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Strauss: Washington U. basketball succeeds on its own terms

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Washington University basketball coach Mark Edwards, in a 2014 photo. (Max Gersh, Post-Dispatch)

On the day before his team was to play a ranked opponent, Mark Edwards readily gave consent for his senior starting point guard to skip practice to travel to Chicago. David Fatoki, business major, had a job interview. Any short-term inconvenience hopefully would be offset by long-term gain. Fatoki made it back in time to star in another Washington University rout.

Edwards doesn’t necessarily insist leading a Division III basketball program is better, just different.

Then, upon further review, Edwards changes his twist. It is better.

If success is graded on hardware rather than revenue, Washington University basketball is one of the nation’s most successful programs at any level. Edwards’ teams have won two national championships and 13 conference titles. They will also enter the new year as Division III’s No. 1 team.

Yet the men share the same floor with a women’s program. Or maybe it’s the women who share it with the men. Women’s coach Nancy Fahey is the only Division III representative enshrined in the Women’s College Basketball Hall of Fame. Fahey’s 29 teams have won five NCAA titles and reached a record 10 Final Fours. Edwards and Fahey own 1,289 wins combined, all achieved at Washington U. No other school at any classification can claim such a prolific tandem.

Fair to say, there is a strong sense of inclusion within a school recognized as one of the nation’s elite academic institutions.

“One of the big differences here is that the efforts of the student-athletes are valued,” says Edwards, a nine-year assistant at Washington State under George Raveling. Edwards is also a Washington U. alum who had little thought of leaving after coming home 34 years ago. “Athletics here are not seen as a separate component of the university. It’s part of the institution. The student-athletes graduate. They represent well here and after they graduate.

“It’s gratifying I can walk through the campus and not be looked down upon by faculty because I’m just seen as the basketball coach. I wanted to be a respected member of the university campus community when I returned here. That’s been one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced.”

Washington University isn’t for everybody, though it exerts a national pull. In some ways, its reputation recruits for it. It comes with a high sticker price and high demands. It has no difficulty mouthing its status as elite academically and athletically.

Speaking of his players, Edwards notes, “Study tables would be an insult to them. How can you sit a kid down who’s into flow mechanics and engineering with a kid going into neurobiology? You can’t put them in the same room.”

The two teams list a total of four Missouri products on their roster, fewer than the number from Illinois and California. The various athletic programs won at better than a 76 percent clip last season.

Basketball is the sharpest cut above. The Bears men’s program last week graduated to No. 1 in the nation for the first time since 2010. The women remain undefeated and are ranked No. 5.

“We always have a target on our back,” Edwards says. “It’s always a nice game for any team that beats us.”

The Bears are merely extending dominance as long-lasting as it is overshadowed. Playing in a classification that does not offer athletic scholarships, Washington U. men’s and women’s hoops teams have written a little-read story compared to the waxing and waning of Missouri and St. Louis University, one a not-too-distant Big 12 tournament champion and the other the two-time regular-season Atlantic 10 champs.

Fahey’s program is one of three in any collegiate classification to win four consecutive national basketball titles. The Lady Bears own a fifth national title, also under Fahey.

To describe what Edwards, Fahey and their players have accomplished as impressive would be an understatement.

They have embraced the essence of the term “student-athlete” and achieved prestige without academic dorms, without one-and-done, without study tables, without tacitly defining basketball as a job.

Edwards’ Bears reached No. 1 in the nation last week for the first time since 2010. At 11-0 approaching conference play, they’ve won 16 consecutive road games, a stretch that reaches back to last season’s 24-3 tear. The Bears were picked only third in a pre-season poll of University Athletic Association coaches due to graduations. However, the prognostication flouted the team’s five consecutive league titles.

The UAA is mostly a large-city league featuring Carnegie-Mellon, Rochester, Emory, University of Chicago, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve and New York University. The UAA is one of only four intersectional Division III conferences. Washington University is one of five Division III programs in Missouri along with University City neighbor Fontbonne, Webster, Westminster and Baptist Bible.

Enormous disparity exists within the NCAA’s broadest classification that lists some schools with enrollments of more than 9,000, others with fewer than 600. More than 80 percent of the 442 institutions that comprise Division III are private institutions. Resources vary wildly. Washingt0n U. sits atop the food chain. US News & World Report listed its 2013 endowment at $5.749 billion. (Division I Stanford, by comparison, boasts an endowment of about $18.8 billion. Across the street, Fontbonne’s endowment is reported at barely $20 million.) Fewer than 16 percent who apply for admission are accepted into a student body of more than 7,300.

The coaches hear a lot about IQ. Edwards sees the crucible differently.

“I don’t think of our kids as seeing themselves as smarter than everybody else. I think they see themselves as motivated and appreciative of education. That gets mixed up sometimes,” Edwards says. “People often assume you have to be really smart. I think you have to be intellectually curious and want to explore. That’s critical.”

Senior forward Matt Palucki is tracking toward a double major in business and engineering. Senior forward Nick Burt, the only returning starter from last season, already has accepted a job from Anheuser-Busch. Backup point guard Kent Lacob is the son of Golden State Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob.

“You look up at the top 10 rankings and you see Washington University. You see it’s a great school, and you realize it’s a good fit,” Burt explained about his decision to come to St. Louis, where he is one of four Illinois products starting for Edwards.

“I saw it as a school first,” said Fatoki, initially a two-year member of the jayvee basketball program whose older brother first investigated attending the school. “The rest of it is a bonus.”

Part of Edwards’ coaching philosophy is in defiance to what he heard iconic Marquette head coach Al McGuire say during a coaching clinic at the 1978 Final Four. “He made a comment that you can’t win with smart kids. It became my motivation because I think you can. You just have to know how to push the right buttons. You have to produce a smart product for smart kids,” Edwards says.

Listing four seniors, only two of whom started last season, the men have scored at least 72 points every game predicated on 49.5 percent shooting from the field, including an astonishing 43.6 percent behind the arc.

Fahey’s undefeated women (9-0) are shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 71.1 percent from the line and enjoy an average 29.7-point margin of victory. Senior forward and second team all-America Melissa Gilkey, a resident of Washington state, is averaging 22.2 points in only 23 minutes per game.

Perspective remains inescapable on game days. The Washington U. men are averaging 715 attendance while the women have played before an average of 277. Home games are scheduled for Fridays and Sundays.

The women play the first game Friday at 6 p.m. before the men serve as noon warm-up act Sunday. Chaminade Prep may draw more on a Friday. Academic demands — and the lure of televised NFL games — especially crimp Sunday turnouts. So far, results are identical.


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Joe Strauss is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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