The basketball fortunes of Brendon Manning have followed this trajectory before.
At Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Manning was a bench player as a junior before becoming the scoring and rebounding leader for a Cougars team that won 18 games and reached the 2015 state tournament during his senior season.
Now a college senior, Manning has taken a productive junior campaign and again become the scoring and rebounding leader, this time at Wisconsin-La Crosse, which opens play in the Division III NCAA tournament Friday.
“It is nothing less than hard work,” Wisconsin-La Crosse men’s basketball coach Kent Dernbach said. “Hard work is the reason why you are able to make a jump forward like that. You need an opportunity to play, but there is opportunities out there that guys have, but so few players are willing to commit themselves like Brendon has. Both in the weight room and on the court. In addition to that, also as a leader. That is something that maybe I am most proud of with Brendon is his willingness to not only lead by example, but lead with his voice because he is not a natural vocal leader. But during this season, that is what he became for us and something he should take great pride in.”
An at-large NCAA bid has La Crosse (17-9) in the tournament for the first time since 2006. The Eagles will play 13th-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) at 5:30 p.m. in Lincoln, Neb.
“This is something we’ve always dreamed about,” Manning said. “Senior year, coming together and having a great year and then eventually making the NCAA Tournament, which we did. Definitely living up to expectations, for sure.”
Dernbach calls Manning his best rebounder and most versatile defender. An undersized forward at 6-foot-3, Manning led the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in rebounds throughout 14 conference games last season. This year, his team-high 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game earned him a spot on the all-conference team.
“I think I just try and get great positioning,” Manning said of his rebounding prowess. “I think I am pretty good at timing the ball, just going up there and grabbing it, outjumping everybody basically. I don’t have the greatest size, so I just try to time it perfect and go up there and grab the ball.”
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Manning’s ability to guard bigger players and then step out against perimeter shooters helped La Crosse set school and conference records for 3-point field goal percentage defense this season. Plenty of defense will be needed Friday against St. Thomas (22-4), which averages 86 points a game and has a pair of former area preps on its bench in junior Nathan Stenger (Iowa City Regina) and sophomore Max Techau (Cedar Rapids Xavier).
“Very excited,” Manning said. “The way we played on the defensive end night in and night out, I think it is very deserving to get recognized at the national level and then play against great teams in the tournament. We’re pretty excited about this one.”
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