Lisle, Illinois ~ Sometimes all it takes is one crazy play to win a game against a tough opponent on the road to create a belief that anything is possible.
When the Benedictine University men's basketball players look back on the 2015-16 season, many will probably point to 6-foot-9 senior Luke Johnson's off-balance, over the shoulder throw-in at the buzzer to beat Illinois Wesleyan 88-86 in their season opener on November 14 as the moment they all started to believe.
"When Luke shot that, I was behind him and I saw it was going right in," said 6-foot-3 junior guard Michael Blaszczyk. "I was amazed, and yes, we understood it was a little lucky. But we put ourselves in position to win. Honestly, it was a huge confidence boost to win on the road at Wesleyan. It's one of the toughest places to play in the country. We realized this year could be something special and we have a really good team."
Benedictine, which completed the regular season at 25-0 and is ranked No. 2 in the nation in the D3hoops.com poll, has not needed many last-second heroics since that season opener. The Eagles are averaging 87 points per game and are outscoring their opponents by more than 19 points per contest. They have won road games at No. 11 North Central (19-6) and No. 17 Elmhurst (20-5), and handled poll vote-getter and Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC) rival Aurora (20-5) twice, 90-62 at home and 93-70 at Aurora.
Benedictine will try to extend its 25-game unbeaten streak Friday when it hosts the winner of the NACC tournament quarterfinal between No. 4 seed Wisconsin Lutheran College and No. 5 seed Marian University at 7:00 p.m. at the Rice Center.
If Benedictine wins Friday, the Eagles will host the NACC tournament championship game at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 28.
"We had a sense that we were going to be really good going into this year because of what we were building on from last year," said 6-foot senior guard John Dodson, a starter on last year's 18-9 NACC co-championship team. "We knew the first couple of games were going to be tough. We thought we'd have one or two losses. But being undefeated? That's a cherry on top."
Balance has been a key to Benedictine's success. The Eagles have five players scoring in double figures, led by Blaszczyk, a Naperville Central graduate who averages 14 points per game. Not far behind are Johnson (Naperville, Ill./Wheaton Academy/Communication Arts) at 13.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and 6-2 junior guard Tahron Harvey (Country Club Hills, Ill./Glenbard East/Communication Arts) at 13.6 points per game.
Six-foot-5 junior Adam Reynolds (Shorewood, Ill./Minooka/Physical Education) averages 11.3 points per game and Dodson (Gary, Ind./Bishop Noll/Marketing) adds 11.2 points per game. Six-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (Chicago, Ill./Taft/Physical Education) comes off the bench and averages 8.9 points per game.
"It's unselfishness," Blaszczyk said. "We have five guys on the court and all five of our starters can go off for 20 points on any given night, and all four other guys will be cheering him on trying to help him keep scoring. It doesn't matter who scores as long as we keep winning. That's all we really care about."
The Benedictine basketball team is also scoring off the court. Blaszczyk's team-high 349 points are almost as impressive as his 3.729 GPA in Accounting. The Naperville resident wanted to go to a college where he could be close to his family, and said succeeding on the court and in the classroom is about managing your time and choosing your priorities.
"It's basically all time management," he said. "You have homework, you have practice, and you honestly just have to sit down and divide your day. You have to make sure you go to all your classes and keep up with your professors if you have any questions or concerns with your homework or any test. It's time management and discipline to get your work done."
Dodson owns a 3.460 GPA and is on schedule to graduate after completing an internship with Northwestern Mutual in the spring.
"Starting in May I'll be an intern learning to become a financial representative," he said. "They will be taking me through a lot of different training and a lot of day-to-day things and I will actually be doing a lot of the work that financial representatives do. They told me that by the end of the internship I'll be able to take on a job as a full-time representative. It's a good opportunity coming out of school."
Dodson, who transferred prior to his sophomore year, was attracted to Benedictine by a number of factors.
"I really liked the coaching staff," he said. "They had recruited me out of high school, and they were very welcoming. I love the facility. I have friends from other teams who love to play here just because of the facility. They built a new fitness facility here around the time I got here. I looked at the team and the style of play. So it was different things like that. It seemed like a really good fit for me."
The Eagles are coached by Keith Bunkenburg, a graduate of St. Patrick High School in Chicago who played at Benedictine in the late 1980s. Bunkenburg is 334-215 in 20 years at his alma mater and is among the 250 winningest active coaches in the NCAA regardless of level. His teams have won seven regular-season or conference tournament titles and made four NCAA tournament appearances.
"There are probably three or four key moments that convinced me we'd be pretty good," he said. "The first was the Augustana scrimmage. They were the preseason No. 1 in the country. It was a battle. Then there were the Wesleyan and Elmhurst games (the Eagles led the latter by 28 points at halftime). Finally was the first game against Aurora. That game is always going to be good just because it's a rivalry game. We were up 38 at one point. I'm like this is unbelievable. Wow, we're pretty good."
An 88-54 victory over Edgewood College on February 13 allowed the Eagles to pass the 1990-91 Benedictine team for most wins in a season. The 1990-91 team won 23 games and reached the NCAA Division III tournament quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Wisconsin-Platteville.
Bunkenburg believes this team has a chance to do something just as special. But that belief comes with a codicil.
"I know coaches don't want to predict those types of things, but I told the guys we have a really great opportunity," he said. "But there's a few factors involved. We're going to get everybody's best shot because we have a target on our back. On any given night a team is going to come out and play really well, and where are we? How are we going to respond? How are we going to play?
"Up to this point, the team has really done pretty well with the rankings and everybody saying how great you are and you have a really good chance of doing some special things in the tournament. All we can do is worry about the next game, and that's all we've been doing. But it's been a pretty neat ride so far."
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 21 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.