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St. Thomas is simply a good D-I program

Three years since division hopping from D-III, the Tommies have proven they are among the best in the Summit League.

NCAA Basketball: St. Thomas (MN) at Marquette Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Writing ledes can be hard business, but sometimes you fall into something that you like. Like this one about St. Thomas that was written around this same time a year ago:

Really, when it comes to the Tommies, it’s not hard to write a lede. Johnny Tauer’s program has a res ipsa loquitur quality that drives interest every single time they set foot on the court in being the first – and only – team to make the D-III to D-I jump. Why St. Thomas is notable speaks for itself.

But, here’s the thing, one day that division-jumping transition will become a footnote. Not what is strung out on the marquee when the Tommies have big moments, like battling No. 7 Marquette to the wire, or jumping out to a dominant 2-0 start in conference play. That time might already be upon us.

Multiple things can be true. Their most important player – Parker Bjorklund – and a chunk of the roster were recruited to challenge for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Brooks Allen, a good and productive Division I player for three years now, could not crack Tauer’s rotation in Division III in the 2019-20 season. All of that is worth celebrating, but UST has played itself to the point it should not just be considered a novelty.

Rather, the Tommies are simply a good Division I program, and one that may well win the Summit League this season.

The Tommies’ arrow is pointing up dramatically. They swept their two matchups in the Big Sky-Summit League Challenge, which followed a dominant start to league play, where they won their first two Summit games by an average of 23 points. That’s built on what was evident on a national stage when the Tommies put a scare into Marquette three weeks ago, keeping the game within the balance until there were seconds remaining.

That does not appear to have been a mirage.

We wrote about UST’s encouraging encore season in Division I – especially from an offensive standpoint – at the halfway point a year ago, and that momentum kept up throughout the year. They finished 19-13 (9-9) and gave an undefeated-in-conference Oral Roberts team its stiffest challenge in a league tournament the Golden Eagles had to win to stamp their NCAA Tournament ticket.

It was one night in Sioux Falls, it was anecdotal, but it showed that wherever they had come from, the Tommies belonged.

This year, they could well finish atop the conference, and punch an awkward hole into the logic behind the NCAA’s four-year prohibition period for transitioning teams being eligible for the NCAA Tournament. Led by Bjorklund, their graduate forward star, the Tommies are balanced and the highest-ranked KenPom team (#135) in the Summit as the calendar flips to 2024.

At 12-5, UST seems a safe bet to get past its win total a year ago. That would mark a yearly progression that has been the precise goal of the program.

“St. Thomas didn’t make this move as a quick fix and let’s win now,” Tauer said during Summit League media day. “Our Athletic Director Phil Esten has been adamant about that. Know what our mission statement is, do things with integrity and build something that is sustainable at the Division I level.”

Everything has pointed to that goal being on track, and perhaps even ahead of schedule. The Tommies have a massive facility upgrade coming with the construction of a $175 million arena, and are already operating like they’ve been in the top division for decades.

Take the point guard position. Coming from Division III, Anders Nelson put together a fine season as a distributor in UST’s debut campaign in 2021-22 before transferring to William & Mary. Tauer and his staff then had a major recruiting win in snapping up Andrew Rohde from the Milwaukee area before he garnered interest from power programs. He stepped in as one of the league’s best players a year ago, but UST hasn’t lost a step even though he left for Virginia over the offseason.

The Tommies signed Raheem Anthony, an accomplished Division III player from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, who has been rock this season running the team (10.3 ppg, 3.0 apg). The roster is also dotted with development success stories elsewhere, like former Liberty transfer Drake Dobbs (9.4 ppg) serving as a key starter after not playing much a year ago.

While they had some ups and downs early in the non-conference, the Tommies currently look as stable a contender as there is in what seems to be an open Summit League race. There is no dominant overlord like there had been the last two seasons, first with South Dakota State and then with ORU.

Plenty of programs – the previous two champions included – have good cases to end the conference season atop the standings, as does another Tommy (Bruner) and a resurgent Denver team. But UST has plenty of points in its favor as the league season kicks into gear. Their defense has taken a massive step forward and is as good as it’s been since they joined Division I, jumping from 272nd in KenPom defensive efficiency a year ago to 144th thus far this season.

They’ve also been good from distance (35.7%) despite losing three-point aficionado Riley Miller over the offseason. Every player Tauer puts on the court is a threat from deep, and the Tommies had seven players make at least one three in their win over Idaho on Wednesday night.

Then there is Bjorklund who, along with Anthony, has been Tauer’s standout. His story has been told on this site before and should be told again. He began his time on campus at UST as a student running his own social media company before calling Tauer and asking if he could try out in 2020, years removed from playing anything other than intramurals.

Now, in his final year, he’s having an all-league first team caliber season (13.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) with his blend of athleticism and versatility in the front court.

“I think Parker is as unique a story as there is in college basketball, I’m admittedly biased,” Tauer said in October.

Like the Tommies in general, it’s hard to separate Bjorklund from his backstory, since they’re both lined with things that have rarely – if ever – been seen in college basketball before. But at some point those things naturally have to become the background, and not the focus.

The lead story is now simple: Bjorklund is a star mid-major basketball player and the Tommies are a conference title contender, dramatic backstory or not.

“We know there’s a lot of work to do, but we’re really pleased with progress so far,” Tauer said.