SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Cameron McCaffrey was a possible preseason player of the year in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, coming into the season as one of the more explosive scorers in this league.
But he and others didn’t know much about his teammates. Though the incoming freshman class received a lot of attention, you still never know how those young players will make the transition to college basketball.
“People didn’t have high expectations for us because of the young guys, and you never know how they are going to react to playing at the college level,” McCaffrey said. “But any time you get to the NCAA tournament, it’s a good year in my books. It will be interesting to see how we respond.”
Augustana (21-8) takes on Upper Iowa (20-11) in the opening quarterfinal game of the Central Region men’s basketball tournament, starting at noon at Bresnan Arena. The Vikings, seeded third, and Peacocks split during the regular season.
“There’s advantages to playing someone you know and playing a different team,” coach Tom Billeter said. “I’m sure the players would like to face someone new because it’s a new adventure.”
McCaffrey averaged 21.1 points this season, becoming the all-time leading scorer at Augustana. He attempted 428 shots, nearly twice that of his closest teammate, but the scoring load had to fall on him, given the inexperience around him.
“I try not to worry about pressure,” McCaffrey said. “People always tell me I have a lot on my shoulders with the young guys, but those guys do a lot of things I can’t do, down in the paint. I just want to do everything I can to help us win three games because I don’t want my career to end.”
Freshman center Daniel Jansen averaged 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds. He shoots 51.9 percent from the field, 40.0 percent on 3-pointers, but only 48.4 percent on free throws.
Sophomore guard Alex Richter, freshman forward Casey Schilling and freshman post Zach Huisken were the other starters in last weekend’s Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, with freshmen Joe Burt and Jamal Taylor and sophomore Evan Pierce coming off the bench.
“Every year, all coaches are going to feel like they have a chance, if a few things go right,” Billeter said. “We were picked to finish sixth (in the preseason coaches poll), and honestly, that’s about where I thought we should be.
“But Cam’s really good, and he really took control of this team, on and off the court. And the freshman have been a little better than I thought they’d be at this point.”
McCaffrey said he’s hoping to lead by example in practice this week, making the younger players believe that they belong in the NCAA tournament. He said the Vikings have to be aggressive and ready to play.
“Upper Iowa has a lot of seniors, so they realize it could be their last game,” McCaffrey said. “We can’t shrink from the bright lights. At this point, every team you play is good. So are we.”