KANSAS CITY -- The Lewis-Clark State Warriors anticipate a clash of styles when they tip off in the NAIA national tournament at Municipal Auditorium on Thursday.
After a whirlwind of preparation, the Warriors are finally feeling settled in Kansas City. The team practiced close to the historic site of the longest-running college basketball tournament in the nation, finding drill time at Manual High School downtown.
Lewis-Clark State College enters the tournament in a much different fashion than it did a year ago.
Last season, the Warriors were favorites, according to their seed. A part of that came on the back of super forward Jake Wiley who, after transferring to Lewis-Clark State from the University of Montana, jumped back up into the Big Sky Conference and joined the Eastern Washington Eagles. The incredible forward won the Big Sky Conference MVP this season.
This season, the Warriors are a seven seed and facing Columbia (26-5) their region of the bracket’s two-seed, though their guards and forwards are making noise in their own right.
Columbia enters the tournament after a late-season letdown. The Cougars won the American Midwest Conference regular season title, but bowed out in the opening round of the AMC conference tournament, falling to Missouri Baptist 78-73, and lost three of its four games.
“They’re really solid team,” said Warriors sixth-year coach Brandon Rinta, who owns a 141-52 record. “They have four high-level shooters. They’re not just one-dimensional guys. They can score off the bounce, too. Four really good scoring guards. They've got an extremely athletic forward inside.”
Even with the falter, the Cougars received a two seed for the breadth of their work, and enter the tournament with an impressive resume. The Cougars rank No. 4 nationally in 3-point shooting at 41 percent, and pack a solid defense along with it. Columbia also owns the No. 8-ranked defense, which gives up an average of 66.8 points each night.
The Cougars get big efforts from junior 6-foot-2 guard Nic Reynolds (13.9 points per game), junior 6-1 guard Jackson Dubinski (12.1 ppg) and 6-1 sophomore guard Preston Whitfield (10.2 ppg).
“We want to get the tempo going up and down,” Rinta said. “They’re a little more methodical. We want to speed the pace of the game up. Us guarding the three-point line is a key here. I think maybe the biggest key is rebounding since we’ve gone to virtually an all-guard line up since early January. I’m not sure where we’ve faced teams with bigs like that.”
The components of that all-guard lineup are highlighted by 6-3 guard Doug McDaniel, whose 18.2 points per game are 20th best in the nation. The Warriors also get strong efforts from 6-5 forward Zavon Jackson (11 ppg) and 6-2 guard Anthony Sullen (10.5 ppg).
Lewis-Clark State also ranks highly in several team categories, ranking No. 1 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.4, and rank top five in total offense, total assists and total three-pointers made, playing in the Frontier Conference which boasts a few of the nation’s top defenses.
Columbia is no stranger to making a deep run in Kansas City. The Cougars made one run in 2009 into the NAIA national tournament finals, a game it lost to another Frontier Conference foe, Rocky Mountain College. Overall, Columbia owns a 12-20 record at the national tournament in its 20 appearances.
The Cougars are led by 28-season coach Bob Burchard, who has a 719-242 record.
Lewis-Clark State will see if it has what it takes to upend the Cougars, and build on last season’s national tournament success. The Warriors won their first round game against Xavier last season, breaking a streak of first-round losses in their last five NAIA tournament appearances (2005, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2015).