Who: No. 2 Saint Francis vs. No. 7 Keiser, 6:45 p.m.
What: NAIA Division II Men's Basketball National Championship
Where: Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, S.D.
While Saint Francis' trip to the NAIA national men's basketball tournament has turned into an annual occurrence in recent years, Cougars coach Chad LaCross stands ready to blaze a different path.
Namely, a trajectory more northern than in years past. After 18 seasons with College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, serving as host, the NAIA Division II championship will be at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 32-team tournament tips off today, and No. 3 USF (25-8), seeded second in the Liston Bracket, opens against No. 7 Keiser University of Florida (20-10).
“They have guys that are capable of really shooting it,” LaCross said. “They have guys that play confident. They get up and down the floor, and they really score the ball. Our focus is on the defensive side, and somehow figuring out a way to get stops.”
For USF to advance far in the tournament, senior Bryce Lienhoop will likely lead the way. Lienhoop became the first Cougar to achieve over 1,000 career points and rebounds. His 1,849 career points ranks fifth all time, while he stands atop the school leader board with his 1,044 career rebounds. Fellow senior and second-team Crossroads League choice Derek Hinen's 15.5 rebounds per game will also play a pivotal role in the Cougars controlling the glass in Sioux Falls.
This year's NAIA national tournament sports a decidedly Hoosier flair when looking at the top seeds. IU-East (31-2), which ended the year on a 25-game win streak, enters the tournament as the top seed after earning the No. 1 national ranking for the first time in school history in the season's final poll.
Indiana Wesleyan (26-7), which won the Crossroads League regular-season title before defeating the Cougars in the conference tournament championship game on Feb. 28, earned the top seed in the Cramer Bracket.
In the Crossroads tourney title game, USF sputtered out of the gate, falling behind by as many as 24 points in the first half. LaCross used that performance to highlight steps his squad still needs to take for improvement, while also hoping to take positives from an uncharacteristic performance.
“I think you find out a lot about your team in bad situations,” LaCross said. “I don't think we responded very well to Wesleyan's runs. They did a great job of playing with a higher energy. We have to get better in several different areas, but these guys have always responded after a loss.”
The right response will help LaCross reach a milestone, as he's won 198 games in his eight seasons coaching USF. He's hopeful that after the tournament concludes his career total reaches 203, which would mean another national title, though he's not concerned with taking credit for the success.
“I think it's something that just happens,” LaCross said. “That's more on our guys and how good they've been. To average close to 25 wins a year, we've had outstanding players that just get it done. It's just seeing our guys be successful, and having them make a run in the national tournament is most important.”
With that consistent level of success, LaCross knows from experience he can rely upon his players to step up when games remain close late. USF holds a 15-4 record in its last 19 national tournament games decided by fewer than 10 points.
“It's players playing with confidence and trusting each other,” LaCross said. “(My coaching staff does) an unbelievable job of getting the guys ready. I have a loyal staff that works their tails off to get the guys ready to win ball games.”