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  • Angel Torres

Some NCCAA Men's D2 Coach Of Year Candidates

The release of the first NCCAA coaching poll of the season brought expectations for the teams that sat atop the rankings. The fluidity of the subsequent coach’s poll has allowed us to take an educated guess at who some of the candidates are for Coach of the Year.

The coaches poll is voted on with the assistance of the NCCAA power ratings formula. The NCCAA Coaches Polls are developed by both the National and Regional Sport Chairs who represent each region. They are then compiled and ranked based on the prescribed formula.

Before we get to the candidates, here are a few historical notes about the award:

  • Cincinnati Bible College coach John Garrett won the award in 2001 and 2002 making him the last back-to-back winner.

  • Since 2016, only 2 coaches have won the award after their team was initially left off the first coaches’ poll of the season.

  • Starting with its inception in 1977, no coach has won the award more times than coach Jon Mack (4) Valley Forge Christian College/ University of Valley Forge.

It is worth noting that so much can change between now and the road to Joplin but this is how we see it a College Basketball Times, in no particular order.

Richard Westerlund - Great Lakes Christian College – Mideast Region

Coach Westerlund enters his fifth season as the Crusaders head coach and has the task of climbing the mountain after being atop the rankings for all of last season. The Crusaders lost a big senior class which included First-Team All American and Player of the Year, Trent Temple.

The Crusaders did not make it to the championship game and fell to Manhattan Christian College 79-72 in the third-place game.

This season, Great Lakes began occupying the third spot while carrying a 3-6 record. What the record doesn't show is how well his squad has played against teams from other leagues including NAIA powerhouse William Penn.

Once again, Great Lakes Christian ranks first overall. The release of the coaching poll on January 10th shows that the record of the team (8-11) has little to do with what opposing coaches believe what this team is capable of accomplishing.

Through 19 games, Great Lakes’ has scored the second most points in the league. “We scheduled a very tough schedule this year to try and prepare us as we get in conference play,” Coach Westerlund said.

“We have four losses by a possession. We could easily be 7-2 right now” he said referring to his early season struggles.

When asked about how well his program has done in his tenure, Coach Westerlund said “It’s about the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s not the X’s and O’s,” meaning his job has been made easier by the players and the administration in Lansing.

Another reason for optimism is that Westerlund employs senior point guard Kylan Shipp, who is the league’s leading scorer with 343 points. Shipp has played 583 minutes this season which is by far the most logged in the entire league. Since 2020, Great Lakes has had at least one player named as a first-team All-American.

Despite his record, the reigning 2021-2022 Mideast region and National coach of the year might not be ready to hand over the hardware.

Luke Herbert - Crown College – North Region

Crown College entered the 2022 NCCAA tournament as the four seed, but the team fell in NCCAA men’s championship last season. A championship game hangover doesn’t appear to be in the cards as head coach Luke Herbert appears to be capitalizing on his momentum.

The Polars raked in 80 poll points after starting the season 6-1 which placed them atop the coaching poll. They currently sit fourth on the latest poll carrying a 10-8 record. Herbert has four of last year’s six scholar-athletes on the roster as well as forward Seth Royston, who was named to last season’s all-tournament team.

I was told by Coach Herbert back in December that Crown College will be without first-team All-American Cade Carroll until at least January due to a potentially season ending high ankle sprain.

Carroll made his return on January 14th which will only make this team more dangerous and allow Coach Herbert to continue his team’s upward trajectory.

I asked him what it would mean to win coach of the year and he told me that “Anything we do as a team is a team award.” He also said, “it is nice to be acknowledged no matter your profession.”

This Polars’ squad is the NCCAA’s third highest scoring team despite not having a single player ranked in the top 25 in scoring.

Crown College defeated Great Lakes in last season’s NCCAA tournament. When asked if he and Great Lakes coach Richard Westerlund have a rivalry going on he said, “there has to be more games played between us for it to be a rivalry.”

If Herbert ends up winning coach of the year after Coach Westerlund took home the honors last season, it could add another layer of intrigue for these clubs whose team building philosophies appear to be polar opposites.

Jaime Cuellar - Kansas Christian College – Southwest Region

Kansas Christian College head basketball coach Jaime Cuellar’s second year has started off well. KCC started with a 3-1 record that allowed them to receive 68 poll points on the initial coaches’ poll ranking them second overall.

The now 8-3 Falcons sit in eight place in the poll falling from fifth place the poll before.

I asked coach Cuellar what he brought from the NBA to Kansas City and he said, “I think discipline and a defense first mentality, learning from different guys within the NBA.”

His response coincides with their stats. They currently have allowed the sixth fewest points (827) on defense. The five teams ahead of them have all played fewer games than this defensive-minded squad.

This team is also averaging 91.2 points per game making them more well-rounded than some might think.

Coach Cuellar does have a unique situation as Dr. Jim Poteet, who back in 2014 was inducted in the NAIA Hall of Fame, is an assistant on his staff.

“We talk before every game, at halftime, and after every game” said Cuellar. “He sees things that I might not see. So, having that experience is invaluable.”

Kansas Christian College doesn’t have a National Championship of any kind. Coach Cuellar not only has a chance at NCCAA history, he also has a shot at etching his name in the Falcon history books.

Mo Capaci - Champion Christian College – Southwest Region

Champion Christian College men’s basketball coach Mo Capaci is not only competing with the rest of the field but against a shadow in his own building. The women’s team were the 2021 national champions so playing little brother to a dominant big sister could be overwhelming.

This year, the women’s team have started and stayed atop the women’s poll all season long.

The former Tiger’s basketball star took over the program in the summer of 2020. Capaci holds many of the school’s records as a player including most assists (600) and steals (250).

On the court, the 7-2 Tigers ranked fourth in the initial poll and now sit in the seventh spot. The lack of recognition and statistical measurements have more to do with cancelled games rather than on-court performance.

Coach Capaci did a phenomenal job of getting his kids ready after initially learning their weekend invitational in November had been cancelled. They were under the impression that their next countable game would not happen until December 10th.

On November 17th, the team received a phone call at around 10am and had to prepare for an unknown opponent later that day. Coach Capaci rallied his team to a second half comeback win over NAIA opponent, University of The Virgin Islands, 90-73.

With an early season schedule bringing so many unknowns, the team will have to play catchup if they are to make it the National Championships in Joplin later this year.

There is no doubt this team has been dealt a difficult situation. Winning back-to-back games in the middle of December against the defending champions in Campbellsville University-Harrodsburg and the eight ranked Kansas Christian College is impressive.

Coach Capaci and his team have endured many obstacles which firmly place him coach of the year consideration.

Jeremy Becker - North Central University – North Region

North Central University is better known for their dominance in both track and field and cross country, but Rams first year head coach Jeremy Becker is doing all he can to change the narrative of the school.

The initial coaching poll had North Central ranked fifth in the entire NCCAA and they now sit in second place only behind Great Lakes.

He joined NCU just before the 2019-2020 season as an assistant coach and is now a head coach for the first time in his young career. After helping the previous staff with turning around the program, Becker now gets to show everyone how important of a piece he is.

NCU sits just outside the top ten in scoring average as their 79 points per game average rank 11th overall yet it’s the teams defense that is becoming their calling card. The team is only giving up 64.5 points per contest which is second best only to the 1-19 Portland Bible College.

With two games scheduled before the newest coaching poll is set to be unveiled on January 24th, there could be a situation where North Central University could take the top spot to Minneapolis.

Other notable candidates:

Jordan Strom - Manhattan Christian College

The third ranked Thunder have made an appearance the last three National Championship games. With a signature win over Kansas Christian College and in the midst of a four-game winning streak, Coach Strom has a strong case for coach of the year. Their win over number one Great Lakes Christian last season makes this team one to watch come tournament time in Joplin.

Greg Fawbush – Welch College

Coach Fawbush has to be in consideration due to the Flames recent rise. Recent losses to Campbellsville-Harrod and Great Lakes Christian College have overshadowed early season wins over Champion and Crown College. The sixth ranked Flames have a chance at redemption if they can hold on and make it into the NCCAA tournament.

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