MidAmerica Nazarene coach Rocky Lamar would like his team to embrace its role as Kansas City’s prime-time team in the NAIA Division I men’s basketball tournament.
But he knows there’s only one way to become the darling of Municipal Auditorium.
“It’s kind of fun, but now there’s a lot of pressure on us,” Lamar said. “We’ve got to win or they’re going to be tired of us being Kansas City’s team.”
The unseeded Pioneers, 24-9, will face No. 7 Cal State San Marcos, 23-6, at 6:15 Thursday night. San Marcos’ basketball program is in its second season and features eight NCAA Division I transfers brought in by former UCLA assistant and USC interim head coach Jim Saia.
A year ago, MidAmerica drew perennial power Mountain State (W.Va.) in the first round and lost 98-79 but absorbed some lessons from that appearance.
“We learned we had to face a guy who is playing for the University of Cincinnati right now,” Lamar said of 7-foot-1 David Nyarsuk of Mountain State, who scored 11 points but had 15 rebounds and blocked five shots. “That was pretty tough. They were huge. It was an interesting draw, but we also found out that you need to play better during the regular season, so you can get a higher seed.
“But we definitely have earned our way there. If we play our style, we feel like we’ve had four or five games that we’ve put together where we’ve played exactly the way I wanted them to play, and when we do that, we can play with anybody in the country. But when we don’t do that, we’re very average.”
The Pioneers won seven of their last nine games — losing only to NAIA tournament teams Culver-Stockton in the second-to-last regular-season game and to Evangel in the Heart of America Conference tournament final — and might be peaking at the right time. They spent most of the year battling injuries, including a stress fracture to point guard Nick Syrie that forced him out for 15 games in the middle of the season.
“With what this team went through, I’m very thrilled with our record,” Lamar said. “It was an unusual year. “We had starters miss about 20 games for different injuries. Usually I have a starting five I use the whole year. This year, we probably had nine or 10 different starting lineups.”
The Pioneers’ leading scorer for the third straight year is senior guard Rustin Dowd of Olathe South, a 2012 All-American who is averaging 16.0 points per game, including 44 percent (67 of 152) from three-point range. “He sure hits a lot of big shots for us,” Lamar said.
The Pioneers also have been getting big minutes from forwards Brandon Newton, a junior-college transfer from Cloud County (Kan.) Community College, and Luke Thomas, a 6-8 junior from Raymore-Peculiar High School, who averages 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds and was voted NAIA national player of the week for the final week of the season.
“Brandon Newton has just started the last six or seven games, and he’s come on like crazy, giving us 10 or 11 rebounds per game, shooting 65 percent from the floor,” said Lamar. “Luke comes off the bench for us, but in my opinion, he’s a starter.”
Lamar guided the Pioneers to an NAIA Division II national championship in 2007, two years before the program moved up to the Division I level and reached the 2009 Division I semifinals. So he’s no stranger to preparing for the national stage.
“We know they’re going to be very talented,” he said of San Marcos. “They have a couple kids who we‘re going to have to work really hard to guard, and we were not a very good defensive team. Our kids realize that and better be ready.”