Now the fun can begin

Tim Ruberton

Having handily dispensed with any conceivable doubt as to whether they are the best in the Midwest Conference, the Lawrence men’s basketball team now faces an unprecedented challenge: making good on the hype.
For the last two years, the Vikings have wallowed in undeserved obscurity, seen by some as rank overachievers in 2004 when they charged from a terrific regular season all the way to the Elite Eight, only barely losing there – in Washington state, due to some insane NCAA perversion – to eventual champion UW-Stevens Point.
Last year they were still underestimated – though much more highly regarded – and again won the conference and the conference tournament handily. And again lost to the Pointers in the national tournament after being shafted out of a home game.
This year is different.
The third time must be the charm, because in this third year of the Great Viking Dynasty, Lawrence has made the nation sit up and take notice. Now the Vikes, clearly the best team in the nation, have finally been recognized as such.
Of course, they had to meet the somewhat unreasonable demand of winning every game – too difficult even for Duke – to get the credit they deserve, but they were gunning for that anyway.
And so, with all eyes on them, the Lawrence University Vikings, 24-0, charge madly into the race for the national championship . after their nice week-long rest while potential opponents fight for the honor of facing the mighty blue and white.
But with all the glory, the first-round bye, and the home-court advantage – which could conceivably continue right up to the Final Four – comes a new pressure. 24-0 is a better record than any fan of any team has a right to expect. But now, paradoxically, anything less than 29-0 will be a bit of a disappointment.
The Vikings are clearly the best team in the nation, but there is still one team that has a legitimate shot at beating them. No, not Carroll – though they try, bless those crazy orange guys – but Lawrence.
When the Vikes are on their game it’s quite a sight to behold. Every aspect of the game is executed cleanly, and even with early All-Millennium favorite Chris Braier leading the way, the Vikings get the most out of all five men on the floor. Freshman Ryan Kroeger’s back-to-back 3-point buckets might’ve been the turning point in Saturday’s 68-62 third strike against the Pioneers, for instance.
Still, the Lawrence men put themselves behind the 8-ball in a big way in that game, letting Carroll take a 14-point lead in the first half and turning the ball over at an alarming rate in the early going.
Against Carroll – the only possible in-conference threat to Lawrence hegemony – such mistakes are dangerous, but forgivable and certainly not insurmountable. In the NCAA tournament, the Vikes, for all their skill, will not be able to extend so much courtesy to their opponents.
Even in the conference final, the difference in the game was not the Vikings superior rebounding or field goals – Carroll actually led in both those departments – but in free-throw shooting: Lawrence did fine, while Carroll spontaneously decided to check rim integrity and went 4-12 from the charity stripe in the second half.
That the Vikings can win through such difficulties is encouraging; that they’re ever in these binds at all is a little worrisome.
But now is the time to celebrate the lone perfect season in all of men’s college basketball, and to look forward to the national tournament with the legitimate suspicion that our tiny frozen school might this year conquer all the other less-tiny, less-frozen schools of the nation and complete the best Lawrence season since they cut out the bottom of the peach basket.
Here stand the mighty Vikings, unbeaten. They are perfect yet they must still get better, because this is their year: they’ve made perfection not only possible, but expected.