College basketball may be a team sport, but one player can make all the difference.
For MidAmerica Nazarene, it’s point guard Nick Syrie. For Park University it’s forward Xavielle Brown.
Both led their teams to this week’s NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament a year after the Pioneers and Pirates failed to qualify when Brown and Syrie missed the season because of injuries.
“With Xavielle and Nick, what they mean to their teams … ” Park coach Jason Kline said. “Nick really makes MidAmerica go, and he’s done that every year he’s been there. Xavielle, since he’s been here with us, he’s been consistent and very good.
“He has a good understanding of the game, and he has a tremendous work ethic. I’m happy for him with the work he put in during the summer after being out last year with a broken foot. He came back and had a tremendous year.”
Brown, a 6-foot-2 leaper from Fort Wayne, Ind., ranked fourth in the NAIA with a 23.1 point average and averaged 7.9 rebounds for the Pirates, 20-9, who will play Mid-America Christian (Okla.), 23-9, at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium. Brown has scored 38 points three different times this season.
Syrie, who had been part of three straight NAIA Tournament teams, including the 2014 Pioneers who reached the semifinals, led the NAIA in assists with 7.8 per game, and averaged 12.2 points. MidAmerica, 25-8, will open play at 6:15 p.m. Thursday against six-time NAIA champion Oklahoma City, 15-10.
“His leadership showed up this year in close games, and the next thing you know we won close games that we didn’t win last year,” MidAmerica coach Rocky Lamar said of Syrie.
Syrie, of Lafayette, La., is one of three Pioneers who played for the national semifinalists in 2014, along with forward Justin Randall, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.6 rebounds this season, and guard Jordan Whelan, who averaged 13.3 points.
But MidAmerica found itself 9-6 on Jan. 11 before winning 13 straight and 16 of its last 17 games before an 83-67 loss to William Penn (Iowa) in the Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament final.
“We guarded a little bit better, and we got a couple of players eligible, and that helps,” Lamar said of the winning streak. “Everyone bought in, and the next thing you know, we were right back in it. When you get a run going, everything seems to fall your way, too. During that time, the ball bounced our way. We had some really close games we managed to win.”
Though Oklahoma City doesn’t have an impressive record this season, the Stars have the tournament’s best pedigree, having won more national titles than any school, including back-to-back titles in 2007-08.
Park will face a Mid-America Christian team that tied Oklahoma City for second in the Sooner Athletic Conference.
In addition to Brown, the Pirates get scoring from guard Mylin Jordan, who averages 16.2 points coming off the bench, and forward Derrick Williams, who averages 12.1 points and 9.6 rebounds.
“Jordan very easily could start,” Kline said. “But we like to have some offensive punch off the bench. He can score quickly and in bunches. Once something works, we stuck with it, and we’re not going to change it much. He’s accepted that and had a good year.
“Everyone has played their part. Derrick Williams has been a big help for us because he blocks shots and alters shots. We play hard, and we try to attack in transition, and in the half court we try to attack the paint. Every night we’re not going to shoot it good, but hopefully we can get more possessions than the other team.”
Both Park and MidAmerica, as the only two teams from the Kansas City area, hope to benefit from a home-court advantage.
“This is probably the most balanced national tournament I’ve seen,” Kline said. “We’ve played a lot of these teams, but now you’re on center stage, in a big arena … hopefully we don’t get caught up in that excitement, but we are excited to be there.”
Randy Covitz: @randycovitz