For most programs, the preseason workouts are just starting to wind down and practices are starting up. This is an awesome time of year as EVERYONE across the country still believes that the 2021-22 NAIA National Championship runs through them. The belief is real, the work is real and for many the hype is real too.
While the players are putting in work, you best believe that coaches are putting in a lot of hard work too. They are spending a lot of hours away from their families, a lot of hours building the foundation of their teams philosophy and schemes. A lot of work that is being put in behind the scenes that not many people see or know. Then, on top of that, you have the hours being spent that people do see. It’s a long season, but for coaches this is also a time where they start to mold and shape their teams into what they hope is a successful season both on and off the floor.
For the fans, this is a beautiful time of year as the excitement of the upcoming season builds and new hope and high expectations take over. They too believe that their school, their league, their child is the best and to be honest, you aren’t going to talk them out of it. The nice thing is that the season will be here soon and it will all play out on the court. Well we hope so anyway…
Last season, if we are being honest, was a chaotic mess! A beautiful, chaotic mess, but a chaotic mess nonetheless. Games were being scheduled and rescheduled on the fly. We had teams playing 8 games, while others were playing a full slate of games. We had conferences who provided a Spring season for those teams who opted out of the regular NAIA season. We also didn’t know what players would or wouldn’t be playing in a game until tip-off of that game. Add all of that to the fact that it was the first season where we had just one NAIA division, had teams joining new leagues and had a new National Championship format, it truly was a chaotic season. At the end of the day, however, the NAIA managed to pull off a season and while Municipal Auditorium was too quiet this year for our liking, the Men’s Championship was still a great tournament that was ultimately won by the hottest team in the NAIA, Shawnee State, who took home the title after winning 27 straight games to end the season.
As we gear up for the 2021-22 campaign, Covid is unfortunately still lingering. While each league has put in place their own guidelines, it seems many have gone away from rescheduling conference games and going straight towards forfeits, for teams who have to quarantine and miss games. While this will make for an interesting year, it should (knock on wood) be less chaotic then last season. While most conversations around Covid may be negative, we want to change the focus to the positive aspect of the situation in the fact that there are a TON of NAIA seniors who have elected to use their extra year of eligibility and return to college. While this may have complicated things on the recruiting fronts, this is no doubt a great thing for the NAIA. Sure, some of the top players like EJ Onu, Kyle Mangas, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly and others chose to graduate and turn pro while others chose to graduate and make money in the real world, but the amount of players opting into an extra year of eligibility is fun. Especially with still a lot of the NAIA top-tier talent returning for an extra season! There is nothing like watching great players for the 3rd, 4th and now 5th season in the NAIA!
Entering this season there is also plenty of “newness”. There are teams switching to different leagues and also new programs joining the NAIA this year. We have plenty of new coaching hires, coaches retiring and maybe one of the highest NAIA to NAIA transfer rates we have seen. While all of this helps to change the landscape of NAIA basketball, we will wait to discuss much of this information in early October in our League Preview Series. While those articles will take a deeper dive into each league, this article will mostly focus on the National picture and is based off of the information that we know or have been given. As always, a lot of time, effort and research went into these articles and they are meant to be fun and informative. There will always be some teams we don’t cover here that absolutely deserve to be on these lists, but that is also why we do our League Preview Series, to help go more in-depth on teams! We are looking forward to the journey this season and we thank you for joining us for another season as we bring you the best NAIA men’s basketball coverage around!
Preseason National Championship Contenders
Listed in alphabetical order. While there are more than five contenders, for the sake of helping to paint a picture on of who some of the top teams entering 2021-22 are, these are five who we feel have less questions then others.
Carroll (MT) – The Fighting Saints were a fairly young team last year and it showed early in the season. However, the experienced duo 2nd Team All-American Jovan Sljivancanin and HM All-American Shamrock Campbell, help this team play it’s best basketball down the stretch. They do lose Dennis Flowers III, who transferred to Arizona Christian, but the Fighting Saints return every one else and all Coach Kurt Paulson has done in his three years as head coach?!? How about a National Runner Up and an NAIA Elite Eight appearance with only the 2019-20 Covid year that canceled the NAIA National Tournament, as the year where a Paulson led Fighting Saints squad hasn’t finished as a Final 8 squad. They should be the favorites in the Frontier Conference this season as well as a preseason Top 10. They will be a real force if they can navigate themselves back to Kansas City.
Jamestown (ND) – The Jimmies squeaked into the NAIA Tournament last year, but took advantage of the opportunity as they made a run into the NAIA Quarterfinals before bowing out to eventual Champions Shawnee State. They return National Player of the Year Candidate, Mason Walters, as well as four of their top five scorers from a last season. Losing program staples, Jack Talley and Brock Schrom, will hurt, but when you have a force like 6’9 Walters manning the middle and surround him with big time shooters like Marc Kjos and Will Cordes, this team should be a preseason Top 5 team. They will have to survive the gauntlet that is known as the GPAC and have to battle with Morningside and Northwestern, who should both be Top 20 teams to start the season, but this Jimmie squad is loaded and primed for another deep run.
Loyola (LA) – A team that made the NAIA Quarterfinals last season before losing in an OT thriller to National Runner-Up Lewis-Clark State. They return the 3x All-American duo in Zach Wrightsil and Myles Burns and they found some success moving Zach Muller to Point Guard late in the season. The Wolfpack also return sharpshooter Andrew Fava. The Florida transfer showed off his range and shooting ability in Kansas City last year and is a guy who helps open up Wrightsil and Burns who are primarily driver first type players. Stacy Hollowell does a great job coaching and the recruiting class coming in is talented and will just add more depth to an already stellar lineup! That depth is something they lacked a bit heading into Kanas City last season and while they had the talent to win a National Title, they looked like they ran out of gas a bit in the Quarterfinals. The Southern States, which is always great, only got better this year in adding Talladega to the league. Loyola will be battle tested all season long.
SAGU – We alluded to it earlier in the summer, but SAGU, in our opinion, has the best returning trio in the country back in Joshua Kashilla (SAC POY, 1st Team All-American), Joel Polius (2nd Team All-American) and Nykolas Mason (2019-20 1st Team All-American) back after sitting out last season. A team that made the NAIA Fab Four last season, is so well coached by Delton Deal. While the Sooner Athletic Conference schedule this past season was a bit chaotic, it remained one of the best leagues in the country. The Lions represented the SAC well in Kansas City last year and only get more dangerous with the return of Nykolas Mason. This should be your preseason #1 team in the country when the official NAIA rankings come out in October. You can bet, that if the official rosters verify what our sources have told us, that this will be our preseason #1 team.
St Francis (IN) – The Crossroads League is always tough and USF, who was continued the dominance of the league by making it to the NAIA Fab Four last season. When you are talking about early season “top” contenders, there is no way you can leave out a team from the Crossroads. While there will be a few teams vying for that Crossroads League title, USF has to be the early favorite. They return their entire roster, including 3rd Team All-American Antwaan Cushingberry, who had an electric National Championship run in helping lead USF to the Fab Four. This is a team that has veteran leadership and have played together for a few years. We don’t know where the preseason rankings will have them, but this Cougar team is definitely a early season National Championship contender.
Okay, Okay…Here’s Five More
These two lists aren’t our Top 10 teams aren’t necessarily our preseason Top 10, nor are we saying that there are only 10 contenders for this upcoming season. This list could easily be expanded out to 12-15 more teams. However, for the sake of not making this article even longer then what it already is going to be, we will focus on five teams, that have questions to be answered, but are very much in the conversation as teams who could compete for a National Title.
Indiana Wesleyan – Another deserving Crossroads team creeps into the top contenders list, this time with the Wildcats of Indiana Wesleyan. 3x National Champion Head Coach Greg Tonagel is one of the best coaches in the country. Losing 4x Crossroads League and 2x NAIA Player of the Year, Kyle Mangas, is a tough task. However, the Wildcats return 11 of 14 players from a squad who spent the entire season as the #1 ranked team in NAIA. Included on that returners list is HM All-American Seth Maxwell, who will no doubt be one of the best big men in the country. His ability to score inside and out makes him a tough matchup. Maxwell is also a phenomenal rim protector who will continue to be a force defensively. The Wildcats also bring in Dan Largey from NCAA D2 Palm Beach Atlantic, where he averaged 16.7ppg to go along with 7.7rpg in seven games last season. Largey is a perfect fit for the IWU system and while it will be a team effort to replace the numbers being left by Kyle Mangas, Largey will help to fill that gap!
Morningside (IA) – The transition to one division went smoothly for the Mustangs last season. A perennial national power, once again made noise at the NAIA National Tournament as they made it all the way to the Sweet 16 before bowing out to a very good SAGU team, in what was one heck of a game. The Mustangs return their entire roster from a program that spent most of the season inside of the Top 15. The biggest question for the Mustangs is how first year head coach, Trent Miller, does replacing 6x GPAC Coach of the Year Jim Sykes. While we anticipate Coach Millers move from Associate Head Coach to Head Coach to be a smooth one, it will help that the Mustangs return All-Americans Trey Brown and Zach Imig to go alongside of the rest of their starting five from a year ago.
Shawnee State (OH) – We know that many people think that the defending National Champions each year should start the next as the preseason #1 team. The Bears have a really nice recruiting class coming in and are obviously very well coached by Delano Thomas. A combination that will make the Bears tough again this season. However, they lose both 6’11 All-American EJ Onu to the NBA and do-it-all guard James Jones, who was the MVP of the NAIA National Tournament. The two combined for 39ppg and 15rpg and Onu was the best shot blocker in the NAIA. Those are no easy shoes to fill. The good news for the Bears is that the cupboard isn’t empty. They still return three other starters in Jakiel Wells, Issac Abergut and Amier Gilmore. They also return 3rd leading scorer, Miles Thomas and back up big man, Donovan Carlisle, who was a D1/D2 transfer himself last season. 6’10 D1 transfer, Courtese Cooper will also add some depth in the paint for the Bears. Look for Sophomore Sean Paris and incoming Freshman Dre Boyd to play big roles this year as well.
Talladega (AL) – Not only is All-American Darryl Baker back, but if you follow Dega on social media then you know that the Tornados may be the most talented team in the NAIA this year. While they may not start the season as a Top 10 program in the official NAIA rankings, this is a team, that if they can put it all together, could be tough to beat. They do have take a step up in competition this year though, as they move from the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference into the very tough Southern States Athletic Conference that also hosts previously mentioned Loyola (LA). Dega adds NCAA D1 transfers, Davion Thomas (Troy) Cam Reece (Akron), Jervay Green (Nebraska) as well as NAIA transfers Jeron Rogers (14.5ppg @ Dillard (LA)) Josh Williams (11ppg @ Cumberlands (KY)) and NCAA D2 transfers Cam Potts and Parrish Hewitt who both averaged double figures last season. Like we said, this team is LOADED!
William Penn (IA) – The Statesmen return both 1st Team All-American, Kevion Blaylock and HM All-American Kamari Newman. The Statesmen lost to previously mentioned Carroll (MT) in the NAIA Final 16 last season. A game in which they missed All-American shooter, Kamari Newman. The Statesmen though return nearly everyone from last years team that was consistently in the Top 5. Another roster that isn’t out yet, but the Statesmen did lose both of their All-Heart big men. This is a program that seems to always have a dominant big man, so it will be interesting to see how they fill those shoes. However, the Statesmen are on quite the National Tournament run right now: 2016 Elite 8, 2017 Fab 4, 2018 Fab 4, 2019 Sweet 16, 2020 Covid, 2021 Sweet 16. This is the first time in long time, that the nucleus is back together for a 3rd/4th season, so maybe that chemistry is the answer to get them over the hump finally to win a National Title? Either way, they are a perennial Top 10 program and should be again to start the season.
Bethel (KS) – We know, we know…we said we were going to keep this at five teams to help keep the length of the article down, but it’s hard to not mention this Bethel (KS) team. Coach Jayson Artaz has done a great job leading this Thresher program. They return absolutely everyone from a team that made it to the NAIA Sweet 16 last season where they lost to the NAIA National Champions, Shawnee State. 1st Team All-American Jaylon Scott leads the list of Thresher returners who will be hungry to make another deep run.
Other Top Contenders:
All of the teams below could have been featured above as well.
Arizona Christian, Bethel (IN), Faulkner, Georgetown (KY), Northwestern (IA), Science and Arts (OK), Stillman (AL), Thomas More (KY)
Five Under the Radar Teams To Keep An Eye On
These Five teams are teams who could find themselves on the back end of the Top 25 or maybe even on the outside looking in, but are teams that we feel could make some real noise this season!
Benedictine (KS) – A team that returns almost their entire squad that made the NAIA National Tournament last year. They led Saint Francis (IN) with 4 minutes to play in their 2nd round game, before going ice cold down the stretch. Jaiden Bristol is one of the top point guards in the country and the Ravens defense is always suffocating. The Heart, which was a bit weaker then normal this past season, returns a majority of it’s top players, and should be much better this season. This Raven team is really well coached by Ryan Moody and still have a lot of players left over from a team who swept the Heart regular season three years ago, before losing in the NAIA Sweet 16. They have been a consistent thorn in the side of league favorite William Penn and have the best chance to dethrone the defending Heart Champions.
Central Baptist (AR) – Coach Grant Gaylean left a week into school starting to take the Wayland Baptist Head Coaching job. Assistant, Sam Kohnke, who had actually left for a NCAA D1 GA position, returns to take over the head coaching duties. This is a very intriguing team and while not everyone they posted on social media, remained on their roster after Gaylean’s announcement, this CBC team is loaded with talent. All-American Kelvin Robinson returns, but it’s newcomer and Texas Tech transfer Deshawn Corprew who could be a viable National Player of the Year Candidate if he sticks it out at CBC. Corprew was the 6th man on Texas Tech’s Final Four team a couple of years ago. Again, the names that they released on social media don’t match what is currently on their roster, so it will be interesting to see if all of the talent stayed when Coach Gaylean left.
Ottawa (KS) – Because of Covid protocols, it was a chaotic year for everyone this past season, so we aren’t going to say that one team had a crazier season then another. However, this Ottawa team seemed to not be able to catch a break last season. From injuries, to scheduling to whatever, the 2020 KCAC Champions just couldn’t get it together. You have to believe that is why All-American Jaquan Daniels and company decided to return as they felt they had some unfinished business to accomplish. While Bethel should be the favorites coming into the season, don’t count out the Braves from having a say when it comes down to the KCAC Title.
St Thomas (FL) – In our 3 years of running NAIA Hoops Report, we have been known to make some bold predictions in our preseason rankings/coverage. If you are reading this article to see what crazy prediction we are going to make this year, here it is. St Thomas will be a Top 15 team by the end of the 1st semester. New Head Coach, Patrick Crarey, had lots of success at Washington Adventist. St Thomas has been a bit of a sleeping giant program and this recruiting class that St. Thomas has coming in is really, really good. Being new to The Sun Conference normally would be a reason for some hesitation for us, but Crarey also made a great hire in Zach Moss, who spent time with Ave Maria and knows this league well. This is a program on the rise and we expect them to make a splash this season.
William Jessup (CA) – We were high on the Warriors all of last season as they featured one of the top Freshman in the NAIA in Myles Corey. Corey started off the season posting big numbers against a primarily dominant NCAA D1 schedule. While the Warriors, after sweeping a top-15 team The Master’s (CA), cracked the NAIA Top 25 late in the year, they didn’t finish strong. The roster isn’t posted yet, but if lone Senior, Torren Storey-Way returns alongside of the rest of this group, they are a team that could make things interesting out West. Myles Corey is the real deal and so fun to watch. There is always a small group of Freshman, who burst onto the scene each year and we get to follow their journeys for four years. Myles Corey joins that phenomenal Freshman class from last season, that typically could be still Freshman this season if they decide to play another four years!
Teams to Watch From Spring Season
This past season was unique in the fact that Covid restrictions didn’t allow for some institutions in the Cascade Collegiate Conference and the CalPac to be able to play in the regular NAIA season, so they decided to play a Spring season instead. It is unfortunate that the players who made all-league teams weren’t able to qualify as NAIA All-Americans. As far as teams go, it is tough to decipher who, of these teams, will be able to translate some of the Spring success into National success this season, so we will give a few teams who performed well and have really talented players returning to make some noise this season.
UC Merced – A team that, in 2019-2020, went 18-10 and lost in the CalPac Tournament Championship game was also unable to play in the NAIA regular season. Instead the Bobcats took advantage of the CalPac “Phase 2” season going 9-0. They lost both Phase 2 All-Conference players, but do return two starters including second leading scorer, Mason Westlake.
Corban (OR) – A Spring surprise as this Corban team went 10-2 to win a share of the Cascade Conference Spring Title. The emergence of Freshman Kendall Moore, who garnered CCC Freshman of the Spring, helped to propel the Warriors to an outstanding Spring. The Warriors were a fun team to watch this Spring as they matched wits with perennial power OIT to grab a share of the title. Along side of Moore, the Warriors return Spring All-CCC member Jordan Newt and a majority of their squad that had an outstanding Spring season. The Warriors will also add-in a couple of nice transfers to the mix as they try to carry that Spring success, into this season.
Oregon Tech – Always a national power, the Owls weren’t able to play on the National scene this past season, but did go 6-2 in their Spring schedule. The Owls return a couple major staples to their line up in 4-yr starter and a CCC All-Conf 2x All-CCC performer Harison Steiger, 3-yr starter, 2x All-CCC big man Garret Albrecht and back from a season ending injury n 2019-20, Kaison Faust, who led the team in scoring in the Spring season. They add in two Freshman in Kam Osborn and Keegan Shivers, who are coming off of outstanding Springs and got some great experience on the floor. The Owls will be one of the favorites to win the Cascade this upcoming season and shouldn’t be a surprise if they start the season inside the NAIA Top 25.
Spring All-Cascade Conference
Since these players didn’t qualify for any NAIA post season awards, we wanted to give them recognition, one last time here.
Co-Players of the Spring: Max McCullough, Eastern Oregon and Stevie Schlabach, Bushnell
Defensive Player of the Spring: Tez Allen, Southern Oregon University
Newcomer of the Spring: Isaac Etter, Warner Pacific University
Freshman of the Spring: Kendall Moore, Corban University
Coach of the Spring: Taylor Kelly, Corban University
CCC 1st Team All-Spring
- Garret Albrecht F Sr. Oregon Tech
- Tez Allen G Rs.-Jr. Southern Oregon
- Isaac Etter G Jr. Warner Pacific University
- Kaison Faust G Jr. Oregon Tech
- Max McCullough G Rs.-Sr. Eastern Oregon
- Josh Meyer G Rs.-Jr. Southern Oregon
- Kendall Moore G Fr. Corban University
- Jordan Newt G Sr. Corban University
- Stevie Schlabach G So. Bushnell University
- Ernest Ugoagu G Sr. Bushnell University
CCC HM All-Spring
- Justin Jeske G Eastern Oregon University
- Kaden Sand Bushnell University
- Keegan Shivers Oregon Tech
- Forrest Smith
- Multnomah University
- Harrison Steiger Oregon Tech
- Jake Virga Southern Oregon University
CalPac Phase 2 All-Conference
- Chiwike E’denchukwu UC Merced
- Ivan Egbunike La Sierra
- Jonah Cottrell UC Merced
- Chris Jones Pacific Union
- Uriel Lejtman La Sierra
- Isaiah McCullough Pacific Union
Jaylon Scott Bethel (Kan.)
Mason Walters Jamestown (N.D.)
Kadavion Evans LSU Shreveport (La.)
Joshua Kashila SAGU (Texas)
Markelle Turner Union (Ky.)
Kevion Blaylock William Penn (Iowa)
Rayshawn Mart Xavier (La.)
De’Ron Kyle Arizona Christian
Jaiden Bristol Benedictine (Kan.)
Jovan Sljivancanin Carroll (Mont.)
Tony Burks Columbia (Mo.)
Zach Wrightsil Loyola (La.)
Trey Brown Morningside (Iowa)
Alex Gross Olivet Nazarene (Ill.)
Cameron Hines Science & Arts (Okla.)
CoreVon Lott Keiser (Fla.)
Leondre Washington LSU Shreveport (La.)
Terrance Jones Mid-America Christian (Okla.)
Alex Van Kalsbeek Northwestern (Iowa)
Brooks Haddock Oklahoma Wesleyan
Jaquan Daniels Ottawa (Kan.)
Joel Polius SAGU (Texas)
Antwaan Cushingberry Saint Franics (Ind.)
Trey Petty Stillman (Ala.)
Angelo Johnson Arizona Christian
Maurice Walton Benedictine-Mesa (Ariz.)
Shamrock Campbell Carroll (Mont.)
Tederick Wolfe Central Baptist (Ark.)
Jalen Galloway College of Idaho
Jordan Hamlette Faulkner (Ala.)
Kortland Martin Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
Davonte Pack Friends (Kan.)
Kyran Jones Georgetown (Ky.)
Seth Maxwell Indiana Wesleyan
Densier Carnes John Brown (Ark.)
Myles Burns Loyola (La.)
Myles Burns Loyola (La.)
Jakemin Abney LSU Alexandria (La.)
Henry Speight Madonna (Mich.)
Latrelle Franklin Mayville State (N.D.)
Sindou Diallo Montana Tech
Jalen Hodges Montana Western
Zach Imig Morningside (Iowa)
Kaleb Stokes Oklahoma Wesleyan
Rodrigue Marthone Park (Mo.)
Marcus Stephens Providence (Mont.)
Shiloah Blevins Rio Grande (Ohio)
Virgil Walker Jr Rochester (Mich.)
Devin Merriweather Stillman (Ala.)
Darryl Baker Talladega (Ala.)
Kobe Powell Texas A&M Texarkana
Vydal Bradford Texas Wesleyan
Reid Jolly Thomas More (Ky.)
Kevin Schramm Valley City State (N.D.)
Isaac Davis Vanguard (Calif.)
Jack Monis Viterbo (Wis.)
Hector Rosario Voorhees (S.C.)
Rod Boggan Warner (Fla.)
Devin Avent Wayland Baptist (Texas)
Karmari Newman William Penn (Iowa)
Makye Richard Xavier (La.)