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Wayne Cavadi | | October 30, 2015

Unique ties have Augustana on top of the basketball world

  Augustana (S.D.) went 31-3 last season under coach Tom Billeter.

Exhibition is under way in NCAA men's hoops and the season is right around the corner. The Augustana Vikings are opening the season as the top ranked Men's DII and DIII squads.

Wait. What? 

It's no typo. The Augustana University Vikings in South Dakota are the preseason No. 1 in DII while the Augustana College Vikings in Illinois are the preseason No. 1 in DIII.

But wait, that’s not even the start of it.

Augustana University coach Tom Billeter and Augustana College head coach Grey Giovanine started their coaching careers together as assistants under Scott Thompson at DI Rice University nearly thirty years ago. Now, they are still friends who are entering the season atop the college basketball world.

They go even further back than that.

“His [Giovanine’s] father — who is kind of a high school legend as a basketball coach in the state of Illinois — was actually my principal when I was in elementary school in Illinois,” Billeter explained. “Grey and I had never seen each other or had any idea of each other until I got hired at Rice. I had been the GA in Arizona and Scott was Lute’s [Olsen] assistant so I went with him. We were sitting in New Orleans and Scott asked me if I knew Grey Giovanine, and I just laughed.”

“We have very similar roots,” Giovanine said. “We lived in the same small community at one time in Sheffield, Illinois — population 1000. Then we reconnected down in Houston. 

We were part of a great staff that orchestrated one of the great turnarounds in college basketball in that era. We went from a 6-21 season to a 20-game winner. In our last game on the bench together, we beat Texas on ESPN for our 100th win in front of a standing room crowd.”

Being part of Scott Thompson’s coaching team at Rice was no easy task. They were hired on the heels of back-to-back single digit win seasons.

“Dick Vitale said, ‘that Scott Thompson sure had a great future until he took that Rice job’,” Billeter said with a laugh. “It was the hardest job in Division I basketball. We all moved on after those five years, but it was a great five years and everybody ended up doing well from there as well.”

Last season, Billeter and his Augustana University Men’s basketball program were the surprise of the NSIC and DII for that matter. They entered the season with no seniors on the roster, yet ran to a 31-3 overall record winning the NSIC as well as the NSIC Tournament before losing in the NCAA Central Regionals. 

“Last year, Mankato was picked to win our league. There weren't any expectations on us whatsoever,” Billeter said. “It was a weird season. The second game of the year, we lost our two starting guards to injury. We only had six or seven kids that could play, and they played the whole year. It was a good thing, because our chemistry became very strong and very good. 

We kind of just got on a roll and kept winning. Everyone was saying ‘well, you won 19 games in a row, there’s pressure on that,’ but there really wasn’t.”

Obviously, coming off the heels of a dream season, one in which they set an NSIC record for conference wins with 20, the expectations have changed.

“The expectation now is what everybody wants,” Billeter said. “I like it. I rather be having that than when we were terrible and nobody thought we would win a game. 

I much rather have high expectations than none. It’s up to our kids to step up and know you are going to get everyone’s best shot, but that’s what you live for. That’s what we want, we want to be that school that when we go to different places we see big crowds, take everyone’s best shot. It makes us have to play well and we like that.”

Billeter has quite the squad behind him, one that has been under his tutelage from the day he recruited them.

“We don’t have a transfer on our roster,” Billeter said. “That’s unheard of. Every single kid on our roster is a high school player that we recruited and has been with us for their whole career. 

We’ve seen them grow and we also saw them mature. That’s two different things, because they got bigger and they got stronger, but their leadership quality and skills, what they do on and off the floor and in the community, they are just really great kids.”

Daniel Jansen, the reigning NSIC Player of the Year and Preseason All-American, leads a big squad along with Casey Schilling — the reigning Defensive Player of the Year — and Alex Richter who was First Team All-NSIC a season ago. This team is not short on talent.

Nor is their Viking counterpart down in Illinois. Coach Giovanine is coming off a season that saw his Vikings go 27-5 before dropping the championship game to Wisconsin-Stevens Point.  

“We have seven of our top players returning from last year, including all five starters,” Giovanine said. “They got a taste of what it’s like to play for a national championship. That has kept them really focused in their offseason preparation and has been a great motivating factor for how they approach this season.”

One of those players is Hunter Hill, last season’s co-Most Outstanding Player in the CCIW.

“I don’t think there are many better point guards in the country playing college basketball at any level than Hunter Hill,” Giovanine said. “He is a unique talent and a unique person. What he does best is compete, and he makes the guys around him better and that’s what a great playmaker does.”

It will be important for Hill to set the tempo for this team, as they are smaller down low. “Our big men aren’t that big. Our front line will be 6’6”, 6’6”, and 6’4”. We’re not an overpowering team, we’re smaller but more agile and more versatile than your typical low post team.”

Coach Giovanine knows that this will be no easy season, as they have one of the tougher schedules in DIII, plus a big game looming December 5th against a one Stevens Point. 

“We have such a difficult non-conference schedule, we are playing ten games against teams ranked in the top 40 in the country,” Giovanine said. “I’m sure the kids and the fans have circled that rematch with Stephens Point, but our guys understand that the home opener November 13th is the only game that matters right now.”

So while these two men may be a division apart, while they have made their systems and strategy their own unique style since their days at Rice together, both of their teams share one thing in common. Despite 60 combined wins between the two programs, neither team was happy about the way their season ended. 

“I don’t know of many teams that went 31-3, were co-champs of their league, won their post season tournament and saw a worse end to the year, losing by one to a very good and very well coached Northwest Missouri team,” Coach Billeter said. 

It left such a bad taste in our mouth. I feel like there is a chip on their shoulder. They're motivated. I have never seen a less cocky team, but they’re not happy about last year, to be that close. They wanted to get to that Elite 8 and it was our team’s fault, nobody else's, and they know that.”

“Last year saw the difference between mature seniors [Stevens Point] and younger guys that were just excited to be there,” Giovanine said of his team’s loss in the finals. “They had four or five seniors in their starting lineup and they played with more maturity and toughness and resilience than we did. I hope that we progress in those areas and learn from that experience.”

Whatever happens to their respective Augustana teams, Coach Billeter and Coach Giovanine have something special, both on the floor and in their lives.

“I have been a fan of Tom’s from a distance, but we don’t get to cross paths [on the court],” Giovanine said. “We connected a long time ago, went through a great experience together and remained great friends.”

Have they ever wondered what would happen if they did one day cross paths on the court?

“I sure know they are a good team,” Billeter said. “I bet it would be a great game.”