SALEM, Va. -- The finals are set. The myopia that coaches insist on -- solely focusing on the next opponent, paying no heed to the possibilities of future games -- is now a thing of the past in Division III.
Augustana (Ill.) and Wisconsin-Stevens Point will play their last game of the season on Saturday, win or lose. Playing in the last game is exactly where they want to be.
UWSP has history on its side, but history won't score a single point once the ball is tossed at 3 p.m. EDT to start the game. The Pointers (26-5) have won three national championships, all played on this very court in Salem. UWSP won the Division III national championship in 2004, '05 and '10.
Augustana played in national semifinals five times, the last in 1993, but that was before the event was in Salem. The Vikings (27-4) has never won a national title in basketball.
Coach Grey Giavanine said it was hard not to think about what it would be like to cut down the nets as the national champions, especially since the team had the experience of cutting the nets on their home court last weekend as sectional champs.
What's more, on the way to Salem by bus, the Vikings stopped at Butler University for a practice in the venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, scene of the famous Milan Miracle, the game that inspired the movie Hoosiers, as tiny Milan High School won the Indiana state championship in 1954.
"After we cut down the nets at the sectional, we began to tune in to our next opponent, but it was a challenge not to think about it. It's hard not to look ahead and think what it would be like," Giovanine said.
Giavanine's players say they didn't look ahead. They are putting their trust in their coaches and their system, said junior guard Hunter Hill.
"You don't want to get too excited in these situations. It's going to obviously be a big stage, but you want to hone your emotions and take it as another game," Hill said. Our coaching staff will draw up a game plan tonight. We'll go back to work like we've done all year."
Giovanine and his staff won't have much time to come up with a plan. Their finals opponent was not determined until after 10 p.m., less than 15 hours before tip-off for the national championship game.
Still, the Augustan coaches had the luxury of knowing they would be in the final game and watching the second semifinal. UWSP coach Bob Semling and staff couldn't even think about Augustana until after their win over Virginia Wesleyan was complete and the post-game duties handled.
The strategy, as stated in postgame press conferences by both coaches, will be to worry less about special plans for the opponent and focus on their own core strengths.
"We have tremendous respect for Augustana," said Semling. "We know as good as they are, we have to keep the focus on us. We are who we are. We're really comfortable with our identity."
That means playing tenacious defense. The Pointers lead Division III in defensive scoring, allowing just 54.6 ppg. They held Virginia Wesleyan 19 points under their season average. The Vikings score at a pace of 79 ppg, one better than Virginia Wesleyan. Locking down a second team with offensive firepower will be tough, but it's what has led to UWSP's success throughout the years.
"We must be a defensive team. We must hang our hat there," Semling said. "We have a way of wearing teams down over 40 minutes, but only if we stay solid. We can't be up and down. We have to be consistent."
Offensively, the Pointers have talent inside and out.
Five player have a scoring average in double figures and the starters accounted for 66 of the 68 points scored in the semifinal game. For an offense that balanced, the question is, who's open?
That strategy will be on display at both ends of the court. Augustana uses the same philosophy of determining whether the defense is trying to take away the inside game, or challenging shooters. Whichever they want, the Vikings will do the other.
Hill said the key to teamwork is being unselfish.
"No one tries to be a hero. No one tries to do everything on their own. We fall back on our system. We get closer and grind it out," he said.
The Vikings are stout defensively, as well. They allow 64.3 ppg and run a patient offense, just like UWSP.
I many ways, the teams look very much alike. With this game being a match-up of similar styles, the players looked more toward the fact that it will be the last game the seniors will ever play.
Augustana's Nic Hoepfner was reflective: "Tomorrow will be my last game. Everything I've worked for, throughout my career, and the fact we've been together with this group for three years -- this is a goal we have tried to achieve the last three years. To try to make that next step is exciting. All that excitement is building up, but we have to stay focused."
UWSP's Ritchay had similar feelings: "It's very special. Obviously it's the end goal of 400-plus teams to start the year. We're just going to try to play our best basketball for one last game."
Semling's said the teams will battle and the winner will be a deserving champion.
"It will be a great game. it will be 40 minutes and the best team will be left standing," Semling said.
That's about as precise of a prediction as anyone can offer.