California State-San Marcos does not have a gym suitable for practice, its own facility for games or membership in a conference.
But the independent program, in just its third year of existence, owns the No. 1 seed in the 77th NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament beginning next week at Municipal Auditorium.
The Cougars, 30-1 and winners of 21 straight games, will face Oklahoma Baptist, 19-15, at 1:15 p.m. March 19, the first day of the tournament that runs through March 25.
Four schools from the Heart of America Conference received berths in the 32-team field announced Wednesday night, including tournament champion MidAmerica Nazarene, 23-10, which drew a tough first-round matchup at 6:15 p.m. March 20 against No. 13 LSU-Shreveport, 21-8, a semifinalist a year ago.
Benedictine, 22-8, which will be making its first NAIA Tournament appearance since 1970, is seeded No. 11 and will face Westminster (Utah), 19-12, at 7 p.m. on March 19. Evangel, 23-10, of Springfield drew No. 7 Talladega (Ala.), 28-5, at 2 p.m. March 20; and No. 16 Culver Stockton, 23-7, will meet Arizona Christian, 23-7, at 3 p.m. March 19.
Columbia (Mo.)e, 31-2, which led the NAIA in victories, was seeded No. 4 and will play Belhaven (Miss.), 18-14, at 8 p.m. March 20.
A year ago, MidAmerica Nazarene handed Cal State-San Marcos, then seeded seventh, a first-round loss in the Cougars’ NAIA Tournament debut. But the Cougars retooled and enjoyed what coach Jim Saia called “a miracle season” for a team that has to practice across the street at a rec center and plays its games at a junior college 12 miles from its campus near San Diego.
“We try to recruit the best possible student athlete who wants to come here without a gym,” Saia said. “We’re fortunate to get some good players. We’re only a three-year program, and all of a sudden, we have this miraculous season being ranked No. 1 in the country. We wanted to be competitive, but to be this competitive this soon, you never imagine this.”
Saia has plenty of NCAA Division I experience, serving as an assistant coach at UCLA under Steve Lavin when the Bruins went to the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once. He was also interim head coach at USC for 24 games in 2004-05. Naturally, he used his NCAA connections to build his NAIA program.
The Cougars’ top player is 6-6 point guard De’End Parker, who began his career at UCLA with a stop at the University of San Francisco, where he started 29 games for the Dons last year. He leads San Marcos in scoring with a 17.3-point average and a team-high 4.2 assists per game. Guard Jason Johnson (13.8 points, 5.7 rebounds) transferred from Utah Valley and forward Malcolm Lemmons (15.9 points) from Niagara.
“We’re a finesse team; we’re very skilled. We pass the ball. We share the ball. We’re an up-tempo team, man-to-man pressure,” said Saia. “We played a competitive schedule. Our one loss was at Hope (Calif.) on Dec. 7, and that was probably the best thing that happened to our team because it was a wake-up call for our guys.”
San Marcos has plans to break ground for an on-campus gym in time for the 2016-17 season, and by then, the school will likely join a conference in Southern California and switch to NCAA Division II status.
But even now, Saia’s recruiting pitch is an easy one.
“Weare in San Diego,” he said, “so we have a beautiful campus, 10,000 students, incredible weather, 12 miles from the beach. We feel we have one of the best state schools in California, academically. It’s good living in San Diego. There is a lot to sell, even though we don’t have a gym.”