Johnny Tauer heard the question many times in his 10 seasons as a Division III basketball head coach: How good are the best D-III teams relative to Division I?
That was always unanswerable, of course. Until now. That's because even though St. Thomas has made the jump to Division I, not much has changed on its end.
Tauer is using the same Tommies starting lineup as last season and mostly the same bench rotation. Circumstances have forced him to use his D-III lineup against D-I competition.
Tauer brought in five transfers as reinforcements for the transition. Two are no longer in the program, including former Gophers forward Jarvis Omersa, and none of the others are contributing much yet, partly because of injuries.
The non-scholarship Tommies are doing just fine.
They enter Sunday's game at Drake with a 3-4 record against Division I teams. St. Thomas improved to 4-4 overall with a win over Crown College on Thursday, one of two Division III teams on this season's schedule.
Their three D-I wins have been by at least nine points. Three of their four losses have been by 15 combined points. Their résumé includes a nine-point win over Niagara, which lost to Xavier by three and Ohio State by 10.
"We don't have a lot of pressure on us," senior guard Riley Miller said.
Miller epitomizes the team's identity. He's tough and unselfish with a smooth shooting touch. Lightly recruited at Benilde-St. Margaret's, Miller hoped to play for St. Thomas' junior varsity team. He now leads all of Division I in three-pointers made (42) and three-pointers per game (5.25).
As a team, the Tommies entered the weekend second nationally in three-pointers made per game at 13.4 and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.9.
In other words, a typical Tauer offense: a well-coached scheme that is predicated on spacing, movement, passing and efficiency. They also push the pace to get open shots in transition.
"It's fun to play in this system," Miller said.
Their style of offense helps mitigate physical mismatches. Opponents typically have a size advantage, but Tauer said the biggest adjustment in facing players on scholarship is strength and quickness. They are going against higher-caliber athletes than in D-III.
"We can't get into a smashmouth, half-court game," he said.
Tauer's starting frontcourt consists of a player who didn't even play basketball when he enrolled at St. Thomas and a guy who was a freshman backup on the program's JV team two years ago.
Now they're tangling with D-I big men.
"It really is a unique story," Tauer said. "When these players came here, we were Division III and their dream was to win a national championship. Now they're getting to live out a different kind of dream."
Tauer is realistic. His team will take some lumps this season. Navigating the Summit League will be a chore.
Help is coming soon. Tauer signed a four-member recruiting class that sits 58th nationally in 247Sports composite rankings. The incoming group features Minnesota standouts Ahjany Lee, Kendall Blue and Carter Bjerke, plus Andrew Rohde of Wisconsin. All four are expected to be ranked Top 500 national recruits by Prep Hoops this winter.
"Those four guys see this as an opportunity to do something that is unique and be the foundation of this transition to Division I," Tauer said.
The D-III holdovers are holding their own so far in Year 1. Even losses have been close and competitive. Moral victories don't count in the standings, but the Tommies don't feel like outsiders at a party.
"They're representing really well that if you are unselfish, smart and tough, you can compete," Tauer said. "If you can play basketball and you play the right way, you're going to give yourself a chance to win. It's a special group. I'll remember them forever, I know that."