KANSAS CITY -- Tucked in the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City, Mayor Sylvester James Jr., overseeing a courtyard full of the NAIA’s best basketball players, some huddling near heated stanchions to combat the near-freezing temperatures, welcomed all to what is billed as the greatest challenge in college basketball.
James welcomed them to the 80th annual NAIA Division I men’s basketball tournament, which has been held in Kansas City since the tournament’s inception and requires the champion to claim five victories in seven days.
“Enjoy yourselves in Kansas City,” the mayor declared. “The people here are friendly. They love having you here. I wish every one of you success. Everybody play well, play hard, play true. Avoid injuries and we’ll all be good.”
A video board played highlights overhead. Some teams made grand entrances, walking a red carpet while being introduced by the event’s emcee. A few players, shame be damned, danced.
Those were the scenes off the court before the focus became fully on-court, starting Wednesday morning.
The No. 1-seeded Carroll College Saints (27-5) were on hand -- along with other top seeds William Penn, Dalton State and LSU-Alexandria, among others -- taking the environment in. For most of the roster, it was a reiteration of last year’s ceremony, but for freshman Dane Warp, Steven Helm, Julian Vladimirov and Isaiah Hernandez, they got their first taste of the national tournament.
The proceeding eases attendants into the tournament, and also offers a transition into the focus required to win the event. A year ago, the Saints had to probe to find the right level of pre-tournament preparation: Too many intense practices, and you risk fatigue in the grueling tournament format. Light work, and you risk not being as sharp and prepared for the higher caliber of play the field of 32 provides.
“The tournament is chock-full of tough teams,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “Mount Mercy can score. We’re going to have to come ready to play some ball.”
Carroll begins its quest for a national title against Mount Mercy (21-11) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Heart of America Athletic Conference representative that received an auto-bid to the tournament. The Mustangs make their first NAIA D-I national tournament and have never matched up with the Saints. The Mustangs bring a strong offense into the tournament, one that has likely never seen a defense of the Saints’ caliber.
As has been the case for Carroll this year, when the Saints’ defense goes, their offense can become close to unstoppable.
While the Saints will benefit from their tourney experience a season ago, the other part that remains to be seen is the return of sophomore forward Match Burnham, who through 20 games became the Saints’ third leading scorer at 11.7 points per game. A week ago, Burnham had the cast removed from his shooting arm, after an injury he suffered in early January.
Carroll will be led by the do-everything duo of senior guard Zach Taylor and junior forward Ryan Imhoff. Taylor turned heads last year at the tournament, earning the competition’s hustle award. On the season, the two have combined to score about 34 points a game, and contribute to the team in a variety of ways.
Mount Mercy brings in three players averaging 10 points per better, led by senior forward Ben Struss who scores 12.5 points each night.
The Saints and Mustangs tip off at 3 p.m. CST on Wednesday.
The Big 12 Conference tournament galvanized fans a week ago in the Sprint Center. A week later, the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Regional will treat hoops fans. This week, though, it’s all about the NAIA tournament, animating Municipal Auditorium, a hoops palace in its own right.
And if things break the Saints’ way, perhaps the week will be all about Helena, Montana's Carroll College.