By ANDY WOLF
The University of Findlay men’s basketball team is taking a trip down Drury Lane once again.
UF and Drury University will again square off in the opening round of the NCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament for the second straight season.
The Oilers (27-4) are again the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional while the No. 6 seed Panthers (21-11) are the lowest-ranked at-large bid.
The repeat pairing means they’ll meet in the opening time slot again at 1 p.m. Saturday. The winner gets the winner of No. 2 Bellarmine (26-4) and No. 7 Walsh (23-7).
Top-seeded Lewis (24-5) will host the entire regional tournament in Romeoville, Illinois.
For UF, last year’s go-round against Drury was a memorable one.
The Oilers’ edge in experience took over to dominate the second half at 50-27, and prevail 84-65, before beating Bellarmine 74-73 in a thriller to earn a second straight Sweet 16 berth.
Their season ended in the regional final to eventual national champion Ferris State (80-65).
Findlay, now ranked No. 8 in the final Coaches Poll, graduated four senior starters off last year’s squad.
Most of the faces on Drury’s roster are the same.
“It’s no surprise to us that (Drury) is here again,” UF coach Charlie Ernst said. “To be honest, it’s probably a bigger surprise that we are.”
The Panthers graduated only one senior from last year’s 21-8 team.
With a wealth of talent and six seniors returning, Ernst knew Drury would be a “a team to be reckoned with for the next several years.”
Drury was picked second in the preseason Great Lakes Valley Conference preseason poll behind Bellarmine — the four-time defending champs.
The Panthers’ first half of the season was anything but expected.
They loaded up their nonconference slate, started 0-3 overall and kept enduring close loss after close loss.
Drury stood 9-9 overall through 18 games — all nine losses by 21 total points. Six of those had the last lead change in the final minute of play — four in the final 10 seconds.
The Panthers, of course, rebounded and didn’t pack it in, winning 12 straight games before their loss to Bellarmine in the GLVC tournament final.
“That’s very impressive and they played in a really good conference,” Ernst said. “On top of that, they really tested themselves in nonleague waters, about as tough of a nonleague schedule as you can put together.
“That makes them a very tested team.”
The run was enough jump from 10th to sixth in the final regional polls (19-10) and knock league foe Indianapolis out of the top eight.
“What it says about them is sort of the same personality they play with,” Ernst said. “They’re a scrappy team. They’re an against-the-odds sort of team because most people would look at their size and see a team that’s got 6-4, their size of their bigs.”
“Their personality is that of a scrappy bunch that is viewed in some ways as an underdog. That’s how they went about their last 12 games.”
While the Panthers are deep, no starter tops 6-foot-4, nor any of their top six players in minutes per game.
Drury still runs one of the most efficient offenses in the country (49.1 percent, 20th) at 77.0 points per game to allowing 66.4 per.
Where the Panthers really excel is sharing the basketball.
No Division II team averages more assists than Drury at 20.1 per game.
“They’re a team that’s old school; for our fans, kind of like Hillsdale,” Ernst said. “They don’t rely on dribble-drives. They rely on screening and cutting, moving the ball, moving people.”
Sophomore point guard Conley Garrison (6-foot-1) is the obvious integral part of the offense as their leading scorer (17.8 ppg) and assister (152).
Senior guard Andrew Ballock (6-4) chips in 10.0 ppg and is second with 147 assists. Senior guard Allen Billinger (6-0) also scores in double figures (10.5 ppg).
Senior guards John Williams (6-1, 6.2 ppg) and Kamau Kinder (6-4, 8.2 ppg) round out the probable starting lineup.
“This is a different animal and what makes them difficult to defend is that the closest match we have in our league is Hillsdale,” Ernst said.
Garrison is just as deadly as a 3-point threat.
He’s a 43 percent shooter (104 of 38) from downtown on the season and red-hot as of late at 33 of 58 in his last seven games.
Garrison has 15 20-point games this season and 16 games with four made threes.
“His teammates understand ‘We’ve got to find him; he’s got the hot hand,'” Ernst said.
“…This is a guy that’s the centerpiece on a lot of people’s scouting reports and preparation for them. It’s not like he’s the guy that’s getting stuff from someone else. He’s getting defended by really good defenders and still finding opportunities to shoot at that level.”