Nine national flags hang from the top of the south bleachers at Macalester College’s Leonard Center, a nod to the lands of origin for the Scots’ men’s basketball players, coaches and staff. Coach Abe Woldeslassie bought them on Amazon for $7 each, a daily reminder of his team’s diversity on the most diverse college campus in the Twin Cities.
Macalester draws its student body of roughly 2,200 from more than 90 countries, according to the college’s website; one reason why it flies a United Nations flag in the middle of campus. (Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is an alumnus, Class of ’61; a ping pong table in the Leonard Center basement honors his prowess as an undergrad.)
The Leonard Center flags represent Lebanon, Ethiopia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Taiwan and Togo, as well as the United States. Within Mac’s tightly-knit team, the mix of ethnicities and opinions makes for provocative conversations away from the court, about almost anything. Sport. Music. Politics.
“Everyone from a different background kind of brings a different point of view to almost everything we do,” said Wisconsin-raised junior guard Caleb Williams, Mac’s leading scorer. “And to see and hear what they’re thinking is a lot of times more valuable than what I’m even thinking, because I think of it from another perspective. That’s been amazing.”
But as Woldeslassie, a 2008 Mac graduate and two-time All-MIAC pick as a player, notes forlornly, there’s another type of flag or banner missing from the walls of the Leonard Center — the kind marking an MIAC Championship or NCAA Tournament appearance. The Scots last won the MIAC in men’s basketball in 1981, shared with St. Thomas; neither received an NCAA bid. Mac’s only previous MIAC championship came in 1937. Its women’s hoop team has never won it.
But things may be changing. Last season the Scots reached the MIAC Championship game as a No. 6 seed, upsetting Carleton and Augsburg before losing the final to St. John’s. Mac’s 15-13 record was its best since 2003-04, with the victory total the third-highest in the last 40 years.
The Scots have shown steady improvement since Woldeslassie, a south Minneapolis product, arrived in 2018 after previous coaching or staffing stops at Siena, Davidson, Dartmouth and Division III Bowdoin. From a 3-22 finish the previous season, the Scots climbed to 7-18 to 8-17 to 2-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season until last season’s leap.
This season the Scots are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play entering the holiday break, tied with Carleton for second behind St. John’s (7-2, 5-1).
“I knew Abe when he was a player here,” said former football coach Tony Jennison, now a fundraiser for Mac athletics. “I go back long enough to know his character and integrity. When he came back here, knowing who he is and how he goes about things, I was 100% confident he was going to get the job done at a high level here. I just didn’t know it would be so soon.”
More work remains, as a 75-50 beat-down by the three-time defending MIAC champion Johnnies in mid-December demonstrated. But generally, Woldeslassie likes what he sees from his roster of mostly underclassmen (only one senior).
“We’re coming,” Woldeslassie said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re coming.”
Most impressive of all, the rising Scots represent the best sports entertainment deal in town. There’s free admission to Macalester’s games, and concessions prices are so cheap a family of four that chooses well can get in and out of there for $20 or less.
That’s the beauty of NCAA Division III, where athletic programs remain largely untainted by the money-driven obnoxiousness of Division I. Athletic scholarships are prohibited in Division III, giving the term “student-athlete” real heft. Woldeslassie said his players compiled a collective 3.69 grade point average on a 4.0 scale last semester at a college renowned for its rigorous academic standards.
“You can be a great student and a great athlete, and you can do both here,” said Woldeslassie. “You don’t have to choose.”
Smart kids ask a lot of questions, so Woldeslassie and his assistant coaches often delve deeply into the whys of body positioning and strategy. That balance attracted Williams, a shooting guard who jokes, “I’m really from the middle of nowhere” – specifically Wild Rose, Wisconsin (population 834).
An All-MIAC selection in track (long and triple jumps) as well as basketball, Williams kept up a 4.0 GPA last semester as a physics and math double major. This season he’s averaging 17.7 points per game, sixth-best in the MIAC, while leading the conference in steals (2.2).
“That was a huge part of my decision, coming to a good school,” Williams said. “I talked to a lot of players at the time when I visited, and even some of the professors. Macalester is a great academic school. That ticked a lot of boxes for me, for sure.
“I really decided to come here because I wanted hopefully to be part of making a program special, instead of joining a traditional powerhouse or another really good Division III school. I thought it would mean more for me to hopefully come here and help Coach build a special and long-lasting tradition here. That’s kind of the end goal.”
Williams shares a house near the edge of campus with teammates Badou Ba, Tom Andreae and Coby Gold. Ba, a muscular 6-7 sophomore forward and shot blocker, brings the most eclectic background to the group.
Born in Senegel, Ba was raised in Africa and the Middle East before attending boarding school in France and the U.S. He moved frequently because his mother, Jessica Davis Ba, works for the U.S. Foreign Service; this week the Senate confirmed her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire (formerly the Ivory Coast). His father, Amadou Mahtar Ba, co-founded AllAfrica Global Media Inc., the largest worldwide distributer of African news.
The oldest of five boys, Ba called himself “unathletic” as a kid, which seems preposterous when you look at him.
“I wasn’t really into athletics until I started growing into my body,” he said. “I played soccer casually, but I wasn’t much of an athlete. I studied, played video games and hung out with friends.
“I also grew up in Kenya, and the main sport there was long distance running. I just couldn’t keep up with a lot of those people there, so I kind of got into other things where I could have more success.”
Ba says he didn’t take basketball seriously until enrolling at The Williston Northampton (Mass.) School four years ago. Woldeslassie discovered Ba because he knew Williston Northampton coach Ben Farmer from the New England recruiting trail. Now, Ba leads the MIAC in blocked shots at 3.3 per game and has already won the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week award four times.
“He’s going to be a force in this league,” Woldeslassie said.
Woldeslassie credits Associate Head Coach Conner Nord, a former St. Thomas standout, with Ba’s rapid development. With Ba as its defensive anchor and top rebounder, Mac allows the second-fewest points per game in the MIAC (66.3). Three Scots – Williams, Gold and Andreae – are among the MIAC’s top five in steals.
Another guard, sophomore Robert Grace IV of Minneapolis, provides energy off the bench, though he’s almost as well known on campus as the auteur behind “Rob’s Reels” on Instagram.
Offensively, the Scots can play up-tempo or slow it down, depending on the opponent. Four times Macalester shot its way to victory after trailing by eight points or more in the first half, the biggest an 18-point deficit against North Central. But Mac couldn’t overcome a disastrous start against St. John’s on Dec. 7, committing turnovers on its first four possessions to fall behind 8-0. Mac hung in for a while but never led, and the superior Johnnies pulled away in the second half.
The result disappointed a boisterous crowd of 847 at the 1,200-capacity Leonard Center that included Mac president Suzanne M. Rivera, waving blue and white pompoms. (Rivera, the first woman and Latina to lead the college, frequently attends games and tweets about athletics.) Mac bounced back three days later to rout Bethel, 88-65, its first victory at the Royals’ Arden Hills campus since 2004.
Now, about those barren walls. These days the MIAC champion receives an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. In past years the NCAA Selection Committee often awarded the MIAC runner-up an at-large bid, though it didn’t last year. The Scots are shooting for one or the other.
“Take away (the St. John’s game) and I’m really proud of our start,” Woldeslassie said. “We’re going from being the hunter to the hunted. We’re not little Macalester anymore.”