It may not have been intentional, but credit the NAIA selection committee for creating some added drama for opening night of the 76th annual Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Top-seeded Columbia (Mo.) College, the only unbeaten team in college basketball, will face unseeded Oklahoma City at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in a game matching the Cougars against the last program to run the table in the NAIA Tournament.
But if Columbia, 33-0, is feeling the pressure of being the No. 1 seed as well as the burden of maintaining a perfect season, it’s not showing it.
“Our attitude from day one with this group was to live in the moment and enjoy being together,” said Columbia coach Bob Burchard, whose team will try to become the first No. 1 seed to win the tournament since 2004 and the first to go unbeaten since that 1992 Oklahoma City squad.
“The chemistry is real strong on this team. They like each other, and we’re really excited about having the opportunity to keep on playing together for a while. … It’s been quite a ride.”
The Cougars, who lost in the second round of last year’s NAIA Tournament to eventual runner-up Oklahoma Baptist, benefited from that experience. They return several players, including All-American forward Jordan Dressler, a 6-8 senior post player; and Devin Griffin, a dynamic 6-0 junior guard.
But no one envisioned a 33-0 season in which the Cougars, who lead the nation in scoring defense, have won their games by an average margin of 25 points.
“Our largest winning streak here was 17 games,” Burchard said. “So there was a lot of buzz when we were closing in on that — maybe we could put together the longest win streak. In that same time period, we were creeping up the polls, and we thought maybe we might get to the No. 1 spot. …
“As things went on, we were in reach of having a perfect regular season. What I found fascinating is the basketball season is a long time. … We’ve had these motivational things that have been helpful. You had all these goals right out in front of you that you could focus on, and it helped keep the guys playing hard.”
The bid for an unbeaten season had barely begun when the Cougars, who trailed through most of the second game of the season, pulled out a 58-57 win at Avila when guard Devin Griffin made a three-point play in the final seconds.
“We’ve had a couple tough conference road games,” Burchard said. “Avila was one of those games where in all reality, we should have lost. The team found a way to win.”
Some in the NAIA might attribute Columbia’s glittering record to the Cougars’ playing in a weaker conference, the American Midwest, compared with some of the stronger leagues like the Golden State Athletic Conference and Sooner Athletic Conference, especially since the departure of perennial NAIA contender McKendree College from the American Midwest to the NCAA Division II level.
“I would not debate that at all,” Burchard said. “The loss of McKendree took something out of the league. They were such a traditional power. … But we have had AMC teams make the Final Four. Park’s made the Final Four (in 1998), we made the national championship game (in 2009). It’s not like we haven’t represented well.”
Burchard said there’s no comparison between the 2009 team that lost in the championship game to Rocky Mountain (Mont.) to this year’s club, which features six players who had 4.0 grade-point averages in the fall, including starting guard Tanner Sutton of Harrisonville.
“It’s totally different,” said Burchard, who will be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame next month. “The team in ’09, something just clicked late in the year that took us to another level. We went to the five and five platoon system and got on a serious roll at the right time. This team has been extremely enjoyable to coach for a different reason in that they have been so consistent …
“To get to this point … this team hasn’t had that many off-nights.”