Patrick Reusse
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There are now more than 350 colleges that have been permitted Division I classification in men's basketball, and thus a small taste of the bounty that comes to the NCAA from the 68-team tournament.

Without a doubt, scores of past Minnesota players at Division III programs would have had a pile of D-I offers if they had come along in this expansion era.

There were a couple of seasons in the late '60s when Concordia in Moorhead had three such Minnesotans across its front line: Bob Laney from Proctor, and the Peterson twins, Bob and Dick, from Henning. The greatest St. John's player of all, Frank Wachlarowicz (aka Frankie Alphabet) from the mid-'70s, would have been a coveted recruit for Big Ten teams today.

And what has been discovered, with St. Thomas now among the newest D-I programs, is that there remain D-III players who can be productive at the full-scholarship level.

Parker Bjorklund, a D-III recruit, was preseason all-Summit League for the Tommies. Raheem Anthony, the MIAC's Player of the Year at St. Mary's for 2022-23, is now a vital contributor at St. Thomas.

Ryan Thissen, a 6-6 guard/forward for St. John's, said, "I think what Raheem is doing demonstrates again that there are players in D-III with the ability to succeed in D-I."

He's not necessarily staking a claim, just agreeing there can be no difference in talent between a standout in non-scholarship basketball and a player getting minutes at 250 of those 350+ D-I programs.

Note: Thissen does have full appreciation for what it takes to be excellent in the Big Ten. His high school teammate with an Eastview High powerhouse, big man Steven Crowl, is playing better than ever for Wisconsin's rejuvenated Badgers.

And right now, things could not be going better for Thissen and the Johnnies in the MIAC: 9-0 after an 83-67 win at Bethel on Wednesday, with a few days to get ready for contender Gustavus coming to Collegeville on Monday night.

The win over Bethel was full of intrigue. There were the frequent moments with Thissen and Joey Kidder, Bethel's two-sport (football) standout, going tough against one other. There was ball-moving St. John's blowing out Bethel in the first half (48-29), Bethel storming out to cut it to 55-54 with 12 minutes left, and the Johnnies clamping down again on defense and the boards to pull away.

"I've always looked at basketball as a game of runs, no matter at what level," Thissen said. "They had a huge one to start the second half. We finally got a few stops and started making shots again."

Part of the winning strategy Wednesday was Thissen having the ball in his hands much of the time.

"I was surprised by that, too," he said. "I came back in one time, looked around and thought, 'We don't have a point guard on the floor.'"

Thissen was able to get in the lane often, maneuver around, make a pass or lean away for a shot. He finished with 21 points, on 10 field goals — nine twos and one three near the end of the game.

He played 29 minutes. Coach Pat McKenzie used 10 players for 11 minutes or more.

"We're deep and we're playing a little faster," McKenzie said. "Playing at this pace … it's almost an experiment for us. And Ryan handling the ball — he's just a very good player. Slashing to the basket always has been a big part of his game."

Actually, that slashing isn't at 100%. Thissen was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 4 and has learned to handle that throughout his life. A new issue surfaced in late September.

"I had severe pain in one of my calves," Thissen said. "I worked out a ton in the summer, and then this flared up and kept getting worse."

A few days of mystery and then Nate Brever, a local doctor, said it appeared to be "exertional compartment syndrome." Rare, and not a quick fix.

McKenzie called his father, Patrick McKenzie, the longtime Green Bay Packers team doctor.

"That relationship finally paid off," said son Pat, laughing. "My dad was aware of a doctor in Wyoming who was treating this successfully with botox injections."

Thissen drove to Wyoming with his parents, Jon and Michelle. He took injections in the various "compartments" of his leg and was able to play in the season opener on Nov. 14.

"The one area that's still not the same is Ryan's jumping ability," McKenzie said. "He has to make more moves when he gets inside, rather than just jump over defenders."

Oh, yeah — one more thing about Division III: Thissen's father Jon helps design pacemakers for Medtronic and Ryan is a biochemistry major with a 4.0 grade point average.

"I applied for a few medical schools but didn't get in one for next fall," Thissen said. "I have another basketball season if I want it because of the COVID year. I'm trying to stay in the present right now, and make that decision later.

"Either way, I wouldn't mind trying to play a year in Europe."

But eventually? "Everything I know from him, Ryan's goal is to be a doctor," McKenzie said.