Marietta men open season Friday in Great Lakes Invite

Photo courtesy of Nate Knobel Marietta College’s Kyle Dixon (21) attempts a shot during a college men’s basketball last season at Ban Johnson Arena.

Some of the best Division III men’s basketball programs in the country are scheduled to visit Marietta this weekend.

Ban Johnson Arena on the campus of Marietta College will be the home for the inaugural Great Lakes Invitational this Friday and Saturday. The first game begins at 2 p.m. Friday and the final game is slated for 7 p.m. Saturday.

Among the teams competing, along with the host Pioneers, include Wittenberg, Mount St. Joseph, Birmingham-Southern, St. John Fisher, St. Thomas, Dickinson and Hope.

The field includes four NCAA Tournament teams from last season.

Marietta, which went 26-5 en route to an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 berth, takes on Hope at 8 p.m. Friday and St. Thomas at 7 p.m. Saturday. Both Hope and St. Thomas both were NCAA Tournament qualifiers a year ago.

“Ten years ago if we would’ve told people that teams from Minnesota, Alabama, Michigan and from all different parts of the country were going to be traveling to Marietta, Ohio, for the premiere tip-off basketball tournament in all of Division III, I think people would’ve laughed at us,” said Marietta College men’s basketball coach Jon VanderWal.

“It’s a really neat opportunity for our program, the school and the community to have these national caliber teams coming to Marietta. It’s stressing me out a little bit, though, to be honest with you. Usually kind of like to start off the season with a little bit weaker of an opponent, but our program is to the stage now where we want to test our mettle and play against the best teams in the country.”

Hope, led by head coach Greg Mitchell, graduated four of its top five scorers from last season, but returns guard Dante Hawkins (16.5 points per game).

St. Thomas, guided by Johnny Tauer, has a little more firepower back. Ryan Boll, a senior forward, and Michael Hannon, a junior guard, averaged 14.3 and 12.8 points per game, respectively. Also returning for the Tommies are John Veil and Jordan Burich, both who started all 27 games in 2016-17.

Without a doubt, it will be the most challenging opening to a season of VanderWal’s coaching career.

“We’ll find out what we’re made of here this weekend,” VanderWal said.

However, the Pioneers feel they’re as good as anybody in the field. Back are returning starters Dillon Young, Anthony Wallace and Kyle Dixon as well as key reserves Caleb Hoyng and Mel Shuler. Friday will be the Marietta debut of Ohio Valley transfer Avery Williams, who averaged 17.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as a Fighting Scots sophomore last season.

While the Pioneers clearly have talent, the main key will be how quickly the new personnel can gel together and play at a high level.

“This group we have right now I think is really talented, but they’re still trying to find their way,” VanderWal said. “We’ll find out how far into that process we are come Friday night.”