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D-III to D-I: St. Thomas another newcomer making waves

The Tommies can’t make the NCAA Tournament, but sure look well on their way to Summit League title contention.

NCAA Basketball: St. Thomas (MN) at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve seen Division-I transition success stories before, but we’ve never seen anything quite like what’s going on in St. Paul.

St. Thomas – now in its second year in D-I – has carved out a special place on the recent newcomer mantle that, to this point, has been dominated by Never Made The Tournely Club member’s Merrimack’s NEC title in their 2019-20 debut and Bellarmine’s tear through the ASUN Tournament a year ago. UST, however, has done it unlike any other school making the recent jump.

The Tommies (11-4, 2-0) look every part a threat within the Summit League, but their story starts with where they came from. UST was the first program to make the two-division journey from Division III, and played their debut season last year with what was essentially an unchanged roster from their final days in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference.

(A league which, it’s worth mentioning, pushed them out the door for winning too much).

That formerly D-III roster acquitted itself well in 2021-22, with a solid non-conference (6-6) and double-digit win campaign. And, though their first Summit League season was derailed by a long losing streak and at-times porous defense, the Tommies have done one thing in abundance since joining the D-I ranks: put the ball in the basket.

Last year, head coach John Tauer rolled out an offense nipping at the heels of the KenPom top 100 (No. 102) and has gotten even better this season, with the 52nd-best offense in the country following a two-game sweep of the North Dakota schools to open their league season last week. The offensive production has been special in the context of recent D-I debutants going back to 2013-14, with only Bellarmine posting a better KenPom offensive efficiency mark over their first two seasons.

Like its offense, the Tommies may well have taken the next step, and could be the biggest challenger to heavy favorite Oral Roberts in the Summit League. The program is also filled to the brim with fascinating stories.

That begins with the MIAC era holdovers, chiefly senior guard Riley Miller, who’s been one of the best high-volume 3-point shooters in the country since stepping on a D-I court, making 103 treys a year ago (15th in the country) and 52 already this year (third in the country), all while shooting above 40%. He’s joined in the dead-eye 3-point category by senior Brooks Allen, a stretch forward who barely saw the floor in his first two seasons in D-III, yet has become a key cog of Tauer’s offense (8.3 ppg, 37.3 3P%).

Then there’s Parker Bjorklund, whose story shouldn’t take a backseat to anybody.

The graduate student was recruited by Tauer out of high school, but didn’t play basketball over his first few years as a UST student. He instead ran a company that monetized social media parody accounts. In 2020 he got the basketball itch and asked Tauer if he could try out for the team, ultimately impressing the staff with his skills and athleticism – which had to that point only been honed in intramurals. He’s since become a vital part of the team.

The athletic, late bloomer is the story in UST’s 2-0 league start, averaging 24 points per game over the home sweep of the North Dakota schools, and ravaging the Fighting Hawks in the paint to the tune of 29 points in their opener. That was an especially big development for UST since Bjorklund had missed a handful of games with an ankle injury, and they were without injured freshman Andrew Rohde for the first two league games.

Rohde himself is another major part of the Tommies, and another headliner in the roster’s evolution to Division I.

Tauer brought in the Summit’s best prep recruiting class, and one of the best in the mid-major ranks, with Rohde being the least heralded among a group that included four-star wing Kendall Blue and three-star forward Ahjany Lee. Blue (8.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Lee (4.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg) have had moments this year, but Rohde (14.5 ppg, 3.5 apg) has been an instant star, slotting in at lead guard and seamlessly replacing last year’s starter Anders Nelson, who transferred to William & Mary. That role can’t be understated, since the freshman has helmed an offense that has stayed consistent in rarely turning the ball over while playing at a ploddingly efficient pace.

The Milwaukee native has added a playmaking flourish to the UST offense, and is one of just three heavily-relied upon freshmen nationally averaging at least 30 minutes per game while posting at least 14 and 3.5 assists per game. He has also already had a signature moment, hitting a late basket in the paint to knock off Troy in a Thanksgiving MTE that gave the Tommies their best non-conference win – and arguably best win, period – since joining D-I.

The question now becomes how far the Tommies can really fly this season? They will get a seat at the table in Sioux Falls this March with an expanded Summit League Tournament, though remain ineligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2026. Still, they seem to have as much claim as anyone in the league to challenge a dominant Oral Roberts, particularly with presumptive challengers South Dakota State and South Dakota dealing with injuries at the moment.

As fate would have it, the Tommies travel west to face the South Dakota schools in the next round of league games. Keeping the winning going on that road trip could be the beginning of the next chapter of intrigue for what has been a one-of-a-kind D-I transition.