John Tauer has been coaching basketball at St. Thomas since 2000, serving as an assistant to Steve Fritz for 11 seasons and then taking over as head coach in 2011.
The Tommies won the Division III national title in 2016. Tauer felt there was an outstanding chance for another of those in 2021, when the season was greatly shortened and postseason play became nonexistent due to the pandemic.
That was also St. Thomas' last scholastic year in the MIAC and as a Division III power.
The Tommies' first D-I season (2021-22) was played mostly with the Division III roster and was interesting — 10 wins, 20 losses, and tied for eighth in the 10-team Summit League with a 4-14 record.
“It's a different landscape in college basketball. Only two years into Division I, and we've found that out in a big way.”
St. Thomas brought in its first true Division I recruiting class for 2022-23. "We offered seven players and were able to sign four of them as freshmen,'' Tauer said.
The Tommies opened this past season at Creighton, which was rated No. 9 in the country at the time. The Tommies had a chance with a few minutes left and lost, 72-60. Creighton didn't live up to its billing in the regular season, but now the Blue Jays are healthier, in the Sweet Sixteen and favored to advance against long-shot Princeton.
The Tommies wound up the season at 19-14. They were 9-9 and tied for fourth in the Summit. They participated in the conference tournament in Sioux Falls for the first time.
St. Thomas was trailing Western Illinois by double digits in the middle of the second half when freshman guard Andrew Rohde ignited a 12-0 run that led to a 67-60 quarterfinal victory. Rohde finished with 24 points. He had 23 the next night, when the Tommies lost 70-65 in a semifinal against Summit powerhouse Oral Roberts.
Three days later, Rohde was listed among the 25 contenders for the Kyle Macy Award sponsored by collegeinsider.com. The Macy honors what the website considers to be a freshman of the year.
Amid all this, there were rumors that Rohde -– a 6-foot-6 guard from Milwaukee -– was going to enter the transfer portal. I put that on Twitter on Feb. 22 and heard from a handful of people with a Tommies' agenda that they considered the transfer speculation to be wrong.
Tauer was not among them. Obviously, he was aware losing Rohde was a strong possibility.
And on Monday, it became official that Rohde – a dynamic player with a chance to be the Tommies' first true Division I star – had entered the portal.
The expectation in February was that Rohde was headed to Wisconsin, where his father was a placekicker in Badgers football at the start of the 1980s.
It wouldn't take much to get the word out this winter that the Badgers felt they made a mistake – that they should've recruited Rohde out of high school – and now they would like to rectify that.
Yeah, the Badgers are the most probable spot for Rohde, but he would have plenty of other options in the portal, and with programs that might be a much better fit for his imaginative, fly-around styled.
Rohde was the best Division I guard in the Twin Cities this past season. And his decision to bail also can be classified as Tauer's true introduction to the current ways at this level of college basketball. Those 90 or so schools that operate in prestige conferences with bigger budgets than the other 262 in Division I (where St. Thomas is currently located) will raid you and not give it a second thought.
"Andrew is a great kid,'' Tauer said Tuesday. "He loved St. Thomas. He loved his teammates, loved the other friends he made here. He's just a fun kid. He enjoyed the school, the experience. We had talks that lasted for hours in recent weeks. He appreciated the way his game developed with us this season. We put the ball in Andrew's hands, gave him a lot of freedom. He really grew as a player, and he knows that.
"It's a different landscape in college basketball. Only two years into Division I, and we've found that out in a big way.''
St. Thomas brought those four freshmen in for 2022-23, but they signed no players last November.
"We came into this looking for a certain type of player; guys that fit our school and also would be difference-makers for us on the court,'' Tauer said. "We identified seven of those players as seniors in 2021-22, offered seven of the them and signed four. We made five offers to those type of players last fall and none signed with us.
"We're not going to change. We're going to keep that standard. We have 11 of our 14 back for next season. We could add one or two players in the spring, if they're the right kids, but it isn't a necessity. We're going to have a bigger class of recruits for 2024. That looks very promising.''
Tauer paused and then said: "We'd love to have Andrew for three more years, but you can't know Andrew without wishing him the best. As I said, with no hesitation … he's just a great kid.''
Is Wisconsin the right place?
"I hope he winds up some place where they give him the ball," Tauer said, "like we did here."