There may be better teams than Central Christian College this week in the NCCAA Men’s Division I National Basketball Tournament, but there may not be any that are closer knit.
The veteran Tigers earned the eighth and final berth into the event and will begin play at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday against Emmanuel College of Georgia in Winona, Ind.
If the Tigers win, they play at 7:45 p.m. Thursday, a loss and they play at 12:45 on Thursday.
Central takes a 19-13 record into the tournament. The Tigers came out sizzling with 12 wins in their first 14 games, but then hit a lull.
“This group has really been a joy to coach and be around,” CCC coach Tony Romero said. “I felt we had a chance in the preseason to have a solid year, these guys really have put in the work and bought into the process. There was a stretch where I was concerned about if we let too many close losses (nine out of 12 losses by three possessions or less) get in the way of having an opportunity at postseason, but I thought the guys just kept grinding, and preparing and believing.”
Emmanuel College will be a handful. It is 24-5 on the year, certainly worthy of the No. 1 seed. It’s a balanced team, as no player averages more than 12.1 (Steven Guinchard) and only one other player averages in double figures. But several players average between 6 and 9 points a game. The Lions come in on a roll, having won their last 10 games.
Romero has stressed a family atmosphere and the camaraderie is tremendous as many of the players are starting for their third straight year.
“This group has been together for three years now and has grown each year in chemistry and production — that's always the goal,” Romero said. “I am proud of the team that they have an opportunity to keep building relationships and playing together. I'm especially happy for our seniors, they really deserve it. Our seniors have been an incredible, they serve and are so humble. When guys act that way, you want them to have the privilege to continue playing, I also want to be around them for as long as possible.”
The Tigers thought their season could have been over when they lost in a game that determined whether or not they made the NAIA National Tournament. Then after they lost in the quarterfinals of the NCCAA Regional, the season again teetered.
“Our guys were really disappointed after being so close to punching a ticket to Branson for the NAIA Tournament, 2 minutes away in our conference tournament,” Romero said. “To have new life, playing in NCCAA National Tournament is a huge blessing. Our program has grown over the years and had some success, but we have never made it to a national tournament, we have been close a few times but came up short.”
The tournament will have no shortage of quality teams, in fact the 19-13 Tigers are probably the longest of long shots. No matter what, they are guaranteed three games as the tournament is played out to eighth place.
“This tournament is going to have some stiff competition,” Romero said. “We told our guys to enjoy it and do what we have always done, prepare hard, control what we can and focus on the process.”
The Tigers are led by silky 6-5 guard Michael Gholston, who scores 17.2 points a game. He actually shoots better from 3-point (42 percent) than overall (40). Human highlight film Alonzo Stafford chips in with 16.4 points and is the team’s top rebounder at 9.7. Daniel Nwosuh is a three-year starter at point guard and runs the show, averaging 7.5 points a game. Other general starters are swingman Sam Clayborn (11.5 points) and Kendric Warren (5.4, but a menacing defensive presence with his shot-blocking ability).
Ernest Burton is like a sixth starter as he comes in early to give the offense a boost, averaging 11.4 points a game. Shawn Robbins is generally the first big off the bench and Jerome Jackson also gets in early.
Stafford, Jackson, Tere Adams, Brandon Glynn and Ayuk Riuk are all seniors. Stafford actually has an appeal pending that could possibly grant him one more year of eligibility.
In other first-round games, Ohio Christian plays Trinity International, Southwestern Christian tangles with Bluefield, while Grace College goes up against Alice Lloyd — the two teams in Central’s half of the draw.