McPherson College’s men’s basketball team used to know the way to Point Lookout, Mo., practically blindfolded.
The Bulldogs made four straight trips there for the NAIA National Tournament, even making the Final Four in 2012. The following year, the Bulldogs qualified even though they had finished eighth in the conference during the regular season, but then caught lightning in a bottle to win the KCAC Postseason Tournament, which carries an automatic national trip.
But now that road suddenly has become littered with potholes as other KCAC schools have loaded up on talented transfers to overtake Mac. The Bulldogs have missed nationals each of the last two years and highly successful coach Tim Swartzendruber has decided to do something about it.
He’ll have a new-look team on Saturday when the Bulldogs open the season with a 5 p.m. road game against Haskell in Lawrence.
The Bulldogs were 6-12 in the KCAC last year, 10-21 overall — eight of the losses by eight points or less. Swartzendruber must replace some key players, most notably point guard TJ Grant (now an assistant coach) and leading scorer Darius Hill.
He moved exhaustively to up the talent level with three juco transfers. Reed Rowell, 6-8 and 240 pounds, gives Swartzendruber that big body down on the block who can produce both offensive and defensively. Ryan O’Hara, a 6-6 forward, will combine with holdover 6-6 Ramon Martinez to make up an impressive front line.
In the backcourt, the Bulldogs have two key starters back in point guard Kyle Lakin (the team’s only senior) and explosive Chris Crook, a streaky shooter.
Swartzendruber’s other key juco newcomer, muscular guard Dee Roberts, will be first off the bench as he can shoot it with anybody and will provide instant offense.
Returnees Louis Parker III (one of the KCAC’s top freshmen last year), Aaron Bachura and El Dorado product Jared Haury also should see key minutes, along with freshman burner Chris Lowe, who wowed McPherson fans for Wichita Heights last year in the McPherson Invitational.
Swartzendruber senses that this team is more on the same page than last year’s.
“I believe our team chemistry and overall team attitude is much improved,” said Swartzendruber, who begins his eighth year with a 128-96 record. “We have better leadership this year and a deeper bench, especially at guard positions.”
Haskell always provides a good test in the season opener as the Indians are highly athletic with some good size. They have a game under their belt, having lost to Mid-America Christian University earlier this week, 103-72. The Evangels are ranked No. 10 in the country. Big 6-10 Tsaldi Sequoyah scored 16 points to lead Haskell and Duelle Gore had a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“They are always athletic,” Swartzendruber said. “They have a new coach so it’s hard to say what they will do.”
Mac is right back home on Monday to take on Manhattan Christian, with game time 7 p.m. at the Sport Center.