The Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC), quite frankly, has been dominated by Union (KY) over the past seven seasons. They entered the 2019-2020 season as the six time defending regular season champs, AND the six time defending AAC Tournament Champs. Coach Kevin Burton and his Union Bulldogs entered the 2019-2020 season looking to push both of their AAC championship streaks to SEVEN!!
With what Union has done over the past few seasons, including being the 2017 NAIA DII National Champions, it should be no surprise that they were, once again, picked to win the AAC:
Nationally, the Union started off the season ranked #17th in the NAIA DII Preseason Poll. Both Montreat (NC) and Milligan (TN) found themselves just outside of the Top 25, and in the receiving votes category.
Union wound up winning their 7th straight AAC Regular Season Title, but it wasn’t easy. A pesky Montreat team was nipping at their heals all season, and even had a 1 game lead on Union late in the year. However, they weren’t able to dethrone the Bulldogs, as Union did what championship teams do, and they won four straight to end the season, including a big win over Montreat.
The AAC puts 8 of it’s 13 teams into the AAC Tournament. Most of the top teams weren’t a surprise, but NAIA and AAC newcomers Kentucky Christian put a second semester charge together to claim the 6-seed in the AAC tournament. The Knights were picked to finish dead last in the preseason polls, and looked like they were headed that way as they were just 3-14 at the break. The Knights added leading scorer Kobe Brown at semester and the 6’0 guard led the Knights to a big 2nd semester that would carry them into the AAC Tournament.
Union once again would be the hunted, as the remaining seven teams in the AAC Tournament tried to dethrone the six time defending champs. The first round saw all four top seeds advance to the AAC Semifinal games.
The first of the two games featured Union vs Columbia International, in what would be a crazy game. CIU had Union on the ropes, as they led by 16 points in the 2nd half. However, Union came storming back to get the 77-70 win. In the 2nd semifinal game, Montreat looked like a team on a mission as they completely manhandled Milligan 100-68 behind 34 points from the AAC Player of the Year, Austin Butler.
The wins by Union and Montreat, set up a thrilling AAC Championship game. Union had beaten Montreat twice already in the regular season, but you had to wonder if they had used expended all of their energy the day before in the thrilling 2nd half comeback against CIU.
The AAC Tournament Championship game was no doubt one of the best games in the league all season long. Montreat found themselves down 10 with 3:30 to go, and still down 8 with 1:47 left. Then with 34 seconds left, Montreat, now down 2 points, forced a steal, and were able to get a bucket and a foul with 23 seconds left. Tied at 81, they would miss the free throw to go up 1. This is what ensued:
A Blake Ervin three-pointer at the buzzer would seal the 84-81 Union win as they captured their 7TH straight AAC Tournament Title. Both Montreat and Union would qualify for the NAIA DII National Tournament.
The NAIA DII National Tournament was in the middle of the first round games when they decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to cancel the tournament due to Covid-19 concerns.
Union entered the DII National Tournament as the 3-Seed in the Cramer Bracket. They were able to play their 1st round game, but lost to 6-Seed St. Francis 76-82.
Montreat entered the DII National Tournament as a 7-Seed in the Liston Bracket. They too were able to play their opening round game, but lost to 2-Seed Southern Oregon 67-85.
Player of the Year: Austin Butler, Montreat
Coach of the Year: Kevin Burton, Union
3rd Team All-American
Austin Butler, Montreat – 6’4 Senior
Honorable Mention All-American
Vernon Jackson, Allen – 5’10 Junior
Richard Brown, Union – 6’7 Senior
2019-2020 League Breakdown
Total # teams to reach Top 25 this season: 2 (Union, Montreat)
Highest ranking of season: Union #16 (March 4th, Final Poll)
Teams who finished season in Top 25: Union #16