard, Eric Bryson and Steve Egan – won it all in 2012. They’ve been down this road before, but so have the other three teams in this year’s DIII Final Four.
“Certainly, the familiarity with the routine and the arena is helpful,” Miller said. “I have a lot less anxiety this time around than I did in 2012, I can tell you that – not about the playing aspect, but about the logistical aspects of what’s going to happen.”
Like the other three coaches and every single player here this weekend, Miller sounds ready to get on with the program and hit the court Friday.
“I think our best asset is that we can apply a lot of pressure on people with our quickness and our athleticism, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball,” Miller said. “We have a balanced attack, so I think that’s one of our strengths as well. We have different people who can score in different ways, and that’s served us well throughout the course of the season.”