Mac men gearing up for another miracle run?

By Steve Sell
February 21, 2014

You know what the rest of the teams in the KCAC had to be thinking Thursday night as word of McPherson College’s 107-93 upset of Bethany College cannonaded throughout the conference.

“Are they going to do it again?”

McPherson College has been the KCAC’s national tournament flag bearer the last four years. After making nationals for the first time in school history in 2010, the Bulldogs made the Elite Eight in 2011, then went one step farther in 2012 by making the Final Four. They won both the KCAC regular-season and postseason titles that year.

Last year, the Bulldogs slid to eighth place in the standings, getting into the playoffs on the final night of the regular season.

They were expected to be one-and-done, but shocked KCAC champion Saint Mary on the road in the first round, then stunned Friends in the semifinals in Wichita on Kasey Miller’s improbable buzzer-beater. They completed the miracle run by outlasting Sterling in the finals, then gave No. 1-seed William Penn all it wanted — even leading in the second half — before losing in the first round at nationals.

The Bulldogs are again toiling in the second division. The team that coach Tim Swartzendruber had envisioned before the season started in no way resembles the team now, as two expected starters never saw the floor and another was lost a few weeks back.

Swartzendruber has cobbled together a team, however, that is now playing its best basketball. The Bulldogs’ upset of Bethany was the biggest win of the year and could signal that they’ll be a tough out in the tournament. They also recently notched a win over Saint Mary, which is tied with Bethany for third place, while playing Ottawa and Tabor down to the wire. Of their 10 KCAC losses, six have been by six points or less.

The Bulldogs field an incredibly small lineup now as guard Brian Johnson actually is the tallest starter at 6-4. A key is that 6-3 Devirous Johnson plays like he’s 6-7, leading the nation in rebounding and double-doubles as he recorded his 21st against the Swedes. That’s one reason the Bulldogs somehow rank second in the KCAC in rebounding, which is all about heart, desire and toughness.

As far as who the Bulldogs would face in the first round, the big hope is that it’s not Friends. Also, playing Bethany at Hahn Gym wouldn’t be ideal, but I think Mac matches up well with Sterling. It lost to the Warriors in overtime in the first meeting (after leading by five points with 12 seconds to play), then lost by 13 at Sterling, though that game was close for much of the way.

As for Bethany, I am shocked that the Swedes are in a free fall, having lost four of their last five. This is as gifted an offensive team as I’ve seen in my 35 years, led by Idris IbnIdris. He seemingly can score at will and sometimes the game comes so easy for him that he looks bored. The Swedes have good size, though they might have lost post player Vincent Roybal for a while after he suffered a concussion against McPherson College. That comes on the heels of losing defensive ace Nathan Coleman to a knee injury the game before against Kansas Wesleyan.

I talked with veteran Bethany coach Clair Oleen after the game and his frustration was obvious. The Swedes were in control of their own destiny just three weeks ago and looked unbeatable. They score more than 90 points a game, but their defense has simply gone south. It’s not the “Hard 40” that Oleen preaches and he’s always prided himself on how well his team defends.

If the Swedes make the commitment to defense — they’re too athletic not to be able to get in peoples faces — I still think they can win the postseason tournament. Oleen is flush with individual talent, the best in the conference in my opinion. Their hopes are going to come down to how badly they want it.