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Why Division III UW-Platteville is the Team to Watch in March Madness

March is officially upon us, which brings us to the best time of the year: march madness. As is always the case during march madness, the state of Wisconsin is whipped up in a frenzy. Wisconsin clinched a share of the Big Ten title in a season they were picked to finish 10th. Marquette was predicted to finish ninth in preseason polls, but they find themselves in the top half of the Big East with an at-large tournament berth all but wrapped up.

What if I were to tell you that the most interesting storyline in Wisconsin basketball isn’t from either of those schools? It’s not even a Division I team. The most intriguing team this March resides in a town of just over 12,000. They may not hit the front page of the national newspapers, but make no mistake, the UW-Platteville Pioneers are primed and ready to put their imprint in the history books of Division III basketball.

Sitting in a small town unknown to most is the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Pioneers. The school that was a dynasty under Hall of Fame coach Bo Ryan in the 1980s and ’90s looks to cap off another dynasty with an ever so elusive national championship.

uw-Platteville college basketball march madness
Credit: UW-Platteville Athletics

UW-Platteville is the Team to Watch in March Madness

Worst to First

In the 2016-17 NCAA season, the Pioneers were nearly at rock bottom. After starting the season with a 5-1 record and two top-20 wins, Platteville would go just 3-16 the rest of the way. The Pioneers would lose nine straight to end the season. In arguably the best conference in Division III basketball, the Pioneers were competitive, but they just couldn’t quite finish the job. For those who watched, it was clear that there was something special brewing. 

With virtually the whole team returning along with the addition of guards Quentin Shields, Alex Ranney and forward Justin Stovall for the 2017-18 season, the Pioneers found their identity. Over the next five seasons, head coach Jeff Gard led Platteville to a 94-28 (.770%) record. They also won two WIAC Tournament championships and three regular season conference championships.

NCAA Tournament Heartbreak

For as good as the Pioneers have been, the one thing holding them back from that coveted “dynasty” status was a championship. In 2018, Platteville made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since their national championship in 1999. With a spot in the Elite Eight on the line, a heavily contested Nate Schimonitz jumper with two seconds remaining would give Nebraska Wesleyan a 79-78 win and cut Platteville’s season short. Nebraska Wesleyan would go on to win the national championship.

In 2019, Platteville went on a late run and won the conference tournament to claim the WIAC’s automatic tournament bid. However, the Pioneers would shoot just 64% from the free throw line in the first round and fell to Capitol in overtime, 78-76. In 2020, due to the Division III Tournament being scheduled largely based on location to limit travel, Platteville would have to face No. 4 St. Thomas in the second round. The Pioneers would lose by just three points in a tournament that would eventually be canceled due to COVID.

Last season, due to the low number of teams playing, the NCAA canceled the tournament.

uw-Platteville college basketball march madness
Credit: UW-Platteville Athletics

A Winning Formula for UW-Platteville

When asked about what makes this team different than those in the past, assistant coach and former Platteville player Rob Stallion stated: “This team is a little more balanced than teams in the past, both offensively and defensively. Plus we have a group of super seniors and seniors that have a lot of tournament experience.”

In regards to how past tournament losses and COVID cancellations have affected the team, Stallion said “The past tournament losses play a role in our experience. Learning from past mistakes as well as different in-game situations we have been in help us mature and be prepared for what’s to come down the road.”

Road to Fort Wayne

UW-Platteville has been on the cusp of “national dynasty” status for five years now. With Platteville led by senior point guard Quentin Shields, senior forward Justin Stovall and five other seniors who contribute solid minutes, it’s now or never for the Pioneers. Platteville has plenty of talent that will continue to find success for years to come. However, for the class of seniors who bought in and helped lead Platteville to one of the best runs in recent history, this is their “Last Dance.”

The road to the Final Four in Fort Wayne, Indiana begins this Saturday. Platteville matches up with Marian (WI) in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. It certainly won’t be easy, but with plenty of talent across the board and a team hungry for that elusive national championship, they are as good of a bet as any to win it all.

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