March is within reach and the race to Kansas City for the 85th annual NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship is heating up as teams hit their homestretch.
Teams in the NAIA’s top 25 coaches poll this late in the season likely can feel pretty safe in their hopes for a shot in the now 64-team tourney that includes early round pods of four, with the winners making up the final 16 teams advancing to Kansas City. Thirty-four teams had been represented in the coaches poll as of Feb. 8, but presented here is a list of teams who haven’t been ranked yet, but could still make some noise. Records are as of Feb. 14:
1. Tougaloo (Miss.)
The Bulldogs are having a red-hot season with a 25-1 record and an undefeated 13-0 mark in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference. They have been off the top 25 list all season despite just a single loss back in November in their third game of the season against NCAA Division I Southern University. (They are ranked #69 in CBT's Domination Rankings of all divisions of college teams together.) Last year resulted in a first-round exit from the tournament after they were burned by the one-seeded Firestorm of Arizona Christian University. First-year head coach Eric Strothers has led the Bulldogs this season to two separate win streaks of 10 or more wins. With eight of their 18 players being seniors, this is as good a time as any to make a run in the postseason.
2. Tennessee Southern
The Firehawks continue to blaze through the season, pushing for a spot in the final 64. After a first-round knockout last year at the hands of Ottawa (Ariz.), Tennessee Southern is looking for redemption. Though only in fourth place in the Mid-South Conference in mid-February, the top three teams all were regulars in the top 25 poll. The Firehawks are led by top scorer Kavion Hancock (16.2 ppg) and big (6-foot-7) guard Brady Brown (13.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg). In his fifth season as head coach, Dugan Lyne looks to make it past the MSC semifinals for the first time and into the NAIA tournament.
3. Dordt (Iowa)
This is an exciting team that is unranked but has already beaten two ranked teams and outscores opponents by 15.4 points per game. Although they haven’t appeared in the top 25 yet, the Defenders have received votes in five polls. They sit second in the Great Plains Athletic Conference tied with Morningside (Iowa) and below Jamestown (N.D.), who both were ranked in mid-February. Forward Jacob Vis and guards Luke Rankin and Bryce Coppock combine for better than 50 points per game, all shooting better than 50% from the field, and are also the teams’ top three rebounders. The Defenders lead the NAIA in field goal percentage (54.6%), and their experience against top 25 teams will help in their pursuit of the tournament.
4. Rio Grande (Ohio)
There’s a storm brewing in Ohio and in the eye of the hurricane sits the University of Rio Grande Red Storm. Sitting atop the River States Conference East Division, the Red Storm are one of the top three-point shooting teams in the NAIA averaging 10.1 triples per game and at a 39.1% rate behind the arc. Five regulars shoot better than 40% from long distance, including leading scorers Shiloah Belvins (15.6 ppg), Miki Tadic (13.8 ppg) and Kaden Warner (13.0 ppg). A relatively young squad with center Mike Cody as the only senior, Rio Grande looks to make the NAIA tournament this year after failing to do so last year.
5. Saint Xavier (Ill.)
A school that’s on the rise coming out of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference is Saint Xavier University. Rising from a fourth-place finish last season to only one game out of first place in mid-February, the Cougars have already faced three top-25 teams, beating one of them (Huntington). Like Rio Grande, the Cougars also failed to make the tournament last year. Despite being neglected from the coaches’ top 25, the Cougars hold a better record than some teams that have made an appearance. Four double-figure scorers are led by senior Jaeden King, second in the CCAC averaging 21.5 points per game.
6. Mayville State (N.D.)
Another first-place team, this time in the North Star Athletic Association, Mayville State will be a scary opponent in March due to its high-powered offense. The Comets have scored over 100 points in 10 games and lead the NAIA averaging 93.6 points per game and are second nationally shooting 53.6% from the field. Senior guard Thomas Gieske (16.0 ppg) leads four double-figure scorers and eight players in all averaging at least seven points a game. Don’t be surprised if there are Comet sightings in Kansas City this March.
7. Philander Smith (Ark.)
Another product of the GCAC, Philander Smith has cruised through the conference just behind Tougaloo. Former Arkansas All-American and eight-year NBA vet Todd Day Sr. is in his sixth season coaching the Panthers, who are one of the best defensive teams in the NAIA. Philander Smith is holding opponents to 38.4% shooting, fourth-best in the country, and is looking for its first NAIA Tournament berth since going three consecutive years from 2013-15.
8. Roosevelt (Ill.)
Sitting atop the CCAC is Roosevelt University, an experienced team with a first-year head coach who’s played the sport on both the collegiate and professional levels. Dee Brown made a name for himself as an All-American at Illinois, leading the Illini to the 2005 national championship game, and then spent nine years in the NBA. The Lakers’ roster features seven seniors, including four grad students, all of them heavy contributors led by late season addition Maurice Commander (16.2 ppg). Roosevelt has lost just once in 2023, with a 9-1 record in the new year.
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