Undefeated Columbia College, the only program at any level of NAIA or NCAA basketball with a perfect record, will be the No. 1 seed in the 76th annual NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament next week at Municipal Auditorium.
The Cougars, 33-0 and champions of the American Midwest Conference, will begin their quest to run the table at 7 p.m., March 13 against six-time champion Oklahoma City, 17-10.
Columbia is one of four schools from Missouri and Kansas that qualified or was selected for the tournament. Three teams from the Heart of America Conference — MidAmerica Nazarene, Evangel and Culver-Stockton — are in the field.
MidAmerica, 24-9, will play No. 7 Cal State San Marcos, 23-6, at 6:15 p.m., March 14; No. 9 Evangel, 25-6 of Springfield, will face Montana State-Northern, 23-9 at 10:30 p.m., March 13; and Culver-Stockton, 24-8 of Canton, Mo., will be making its first appearance in the tournament since 1959 when the Wildcats face No. 5 Lewis-Clark (Idaho) at 2:15 p.m., March 14.
Only two teams have won the NAIA tournament with unbeaten records: Central State (Ohio) in 1965 and Oklahoma City in 1992, and Columbia is the first team to bring an undefeated record to the tournament since Georgetown went 34-0 before losing in the 2008 semifinals.
Columbia’s Cougars have won their 33 games by an average margin of 25 points per game (81-56) and lead the nation in scoring defense. Columbia came closest to losing in the second game of the season when the Cougars pulled out a 58-57 win at Avila. Since then, the closest margin of victory has been five points, and the Cougars have won all but four games by double digits.
They are led by All-American and two-time conference player of the year Jordan Dressler, a 6-8 senior who averages 13 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and guard Devin Griffin, who averages 13.2 points and 3.7 assists. Also, the Cougars have two players from the Kansas City area in guard Tanner Sutton of Harrisonville, who averages 7.8 points per game, and backup forward Hal Payne of Bishop Miege, who averages 3.6.
A year ago, Columbia was seeded 11th and lost in the second round to eventual runner-up Oklahoma Baptist. In 2009, an unseeded Columbia team reached the championship game where it lost to another unseeded team, Rocky Mountain (Mont.) College.
Columbia coach Bob Burchard realizes in the NAIA tournament, the seedings matter little.
“This is an extremely deep field this year, maybe deeper than in recent memory,” Burchard said. “The bottom of the bracket is going to be filled with teams that are traditionally extremely good. Concordia (Calif.) really didn’t have the year they normally have, but they came through and played great late, and they may not be at the top of the bracket, but you’re going to have last year’s national champion down with a lower seed. …
“My guess it’s going to be a great tournament like it always is.”
Indeed, defending champion Concordia (Calif.) University stormed into the tournament by winning its final six games of the season, including a 112-111 in double overtime victory over Arizona Christian on Tuesday night in the championship game of the Golden State Athletic Conference.
The tournament includes five schools that will be making their first trips to Kansas City — Arizona Christian, Cal State San Marcos, Hope International (Calif.), Philander Smith (Ark.) and St. Thomas (Texas).