WALLA WALLA - For the first time since Whitman College shifted its national athletic affiliation to NCAA Division III in the mid-1990s, its men's basketball team has jumped into the regional rankings.
The resurgent Missionaries, now 15-6 on the season, are No. 7 in the West Region rankings released Wednesday. Whitman has won 13 of its last 15 games and is tied for second place with Lewis & Clark in the Northwest Conference standings.
The Missionaries play three of their final four regular-season games at home, beginning with George Fox (7-14, 5-7 NWC) on Friday and Willamette (6-15, 3-9) Saturday.
"We're very excited about being ranked in the West Region," Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland said. "This is a great day for Whitman basketball. It is always a positive thing to be recognized for the work one does. Our student-athletes have earned this recognition.
"Our region has 60-plus teams," Bridgeland added. "If we don't earn the NWC's automatic berth into the NCAA's, the selection committee will look directly at the region rankings to award at-large selections into the 61-team field."
Northwest Conference-leading and undefeated Whitworth (21-0, 12-0) tops not only the regional rankings but is No. 1 in the NCAA Division III national poll as well. Rounding out the top five regionally are, in order, St. Thomas (Minn.), Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Chapman. Carleton is No. 6, one spot in front of Whitman. Lewis & Clark is No. 8 followed by St. Olaf at No. 9.
The top-ranked Pirates will be in Walla Walla Tuesday to face the Missionaries at Sherwood Center in their final regular-season home game. Whitman closes out its season Feb. 18 at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
Whitman and Lewis & Clark (15-6, 8-4) are battling for second place in the final NWC standings. Pacific Lutheran (13-8, 8-5) remains in the picture as well.
Whitworth has already clinched the regular season title, but the top four teams advance to the conference playoffs, which get underway with two first-round games on Feb. 24.
In one first-round game, league champ Whitworth hosts whichever team finishes fourth in the standings. In the other game, the No. 2 seed hosts No. 3. Winners of the first-round games then meet on Feb. 26, for an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III national tournament.
The Whitman men's team last made the NWC playoffs at the end of 1994-95 season.
While Whitman entertains George Fox and Willamette this weekend, Lewis & Clark also plays on its home floor, squaring off with Pacific (3-18, 2-10) on Friday and Pacific Lutheran (13-8, 8-5) on Saturday.
A victory over George Fox on Friday would give Whitman a series sweep of the Bruins for the first time since the 2002-03 season. It would also extend the latest Missionary win streak to six games, matching a string of six straight triumphs earlier this season.
Last month in western Oregon, Whitman outlasted a determined George Fox team for an 87-77 overtime triumph. Junior guard Brandon Shaw keyed the victory with 26 points, matching the career-high he scored against the Bruins as a freshman.
Shaw did most of his damage in last month's game in the five-minute overtime, notching 13 of the 17 points Whitman tallied during the extra session. He also contributed seven rebounds, three assists and three steals to the win.
Freshman Josh Duckworth added to the victory over George Fox with 16 points. Sophomores Ignas Pavilonis and Peter Clark were good for 13 and nine points, respectively.
Down by seven points midway through the second half of that game, George Fox rallied down the stretch and forced overtime when Cam Rier hit a 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer.
Before coming to town Saturday, Willamette faces Whitworth Friday night in Spokane. Whitman will be gunning for a second consecutive season sweep of the Bearcats.
Against the Bearcats last month in Salem, Whitman jumped in front in the first two minutes and held the lead the rest of the way. Up by seven points with three minutes to play, the Missionaries turned away the Bearcats in crunch time to win 74-69.
Senior guard Justin Artis hit a pair of critical 3-pointers in the final minutes to keep Whitman in front. Artis finished with 13 points while Shaw led the way with 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Sophomore Drew Raher added 11 points and four rebounds.
A year ago, Whitman shot past Willamette 103-82 in Walla Walla and beat the Bearcats 87-60 on their home floor.