by Conor Gereg
It’s common for Division II’s most successful programs to mull the efficacy of a transition to Division I. And for good reason. With Division I membership comes the chance to play the role of Cinderella in the annual spectacle that is March Madness.
It’s virtually unprecedented however for a Division III school to consider such path, skipping a layover at Division II altogether. The list is of schools that have made this seismic leap is brief: Dayton*, Buffalo, and now, University of St. Thomas.
This is a move of such historic precedence that it required special approval from the Division I council of the NCAA. In June of 2020, the NCAA’s rules council determined that the university could formally request a waiver that would preclude them for a 12-year mandated sojourn in Division II.
With the NCAA’s formal blessing, July 1st will mark the arrival of the University of St. Thomas, a private university moored in the heart of the twin cities, becoming just the second school in Minnesota to be playing at the DI level.
The Tommies bring their historic success to a league that could use a jolt. The Summit Conference is a collection of both public and private intuitions, mostly spread out across the American northern plains, though the edges of the league span from Tulsa to Denver to Kansas City. A mix of both urban universities and public flagships, the addition of St. Thomas adds far more than merely a 10th member institution.
“There’s always some excitement when there’s a new member in this conference, but the excitement might actually be a little higher this time around because rather than another commuter school that nobody really wants, they’re bringing in a strong and established school that should genuinely make the conference better,” Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader told College Hoops Digest.
“They’re a strong addition to the Summit League for a variety of reasons,” Zimmer added. “They’ve had tremendous on-court success in men’s and women’s basketball that figures to translate well to the Summit League, and as a private institution with a large endowment and long history, they figure to be a sturdy member in a league that has often been littered with less-than-established comers and goers. It also gets the Summit League into the state of Minnesota, which is good for proximity, which helps keep travel costs down, and exposure, as many Summit League schools already recruit Minnesota heavily.”
Entrance into Minnesota expands the league’s footprint to an eighth state, opening up even more fertile territory for Summit League schools to recruit players. Even with access to more talent, the Tommies will have their work cut out for a program that’s made 19 NCAA tournament appearances since 1990.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for the teams in the Summit League and we are realistic about the jump we are making,” head coach John Tauer told us. Tauer will enter his 11th year at the helm of the basketball program at St. Thomas where he’s also is a professor of psychology. “Success comes in both quantitative and qualitative measures. Some of it is measured in wins and losses, but early on we believe much of it will be measured by progress in support of our mission and by maintaining and strengthening our basketball culture which has been very strong. As we embark on this new journey, we are excited to provide an outstanding experience to our players and fans as we pursue comprehensive excellence in the classroom, on the court, in our players’ career preparation, and in the community.”
Prior to his ascension to head coach in 2011, Tauer, an alumnus, wore the St. Thomas purple and gray from 1991-1995 and later served as an assistant for more than a decade. Tauer will bring an offensive tempo that’s inflicted damage at the Division III level, a style that’s netted him a 218-50 career record.
“We have traditionally played an up-tempo style predicated on smart, skilled, tough, and unselfish players. Each of the past three seasons, we have averaged 80+ ppg, 10+ 3-point field goals made, and under 10 turnovers per game, the only program in NCAA basketball to do so during that time,” Tauer said.
“As we make the transition, we will strive to play a tough and smart brand of basketball that is both up-tempo and efficient. There will be significant adjustments as we make this jump from D3 to D1, and so our style will reflect our culture as we grow and develop to the increased size, speed, and strength at the D-1 level. Most of all, we will continue to recruit players who embrace an unselfish style of play predicated on team development and success.”
The transition to Division I brings excitement to a fan base that’s known for its steadfast loyalty, a fan base that’s has grown accustomed to winning in one of Division III’s top leagues, the MIAC.
“The MIAC has been an incredibly challenging league,” Tauer added. [A conference] which we have been members of for more than 100 years, and is filled with excellent coaches and players. We developed a comfort level with our preparation in the MIAC in terms of opponents, and with our 20 game conference schedule, and were fortunate to win or share the MIAC regular-season championship 14 of the past 15 seasons.”
Walking away from century-old rivalries is a painful move for the Tommies and with their departure comes significant adjustments that extend beyond recruiting: Travel.
Whereas the MIAC kept traveling local to Minnesota, annual 920-mile trips to Denver will be customary—as will 700-mile contests in Tulsa and 450-mile treks to Kansas City.
“One other major difference is that there will be significantly more travel for us, with all 11 teams in the MIAC located in Minnesota, whereas none of our opponents in the Summit League are located in Minnesota,” Tauer said.
“In fact, our longest trip in the MIAC (Concordia Moorhead) is our shortest trip in the Summit League (North Dakota State, located next to Moorhead, in Fargo, ND). The first few years of the transition will involve a tremendous learning curve for us while also allowing us to sustain our culture in what we believe will be a truly special journey, not just for our basketball program but also for our university.”
Tauer’s Tommies join a conference that’s fresh off of a level of publicity the league has rarely seen. Oral Roberts, a 4th place finisher in the league with a 10-5 record, parlayed a conference tournament title into a trip to the Sweet 16. If not for a 72-70 loss to Arkansas, Oral Roberts would have been just a win away from the Final Four.
“The Summit League was represented incredibly well by Oral Roberts during the NCAA tournament this season and has seen North Dakota State and South Dakota State consistently atop the standings,” Tauer said of a league that finished 22nd among the nation’s 32 conferences in NET rating. “As we look at the conference, the depth of talent throughout the Summit League combined with the outstanding coaching makes it a really impressive league.”
*Dayton’s 1993 transition to D1 brought all the university’s sports to the Division 1 level, the basketball program has been scholarship-level since 1939.