By Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, MO – It wasn’t for lack of talent. It was just reality.
The Master’s University men’s basketball team jelled exceptionally well in 2016-17 despite featuring eight new players, a first-year coach and freshmen in key roles. But junior wing Delewis Johnson said the team knew it was overachieving when it won 27 games and advanced to its first NAIA Division 1 Men’s Basketball National Championship tournament since 2000.
Now, back in Kansas City, Missouri, and entering the national tournament’s first round Wednesday as the No. 1 overall seed, Johnson says the Mustangs know what they’re capable of.
“We’re on a mission to get the championship,” said Johnson, whose team plays No. 8-seed Peru State (Neb.) at 6:15 p.m. PST inside Municipal Auditorium. “We’re not going in feeling arrogant, but we’re confident in what we’re about.”
Since earning the first NAIA No. 1 ranking in school history in mid-February, the Mustangs (29-2) have hardly missed a beat, winning the first regular season Golden State Athletic Conference championship in program history and their second straight conference tourney title.
Master’s brings the nation’s fourth-highest scoring offense (92.8ppg) and 22nd stingiest defense (72.3ppg) into its ninth NAIA national tournament appearance.
The Mustangs regularly made the trip to nationals in the mid to late 1990s. But it’d been a 16-year hiatus before last year’s eye-popping turnaround.
Master’s won four games in 2015-16. But with the addition of Kelvin Starr as head coach and several high-level recruits and transfers, the team won 27 games and advanced to the second round of last year’s national tournament.
Expectations rose. And Master’s met them, reeling off a school-record 25 wins between November and mid-February and outscoring opponents by better than 20 points a game.
Starr, though, has stressed all year that Master’s must hang its hat on defense, and the team has largely bought in, deploying a deep, athletic lineup willing to defend with intensity.
Center Tim Soares, who ranks third nationally in blocked shots, earned GSAC Defense Player of the Year, the second straight time a Mustang won the award. Last year’s recipient, Lawrence Russell was named conference Player of the Year this season after averaging a team-high 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
Both players will be key to a defense with its hands full. Peru State (21-13) ranked 15th in the nation in points per game (85.8) behind the play of two explosive guards.
Quantice Hunter, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, is fourth nationally in scoring (22.2ppg). James Westbrook, a 6-4 senior guard, averages 17.8 points and is second in the country in assists with nearly six per game.
Starr’s strategy is simple. But it won’t be easy to execute.
“The key is staying in front of them,” he said.
Peru State has also proven to be something of a giant slayer. The Bobcats knocked off highly-touted William Penn (Iowa) twice this season and as recently as this month. Not that Starr needed a reminder that eight seeds are dangerous in this tournament.
“Any team in this tournament is good enough to beat you,” Starr said.
As for the rest-versus-rust debate, a question in play because the Mustangs will have had eight days off since beating Westmont College in the GSAC tournament title game, Starr said he favors the rest.
He said he believes this group is mature enough to stay locked in and intense without game action.
“We play well when we’re rested,” the senior wing said. “I don’t think we get rusty. … We always stay fine-tuned.”
Last year, the Mustangs had an extra day off, playing on the national tournament’s second day, when they beat Benedictine of Kansas in the first round before losing to eventual-champion Texas Wesleyan by two points in the second round one day later.
Now, TMU wouldn’t play again until Friday. Either way, Russell believes the Mustangs are more prepared.
“(Last year) was everyone’s first time going, and we didn’t know what to expect,” Russell said. “… We remember how it felt last year when we lost. I think that factors in this year: We don’t want to feel that way again.”
The first 30 games of the national championship will be video-streamed live at www.NAIANetwork.com, the NAIA’s official video-streaming platform powered by Stretch Internet. There is a fee.
The championship final will air on ESPN3 for the fifth-straight season on March 20.