The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) will be split directly in half, into east and west divisions, for what will be an abbreviated 2021 season to minimize the amount of basketball games played during the pandemic.
“I was not surprised by the split,” sophomore guard Quinn Steckbauer said. “I knew our season would be limited, so it made sense to me that the conference would split us up.”
The WIAC east division is comprised of UW Oshkosh, UW-Platteville, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Whitewater. The WIAC west division includes UW-La Crosse, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout and UW-Eau Claire.
Instead of playing over 20 regular season games, like the conference’s teams are accustomed to, only eight games will be played by each school. Each team will play four different in-conference teams twice, once at home and once at the opposing team’s school.
Three of the in-conference teams will be in each team’s division, and the fourth team that each school plays will be from the other half of the conference.
On Feb. 3, the UWO men’s and women’s basketball teams resumed play in one of eight regular season games, opening against UW-Platteville, for the adjusted season.
“Honestly, it was not something that shook us too much,” senior guard Tommy McGlynn said. “We know each and every one of these teams pretty well over the years, so who we saw on the schedule didn’t make much of a difference. Our focus and approach were going to be at the same level no matter what.”
The men’s and women’s basketball teams both took opening night losses, with the men falling 88-75 in Platteville and the women losing 74-68 at the Kolf Sports Center.
But both teams bounced back on Feb. 5 with the men winning 77-68 at the Kolf Sports Center and the women winning 81-64 in Platteville.
After the split series with Platteville, UWO’s mens and womens teams will be playing a pair of games against Whitewater, Stevens Point and then Eau Claire.
“It’s been awesome to be back playing other competition,” Steckbauer said. “It’s been the longest stretch of my life since I started playing to be without other competition.”
Both basketball teams on campus won last year’s WIAC tournament and sealed their bid to the NCAA tournament.
The men’s basketball team was eliminated in the second round of the tournament when North Central College stopped the Titans’ national title defence in an 84-82 nail-biter.
“Overall, I think we had a good year,” Steckbauer said. “We had some ups and downs, but we were playing well at the end when it mattered most; we just came up a bit short.”
Although the 2019 national champions could not get past the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, there is confidence that this team is different and has grown a lot since the heart-breaking loss.
Even after losing the team’s leading scorers, Adam Frav
ert and Jack Flynn, the athletes feel well equipped for the newer battles ahead of them.
“We showed up for whatever practice, workout or lift with the same focus and intensity every day, no matter what,” McGlynn said. “We graduated some heavy minute guys and a lot of experience, so to have a group this year that has not played a ton together [is] something we are going to have to work hard at.”
The team has had a lot of time to reflect and improve since last year’s performance, and players have also made it a priority to increase their individual play during what has been an extended offseason.
“As a team, I think we are quicker and have more talent beating teams off the dribble,” Steckbauer said. “Personally, I have most improved my physical strength and ability to shoot.”
The women’s team was still in the NCAA tournament when the spread of COVID-19 caused an abrupt stoppage to all collegiate and professional sports.
The women’s team cruised past Edgewood College in the first round by a score of 61-40, pulled away from Bethany Lutheran College late to win 67-60 in the second round and then was not able to play Loras College due to the pandemic’s severity.
Although last year’s confusing ending has left a lasting memory in many players’ heads, there is a larger focus on the task at hand in 2021.
“Last year’s season ended almost a whole year ago, but it feels like way longer than that,” McGlynn said. “I am more focused on the guys we have this year and what is still ahead for us this season.”
Even with the reduced amount of games, the split up conference and a lot of uncertainty regarding how a tournament will be held this year, players are thankful to be competing against other schools once again.
“Our mindset was always that we are having a season until someone tells us otherwise,” McGlynn said. “We will always be incredibly thankful that we were able to compete at any capacity this year.”