Five reasons to cheer for men’s basketball

Bears team closes season at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26

Justin Hardy, No. 12, prepares for a shot against rival Emory University on Feb. 11. Hardy’s battle against Stage 4 cancer has inspired teammates and fans. (All photos: Danny Reise/Washington University)

Fans of the Washington University in St. Louis men’s basketball team have two things in common. One, they love basketball, of course. And two, they can’t understand why more of us aren’t cheering on this remarkable team. The games are free, the play is exciting and the players — from first-year standout Hayden Doyle to Academic All-American Jack Nolan to team leader Justin Hardy, who has scored 12 points per game despite his struggle with Stage 4 stomach cancer — are inspiring. Add easy parking and seats close to the action, and there’s no reason not to visit the Field House for a match.

“Spend two minutes watching this team and whatever misconceptions you have about DIII athletics or WashU sports will disappear,” said Jason Marquart, associate director of the Office for International Students and Scholars, who live tweets the games as @Hilltopper. “Don’t discount the Bears.” 

The Bears close their regular season at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Field House against the University of Chicago, Washington University’s oldest and biggest rival. A lot rides on the match. After a 13-game winning streak, the Bears have struggled in the past month and are no longer guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Division III Championship tournament. Marquart will be there, and so will supporters Clara Richards, Student Life senior sports editor; Jerry Li, team manager; Mark Edwards, the most winning coach in university basketball history; and Li Zou, of the Brown School. Here, they share why we should join them. 

Hardy takes the court at the Washington University Field House.

Justin Hardy

Retired coach Mark Edwards recognized years ago what ESPN viewers learned last week — Justin Hardy is a force of nature. 

“When I first saw Justin, I knew he would make us a better program,” said Edwards, who recruited Hardy from St. Charles East High School in the Chicago suburbs. “That has become true in ways I could never imagine.” 

Hardy was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer last spring and has been undergoing treatments ever since. He has lost 50 pounds and sometimes loses feeling in his hands and feet. Still, Hardy has emerged as a team leader in field goals, three-pointers and free throws. Hardy’s amazing story, shared by local outlets Student Life, KSDK and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught the attention of  ESPN journalist Gene Wojciechowski, who profiled Hardy for the nationally televised show “College GameDay.”

“I don’t know how anyone could fail to be moved by Justin’s honesty, by the nature of the medical odds he faces, by the elegance of his iron will, and by an extraordinary brand of courage and inner strength that somehow overpowers Stage IV cancer for the length of a college basketball game,” Wojciechowski said in a preview. “I’m incapable of fully understanding what it must take to do what Justin has done this season.”

Edwards can’t comprehend either, but he’s not surprised. 

“Justin is a true teammate,” Edwards said. “He works for everybody else and they all love him.”

Athletes don’t play for scholarships or recognition — they play for each other.

The spirit

Before Li Zou became an expert on child development accounts, she was a professional swimmer in China. Sure, she loved the sport, but she only devoted hours to her training because it was her job. These players, in contrast, get nothing — no scholarships, no endorsements and barely any recognition. 

Sammy Genin (center) and his family and friends always sit in the front row at games. (Photo: Li Zou)

“It’s a whole different perspective. They do it for the pure joy,” said Zou, international director of the Center for Social Development at the Brown School. “They are here because they are passionate and because they care about each other.”

Zou attends games with her husband, Guy Genin, the Harold and Kathleen Faught Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering, and their sons Jacob and Sammy.

“Those players are like LeBron James to my kids,” Zou said. “They absolutely admire each one of them, especially Justin Hardy. We’ve been rooting for him since his freshman year, and he has matured so much. I can’t even describe what an inspiration he has been to us and to our kids.”

Nolan shoots a three-pointer during the Bears’ win over Webster University early in the season. (Photo courtesy of WashU Athletics)

Jack Nolan

A month ago, Jack Nolan suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. Yes, the same Jack Nolan who scored a game-leading 22 points last Sunday. 

“All season long, Jack Nolan just finds a way,” Marquart said. “He’s the guy with a ton of talent, but he also has a reputation as the guy who is in the gym all of the time, constantly practicing, constantly putting up baskets.” 

Now third on the Bears’ all-time scoring list, Nolan averages 21 points per game and is hitting 89% of his free throws. 

‘“He is either scoring or drawing the attention that allows others to score,” Marquart said. “But he’s more than that. Watch him pass, watch him defend. He can really play any role. And he is surrounded by so much talent in every position that you can always expect big things to happen.” 

Marquart has only missed two home games since 2013, to the disbelief of his colleagues. 

“They think I’m crazy,” Marquart said with a laugh. “But this is how I think about it: Like a lot of them, I make a point to go to Diwali and Lunar New Year and Undergraduate Research Symposiums. Our students are amazing in so many ways, and this is just another way to support them.”

Like his players, Head Coach Pat Juckem wears a #HardyStrong shirt at games.

The coaching

As a student manager, Jerry Li sees a side of Head Coach Pat Juckem that only his players know. 

“Coach is such a powerful presence in the locker room,” said Li, a junior studying mathematics and English in Arts & Sciences. “He feels really responsible for the team, and they know it.” 

Li recalled a recent loss when the team sat shell-shocked in the locker room. 

“He walked in and said, ‘We can learn from this. This is not the final chapter. We are going to write our own final chapter,’” Li said. “Everyone raised their hands and shouted, ‘One fist.’ It was really moving.” 

Li first met Juckem when he enrolled in his eight-week physical education course. Li would soon realize that all of his classmates were basketball players.

“They were probably like, ‘Who’s this guy?’” Li said. “But I really like them and I guess they liked me because they asked me if I was interested in being a manager. I’m glad they did because this team is fantastic.” 

First-year student Hayden Doyle has emerged as one of the conference’s best players in assists.

Hayden Doyle

As a senior sports editor for Student Life, Clara Richards has covered some spectacular rookie seasons. But few first-year athletes are as impressive as guard Hayden Doyle, team leader in assists.

“The young players have really stepped up to make an impact, especially Hayden Doyle,” Richards said. “He is such a smart player who has really adapted to college play and is always finding ways to create offense. It’s exciting to watch.”

And that’s why her classmates should turn out for the Bears — not as an act of school spirit but because they will be wowed. The same goes for other sports. Perennial powerhouse track-and-field is set to have another strong season, as are the baseball Bears, who went to the NCAA Division III World Series last spring, and the undefeated women’s tennis team.

“​​WashU doesn’t need better sports for its fans,” Richards and Grady Nance, fellow senior sports editor, wrote in a column last fall. “Instead, it needs better fans for its division-leading teams.” 

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