KANSAS CITY – Montana Western and LSU-Shreveport had much different journeys to the NAIA national tournament.
And both lost baggage along the way.
The No. 4-seeded Bulldogs (24-7) and No. 5-seeded Pilots (20-9) each moved on from talented players this season. When they match up on Thursday at the Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City, each squad will show its current form and how far they’ve come.
A glance at the top of each team’s statistics reveals the similarity. Cameron Biedscheid’s 21.9 points per game only lasted eight contests in Shreveport, while similarly Brian Neal’s 17.7 points per game wore out its welcome after only seven games.
“It's a privilege to be a member of our program,” LSU-S coach Kyle Blankenship told the Shreveport Times earlier this season. “We take pride in setting high standards and expectations for our student-athletes. Cam failed to live up to those standards and expectations and is no longer a member of our basketball team.”
Western coach Steve Keller expressed a similar sentiment earlier this season in Helena, telling the Independent Record that Neal was no longer with the team. Those close to the team said Neal’s departure was a welcome sight.
That, though, is only part of the Bulldogs’ whirlwind season.
After taking down the now-No. 4 Carroll College Saints twice this season, the Bulldogs looked to be on the verge of winning the Frontier Conference's regular-season title. Slip-ups against Montana State-Northern and Rocky Mountain College kept the Bulldogs in second place, but they showed they were a team to be reckoned with.
But after receiving a bye in the first round of the Frontier Conference playoffs, the Bulldogs fell at home in the semifinals to Lewis-Clark State College.
That didn’t stop the Bulldogs from gaining an at-large bid to the tournament, the sixth time the Bulldogs have gone to the national tournament under 10-year coach Keller.
Western is powered by guards Dom Robinson (16.8 points per game), Shyke Smalls (15.2 ppg) and Kooper Kidgell (12 ppg).
“They’re big and athletic,” Keller said. “It’s a tough draw. We’re not that big. The biggest thing for us is to rebound.”
LSU-Shreveport, which is making its 13th consecutive appearance, also enters Kansas City with its own set of woes. The Pilots enter on a three-game losing streak, having not won a game since Feb. 18 against St. Thomas, 66-60 in overtime.
“They’ve lost three in a row,” Keller said. “I don’t think it matters when you get out here. You have to show up and play. We like the fact that we play each other three times in our league, so everybody knows exactly what you’re doing. Once you get here, some of your stuff actually works.”
Overall, Keller said the draw is out of the team’s control, but if he had it his way, he’d prefer to play on Wednesday and get a day of rest on Thursday before the tournament enters the second round, creating a day of back-to-backs for teams who match up on Thursday.
"We are looking forward to making our 13th consecutive trip out to Kansas City," said Blankenship in a release. Blankenship owns an 87-41 record in five years with the program. "Montana Western is a very talented basketball team who can score with anyone in the country. I would expect our contest to be one of the more exciting games in the first round. We have a lot to do ... in order to put ourselves in a position to advance, but our staff will diligently prepare our team for this great opportunity ahead of us."
The Pilots get boosts from 6-foot-2 guard Benjamin Batts, who averages 16.6 points per game. Joining him in double figures is 6-8 forward Uzonna Akazi, who averages 10.8 points, 5-9 guard C.J. McGill, who averages 10.6 points, and 6-2 guard Tyrell Springer, who averages 10.3 points.
“We just gotta rebound,” Keller said. “Guard and rebound. Offensively we can score with anybody. Usually out here you have to score high 70s and 80s to win games. We’ve done that all year.”
Western and LSU Shreveport tip off at approximately 9:15 p.m. CST on Thursday.