Reaching the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship has been a goal two years in the making for Lewis-Clark State College men’s basketball coach Brandon Rinta.
Since taking over the Warrior program before the 2011-12 season, Rinta and his coaching staff endeavored to get LCSC back to the pinnacle of NAIA Division I basketball, and that day arrived last week when Lewis-Clark State was named the No. 5 overall seed in the tournament, which begins on Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo.
Tournament Bracket - PDF
The question now is what the Warriors will do with the opportunity, and how they will respond in their first national tournament game in five years, against Culver-Stockton (Mo.) College on Thursday at 12:15 p.m., Pacific.
“Everyone in the program is extremely excited about this opportunity,” Rinta said. “This is something we’ve talked about for a long time and worked very hard to achieve over the last two years. To find out that we were in was a really exciting moment.”
Rinta said he was particularly happy for the five returners from last year’s team for getting to nationals in their second year under the current coaching staff.
“They’ve all worked so hard to get to this point, and I’m very happy they have the opportunity to get to nationals and compete on this level,” he said.
Since the brackets were revealed on Wednesday evening, the Warrior coaching staff has been in a scramble to acquire as much game film and information on Culver-Stockton as possible, and the early returns are that this is a team that is very potent offensively.
Culver-Stockton finished the season 24-8 and advanced to the semifinals of the Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament, where they lost to MidAmerica Nazarene. The Wildcats received votes in the final Coaches’ Top 25 poll, and are led by point guard Marshawn Norris, the Heart of America Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
“It’s a very talented team, as are all 32 teams in this field,” Rinta said of Culver-Stockton. “They are extremely aggressive offensively. They’re good at spreading you out, bouncing it and shooting the 3. They’ve attempted over 1,000 3-pointers this season, and when you look at that stat, defending the 3-point line is going to be very important for us on Thursday.”
By comparison, Montana State-Northern led the Frontier Conference with 783 3-point attempts this season, a far cry from the 1,020 triples hoisted by Culver-Stockton.
Norris has attempted 314 shots from beyond the arc on his own, whereas the Warriors were last in the Frontier Conference with 465. As a team, C-SC is shooting .340 from 3-point land.
Norris is the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 17.7 points per game and has also dished out 217 assists this season, or 6.8 per game.
C.J. Adams was chosen as the HAAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Austin Keaton and James Johnson both average over 15 points per game for the Wildcats, who are led by HAAC Coach of the Year Jack Schrader.
“They’re probably one of the more talented teams in the nation,” Rinta said.
But there’s plenty of talent on the LCSC sideline as well.
Senior forward P.J. Bolte leads the Warriors with 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and the offense is run by junior point guard Robert Ellis, who hands out four assists per game.
The Warriors lead the nation in total rebound margin and are in the top 10 in eight other categories including field goal percentage (52 percent), total assists (590), free throw percentage (75 percent) and assist/turnover ratio (1.4).
Those are the kinds of stats that have helped LCSC to a 26-5 overall record, an 11-4 conference mark and nine weeks ranked in the top five in NAIA Division I.
They are also the same qualities that have helped the Warriors be such a good second-half team this season, allowing them to out-execute teams late in close games, a trait that is vital to tournament success.
“When you have the best 32 teams in the nation in one tournament, the majority of the games are going to come down to late-game situations and who can get stops,” Rinta said. “We’ve proven to ourselves that we have the confidence down the stretch, when it matters.”
Rinta said the Warriors didn’t defend as well as he would have liked in their Frontier Conference semifinal loss to Rocky Mountain last Saturday, and that is one area the team will be focusing on until they depart for Kansas City on Monday. Aside from that, there won’t be any wholesale changes in how the team prepares for nationals.
“We’re just going out with the goal of winning a basketball game on Thursday,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate in that we had a lot of our injuries at the beginning of the season, so knock on wood, we’re pretty healthy. It’s a balancing act of keeping guys fresh but also dialed into what we need to do.”
Should the Warriors get past Culver-Stockton on Thursday in the single-elimination tournament, they would play the winner of Concordia (Calif.) and No. 12 William Carey (Miss.) on Friday at 12:15 p.m.
All LCSC games in the tournament will be broadcast on KOZE Radio with Brian Danner at www.koze-sports.com, and the first 28 games of the tournament will also be available via live video stream for $29.95 and any single day can be purchased for $9.95. For more information and to pre-register, click here.
Live statistics will also be available.
The semifinals will be broadcast live on ESPN3 on March 18 and the championship final will be televised live on CBS Sports Network on March 19.
Rinta believes that the maturity and competitive nature of this group that has gotten LCSC back to nationals for the first time in five seasons will be able to balance the weight of returning to the NAIA’s biggest stage with the task of handling its business in Kansas City.
“I don’t think they’re satisfied at all,” Rinta said of the Warriors. “As we get closer to getting over there, I think all of us are energized. We’re all going to see what we’re capable of. We’re still coaches, but we enjoy watching these guys play, and they’ve been given an opportunity to test themselves against the best in the nation.”