There was a time when McPherson College’s men’s basketball team was an automatic to the NAIA National Tournament.
Four years in a row the Bulldogs loaded up and made the trip to Point Lookout, Mo., where they made the Elite Eight in 2011 and Final Four in 2012.
In 2013 the Bulldogs finished in eighth place in the KCAC and it was thought to be a down year, but they found some magic in the KCAC Postseason Tournament to continue their streak of making it to the Big Dance with back-to-back-to-back upsets.
But the last three years have been un-Bulldog-like. The nadir was reached last year when Mac tumbled into the KCAC basement even though it lost a passel of games by close margins.
So Mac coach Tim Swartzendruber and assistant TJ Eskildsen hit the recruiting trail and hit it hard. The result was the largest roster they have ever assembled.
It’s not the nearly 50 players that Bethany coach Clair Oleen has, but it’s close to 30. The Bulldogs already had a lot of players back from last year as Kyle Lakin was the only senior. There’s a good mix of transfers and freshmen and it will come down to fact the best players will play, no matter the age.
The Bulldogs open their season tonight at Manhattan Christian, a bandbox of a place where the noise level can be ear-splitting. Then Mac is home for a weekend Classic on Friday and Saturday.
The Bulldogs gave their fans a sneak peek on Saturday with a 76-71 loss to their alumni. Now some might scoff at that result, but Aaron Frazier and Samson Shivers could still go out and get 20 against any KCAC team right now and Antowine Lamb has been playing professionally as he’s here before heading to Canada. Add in Jordan Crawford and Josh Alexander and you have a galaxy of stars.
Swartzendruber certainly has no shortage of candidates for playing time. No lineup he puts out will be without senior Chris Crook, an All-KCAC preseason pick. Senior DeAndre Henson, who played only the second semester last year, is back for full-time duty and he kept the Bulldogs in the game Saturday with 24 points. Also back for full-time duty is 6-8 senior center Reed Rowell, who was lost for much of the conference season with a severely sprained ankle. The other senior, 6-6 Ryan O’Hara, also has been dealing with injury issues.
The point guard spot is a priority. Hesston High product Grant Raleigh and freshman Garrett Owen shared the spot Saturday and one hopefully will emerge. Raleigh has made an amazing recovery from a 2015 ski accident that nearly took his life and it was feared he would never walk again. Anyone watching him play would never believe the ordeal he went through.
Crook and Aaron Bachura are the expected 3-point threats. Bachura is an especially streaky shooter who is being counted on for a more consistent season. Newcomer Jordan Windholz will by vying for time after a nice season at Barton County Community College last year.
Rowell is expected to start on the front line and will be joined by muscular newcomers Brandon Carter, Thomas Butler, Careino Gurley and Stefan Krsmanovic. The Bulldogs should not get pushed around in the paint with these bruisers on the floor.
While the Bulldogs struggled to score against their alumni, Swartzendruber chalked it up to an off-shooting night. Where the Bulldogs are going to have to be better if they're to make a big jump in the standings is getting tougher on the defensive end as they struggled to get stops last season.