HELENA — There are so many scenarios for the Carroll College men’s basketball team when looking at the NAIA national tournament.
The Saints are seeded third and have St. Thomas of Texas in the opening round of the 32-team, single-single-elimination bracket.
After that, potential opponents change as teams drop off.
So coach Kurt Paulson understandably focuses on Game 1 and plans to figure out his later-round plans when the time comes.
“It should be a good game,” junior guard Dane Warp said. “This team is tough. They won their conference (tournament). Everyone in Kansas City is going to be tough.”
The sixth-seeded Celts are from the Red River Athletic Conference. They won five straight, including sweeping their conference tournament.
It’s an interesting matchup since St. Thomas finished fourth in the RRAC regular season, compared to the Saints who won the Frontier Conference regular season title but ended up second to Lewis-Clark State in the tournament.
How are these teams truly matched up?
Carroll, at least, doesn’t get many opportunities to play teams outside of its region.
“A lot of times, the seeds don’t match the number,” Warp said. “It might be a 4 or 5 seed winning the whole thing.”
The mystery of the unknown makes the tournament intriguing for the teams. And it get the players’ attention.
Facing a Frontier Conference team three times in a season allows teams to know everyone’s tendencies.
“It is different since we are not as familiar with the teams,” senior forward Match Burnham said. “But the upperclassmen who have been here recognize some of the teams. We know every team in the national tournament will be a dogfight. I think we have an advantage because a lot of us have been there.”
Now it’s basic basketball, finding out who is the better team in a tournament that can last six days.
Paulson had time to develop a quality scouting report on St. Thomas and believes his team will be ready.
“You just prepare for your own team,” Paulson said. “You get your own team ready. You can’t worry about the opponent too much in these tournaments. You just have to tighten up with your team and do what you do. You can't change what we were doing all year. You just have to be more improved, especially us. We didn’t look good in the last game.”
After the opening tipoff, it’s sprint through the tournament. If the Saints reach the final game, it’s five games in six days.
Their game won’t be the big event of the day until the finals. Teams are rushed onto the court with limited warm-up to keep on schedule and the crowd consists of mixed fans.
“It’s a different feel,” Paulson said. “I know you can’t approach it like a normal game, and you can get comfortable. You have to approach it like things are going to be different with back-to-back-to-back. You have to have the guys ready from the start. You don’t get a long warm-up. You just have the guys focused on the first game and be ready from the get-go. That’s really important.”
Scouting between games will be done by the coaching staff late into the night and early morning once an opponent is set.
The Saints will hope a team on the past schedule is similar to a new opponent. That way players can draw on their experiences to mentally prepare and adapt on the court.
"It’s a weird adjustment going down there,” Burnham said. “There are lot of athletic teams, but we’ll be fine.”
That’s where the experience of the Saints come into play. The Saints have been to the national tournament the last three years.
Other teams have the same scouting issues. It’s also matter of if they can adjust to the Saints.
“I know it’s going to be a ton of fun,” freshman guard Shamrock Campbell said. “All the teams are good. We’ll have tough games, so we’ll grind them out.”
All the Saints want to do is play their best and give full effort every time out.
However, this is a veteran team that has high expectations. They want to make this their season to go beyond the Elite Eight.
“We really want to make a run this year,” Burnham said. “We’ve made it to the Elite Eight a couple times, Sweet Sixteen last year. But we really want to make a run. We have enough talent, enough experience, enough youth and enough leadership. I think we have all the pieces.”