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The NAIA Title Basketball Game That Wasn't... and What Lies in Store

The title game of the NAIA men’s basketball tournament would’ve taken place tonight (Tuesday, March 24) in Kansas City. But before it could even begin, the tournament was canceled, a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. Much has changed since Kansas teams like Washburn won the title in 1987 and Fort Hays State in 1984. And as Greg Echlin reports, more changes lie ahead.



Reporter: Greg Echlin
Editor: J. Schafer

Before Bob Davis became the voice of the Kansas Jayhawks, he was behind the mic when Fort Hays State won the NAIA championship…

     <<Bob Davis, 9 secs.: Shooting and missing, it’s over!!! Fort Hays has won the national championship in overtime, 48-46.}>>

That was when the tournament was played at Kemper Arena. But it has since...

     <<{Nat. Sound of the NAIA tournament in Municipal}>>

…returned to these familiar sounds of Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City. This is where it all began in 1937…

     <<{Nat. sound of big crowd cheer}

But now another NAIA tradition has been cast aside...the 32-team bracket.

     <<{Lamar, 7 secs.: I wish we could’ve convinced the powers-that-be that we could have still done this and have it be a 32-team tournament.}>>

That’s Rocky Lamar, the men’s basketball coach at Mid-America Nazarene in Olathe. The Pioneers qualified for this year’s tournament, which would have been the last year of the 32-team bracket…

     <<{Lamar, 10 secs.: I told the kids before the year started that their goal should be to be part of the 32-team tournament the NAIA was going to have.}>>

But when the tournament was canceled because of coronavirus concerns on March 12, Lamar says it was worse than trying to get his players through a season-ending loss. That’s because the only thing worse than losing…is never having a chance to win.

     <<{Lamar, 7 secs: They lost the tournament because of this coronavirus and they were just broken-hearted. There was nothing I could say to them.}>>

Next year, the tournament expands to 64 teams, but only 16 will advance to Kansas City. And that’s a different animal altogether. To become the NAIA champ, a team had to win five games in a row in no more than a seven-day stretch. That leaves little time for rest, making this the toughest tournament in the country. That fact stuck out to the late Jack Coleman, a former Louisville standout who led the Cardinals to the 1948 title.

     <<{Jack Coleman, 9 secs.: That tournament to me, as I look back on it, was the hardest week that I ever spent playing sports.}>>

In the ’48 title game, Louisville beat Indiana State, coached by the legendary John Wooden.

     <<{Jack Coleman, 9 secs.: Well, of course, it goes without saying they were a well-coached team and they had some real fine ballplayers.}

It was the only time in John Wooden’s coaching career that he lost a national championship game. Several years later Louisville and Indiana State left the NAIA ranks for the higher-profile and more lucrative NCAA. Today, current membership is around 100 fewer than what the NCAA has in Division I basketball alone. Jim Carr, the NAIA president and CEO, has been working to address that. But Carr says the current pandemic could jeopardize the future of some small colleges.

     <<{Jim Carr, 15 secs.: Students are home for the spring and everyone’s going online. I think it’s going to change people’s attitude about coming back in the fall. So if you add all those headwinds in with fewer students retaining into the fall, there will be some schools who won’t make it.}>>

Back at Mid-America Nazarene in Olathe, Rocky Lamar agrees and he’s also worried about it...

     <<{Lamar, 11 secs.: It’s very difficult right now. You have to come up with very inventive ways to make sure that you keep the doors open. Making sure you get enough kids to come in so you can keep the doors open.}>>

With the expansion of the basketball bracket to 64, the NAIA feels it’s more in uniform with its other sports championships. One thing that is universally felt among staunch NAIA fans: The void felt by the absence of this year’s final 32-team tournament. 

For Kansas Public Radio, I’m Greg Echlin.  ####

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