NAIA Tournament

As NAIA gets set to tip off in KC, changes are coming for future tournaments

Graceland wins NAIA Men’s Championship with overtime buzzer-beater

Justin Harley’s three-pointer at the buzzer gave Graceland an 83-80 victory over LSU Alexandria for the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament championship Tuesday night at Municipal Auditorium.
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Justin Harley’s three-pointer at the buzzer gave Graceland an 83-80 victory over LSU Alexandria for the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament championship Tuesday night at Municipal Auditorium.

The format for the NAIA men’s basketball tournament will soon be changing. But expect the venue to remain the same.

The NAIA, which will tip off its 82nd annual tournament on Wednesday, is in the final stages of extending its agreement with Kansas City by four years and remain at Municipal Auditorium through 2024.

The extension, which may be announced this week, will encompass the NAIA’s merging its 94 Division I members and 138 Division II members into a single classification and create a 64-team national tournament in 2021. The 64-team men’s tournament will commence with 16 four-team regionals and conclude with the 16 winners advancing to Kansas City, replacing the traditional 32-team Division I tournament.

Consequently, the era of fans spending all day at Municipal for as many as eight games a day in the first and second rounds will be reduced to four games per day for three days, leading to the final two days for the semifinals and finals.

But the end game will be the same as it has been since the oldest national college tournament began in 1937: Go to Kansas City.

“This is where the NAIA belongs,” NAIA CEO/president Jim Carr said. “This is where it all started and where we should be. I’ve always said, unless there’s something really, really strange that happens, as long as I am in my position, the NAIA is not going anywhere and we’ll always be in Kansas City.”

The change in format led to some speculation the tournament could be leaving Kansas City after 2020. The 32-team Division I women’s tournament is now played in Billings, Mont., but the final round of 16 will move in 2021 to Sioux City, Iowa, which has been site of the Division II women’s tournament since 1998.

Kansas City was determined to keep the NAIA men at Municipal, even for a smaller field and fewer games.

“It’s a great event,” said Oscar McGaskey Jr., executive director of the Kansas City Convention Center. “It brings in about 7,000 visitors, and the economic impact with hotel, motel, restaurant and car rental taxes is about $3 million. It’s a very important event to the city. They’ve been here a long time and have a great audience.”

Carr understands there will be an adjustment period for those who savor the 32-team setting and bring brown-bag lunches for all-day experiences at Municipal. It wasn’t feasible to bring 64 teams to Kansas City, and asking 64 schools to participate in a single play-in game to advance 32 teams to Kansas City was an unattractive alternative.

“There’s lots of mixed feelings going away from the 32-team tournament,” Carr said. “I’m pretty nostalgic and I’ll be sad to see it go in 2021, but a group in our membership made that decision and have a lot of good reasons for doing it.”

Tickets for this year’s tournament are available at Municipal or through the NAIA website. Prices are $20 for a single-day adult pass (ages 13 and up) and $6 for students (5-12). Those 4 and under are admitted free.

All-Star Game changes

The NAIA has revived its Men’s Basketball All-Star Game, presented by Adidas, and it will be played at 6 p.m. March 26 as a preliminary to the NAIA championship game.

The all-star game, which last was played in 2015 on the day of the quarterfinal round, will feature many of the top players from both Divisions I and II. Retiring Hall of Fame coach Bob Burchard of Columbia (Mo.) College will coach the West team; and Jim Kessler, outgoing coach at Grace (Ind.), will coach the East.

Players to watch

Chris Coffey, Georgetown (Ky.) College, 6-7 junior forward

Chris Coffey, Georgetown (Ky.) College: Coffey, a 6-7 junior forward from Louisville, Ky., is a dynamic, above-the-rim player who averaged 14.1 points and 11.3 rebounds, highlighted by a windmill dunk off a missed free throw against Cumberlands. Coffey has recorded 21 double-doubles in 32 games, most in the Mid-South Conference.

Thomas O’Connor, Benedictine (Kan.) College, 6-foot guard

Thomas O’Connor, Benedictine (Kan.) College: O’Connor, a 6-foot guard from Wichita, is a three-point marksman. O’Connor, who leads the Ravens in scoring at 13.5 points per game, has made 104 three-point shots, third-most in the nation, in 224 attempts, a 46 percent rate.

Prince McDaniel, Stillman (Ala.) College, 6-6 junior guard unknown

Prince McDaniel, Stillman (Ala.) College: McDaniel, a 6-6 junior guard from Pascagoula, Miss., ranks 10th in the nation in scoring at 20.3 points per game to go with 3.1 assists. He delivered a 40-point performance in a Feb. 14 win over Faulkner University, a frequent NAIA Tournament participant.

William Claiborne cropped.jpg
William Claiborne, LSU Alexandria, senior forward

William Claiborne, LSU Alexandria: Claiborne, a 6-11, 295-pound senior from Slidell, La., dominates the post with his height and heft. He averages 14.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while leading the NAIA in offensive rebounds (3.4) and field-goal percentage (75 percent).

Match Burnham, Carroll College (Mont.), 6-8 forward

Match Burnham, Carroll College (Mont.): Burnham, a 6-8 forward, can score from inside and outside the arc. He averages 19.9 points and 5.20 rebounds per game for the Fighting Saints, who are making their fourth straight tournament appearance.

Five story lines

Counting the house: Buoyed by the support for Graceland (Iowa) University’s run to the 2018 championship, the tournament attracted its best attendance since returning to Kansas City in 2002, including 6,377 for the title game. Graceland isn’t in this year’s tournament field, but the NAIA hopes Benedictine, 30-3 and Heart of America Athletic Conference regular-season champion from nearby Atchison, Kan., is a big attraction at the 10,000-seat Municipal Auditorium.

Gotta have Heart: Graceland’s championship was the first NAIA Division I title by a school from the Olathe-based Heart of America Athletic Conference, and fellow Heart member William Penn (Iowa) University reached the semifinals. The Statesmen, quarterfinalists in both 2016 and 2017, return for their fourth straight appearance, along with Benedictine and Peru State (Neb.). Peru, led by Heart player of the year Lyle Hexom, beat Benedictine in the conference tournament final.

Fantastic finishes: The NAIA is known for buzzer-beating finishes, and two of the last three championship games have been decided by last-second shots in overtime. Mid-America Christian (Okla.) beat Georgetown 100-99 on Malcolm Mann’s length-of-the court drive as time expired in 2016; and Graceland beat LSU Alexandria 83-80 on Justin Harley’s three-pointer at the buzzer.

New champion: Because Graceland did not qualify for the tournament, the NAIA will have a new champion for the 11th straight year. No team has won back-to-back titles since Oklahoma City in 2007-08. Ten former champions, including two-time champion Benedictine, are in the field.

Remembering Jim Kissick: All players in the tournament will wear a commemorative patch on their uniforms to honor Jim Kissick, who died unexpectedly last Dec. 8. Since 2001, Kissick, founder and president of Kissick Construction Co., had served as an honorary coach, including 2004-18 for the Georgetown (Ky.) College Tigers, who won the title in 2013. In addition to the patch, the NAIA will honor Kissick with a ceremony at 5:45 p.m. Friday at Municipal.

Three favorites

LSU Alexandria: The Generals lost in the first round in 2015; quarterfinals in 2016; semifinals in 2017 and finals (in overtime) in 2018. It’s their time.

The Masters (Calif.): Tim Soares, a 6-10 junior can be a dominating force inside and tough matchup for LSU Alexandria’s William Claiborne.

Benedictine: The Ravens just might ride the wave of Graceland from a year ago.

Three sleepers

Stillman: In its second season of NAIA Division I eligibility, the Tigers are the only newcomer to the tournament and feature two exciting players in Giovanni Bray and Prince McDaniel.

Missouri Baptist: The Spartans are in the field for the first time since 2005, snapping the longest drought among teams who have appeared at least once.

Central (Ark.) Baptist: The Mustangs were the surprise winners of the American Midwest Conference tournament.

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