For thirteen minutes and four seconds of Indiana Wesleyan University’s game at Indiana University in Bloomington last night, IWU was either ahead of, or tied with, the number-one team in men’s college basketball.
Indiana Hoosier Cody Zeller is on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. IWU Wildcat Patrick Hopkins is not. But if the much-discussed sophomore power forward fulfills his potential and becomes a number-one NBA draft pick, Hopkins will be able to say he outscored Zeller by three points one night in Bloomington.
In front of a near-capacity crowd of 17,186 at IU’s Assembly Hall — the stomping grounds of the likes of Bobby Knight and Isiah Thomas — Wildcats like Hopkins, Jordan Weidner, D.J. Bettinger and Aaron Martin forever left their names in the annals of Indiana’s most storied college basketball venue.
After falling behind toward the end of the first half and fighting through a challenging second half, the Wildcats closed out their first night on a Big Ten court with an 86-57 loss. But for head coach Greg Tonagel and his squad, the numbers on the scoreboard won’t be alone among their memories from Thursday night.
“You know, there are a lot of things that are special in life, and that will be one of them because IU is the number one team in the nation,” Tonagel said after the game.
Excitement among Wildcat players, staff and fans had been coming to a boil ever since IWU’s name showed up on the Hoosiers’ preseason schedule. At a pregame reception for Wildcat parents and fans at a Bloomington Holiday Inn, Tonagel said that this game was an opportunity for the team, the school and the Wildcat Nation to show the world what they stand for.
“I told our guys, we’re going to measure success by two things,” Tonagel said. “One, did we prove we were a team that plays together? When adversity strikes, what was our response? And two, did we play with mental toughness? I want people to say, ‘that team’s tough, and that team plays together.'”
At the post-game press conference, Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean’s first words were praise for Tonagel’s squad.
“We expected Indiana Wesleyan to be a tough, aggressive team,” Crean said. “Extremely well-coached, there’s no doubt about that, you can see that on film. It’s one of the reasons we wanted to schedule them. I believe in what they do…I think they’ll have an outstanding year.”
Coach Crean’s belief in the Wildcat mission reaches beyond the basketball court. A devout Christian, Crean was excited to hear about the IWU athletic department’s planned mission trip to Auckland, New Zealand in the summer of 2013. Part of the profits from last night’s game will help pay for the men’s basketball team to make the trip.
“We often think that the mission trips our team goes on are the most beneficial part of a student-athlete’s experience at our university, and the thing that they probably take the most away from,” associate head coach Jeff Clark said this morning, “so being able to help make that a reality last night was just a huge blessing for our team.”
Assembly Hall has been called “the Carnegie Hall of basketball,” and just like Carnegie Hall, there’s only one way to get there: practice. Longtime observers of the Wildcats can hardly believe how far the team has progressed in the past few years. Jim Brunner, an IU alumnus who has covered Marion sports on local radio for more than 40 years, attributes the program’s growth and success entirely to Greg Tonagel, who is in his eighth year of coaching the ‘Cats.
“I think he was the absolute perfect coach at the right time: young, ambitious, filled with belief in the Lord,” Brunner said. “I’ve been with his team all over this country, and everywhere they go they represent Indiana Wesleyan so well. It’s incredible.”
Assistant Coach David Dimmich first became associated with the team in the 1990s.
“The thing that developed over the years in our conference, we’d become such a doormat that it was considered an automatic two wins for any other team in the conference,” Dimmich said. “So they weren’t real fond of Greg when he came here, because he turned that thing around just immediately. He just has a great basketball mind, and he’s a tireless recruiter.”
“They not only recruit talented young men, they recruit character,” said Perry Frank, an alumnus who played in the 1980s.
“They all really work for a team versus individual effort,” said John Herman, who played for the team in its earliest era, the late 1960s and early ’70s. “I think we have a very good squad…they work well together.”
“You got kids like Jordan Weidner and Patrick Hopkins, they wouldn’t back off if we had NBA players out there tonight,” Brunner said.
They didn’t back off for the Hoosiers, either. Weidner scored right off the tip-off with a fastbreak layup four seconds into the game, and followed that up by scoring five more points in the first half. Hopkins, a senior, also scored six points in the first half, as did senior Aaron Martin and sophomore D.J. Bettinger. The Wildcats held onto the lead for most of the first half, pulling away as far as 9 points after a three-pointer from D.J. Bettinger put them up 13-4 at 16:33.
“Coming into the game we had confidence,” Weidner said later. “We had the mindset we were going to win this game. We didn’t care who was playing on the other end, we had confidence we were going to win the game and we got off to a quick start.”
A three-pointer from IU’s Maurice Creek, on his first game after injuries sidelined him for 22 months, shut down IWU’s dominance at 6:56, putting IU up 25-27. The Hoosiers went on a 17-5 run after that, ending the half up 41-30.
Though the Hoosier defense hardened in the second half and scoring became more of a challenge, the #4-ranked NAIA Division II Wildcats kept the #1-ranked NCAA Division I Hoosiers from ever getting more than thirty points ahead. IWU’s Weidner ended the game with 14 points and five rebounds; the highest any Hoosier got was Maurice Creek’s 12 points. Cody Zeller and two other Hoosiers came away with 11.
It was a game they’ll remember for the rest of their lives — but it was also just another day in a busy week. The Wildcats’ season started on Monday with a victory against St. Xavier University. Tonight they play their first game in the annual Caleb Dimmich Tournament, against the Purdue-North Central Panthers. The tournament runs through Saturday.
They’re looking at the IU game as a guide to see where they need to improve their performance for the rest of the season.
“If we are not beating the best team in the country, whatever level it is, then we are obviously not good enough,” Weidner said. “Even if we did beat them we would still have things to work on. The biggest thing to take away is knowing that we can still get better.”