The Johns Hopkins men’s basketball team, which won the Centennial Conference tournament in dramatic fashion Feb. 29, tips off against Penn State Harrisburg in the Division III NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. March 6.
Penn State Harrisburg is 20-7 overall and finished 14-2 in the North Eastern Athletic Conference. Should the Blue Jays advance, they’ll face the winner of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Mass.) and Yeshiva (New York) March 7.
Hopkins will host the four-team regional. No fans will be admitted to Goldfarb Gymnasium March 6-7 due to concerns regarding the coronavirus.
The Blue Jays finished 24-3 overall and 16-2 in the Centennial Conference, part of a winning tradition quickly established under third-year head coach Josh Loeffler. Hopkins finished 24-5 and won the conference tournament in Loeffler’s first season and were 18-9 last year.
As Loeffler entered his third season at the helm, did he believe his team was capable of what it’s accomplished this year?
“I didn’t know. I’m not going to lie. I knew we had some good players, and I knew we had some good talent, but we graduated four seniors who played a great deal,” Loeffler said on Glenn Clark Radio March 4. “We only have one senior who’s in our rotation right now. He’s a starter at center. I just didn’t know. We’re very young. We play one senior, two juniors, and the rest of our team is consisting of sophomores and freshmen. I felt that we had talent, and I liked our guys a ton.”
Guards Michael Gardner (33.2 minutes, 14.6 points per game), Joey Fitzpatrick (24.2 minutes, 5.4 rebounds), Noah Ralby (22.3 minutes, 4.4 points) and forward Daniel Vila (21.5 minutes, 7.9 points) all graduated after last season. Their departures left plenty of minutes to be replaced, and Loeffler has found the right mix to do just that this year.
Four players — junior guards Conner Delaney and Joey Kern, senior center Harry O’Neill and sophomore forward Tom Quarry — have started all 27 of the Blue Jays’ games. The quartet is led by Delaney, this year’s Centennial Conference Player of the Year. The point guard is averaging 17.8 points (on 48.4 percent shooting), 4.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Delaney drilled the game-winning shot against then-undefeated Swarthmore in the Centennial Conference tournament championship game.
“A long time ago, a coaching mentor of mine told me, ‘If you don’t have a point guard, you don’t have much.’ I think that’s pretty true in this sport. Conner’s as good a point guard as you’ll find,” Loeffler said. “… He’s a terrific leader, and it’s always really nice when a kid who’s going to win the Player of the Year logs the most hours in the gymnasium and puts in all the time. He checks all the boxes. He’s a fantastic player. He’s a fantastic person. I’ve said it a bunch of times: We’re very lucky to have him and I’m very lucky to coach him.”
The conference championship marked the third time Hopkins played Swarthmore this year. Of particular concern heading into the championship game: Swarthmore had racked up 83 points and had gotten to the free-throw line 35 times in the Feb. 12 matchup, something the Blue Jays would have to clean up if they had a chance to beat the nation’s top-ranked team.
Hopkins not only played better defensively in the championship game, but Blue Jays were also more prepared for the atmosphere they were walking into against Swarthmore after the Feb. 12 loss at Goldfarb Gymnasium.
“The reality of that [Feb. 12 loss] is it was the first time for a lot of our guys to play in an atmosphere that electric at home against a team that good,” Loeffler said. “We have great home crowds all the time, but you add in the rivalry. You add in the rankings. You add in the hype. You add in all that kind of stuff. You’ve got 19-year-old guys who have never really played that role.”
Now, Penn State Harrisburg is the only opponent on Loeffler’s mind. Loeffler referred to Jim Valvano, who coached Hopkins in 1969-70, when describing his mindset heading into the tournament.
“Survive and advance is all you’re trying to do,” Loeffler said.
Update: Penn State Harrisburg defeated Johns Hopkins, 104-96, in double overtime March 6 to end the Blue Jays’ season.
To hear more from Loeffler, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics