NAIA Men's Update: Culver-Stockton's Rebound And Other Surprises
After winning a combined ten games in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, it’s safe to say few would’ve expected Culver-Stockton (Mo.) to be one of the last unbeaten teams remaining in NAIA men’s basketball this season.
Head coach Aaron Hill liked the look of his team entering this season, though, and his early evaluation has proven correct. In fact, it took the Wildcats just 10 games to match that two-season win total, opening the season a surprising 10-0. They were still a solid 13-5 and a tough out in the Heart of America Athletic Conference in mid-January, making Culver-Stockton one of the best turnaround stories of the first half of the NAIA season.
“I thought we had a good team built as we got to campus in the fall,” said Hill. “We had good depth at each position, fairly good size and skill and athleticism across the board, a good mix of transfers and freshman and returnees (three starters back) with class balance. I was confident in our group early this fall, especially as our very new roster got more comfortable with each other on and off the floor.”
Culver-Stockton finished 5-14 a year ago in a season abbreviated and disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The year before that, the school in northeast Missouri in the small Mississippi River town of Canton went 5-23, a slide after an encouraging 16-16 mark in Hill’s first year in 2018-19.
As Hill mentioned, Culver has rebuilt quickly behind a mix of veterans and transfers. The latter includes Jalen Blaize and Alonzo Ortiz-Traylor, a pair of New York natives who have given the Wildcats some serious firepower.
Blaize transferred to Culver-Stockton from NCAA Division II Central Missouri, and the Brooklyn native averages 17.6 points per game. He tied a 48-year old school record with 46 points on Jan. 5 against Graceland (Iowa). Ortiz-Traylor also came from a Division II school in Georgian Court (N.Y.). A double-figure scorer for the Lions, he leads Culver at 18.1 ppg and also pulls down 7.2 rebounds per contest.
“After a successful first season—we had three wins over ranked opponents and a home playoff win—we struggled as we tried to build with young players,” said Hill. “Then COVID hit and the (transfer) portal exploded.
“It was an earthquake in the basketball world, especially from a recruiting perspective. We’ve learned a lot about who will be successful at CSC, what we wanted our team personality to be and what you need to compete at a high level in conference play.”
The retooled Wildcats went 10-1 in non-conference play and then opened Heart conference play with a rout of MidAmerica Nazarene. Culver’s school-record winning streak was snapped in humbling fashion with a loss to third-ranked William Penn by 43 points, and three more close losses followed. Hill’s team rebounded from that stretch to win three of four.
Culver-Stockton leads the list of our biggest surprise stories of the first half of the season. Here are six more teams who have stood out in 2021-22 with their improvement:
Briar Cliff (Iowa) - The Great Plains Athletic Conference has some heavy hitters with highly ranked Jamestown (N.D.), perennial powers Morningside (Iowa) and Northwestern (Iowa) and strong contender Concordia (Neb.), but it was the Chargers leading the league at the halfway point. Seventh in the GPAC a year ago and just 14-16 overall, Briar Cliff is 13-6 (9-2 GPAC) and has won six straight conference road games with a sweet-shooting offense (50.1% FG) led by Kyle Boerhave, who paces a balanced attack with 14.4 points per game while shooting 63.3% from the floor.
Grace (Ind.) - The Lancers finished 8-8 and fifth in the brutal Crossroads League a year ago but flew into the national top 10 this year after a terrific early season that included a 13-0 start and consecutive convincing wins over ranked Marian (Ind.), then top-ranked St. Francis (Ind.) and 2021 NAIA quarterfinalist Bethel (Ind.). Sophomore Frankie Davidson has been one of the breakout players of the season, averaging 21.7 points per game, including 35 points in back-to-back games in the wins over Marian and St. Francis.
Paul Quinn (Texas) - The Tigers didn’t even compete last year during the pandemic, and the year before they finished just 7-25 and tied for the basement in the Red River Athletic Conference. Paul Quinn more than doubled its most recent season win total in a 15-0 start that left the Tigers as one of the last unbeaten in the NAIA. Head coach Brandon Espinosa has done a terrific job with the Tigers, who posted an early statement win over powerful Southwestern Assemblies of God (Texas) and feature an imposing frontline with Trevoin Shaw and Spencer McElway, both 6-7 and combining for more than 28 points and 15 rebounds per game.
Rocky Mountain (Mont.) - As if dealing with COVID-19 wasn’t enough, the Battlin’ Bears had a frustrating 2020-21 season with a 1-17 record and 16 straight losses to finish the season. Rocky is much improved this year at 9-9 through mid-January, and also boasts one of the season’s signature road wins of any team, winning at Frontier Conference rival and then No. 2-ranked Carroll (Mont.). Six different players have led the Bears in scoring in a game including freshman and sixth-highest team scorer Kael Robinson dropping a career-high 20 in the win over Carroll.
Roosevelt (Ill.) - After a couple down years, veteran head coach Joe Griffin has the Lakers back on the upswing in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Roosevelt played a COVID-limited schedule last year (2-7 overall) that included a number of close losses, but is off to a 12-6 start and is not far behind CCAC leaders Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) and Indiana-South Bend. The Lakers are led by a defense holding teams to 39.4% shooting and 65.1 points a game.
Southeastern (Fla.) - After a disappointing 12-17 mark last year that included a nine-game losing streak midseason, the Fire is back to its 2017-20 form (64 wins over three years). Southeastern shot out to a 16-3 start that included quality non-conference wins over nationally ranked Grace (Ind.) and St. Francis (Ind.) A friendly schedule—13 of the first 19 games at home, a.k.a. The Furnace—has helped, but so has Riley Minix, making a push for All-American honors averaging 23.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. The Fire also hold opponents below 40% shooting, out-rebound them by nearly 10 a game, and are the midseason favorites in the Sun Conference.