Saratoga Springs

Success sweet for Skidmore men’s basketball

Skidmore heads back to NCAA tournament
Skidmore's Noah Meren drives to the basket during Sunday's Liberty League championship game.
Skidmore's Noah Meren drives to the basket during Sunday's Liberty League championship game.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Noah Meren didn’t know much, if anything, about Skidmore College when the school’s men’s basketball head coach Joe Burke started recruiting him.

But Meren, who is from Providence, Rhode Island, liked the academic profile of the school.

And he liked what he saw when he checked the Thoroughbreds’ team website, which showed Skidmore with a 14-2 record in Liberty League play that season.

“As a competitor,” Meren, now a Skidmore sophomore, said, “that’s appealing. That was something I wanted to be a part of going forward.”

That type of success has continued for Skidmore, which starts its latest trip to the NCAA Division III tournament 5:30 p.m. Friday against MIT at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Skidmore enters that game on a seven-game winning streak and fresh off winning the Liberty League championship, and brings a 19-7 overall record into its matchup with 22-4 MIT. The winner of Skidmore vs. MIT plays again 7 p.m. Saturday against either Swarthmore or Mitchell.

Burke is now in his ninth season at Skidmore. His Skidmore teams have never had a losing season, never won fewer than 15 games in a season and have dominated the Liberty League this decade.

“And when you have success at a place like this, it starts to sell itself,” Burke said. “We’re on a national level now.”

Players such as Meren and senior Edvinas Rupkus, Skidmore’s all-time leading scorer, are the top standouts for the Thoroughbreds. Both will have opportunities to play professionally before their basketball careers are complete, and both were named All-Liberty League first-team selections earlier this week, while Rupkus also repeated as the conference’s player of the year.

That Meren and Rupkus are at Skidmore offer differing examples of how things have gone right for Burke, a former Division I assistant coach at Cornell and Navy, in building up the Thoroughbreds.

Meren, who is averaging a league-leading 21.2 points per game this season, didn’t play much AAU basketball as a teenager, and didn’t generate significant recruiting interest despite his 6-foot-5 frame and elite athleticism.

“But this was the right place at the right time for him,” Burke said. “A lot of people missed on him, and people will admit that now. But he found the right fit.”

For Rupkus, a 6-foot-4 guard from Lithuania, the fit he found at Skidmore was everything. He had several Division I scholarship offers after playing high school basketball in Pennsylvania, but turned them down in favor of heading to Skidmore.

“I didn’t want to go somewhere just to play basketball,” said Rupkus, an academic and athletic All-American during his career at Skidmore.

Skidmore heads into this year’s NCAA tournament with momentum, but had its rocky moments early in the season. Since an 8-6 start, though, Skidmore has won 11 of 12 games.

“And, right now, there’s some pressure off our shoulders because the goal is always to win the Liberty League, so we’ve accomplished that,” Rupkus said. “But we’re treating our [NCAA tournament] game like every other game this season. It’s one game at a time.”

“This is more about us playing well,” Meren said of the Thoroughbreds’ approach, “about us playing with effort.”

Skidmore is a slight underdog in its opening tournament game, but Burke likes the matchup with MIT because of the similar styles both teams use.

“We mirror each other in how he attack,” Burke said, “ and, at this point, everyone’s good, anyway.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

Categories: College Sports, Sports

Leave a Reply