Marietta men seek another OAC tourney crown

Since his arrival at Marietta College in 2007, men’s basketball head coach Jon VanderWal has guided the Pioneers to three Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament championship games, winning two of them.

After clinching the OAC regular season title last week, VanderWal and the Pios are hoping to add another banner to the walls at Ban Johnson Arena. The first step to winning the OAC tourney title begins today when top-seeded Marietta plays host to No. 8 Wilmington. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

Marietta (23-2, 17-1 OAC) had success against Wilmington (5-18, 4-14) in the regular season, defeating the Quakers twice by scores of 81-72 (Dec. 5 at Marietta) and 98-85 (Feb. 6 at Wilmington).

However, the Quakers are led by ninth-year head coach K.C. Hunt who always has his team prepared come tourney time. During Hunt’s tenure, Wilmington has won two OAC tourney championships (2010; 2014) and was also a finalist in 2012. Even though it’s a down year for Hunt’s Quakers, VanderWal expects to get their best shot.

“We’re expecting a dogfight,” he said. “K.C. Hunt does a great job with those guys. They’ve always been a good tournament team. We had two tough games with them in the regular season so we’re not overlooking those guys by any stretch of the imagination.”

It will take a near-flawless performance from Wilmington to take down the red-hot Pioneers. Marietta, ranked fourth nationally in Division III, has won 15 consecutive games including one over second-seeded John Carroll and two over third-seeded Mount Union. During the streak, the team is getting contributions from everyone and growing in confidence.

“Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence,” VanderWal said. “We’re just kind of clicking right now. I like where our team is at.”

A.J. Edwards, the reigning OAC Player of the Week, leads Marietta with 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He’s become the go-to player for the Pioneers.

“We knew we were going to need A.J. to be a good player if we were going to have a good year,” VanderWal said. “He’s exceeded my expectations and turned into an absolute monster. I think he should be the OAC Player of the Year.”

Luis Garcia (14.2), Dillon Young (12.3) and Eddy Grenert (10.7) also score in double figures per contest.

Zach McCorkle leads Wilmington, averaging just over 14 points per game. He scored 18 and 13 in the two games against Marietta. Brandon Smith had a breakout game against Marietta at Wilmington, scoring 31 points. Smith only had three in the first game.

“Smith comes off the bench and is really aggressive,” VanderWal explained. “He just really got it going that day. McCorkle and Christian Jones are their two big guns.”

Jones scored 17 against Marietta in the first meeting.

“They’re really scrappy,” VanderWal said of Wilmington. “They play really hard. They’ll pick us up full court and pressure us. You never feel comfortable playing those guys. They try to take you out of your comfort zone. They’re really young which is why their record isn’t very good, but they’ve been in a lot of ballgames. They play everybody tough.”

Marietta typically features a balanced attack, as was the case in both games against Wilmington. In December, four Pioneers scored in double-digits, led by Grenert’s 19. In February, Garcia scored a season-high 34 points followed by Edwards’ 23 and Young’s 12.

The winner of Tuesday’s game will play the winner of No. 5 Ohio Northern and No. 4 Baldwin Wallace on Thursday. The championship game is scheduled for Saturday.

It’s been another incredible year for the Pioneers, who enter the tournament as the clear favorites. As VanderWal pointed out, though, the OAC doesn’t always favor the favorites.

“It’s the OAC, so anything can happen,” he said. “I think the OAC is kind of special because it’s so balanced – all eight teams think they have a shot.

“We just have to be ready to go.”