NAIA Men's Way Too Early Top 10 And MORE
The 2021-22 Men’s NAIA Championship concluded only two months ago — Loyola of New Orleans defeated Talladega 71-56 to claim the title and finish the season on a 21-game win streak — yet it’s already time to look ahead at next season’s landscape.
All 230 teams will be hoping that this year is “their year,” but which teams are best equipped to actually make a deep run in next year’s tournament?
Here are ten teams that have the best chance at being the last team standing when the confetti falls at the end of the season — as well as five other intriguing teams.
1. William Jessup
(Last Season: 30-7)
William Jessup is in store for a big year. Not only are the Warriors returning All-American guards Cashemin Williams (1st Team) and Myles Corey (Honorable Mention), they also bring in highly touted Eastern Oregon transfer Xavier Lovelace. Lovelace, a rising junior forward, averaged 13 points per game and should add to a stacked forward stable in Rocklin that already includes juniors Tim Strijaous (10 ppg) and Matthew Schmidt (10.9 ppg). Despite this depth, Jessup will travel as far as the backcourt of Williams and Corey will take them. The Warriors were defeated by Arizona Christian in the quarterfinals of this past year’s tournament — expect them to go much further this season.
2. Indiana Wesleyan
(Last Season: 28-7)
Perhaps the most dominant team of the last decade, Indiana Wesleyan suffered a devastating defeat to William Jessup in the past year’s Round of 16. Head Coach Greg Tonagel and his Wildcats will aim to reverse the roles this year. The Wildcats are led by one of the NAIA’s best centers in, Covid-19 senior Seth Maxwell, who averaged 17.7 ppg, 6.3 rebounds, and was 3rd in the nation in blocks (95) and was named to the All-American first team. Few teams can match up with the seven-footer. Other notable Wildcats include junior guard Spencer Piercefield (13.8 ppg, 5.1 apg) and junior forward Tim Adetukasi (11.4 ppg). Also keep an eye out for junior guard Noah Smith, who showed great promise in his first two seasons before redshirting due to injury this past season.
3. Oklahoma Wesleyan
(Last Season: 34-3)
Perhaps the team with the deepest roster in 2021-22, Oklahoma Wesleyan has to replace three players from its stable unit. Out go Kaz Ammons, Valentin Van Putten, and Lense Ramey. In come a quartet of Texans — none more exciting than the versatile Nic Bene (Forney High School). Bene is capable of guarding four positions — versatility that Head Coach Donnie Bostwick will relish having at his disposal. The returning cast, led by All-American Janson Lietzke, are as well-balanced as any team out there. If last season taught us anything, it's that Bostwick can get the most out of his rotation. Doubt the Eagles at your own risk.
4. College of Idaho
(Last Season: 32.5)
The Yotes were ridiculously difficult to score against in 2021-22 — expect things to stay the same this year. Idaho allowed only 63.2 ppg last season. Coach Colby Blaine enters his 5th season in charge of the Yotes with a team largely unchanged (whether or not senior standout Ricardo Time exercises his 5th year Covid-19 option remains to be seen). If Time leaves, the scoring onus will fall on talented sophomore forwards Drew Wyman and Jake O’Neil who scored 11.5 and 10 ppg respectively. This is a team that doesn’t need a star to make a deep run.
(Last Season: 26-10)
Two words: Mason Walters. The rising senior forward averaged 24.2 ppg in 2021-22 while garnering All-American 1st Team honors. Walters is a crafty scorer who not only operates out of the post but also makes intelligent cuts that lead to easy baskets. Walters will be in the national player of the year conversation all season. Walters will be joined by two talented guards in Marc Kjos and Cole Woodford; both double-digit scorers in 2021-22. The Jimmies were bounced in the Round of 16 this past season by a talented Talladega team that ended up making a run to the championship game. Expect them to go further this season.
6. Southeastern (Fla.)
(Last Season: 22-8)
Southeastern couldn’t get past the first round of this past year’s tournament. Riley Minix won’t let that happen again. The rising senior forward can do it all. He averaged 22.7 ppg and 11.2 rpg while also shooting over 40% from three. He will be right there with Walters, Williams, and Maxwell in the competition for national player of the year honors this season. Fellow rising senior guard Reggie Mesidor (10.7 ppg) will be right there behind him as the Fire look to make a deep tournament run.
7. William Penn
(Last Season: 31-2)
William Penn was for most of the season one of the top two teams in the NAIA before a disappointing opening round loss to IU-Kokomo. Expect the Statesmen to be a good team again this season, albeit one with a lower ceiling due to the departure of star Kevion Blaylock and potential departures of Karmari Newman and Q Cager. Losing the former hurts. Blaylock was one of the best players in the country last season, and his scoring burden (20.8 ppg) will need to fall on someone else. That likely means junior guard Chanze Cruesoe, who had a solid sophomore year, will need to step up. Luckily, Head Coach John Henry brings in one of the best transfers off the market in Trinity Christian guard James Pennington. Pennington, along with Cruesoe, will shoulder the load left by Blaylock. Another incoming player to keep an eye out for: Bentor Neyail — a 6-8 prospect with loads of potential.
(Last Season: 32-6)
The Tornadoes come off a season that saw them nearly win the national championship. Unfortunately for them, they came up against the best team in the country in conference rival Loyola of New Orleans. This year, Talladega will hope to go all the way, which won’t be an easy task. Talladega will likely lose leading scorers Darryl Baker and Trevon Adams. Up will have to step junior guards Edwin Louis and Kamron Brice, who both averaged just over 8 ppg last season. It will be a tall task — can they do it?
9. Loyola of New Orleans
(Last Season: 37-1)
The reigning national champions deserve the benefit of the doubt because of what they accomplished in 2021-22, but it’s hard to see them making another title run with all the personnel turnover. Head Coach Stacy Hollowell headed to Ole Miss to become associate athletics director. Also going to Ole Miss is NAIA Tournament MVP Myles Burns. NAIA National Player of the Year Zach Wrightsil is leaving for Marquette. Team assist leader and All-American honorable mention Brandon Davis is heading to Texas State, and key seniors Andrew Fava and Terry Smith Jr. look set to leave the team. That is a lot of coaching and playing talent that the Wolf Pack is losing. Can now seniors Zach Muller and Jalen Galloway, both who played supporting roles in last year’s campaign, make the leap and keep this team in the championship picture this season? It’s hard to tell. A talented recruiting class is needed if the Wolfpack are going to contend next season.
10. Olivet Nazarene
(Last Season 31-4)
Despite losing superstar Alex Gross, the Tigers bring back double-digit scorers in Tyler Schmidt, Landon Pflederer, and Barik Olden. The Tigers suffered a disappointing opening round loss to end their 2021-22 and the fantastic NAIA career of Gross. They will be good again, but it may be a more difficult season without their talisman.
Five More Intriguing Teams to Keep an Eye On
1. Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain faded late last season to finish 11-17, but also sported a roster that featured zero seniors. This young Battlin’ Bears team should be more competitive this year with many of their players having gained another year of experience. Three starters averaged double-digit points last season. This team is headed in the right direction.
2. Lewis-Clark State
Lewis-Clark State had a solid 2021-22, finishing 22-11. Four starters averaged double-digit points last season. Two of them, Oreon Courtney and Nathan Fromm, will be back this season. Sophomore assist-leader Silas Bennion (4 apg) also returns. This should be a fun and competitive team.
Dordt had a fine season. The Defenders ended the season with a 20-11 record before bowing out in the first round of the NAIA tournament. Head coach Brian Van Haaften brings back four double-digit scorers from last year’s team. Dordt is a high scoring team (80 ppg last season) that should give a lot of other teams fits on defense this season.
Langston was terrible last season. Full stop. The Lions won one game. By no means are the Lions close to competing for a national title. However, there is reason for optimism next season. The Lions landed solid Middle Georgia State transfer Tristan Harper (18.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg), a player who will surely help the team climb out of the cellar of the SSAC. Langston should at least climb closer to average.
5. Cardinal Stritch
Another team that had a disappointing 2021-22 season. The Wolves finished 5-22. There should be some optimism in Milwaukee that the upcoming season will be more successful. Junior guards and top scorers Nakyel Shelton (16.9 ppg) and Orri Hilmarsson (13 ppg) return to give the Wolves a formidable backcourt. Junior assist leader Mason Khalu (3.5 apg) will also help this Wolves turnaround.
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