CBT's NAIA Men's Late Season Rankings
The NAIA men’s basketball season comes down its home stretch and has continued to progress as a wide-open affair. Forty-one different teams have appeared in the NAIA’s top 25 coaches’ poll, which had been released seven times as of mid-February. Four different teams—Shawnee State (Ohio) in the preseason, St. Francis (Ind.), Loyola (La.) and William Penn (Iowa)—have been ranked No. 1, but just as notable is five different teams have been ranked No. 2. The poll on Feb. 9 had just four teams with as many as six losses, and 12 teams had three losses or fewer. A total of 64 teams qualify for the larger NAIA Tournament, but the real goal is Kansas City. That’s the site where the final 16 teams will convene, and a place with historical significance with the NAIA long known for its final site format, with many of those tourneys taking place in K.C. It’s almost certain that there are more than 16 teams out there capable of winning a national title; witness last year when teams seeded 11, 13, 15 and 16, respectively, all scored wins in Kansas City and the final four included teams seeded 3, 5, 7 and 9. Acknowledging that, here’s a late-season NAIA Power 16 looking at teams among those with the best shot of getting to Municipal Auditorium. 1. Loyola - Ranked No. 1 for a time this year, the Wolf Pack (24-1 record) didn’t lose until falling to Faulkner Jan. 17. As if receiving a wakeup call, Loyola has since run up some eye-popping winning scores: 129-76, 114-69, 100-58, and, oh yes, 121-69 over Faulkner in the rematch Feb. 2. 2. William Penn - The Statesmen (25-1) weathered some early injury hiccups and have played plenty of close games—13 decided by six points or fewer—yet haven’t lost since early December. When you have seven seniors, that’s called battle-tested experience. With their collective star power, experience, high-octane offenses and even the North/South contrast, a William Penn/Loyola championship game would be dynamite. 3. Indiana Wesleyan - Rebuilding year after the graduation of four-time All-American and two-time national player of the year Kyle Mangas? Not for the coach Greg Tonagel, whose program has just kept on trucking. All five starters scoring in double figures propelled IWU to a 24-4 record in mid-February and a convincing regular season title in the tough Crossroads League. 4. Talladega (Ala.) - The Tornadoes (23-3) established their national credentials in a loss, recently falling on the road at Loyola in overtime. Talladega is one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to 56.0 points per game and a 36.7% defensive field goal percentage. 5. Oklahoma Wesleyan - Nobody is deeper than the Eagles, whose 10-man rotation sees minutes spaced almost evenly among all ten players. OKWU (25-2) is beating opponents by more than 20 points per game and does almost everything well; in particular defense and rebounding. 6. Arizona Christian - The Firestorm defeated William Jessup twice to establish supremacy in the Golden State Athletic Conference. Like Oklahoma Wesleyan, ACU (26-3) is balanced and deep—no one averages more than 11.8 ppg, but twelve players average at least 10 minutes per game. 7. Carroll (Mont.) - The Fighting Saints (26-3) are the class of the Northwest, have a horse in Jovan Sljivancanin (19.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg) and also have all-name team frontrunner Shamrock Campbell (14.3 ppg). Carroll is good on the glass and holds opponents to 62.9 ppg and 41.4% shooting. 8. Georgetown (Ky.) - The Tigers (22-5) know a thing or two about making postseason runs as NAIA Division II champions in 2019 and runners-up three years before that. Coach Chris Briggs and team have weathered the tough Mid-South Conference and players like Derrin Boyd (15.9 ppg) and Kyran Jones (14.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg) could carry them a long way. 9. Thomas More (Ky.) - The Saints (23-3) could win a national title before departing for NCAA Division II. TMU is 23-1 against teams not named Cumberlands (Ky.)—the Mid-South Conference’s fifth-place team twice got the Saints. Center Ryan Batte (21.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is one of the most effective scorers in the NAIA for an excellent offensive team that shoots 51.1% from the floor and rarely turns the ball over. 10. SW Assemblies of God (Texas) - Duos seem to be a theme among teams at the top of the NAIA, and SAGU has its own shining one with Nykolas Mason (18.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Joshua Kashila (15.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.4 apg). The Lions (19-6) have had some hiccups in the Sooner Athletic Conference and perhaps league-leader Science & Arts (Okla.) is the better bet, but SAGU defeated the Drovers twice and has the experience of a run to the semifinals in Kansas City last year. 11. William Jessup (Calif.) - A little of the shine came off the Warriors (24-4) with back-to-back GSAC road losses to Arizona Christian and Ottawa (Ariz.) in February. Still, it’s been a superb season for a team that beat Indiana Wesleyan in December and behind Cash Williams (17.5 ppg, 5.0 apg) and freshman Myles Corey (15.1 ppg) is still a solid No. 2 in the GSAC behind Arizona Christian. 12. St. Francis (Ind.) - It’s not always been easy this season for the Cougars (21-7), who were No. 1 in the nation for a while but sputtered to four straight losses in December. USF steadied the ship after that nine straight wins in January, has a superb duo in 5-foot-8 Antwaan Cushingberry (22.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) and David Ejah (20.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and is tourney-tested, having made it to the national semifinals last year. 13. Marian (Ind.) - Another from the tough Crossroads League, the Knights (21-4) are hot with seven straight wins into mid-February, including a 31-point blowout of St. Francis. Marian also defeated Thomas More back in November and is another efficient offensive outfit (50.4% FG, NAIA-best 40.7% 3-pt FG%, just 10.3 TO/gm). 14. Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) - Stars often win in March, and the Tigers (25-3) have one of the biggest ones in Alex Gross (22.0 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 5.4 apg, 3.4 bpg), who has found a way to elevate his already incredible numbers to yet another level down the stretch. As notable, though, is just how good ONU is offensively—a nation’s best 55.4% from the field, while six regulars shoot 53.3% or better. 15. Bethel (Kan.) - Speaking of stars, few can match the Threshers’ Jaylon Scott, who has been spectacular again (18.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 5.9 apg). Clifford Byrd (13.6) also is a capable scorer and four players can shoot the three. Bethel (22-6) is one of just two teams to defeat Oklahoma Wesleyan and lost to the Eagles by two in their other meeting. 16. Briar Cliff (Iowa) - The Chargers are one of the feel-good stories of the season, coming from 12-14 last year to surprise and win the Great Plains Athletic Conference regular season crown. BCU (19-8) is the type of team that could shoot its way deep in the postseason, hitting nearly 40% from three-point range and with four players with at least 40 triples made on the season.
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