KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Kurt Paulson agreed to be Carroll College’s next men’s basketball coach, he was supposed to inherit a veteran team.
He would have had four seniors in his starting lineup and his younger players could take a back seat and learn for the future.
It took just two games for that plan to fly out the window.
The susceptibility to injuries is no secret to those who have watched Carroll basketball this season.
Five players have missed games for reasons as serious as a season-ending ACL tear to an injured shin over the course of the five-month season. A once deep bench has become shorter and shorter as the season advances.
But now with the Saints one win away from another NAIA tournament quarterfinal appearance, they took to their freshmen. A once young, inexperienced group of players, just months removed from high school, emerged into seasoned players that their coaches know they can turn to.
Point guard Shamrock Campbell and forwards Jovan Sljivancanin and Eetu Villa have been forced to play extended minutes, but their contributions have not gone unnoticed.
The three freshmen saw themselves on the floor at the same time in what could have been the Saints final game this season. As they battled against the University of St. Thomas in Thursday’s first round win, Paulson had nothing but faith in his young core.
“These guys are huge, and I thought all three of them played tremendously,” Paulson said. “They gave us a huge lift.”
The NAIA tournament is a single elimination tournament that can feature five games in six days if a team reaches the national title game.
But that pressure did not intimidate the freshmen, nor did it shake Paulson’s confidence in his young players.
Campbell started his 31st consecutive game since 6-8 senior point forward Alejandro Santos Piqueras tore his ACL.
The young point guard from Spokane, Washington, has shown he can score, averaging 9.0 points per game, but that was not needed.
He finished with three rebounds and two assists in 32 minutes of play and let Sljivancanin take care of the scoring in the first half.
Sljivancanin came off the bench after senior Ife Kalejaiye picked up a quick second foul in the first half.
“Even though we are freshmen, we played like we have been here before,” Sljivancanin said. “This is a great experience for us.”
Sljivancanin’s minutes increased since February, when senior Matt Wyman hyper-extended his knee. He has shown he can lead an offense, like when he scored 19 points and grabbed 18 rebounds against the University of Providence on Feb. 16. All he needed was a little self-assurance.
“When I got in there, he gave me the confidence I needed,” Sljivancanin said. “I’m getting better, and I know it’ll help me in the future.
While the three freshmen stand in the bright lights of the NAIA tournament, Wyman and fellow senior Match Burnham stand with them.
They don’t look down on them as the newcomers or young freshmen. They know they wouldn’t be in the place that they are in without them.
Burnham wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They are ready for all the challenges they are going to face,” he said.