KANSAS CITY, Missouri – A run to a championship in one of the greatest challenges in college sports starts Wednesday morning.
The 81st NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship tips off Wednesday in Municipal Auditorium. The single-elimination structure starts at 8 a.m. and requires the eventual champion to win five games in seven days.
The tournament tips with Life (Ga.) battling with William Carey (Miss.). Life defeated Carroll College in the quarterfinals before going on to a national championship appearance a season ago.
No. 1 overall seed The Master’s rolled into the national tournament having held the No. 1 rank in the final three Top 25 polls. With a 29-2 record, it’s the first time in program history The Master’s has held the top overall seed.
Texas Wesleyan won the championship a season ago, and will have a chance to repeat this year. The Rams (22-10) are a four-seed this season and face No. 5 Graceland (24-10) in the first round.
Three teams will represent the Frontier Conference at the championship.
Carroll College (27-5) earned the highest seed out of the Frontier, sharing the regular season title before winning the conference tournament.
The Saints were awarded a No. 2-seed and a date with No. 7-seeded Lindsey Wilson (23-8). Lindsey Wilson won the Mid-South Conference Tournament to make their 12th appearance and first since 2013.
The Saints will look to establish their highly efficient offense, powered by Frontier Conference Player of the Year Ryan Imhoff, against an imposing Blue Raiders’ defense beginning on 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
“This is a 24-8 team that had a swoon at a time when their seven-foot center was injured,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “Now he’s back. And they won what many people consider to be the best conference in the NAIA. We’re under no illusions. This is an extremely difficult challenge. They have a great point guard. They’ve very big and they have shooters. We’re going to have to give it everything we got and try to fight like warrior poets out there on the hardwood and see if we can come out with a W.”
Bryan Wallace, a 5-11 senior point guard, leads the Blue Raiders in scoring with nearly 19 points per game. The Blue Raiders use their 6-11 center and 7-foot center to play a 3-2 zone that has troubled opponents this season. The Blue Raiders closed the season on a four-game losing streak before running through the Mid-South tournament.
No. 3-seed Montana Western (25-7), which shared the regular season title before falling in the Frontier Conference finals, will play before Carroll on Thursday against No. 6-seed SAGU (24-9). SAGU won the Sooner Athletic Tournament championship to earn an automatic bid to the tournament.
“The Sooners (winner) won the last two nationals championships,” Western coach Steve Keller said. "I consider that and the Mid-South two of the top leagues in the country year in and year out. Athletic. Get up and down and score a lot of points. They do give up 81 a game, which might help us a little bit.”
The Lions are led by freshman guard Cameron Hill, who averages 16.2 points per game.
Keller said the game will likely come down to rebounding for his squad, who is slightly undersized against SAGU.
“They like to shoot it and go get it,” Keller said. “We don’t have a lot of size. We’ve always had trouble rebounding out there. We have to limit transition. We gotta make sure we get back.”
No. 5-seed Lewis-Clark State College (23-9) will be the first Frontier team in action on Wednesday as they square off against No. 4-seed LSU-Alexandria (25-7).
Lewis-Clark State finished third in the regular season of the Frontier and made an appearance in the semifinals in the postseason. The Warriors received an at-large bid to claim their 13th overall and third consecutive appearance at the championship.
LSU-A finished second in the Red River Athletic Conference regular season, but then turned around to win the Red River Conference Tournament and earn an automatic bid. It’s the fourth appearance for the Generals. The Generals bowed out in the semifinals last season.
Round 1 of the tournament runs on Wednesday and Thursday. Round 2 finishes Friday. The quarterfinals play out on Saturday, followed by the semifinals on Monday and the national championship on Tuesday.