College basketball realignment 2021-22: First look at new D1 team St. Thomas

After decades of dominance in Division III, the St. Thomas Tommies are making the jump to D-I college basketball in 2021-22.

When the 2021-22 season tips off later this year, many will be eager to welcome back those programs that sat out the 2020-21 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That list includes the entire Ivy League, as well as Chicago State, Bethune-Cookman, and Maryland-Eastern Shore. With all the anticipation for the return of those programs, you may have forgotten that another face will be joining them, too: the Tommies of the University of St. Thomas, who will be joining the Summit League.

So, who are the Tommies?

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You may have heard of St. Thomas because of its massively successful football team, which was a big part of why the school was essentially kicked out its conference, spurring the move to Division I. The school is much more than just football, though.

They also have one of the most successful men’s basketball programs in NCAA Division III history.

In 112 seasons at the D-III level, St. Thomas notched a grand total 1,722 wins, the third-most of any men’s basketball program at that level. The Tommies’ success isn’t all ancient history, either. The program, which is located in Saint Paul, Minn., has two Division III national championships in the past ten years, with the most recent coming in 2016 under current head coach Johnny Tauer.

College basketball realignment 2021-22

  • ASUN: Central Arkansas; prev. Southland
  • ASUN: Eastern Kentucky; prev. OVC
  • ASUN: Jacksonville State; prev. OVC
  • Big South: North Carolina A&T; prev. MEAC
  • Summit: St. Thomas; prev. D-III MIAC
  • SWAC: Bethune Cookman; prev. MEAC
  • SWAC: Florida A&M; prev. MEAC
  • WAC: Abilene Christian; prev. Southland
  • WAC: Lamar; prev. Southland
  • WAC: Sam Houston State; prev. Southland
  • WAC: Stephen F. Austin; prev. Southland

Tauer, who holds a Ph.D in Psychology from UW-Madison, has been the coach at UST for the past ten seasons, during which time he has amassed an impressive overall record of 218-50 (.808). Even more impressive has been the team’s performance in conference games, as Tauer’s squads have dominated to the tune of a 152-28 (.844) mark in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In their truncated 2020-21 season, which did not feature any postseason play, the Tommies went a perfect 7-0 and finished No. 2 in D3Hoops.com’s final national ranking.

Suffice it to say, despite the quirky nickname, this team is no joke.

The Tommies are already gearing up for the jump to Division I, too.

On April 1, the school announced the hiring of two new assistant coaches, Mike Maker and Gameli Ahelegbe. Maker was head coach at Marist from 2014-18 and was previously an assistant under John Beilein at West Virginia and Dana Altman at Creighton. Ahelegbe’s hiring is a homecoming for the Saint Paul-area native. He comes over to St. Thomas in an intraconference move, after spending the last decade on staff at North Dakota and, more recently, South Dakota.

The Tommies have also already gotten busy in the transfer portal, adding former Milwaukee starter Courtney Brown Jr., who is the older brother of highly touted Baylor commit Kendall Brown.

What the rest of the Tommies’ roster will look like in 2021-22 is still up in the air, though that statement really applies to every team in college basketball, doesn’t it? For now, though, let’s assume everyone is coming back.

Top scorers Anders Nelson and Riley Miller should be back for their second run at their “junior” year, and that could spell trouble for the oft-porous defenses in the Summit League. Nelson and Miller both topped the 19-points-per-game mark in 2020-21 and could do it again next season. In the seven-game season, Miller knocked down a ridiculous 61.5 percent of his three-pointers. Nelson, meanwhile, led the team in assists with just over four per game.

Parker Bjorklund, Burt Hedstrom, and Ryan Lindberg rounded out the starting lineup most nights for Tauer, with Bjorklund and Hedstrom both averaging 13.2 and 10.1 points per game, respectively. The Tommies generally went with an eight-man main rotation, with Will Engels, Kevin Cunningham, and Zach Theisen coming off the bench. It will be interesting to see where Brown fits into the mix, though it seems likely that he will be in contention for a starting gig after notching 30 starts for Milwaukee over the past two seasons.

Another reason that Brown might be a shoe-in to start is his size, because if there’s one thing the roster lacks, it is height. As it stands, there is nobody on the St. Thomas roster taller than six-foot-seven, which could cause some obvious issues in Division I basketball. It isn’t impossible to win without height, but it certainly makes things harder. That said, there are plenty of options available in the transfer portal if Coach Tauer is looking for a big man.

So, how will the D-I newbies fare in their first season?

That obviously remains to be seen, but if the recent success of call-ups like Cal Baptist, Merrimack, Bellarmine and North Alabama are any blueprint, then the Tommies could be making noise in the Summit League before too long. There’s good reason to believe that they will.

Given that the program is already getting Division I transfers and assistants to join rank, it’s easy to imagine that St. Thomas will be competitive in the short term, and their sustained success in D-III is a good sign that Dr. Tauer and the Tommies are built for the long haul.