Worst to first: Central surprises with men’s basketball crown

Central College basketball

Under second-year coach Craig Douma, the Dutch were picked to place last in the Iowa Conference men’s basketball race but instead captured Central’s 17th championship.

Exactly no one saw this coming.

But then again, no team in Iowa Conference history had previously made the leap from last place in the league men’s basketball race to conference champions the following year. The fact that league coaches in a preseason poll picked Central to finish last again made it even sweeter when the Dutch cut down the nets in Kuyper Gym in late February.

Countless factors combined to transform Central from a 10-14 club a year ago to a 21-8 squadCentral College basketball that was 11-3 in league play and won its first NCAA Division III tournament game since 1991. Topping the list was a conference MVP year from 6-8 senior forward Matt Greenfield, an inside/outside threat who led the league in scoring (19.0 points per game) and rebounding (9.9) while posting 15 double-doubles, including a remarkable 30-point, 14-rebound effort in Central’s Feb. 15 road upset of preseason favorite Dubuque.

There was senior point guard Kevin Kaerwer, who wasn’t even in the starting lineup a year ago, who joined Greenfield as a first-team all-conference pick after averaging 15.5 points and 3.8 assists, ranking second in the league. And junior guard Nile Eckermann, another first-year starter, who led Central with 56 3-point goals while averaging 10.0 points per game. And forward Colby Taylor, named the West Region’s freshman of the year by D3hoops.com, after breaking into the starting lineup and recording three late-season double-doubles, including a 24-point, 12-rebound outing at Luther Feb. 19.

And, unquestionably, intangibles played a role. It was a cohesive team, put together by tireless second-year coach Craig Douma, the league’s coach of the year. And not to be overlooked are the detailed game preparation and energy provided by the return of assistant coach Joe Steinkamp ’03, who returned to Central after a year in private business in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The conference crown was Central’s 17th, and the 11th since 1976, the most in the league. The Dutch, who also won the conference tournament for the second time, made their league-best 10th NCAA Division III tournament appearance, upsetting St. Olaf (Minn.) in the opening round, 85-72, before losing to the top- ranked host school, Wis.-Stevens Point, 76-71.

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