Big dance? Big deal.
While the Big Dance had Big Dog (Purdue's Glenn Robinson) and Big Country (Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves), Division III had Mike Rhoades, a 6-foot All-America junior point guard from Lebanon Valley College, who has a big heart. As his Division I big brothers were waltzing through their first two rounds last week. Rhoades was turning the Division III Final Four in Buffalo into his private dance-a-thon, seemingly willing two games into overtime and helping the Flying Dutchmen win them both, 93-83 over Wittenberg in the semis and 66-59 over NYU for the championship. The national title was the first in any sport for the school of 850 students in Annville, Pa.
"This team never gets down," said Rhoades, who logged 83 minutes in the two comeback victories and led Lebanon Valley in points, rebounds and assists as well as playing time. On Friday, with Lebanon Valley trailing Wittenberg 74-67 with 1:10 remaining in regulation, Rhoades made a live-point play by sinking two free throws and then, following a teammate's offensive rebound after he missed a third foul shot, draining a three-pointer. In overtime he went 7 for 8 from the line and finished with a career-high 33 points.
The next night he picked up where he had left off, scoring seven of the Dutchmen's first 15 points against NYU and putting in seven of his team's 11 points in the extra period. But Rhoades & Co. were lucky even to have made it into OT. Lebanon Valley forward Jason Say's tip-in that tied the score at 55 appeared to have left his hands after the buzzer sounded. To the credit of the Violets, who as denizens of the Big Apple are familiar with larceny, no whining was heard.
"Does it all leave a bad taste in your mouth?" NYU coach Joe Nesci was asked.
Nesci, about to take a swig of soda, glanced down at his cup and responded, "You mean this?"
A native of Mahanoy City, Pa., Rhoades can't seem to get his fill of basketball. "I've just always wanted to be shooting hoop," he says. "I used to bring my basketball to peewee league football practice so I could shoot around afterward." It's possible that Rhoades, having led his team to a national title, may have sated, at least for now, his basketball jones, but don't bet on it. "Last summer I played in three leagues and coached at a few clinics," Says Rhoades, whose father, James, has served in the Pennsylvania state senate for 14 years. (This obviously is a family that hates to surrender the floor.) "I hadn't been in college more than two weeks my freshman year when I learned how to sneak into the gym—by leaving the door under the bleachers open a crack."
You would think that Rhoades had just told you about the tunnel leading to the Tri-Delt house. But it is refreshing to discover a college player whose sternest taskmaster is himself. "Mike's the toughest competitor I've ever had," says his coach, Pat Flannery.
Besides spending an hour in the weight room after every home game, Rhoades, an 89% free throw shooter, never leaves practice until he has made 20 free throws in a row. "And the last five have to swish," he says. Or else?
"Or else I begin again from zero. And that just means I get to shoot hoop a little while longer."