McPherson College’s men’s basketball team probably knows the way to Point Lookout, Mo., with its eyes closed.
In recent years, the Bulldog bus has been on automatic pilot to the NAIA National Tournament. For four straight years, McPherson had competed in the field of 32, including an appearance in the Elite Eight in 2011, followed by a berth in the Final Four in 2012. No other KCAC school has ever been to nationals four years in a row, much less three.
But this year there won’t be a trip to Point Lookout or time spent seven minutes away at nearby vacation hot spot Branson. There will be no send-off party at the Sport Center, which has become a rite of March.
Friends University and another yet-to-be-determined team from the KCAC will be carrying the conference’s banner this year. Friends certainly has the firepower to make a Bulldog-like run of 2011 and 2012. And one of Sterling, Bethany or Tabor could very well win a game, maybe two. If Bethany can advance, it has the athleticism that can match up with any team in the country, though its commitment to defense is still questionable.
Mac’s remarkable four-year run ended Thursday night in Sterling as the Bulldogs were under siege by a downpour of Warrior 3-pointers. Make no mistake, Sterling was the better team. It is led by a gritty trio of senior guards, all of whom can knock down the 3-pointer and play in-your-face defense, which I believe will carry it past Bethany Saturday night. It also had much more size and length than the Bulldogs. You really had to feel for Mac rebounding machine Devirous Johnson, who still managed to snatch 11 caroms despite the fact Sterling kept sending 6-6 and 6-7 players at him.
The game signaled the end of the careers of Johnson, Samson Shivers, Erik DeRoo and D’onte Woods. It also sent a signal to Mac coach Tim Swartzendruber that he and assistant coach TJ Eskildsen must hit a home run on the recruiting trail this offseason or they could get passed by. Recruiting in the KCAC has improved by light-years as teams are going heavily toward transfers for the quick fix (see Bethany and Tabor), while freshmen are given the time to develop.
Shivers and Johnson, though, are irreplaceable. Shivers leaves Mac as its all-time leading scorer and his record may never be broken since freshmen contributing in the KCAC is becoming a lost art. Johnson spent the season leading the nation in rebounding and double-doubles and played well beyond his height.
DeRoo and Woods both came on strong at the end of the year and were good citizens and teammates with their positive attitudes.
So what’s left?
Point guard T.J. Grant, who on Thursday was named KCAC honorable mention even though he didn’t start the first half of the season, will be counted on to lead the team. He’s explosive and exciting, plus a positive influence on the court. Brian Johnson, who started most of the year, was a top-notch defender and at times could put up a lot of points as he has considerable versatility. If he could ever shoot 70 percent at the foul line, there’s no telling how many points he could put up.
Kenny Berry returned to Mac after a one-year absence. The layoff definitely showed early, but he’s solid and a return to his first-year form when he was KCAC Freshman of the Year is still possible. D’Andre Henson saw more and more minutes as the year went along and is a strong offensive player.
Kyle Lakin, the starting point guard through much of the first half of the season, will be a junior. He will spell Grant, because Swartzendruber can’t afford to play them at the same time since they are 5-8 and 5-7, respectively. Lakin, who has excellent form, must find his shot if he wants to see his minutes increase.
Derek Bevan, a 6-7 center who has been in the program for three years, could blossom as a senior. He overcame a stretch where he was out with illness, but showed a lot of improvement and got more minutes late in the year. Kaven Denno is another possibility, as he saw a surprising number of minutes Thursday.
Swartzendruber’s freshman class this year mainly served an apprenticeship on the JV level. Carson Clay, who is 6-7, did get a little varsity time, but for the most part the first-year class spent the season learning the curve.
A plus next year will be the return of 6-5 Darius Hill, who redshirted this year because of a knee injury. He was outstanding on the defensive end last year and also has some offensive pop. He’ll probably be the Bulldogs’ top newcomer next year if he returns to his 2012-13 form.
Swartzendruber knows better than anybody that he must recruit some 3-point shooters. All you have to do is look at the KCAC’s top four teams and the common thread that binds them is that they all shoot the 3 expertly. The Bulldogs were next-to-last in the KCAC in 3-point shooting, ahead of only hapless Bethel. With Shivers and DeRoo gone, that takes away Mac’s top two marksmen.
Swartzendruber also knows to keep up with the Joneses he’ll probably have to bring in three or four junior college players, a couple of them in the 6-5 to 6-7 range. They’re out there, as Bethany will certainly attest as its lineup is nearly all transfers. Swartzendruber has had success in the past with transfers, but he didn’t go that route much last year with Grant and DeRoo his best additions.
The failure to make nationals this year should make Swartzendruber and Eskildsen hungry. It’s been a long time since the program has experienced this feeling and it could prove to be a motivator. They have made a great coaching team at Mac and I have no doubt they can get the Bulldogs back in the playoff talk. But the rest of the schools have upped the ante and anymore in the KCAC it’s all about recruiting.