A year ago, Park University lost a tough first-round game in the NAIA men’s basketball tournament to eventual champion Mid-America Christian (Okla.).
On Wednesday, the Pirates will face the 2016 runner-up, Georgetown (Ky.), at 6:30 p.m. in the first round of the 80th NAIA Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Park coach Jason Kline believes his team will be the better for both experiences.
“The guys from last year’s team, that was their first time there,” Kline said of the players who lost 88-86 in the opening round of Park’s first NAIA Tournament since 2011. “We didn’t have a lot of experience going to the national tournament, so hopefully being there last year and having the opportunity to go back this year, the experience factor will play in our favor.”
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Park, 21-7 and the second-place finisher in the American Midwest Conference, will be facing the most experienced program in NAIA Tournament history.
Georgetown, 23-7, holds tournament records with 65 victories, 36 appearances and 26 consecutive appearances. The Tigers, who won the 1998 and 2013 titles, are 25-10 in first-round games, including an 83-75 loss to Park in 2010.
“Georgetown is Georgetown,” Kline said. “They’re probably one of the most heralded teams down there with all the wins and accomplishments. We’re glad to be at the national tournament, and we understand, like everyone else out there that everybody is good once you get there.
“We know we’ll have our hands full, and know we’re going to have to play well, whether it’s Georgetown or whoever, we’re going to have to really execute and do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Pirates’ offense runs through senior Xavielle Brown, a versatile 6-foot-2 forward and AMC player of the year who led the conference in scoring, averaging 20.9 points per game.
“We want to put the ball through his hands,” Kline said. “He’s had a great career, and all of his accomplishments. Our guys know things revolve around him. BJ Watson (of Bonner Springs) has had a great year playing alongside of him.”
To illustrate the balance Park has enjoyed, five different players lead five offensive categories. Brown leads the team in scoring; Watson, who averages 15.5 points, leads with 1.9 steals per game; Levi Mitchell averages a team-best 7.0 rebounds; guard Josh Rutland averages 4.3 assists; and forward Ikem Eriobuna, 1.8 blocks.
“We bought in a little bit,” Kline said. “Basketball today is so much sharing the ball, not just trying to pound the air out of it. We’ve gotten better from the start of the year to the end and when we have ball movement, that’s when good things happen for us.”