Wes McKinney (Courier file photo)
Wes McKinney (Courier file photo)
Selection Sunday may be 11 days away, but March Madness will begin in Hanover tonight when the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament tips off at Collier Arena.

Hanover will host Westminster (Mo.) in tonight’s second game just after North Central (Ill.) takes on Wooster (Ohio) in the opener. The game will mark Hanover’s return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2011 and first home tournament game since 2005.

“There has been a real excitement around here that goes with being in the NCAA Tournament,” Hanover coach Jon Miller said Thursday. “The nice thing about getting to play at home is that our routine has been able to kind of stay the same. It’s been a nice mix of the excitement of playing in the tournament with also the familiarity of playing at home.”

Hanover earned the right to host this weekend’s First and Second Rounds after a stellar regular season that saw the Panthers go 23-3, rise to 12th in the D3Hoops.com national poll and win both the regular season and tournament titles in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

A big reason for Hanover’s success this year has been its ability to adapt. The Panthers have shown they can run with teams or slow it down, pound the ball inside or fire away. Five different players have led Hanover in scoring this season, including three different players over the past four games.

The leader has been Wes McKinney, a 6-foot-4 junior from Batesville, who was just named HCAC Player of the Year. McKinney has been a double-double machine this year, recording 11 on the season while averaging 18.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

In addition to earning the HCAC’s top honor, McKinney was also named a second team academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America.

Senior Corey Muchmore, a 6-foot-6 center from Cincinnati, has had a breakout season, averaging 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Muchmore hit the game-winner in Hanover’s HCAC tournament semifinal game against Transylvania and was named the tourney’s most valuable player.

Hanover also has a trio of guards who have proven their mettle game after game this season. Cam Fails, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Mason, Ohio, is averaging 15.2 points and scored 22 in a key late-season win at Mount St. Joseph. Colin Smith, a 6-foot-2 junior from Cincinnati, is averaging 6.1 points and 7.2 rebounds while leading the team in assists at 3.0. Levi Buck, a junior from Pendleton, is averaging 9.1 points and has been one of the conference’s best defenders this season.

“Our offensive keys aren’t necessarily unique to this game,” Miller said. “We need to take care of the basketball, limit the turnovers, make sure the basketball moves and share it, which is something this team normally does well.”

While Hanover has a variety of weapons, the one thing it does not have is a lot of size, something the Panthers will face plenty of in Westminster.

The Blue Jays (19-8) feature a pair of 6-foot-9 players inside, led by senior Sean O’Brien who is averaging 16.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Romo Tabb, a 6-foot-5 junior from St. Louis, is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points and is pulling down 5.9 rebounds per game.

Miller knows that containing O’Brien and fellow 6-foot-9 center Javier Martin Ortega, along with Tabb, will be a key to the Panthers’ success.

“I think the first thing that stands out to you is their inside game, just because they have two big guys that play at the four and five. They play through those two guys quite a bit which will be quite a challenge for us,” Miller said of Westminster. “As a team, they are an outstanding offensive rebounding team. They’ve got a number of guys that get on the glass so screening out and getting on the boards will be real important.”

Westminster also likes to get up and down the floor. The Blue Jays are averaging 81.0 points per game and have surpassed 100 points three times this season, including a 128-121 win in regulation over Greenville in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship.

The winner of the Hanover-Westminster contest will face either Wooster or North Central in the Second Round on Saturday. Both Wooster and North Central received votes in this week’s D3Hoops poll.

Miller said he hasn’t looked too far ahead at possible opponents on Saturday and that has been his team’s key to success this season.

“These guys have done a really nice job of playing in the moment and identifying the most important thing they needed to do at that moment in time,” Miller said. “What the by-product of that is, we’ve ended up in a pretty good place. We talk a lot about where you want to end up, but stay focused on the steps you need to take to get there and I think this team has done a good job with that.”

Wooster and North Central tip off at 5:30 p.m. with Hanover and Westminster starting at approximately 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, students and children. No advanced tickets will be sold.