Much like the midcourt image on St. Thomas’ brand-spanking-new basketball court, the Division III basketball programs of Johnny Tauer and Ruth Sinn loom large in the state of Minnesota.
The same could be said about the grand opportunity Tommies men’s and women’s basketball could have for immediate success after jumping up two divisions this week.
The Tommies can start playing a Division I schedule in 2021-22 but won’t be eligible for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments until four years later.
Still, St. Thomas’ two basketball programs are in prime position to taste early success after this historic jump from Division III.
“Our mission at St. Thomas is to maximize our potential. To really be our best,” Sinn said. “I think this is going to be a challenge. But we’re going to learn, grow and embrace this challenge. … There are so many possibilities.”
St. Thomas has other programs that could quickly flourish with this move. The Tommies won NCAA D-III championships in volleyball as recently as 2016, baseball in 2009 and softball in 2005. John Tschida is the winningest coach in NCAA softball history.
But no two Tommies coaches in the same sport carry as much weight as Tauer and Sinn.
As head coaches at Division III national powers, they have a combined 40-plus years of experience. They’ve coached in national championship games (the men won in 2016) and Final Fours. They’ve won 16 combined conference titles and have 561 victories between them.
For all sports but football and hockey, St. Thomas is set to compete in the Summit League in 2021-22. The Tommies will have great examples in their new league to follow with programs that made waves in basketball after transitioning from lower divisions.
In 2009, North Dakota State won the Summit League tournament and became the first school since 1972 to reach the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in its first year of eligibility. In that same year, South Dakota State’s women’s team started a run of five straight NCAA tournaments and four regular-season conference titles. The Jackrabbits went to the Sweet 16 in 2019.
“There are great examples around the country of programs that have done that and certainly in the Summit that have done it [moving] from Division II to Division I,” Tauer said. “We are taking this unprecedented leap from Division III to Division I. So not everything correlates directly. But what I do think is particularly important is building something that is sustainable and consistent with the university’s culture.”
North Dakota State went 25-8 and won the Summit League men’s hoops tournament this year. South Dakota won the Summit League women’s tourney and ranked No. 11 in the final coaches’ poll.
Already anticipating they would be joining the Summit League, St. Thomas basketball coaches attended the conference tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., to take in the atmosphere.
“We were excited to see the style of ball,” Sinn said. “It’s just a well-coached league. I’m excited for us to get a chance to grow in that league and learn from the best.”
St. Thomas’ longstanding winning tradition created deep-rooted respect within the Minnesota basketball community. Tommies camps and clinics are among the most popular in the state. Tauer and Sinn have a pulse on the state’s thriving hoops scene that is producing more talent than ever.
Sinn was a successful high school coach at Apple Valley for nearly 20 years before going to college.
Tauer has been coaching his sons in AAU basketball with the Minnesota Heat, whose founder is Willie Vang, a St. Thomas alum. Tauer’s current 17-under squad features a few Division I prospects, including Stewartville senior forward Will Tschetter, who committed to Michigan this summer.
The rules are much different for Division III than Division I, especially when it comes to recruiting and being affiliated with AAU programs. As a D-I coach, Tauer won’t be able to double as an AAU coach. St. Thomas’ coaches will have a year to figure that out.
It used to be only the Gophers as the lone Division I basketball option staying home. Now there will be players Richard Pitino, Lindsay Whalen and their staff don’t recruit or miss that could end up at St. Thomas and flourish one day.
“I do think from a recruiting perspective, the response that we have seen around the state and region has been incredibly positive,” Tauer said. “There are a lot of high school students who will be interested in the university.”