Three years ago, Johns Hopkins men's basketball coach Bill Nelson helped give birth to the Provident Bank Pride of Maryland Tournament. Now, he's hoping to use this year's state Division III showcase to help his young frontcourt quickly grow up.
When the defending champion Blue Jays tip off tonight at Hood College in one of four first-round games, they will do so without five graduated seniors, including four post players, who combined for more than 4,000 career points and 2,000 rebounds.
"Up front, our big guys are untested," said Nelson, who will look to get several inexperienced players valuable court time before next week's Centennial Conference opener. "It's not just another nonleague game. I really think it toughens us up for league competition."
The eight-team tournament will be a strong early-season test for its participants: Johns Hopkins, Hood, Goucher, McDaniel, Salisbury, St. Mary's, Villa Julie and Washington. The state's other Division III team, Frostburg State, will sit out as part of a yearly rotation.
The winners of tonight's games will meet in Saturday's semifinals at Hopkins, which also will host the championship game at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Each team will play three games.
Nelson used the long-running JP Morgan Chase Scholarship Basketball Tournament in Rochester, N.Y., which he participated in as a coach at Rochester Institute of Technology and Nazareth College during the 1970s and early 1980s, as a template. He worked with Villa Julie coach Brett Adams to transfer the idea to Maryland and initially met resistance from teams reluctant to tie up their early-season schedules.
"We couldn't get all the teams to buy into it, so about three years ago, Brett and I decided to just have it among the teams that want to do it," Nelson said. "We should've realized then that if the majority of teams were for it, everyone else would follow, and they did."
Hopkins has advanced to the championship game each of the tournament's two years, winning it last season.
To players, the chance to play for in-state bragging rights gives the event a big-time feel.
"Everybody wants to be able to say that they're the best in Maryland in D-III basketball," said Blue Jays guard Pat O'Connell, a sophomore out of Loyola High. "It definitely means a lot."
"Maryland [basketball] is a fairly close-knit community," Adams said. "The kids know each other, so for one of us to walk away and say, 'Hey, we're the best in the state,' that's a great thing. The kids have embraced it."
Aside from Hopkins, this year's top contenders include Hood (1-1), which is coming off a 21-win season and an NCAA tournament at-large bid, and up-and-coming St. Mary's (2-0). Hood has one of the best centers in the state in 6-foot-8 Jesse Gutekunst and a top guard in Ryan Junghans. St. Mary's returns its three leading scorers, guards Tyson Lesesne and Mike Smelkinson, and 6-7 center Alex Irmer.
Hopkins (1-1), which finished 24-5 last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, returns an experienced backcourt in perimeter threat Doug Polster and point guard Collin Kamm, but it is young in the post.
Pride of Md.
What -- College basketball tournament featuring eight state Division III teams
When -- Tonight, Saturday and Sunday
Tonight's games --Game 1: Goucher @Salisbury, 7
Game 2: Villa Julie @McDaniel, 8
Game 3: St. Mary's @Washington College, 7:30
Game 4: Johns Hopkins @Hood, 7
Saturday's games (at Johns Hopkins) --Game 5: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1:30
Game 6: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 3:45
Game 7: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6
Game 8: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 8
Sunday's games (at Johns Hopkins) --Game 9 (seventh place): Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser, noon
Game 10 (fifth place): Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2
Game 11 (third place): Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 4:30
Game 12 (championship): Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6:30
All times p.m.