Nine national flags hang from the top of the south stand at McAlester College’s Leonard Center, a tribute to the home of Scottish basketball players, coaches and staff. Coach Abe Voldeslassie bought them on Amazon for $7 each, a daily reminder of his team’s diversity at the most diverse college campus in the Twin Cities.
According to the college’s website, Macalester enrolls approximately 2,200 students from over 90 countries; one of the reasons why he flies the United Nations flag in the middle of the campus. (Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a 1961 graduate; the ping-pong table in the basement of the Leonard Center celebrates his prowess as an undergrad.)
The Leonard Center flags represent Liberia, Ethiopia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Taiwan, and Togo, as well as the United States. In Mack’s tight-knit team, a mixture of nationalities and opinions contributes to provocative conversations outside of court on almost all topics. Sport. Music. Politics.
“Everyone from different walks of life brings their own perspective to almost everything we do,” said Wisconsin-born junior guard Caleb Williams, the Mac’s leading scorer. “And seeing and hearing what they think is many times more valuable than what I even think, because I think about it from a different point of view. It was amazing.”
But as Voldeslassie, a 2008 Mac graduate and twice-selected All-MIAC as a player, unhappily notes that another type of flag or banner is missing from the walls of the Leonard Center — one that marks an appearance in a MIAC championship or an NCAA tournament. The last time the Scots won the MIAC in men’s basketball was in 1981 with St. Thomas; neither received an NCAA application. The only previous Mac MIAC championship was held in 1937. His women’s hoop team never won it.
But everything can change. The Scots reached the No. 6 seeded MIAC Championship game last season ahead of Carlton and Augsburg before losing in the final to St. John’s. Mack’s 15-13 record was the best since the 2003-04 season, and his win total was the third-highest in 40 years.
The Scots have shown steady improvement since the South Minneapolis product Woldeslassie arrived in 2018 after previous stops at Siena, Davidson, Dartmouth and Bowdoin Division III. From 3-22 the previous season, the Scots have risen to 7-18, 8-17 and 2-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season before last season’s jump.
This season, the Scots are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the conferences ahead of the holiday break, tied with Carlton in second place behind St. John’s (7-2, 5-1).
“I knew Abe when he was a player here,” said former football coach Tony Jennison, who is now fundraising for Mac Athletics. “I returned long enough to know his character and honesty. When he came back here, knowing who he was and how he was doing, I was 100% sure that he would do his job here at a high level. I just didn’t know it would be this soon.”
There is still a lot of work to do, as a 75-50 loss to three-time reigning MIAC champion Johnny showed in mid-December. But overall, Voldeslassie likes what he sees on his list of mostly juniors (only one senior).
“We’re coming,” Voldeslassie said. “We haven’t arrived yet, but we will.”
Most impressively, the rising Scots represent the best offer of sports entertainment in the city. There’s free entry to Macalester games, and concession prices are so cheap that a family of four that makes the right choice can get in and out for $20 or less.
That’s the beauty of the NCAA Division III, where the sports programs remain largely untainted by the money-driven Division I obnoxiousness. Athletic scholarships are banned in Division III, giving the term “student-athlete” real weight. Voldeslassie said his players scored a 3.69 GPA on a 4.0 scale last semester at a college known for its strict academic standards.
“You can be a great student and a great athlete, and here you can do both,” Voldeslassi said. “You don’t have to choose.”
Smart kids ask a lot of questions, so Voldeslassi and his assistant coaches often delve deeply into the reasons for body positioning and strategy. That balance attracted Williams, the shooting guard who jokes, “I’m really from the middle of nowhere” – in particular, Wild Rose, Wisconsin (pop. 834).
Selected All-MIAC in track and field (long jump and triple jump) as well as basketball, Williams maintained a 4.0 GPA last semester in a dual major in physics and mathematics. This season, he is averaging 17.7 points per game, is sixth in the MIAC rankings and leads the conference in steals (2.2).
“It was a huge part of my decision to get into a good school,” Williams said. “I spoke to many players during my visit and even to some professors. Macalester is an excellent academic school. It certainly ticked a lot of boxes for me.
“I really chose to come here because I wanted to be part of the program to make it special, instead of joining a traditional powerhouse or another really good Division III school. I thought that it would be more important for me to come here and help the coach create a special and long tradition here. It’s kind of the end goal.”
Williams shares a home on the outskirts of campus with teammates Badu Ba, Tom Andrea, and Koby Gold. Ba, a muscular 6-7 sophomore forward and blocker, brings the most eclectic backdrop to the group.
Born in Senegel, Ba grew up in Africa and the Middle East before going to boarding school in France and the US. He moved frequently because his mother, Jessica Davis Ba, works in the US Foreign Service; this week, the Senate confirmed her appointment as US Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire (formerly Côte d’Ivoire). His father, Amadou Mahtar Ba, co-founded AllAfrica Global Media Inc., the world’s largest distributor of African news.
Ba, the eldest of five boys, referred to himself as “unathletic” as a child, which seems ridiculous when you look at him.
“I wasn’t really into sports until I started growing in my body,” he said. “I played football by chance, but I wasn’t a big 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 these people, so I kind of got into other things where I could be more successful.”
Ba says he didn’t take basketball seriously until he entered Williston Northampton (Mass.) four years ago. Voldeslassie discovered Ba because he knew Williston Northampton coach Ben Farmer from the New England recruiting route. Ba now leads the MIAC in blocked shots at 3.3 per game and has won the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week award four times.
“He’s going to be a force in this league,” Voldeslassie said.
Voldeslassie believes that assistant head coach Conner Nord, a former standout at St. Thomas, contributed to Ba’s rapid development. With Ba as the defensive anchor and top rebounder, Mack allows for the second-lowest points per game in MIAC (66.3). Three Scots – Williams, Gold and Andrea – are in the top five in MIAC in terms of the number of interceptions.
Another guard, sophomore Robert Grace IV of Minneapolis, provides energy off the bench, though he’s almost as famous on campus as the author.”Rob coils» on Instagram.
In attack, the Scots can play at an accelerated or slow pace, depending on the opponent. Four times McAlester have fought their way to victory after trailing eight or more points in the first half, the biggest deficit of 18 points against North Central. But Mac couldn’t get over a disastrous start against the St. Johns on December 7, dropping his first four possessions, trailing them 8-0. Mack held on for a while but never took the lead, and the outnumbered Johnnys broke away in the second half.
The result disappointed a rowdy crowd of 847 at the 1,200-capacity Leonard Center, which included Mac president Susanna M. Rivera, waving blue and white pompoms. (Rivera, the first female and Hispanic to lead the college, frequents games and tweets about the athletics.) Mack bounced back three days later to crush Bethel, 88–65, his first win at the Royals’ Arden Hills campus. since 2004.
Now about the bare walls. These days, the MIAC champion automatically receives an application for participation in the NCAA tournament. In past years, the NCAA Selection Board often awarded the runner-up MIAC an at-large offer, although this was not the case last year. The Scots shoot at one thing, then another.
“Take away (the St. Johns game) and I’m really proud of our start,” Voldeslassi said. “We are turning from the hunter into the prey. We are no longer little Macalesters.
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