The ‘Road To Muni’ last week in the opening round of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship was a good one! We discussed earlier that you can complain all you want about the process of selecting teams, but at the end of the day we were able to see a lot of great games thru the first weekend! Sixteen teams are now in Kansas City with their eyes set on bringing home a National Championship. It won’t be easy, as this is the best of the best remaining within the NAIA! It’s been a crazy year with a ton of schedule changes and adapting to different protocols from different regions of the United States. All of the testing, the empty gyms and the merging of divisions here at the NAIA level all comes down to this! Teams are just four wins away from a National Title! All of the years hard work all comes down to this! Four wins in five days to see who the best team in the NAIA is for 2020-21!! First we will focus on the Thursday games from the Naismith and Cramer Brackets:
Thursday, 7:15pm CT
The Wildcats had no issues getting to Kansas City as they rolled at home, past IU South Bend, to reach Kansas City. The good news for Indiana Wesleyan is that they will know this scout well as they play Crossroads League rival Bethel. The Wildcats have looked like the favorite to bring home the NAIA National Championship this entire season. They are led by the best player in the country in Kyle Mangas and have one of the best Forwards in the NAIA in 7′ Seth Maxwell. Kyle is the most decorated small college basketball player ever and while all the individual accolades are great, Kyle has one thing on his mind right now and that is to end his career winning another National Title.
While injuries happened, this Bethel team did NOT have a great end to the season as they lost six of their last eight games, and, rightfully so, were a bit nervous headed into the selection show. The Pilots found themselves in the Men’s National Championship though and boy have they made the best of it! After beating TAMUI in the opening round game, they turned around and beat 10th-ranked Providence 85-81 behind 37 points from Trevion Crews! It was the highest scoring individual output in the entire opening round. As discussed, the Pilots get a familiar foe to open things up. They are 0-2 against IWU this season, but you can bet that Crews and company will battle their hearts out in this game!
Thursday, 2pm CT
Stillman beat a hot Keiser team in the opening round championship game. The HBCU squad will enter Kansas City as the 8th-seed and find themselves in a unique situation here in the Naismith Bracket, paired up with three teams from the Crossroads League. They will first have to look to knock off a hot USF team that went to #1 Indiana Wesleyan and beat them by 28 points just two weeks back. This should be a fun game though as both teams have great guard play, physical big men and can match each others athleticism. This game will be the first one in Kansas City and it is going to be a dandy! Should come down to who can make the most plays down the stretch! This Stillman crew has been listening to this being a “Crossroads League” tournament bracket and will use that as motivation. This is a tough group led by Trey Petty and Derrin Merriweather! They aren’t going to back down from this challenge!
The Cougars are red hot, winning eight of their last nine games. They knocked off a pesky Benedictine team in the opening round championship game, but it was a game they found themselves trailing for most of the second half. USF though, used a big surge over the past five minutes of the game to get the win! The Crossroads League is really good, proven by the fact that there are four teams in the final 16 teams. This Stillman team however is one of the more athletic teams USF has faced all season long. It should make for a great matchup! Antwaan Cushingberry and David Ejah will look to continue to carry this USF team into the Men’s National Championship Quarterfinals!
Naismith Bracket Final Thoughts:
As upsets happened in the previous rounds, and seeding started to fall into place, three teams from the Crossroads League found their way into the Naismith Bracket. Indiana Wesleyan remains the team to beat in this group. They have been the best team in the NAIA this entire season and are the favorites to take home the title in the first year as one division. While they won’t overlook Bethel, you have to imagine they would love some revenge on USF, if they can both win.
Stillman is for sure the wildcard in this group! Not because of their talent, but just simply based of the fact that they are in same group as three teams from the same conference. They won’t be afraid though as they faced good competition all season long. The SSAC has three teams in the final 16 here in Kansas City and they are as battle tested as these Crossroads teams. They also saw their fellow SSAC member Faulkner battle IWU to a two point game earlier this season. They are a confident group who should put up a great fight in the Naismith Bracket!
Thursday, 5:30pm CT
Faulkner comes in with one of the best scoring duos in the NAIA with CJ Williamson and Jordan Hamlette. Their scoring abilities were on full display in the opening round championship game as Williamson finished with 24pts and Hamlette chipped in 21pts. The key for them to advance past Jamestown however is going to be how do they handle the post presence of Mason Walters!?! The SSAC isn’t full of true post players with the skill and scoring ability of Walters. Faulkner will have their hands full in this one! Look for them to use their experience in guarding Seth Maxwell earlier in the season as guidance on how to slow Walters down. The Eagles are tough and scrappy and will be very tough to guard in their own right!
Jamestown was most likely a bit nervous on selection day, as they were on the bubble and wondering if they would get into the tournament. The Jimmies made it in and have taken full advantage of the opportunity. They knocked off Bellevue in the opening round and then turned around and beat #3 LSU-Shreveport in the Opening Round Title game. The Jimmies lost their PG Allantae Pickens in the GPAC Tournament, however they have looked just fine without him. Mason Walters continues to be a beast on the inside and Marc Kjos has really been consistent for the Jimmies down the stretch. As much as Faulkner will need to find an answer for Walters, it’s the Jimmies who will also need to find a way to stop Williamson and Hamlette!
Thursday, 3:00pm CT
Shawnee State comes into Kansas City on the NAIA’s longest win streak as they have now won 23 straight. As impressive as that is and as good as the Bears are, we found out in the NAIA Opening Rounds that the Mid-South may have been a bit down this season as they got just 1 win out of 4 games played. That win, was Shawnee State squeaking by a tough WVU Tech team 76-70. This Bears team is loaded with size and talent though. You can’t talk about player duo’s without discussing EJ Onu and James Jones and the impact that they have on each and every game. Onu is the 6’11 inside/outside threat that is also a force defensively. Jones is the do-it-all player who helped bring an offensive spark to the Bears this season. This is a fun little group for them too as each team in this part of the bracket has a bit of a different style of play. Shawnee should be accustomed to that though as the Mid-South is a large league with teams playing a variety of styles.
The Threshers are coming off a big win against a very good Northwestern team. It’s the type of win that can give them the confidence to make a big run. However, it won’t be easy for Jaylon Scott and company as they face a Shawnee team who has won 23 straight games and has 6’11 EJ Onu. If the Threshers can find a way to limit Onu and Jones they have a shot for the upset. That’s no small task though as very few people have shut them both down this season. Bethel does play good defense and you do expect them to mix it up defensively to keep Shawnee State guessing. Look for the Threshers to play a lot of small ball with Jaylon Scott at the 5 in order to pull EJ Onu away from the rim. It’s going to take great execution of the game plan, but again this Bethel team just showed they can do that in stopping one of the best bigs in the country against Northwestern!
Cramer Bracket Final Thoughts:
The Cramer Bracket is a very interesting grouping as you get two games with former DI vs DII programs. Faulkner plays in the SSAC, which had three teams reach Kansas City. They were the best team in the SSAC all year long and went toe to toe with Indiana Wesleyan earlier this year.
All four teams have good Top 25 wins though so none will shy away from the moment. The possibility of a Mason Walters vs EJ Onu matchup sounds really juicy, but we will see how things shake out on Day 1!
Both the Naismith and Cramer brackets are very interesting as the former DII teams haven’t played in Muni and even the 3 former DI teams don’t have a ton of experience playing here to lean on! Experience playing in Muni is something that is very valuable come tournament time. Even if this is an unorthodox season and a new format for the NAIA Men’s National Championship. Having that prior experience to lean on can help you win games. Typically the games here are physical and with the backdrop being dark and further back, it tends to make the shooting in the opening rounds a bit tough. Tough teams, who can get to the rim and finish, tend to find ways to advance into the next rounds! Going to be two fun groups to watch and see who can reach the Fab Four!