HELENA — Three Frontier Conference men’s basketball teams earned berths in the NAIA national tournament with Carroll College being the highest seed from Montana.
Lewis-State Clark claimed the No. 2 seed in the Liston Bracket, while the Saints took second in the Duer Bracket and Rocky Mountain College was placed No. 8 in the Naismith Bracket.
All three head to Kansas City, Missouri, for the 32-team, single-elimination tournament in the Municipal Auditorium. The first round beings Wednesday with the championship game scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN3.
“We are very excited for the guys,” Saints coach Kurt Paulson said. “We’ve had a great season to get this far. Now it’s time to flip the script to the national stage and show everybody what we can do. We are excited to keep playing. A lot of teams are looking for next year, and we get to keep playing. Our guys are hungry. We have a sour taste in our mouths from the (Frontier Conference) championship (defeat). So we are ready to rock n’ roll.”
The Saints knew they were going to be in the tournament after winning the Frontier Conference’s regular-season title and finishing runner-up in the conference tournament.
They just wanted to know the time, date and opponent of the first matchup so they could get started on scouting.
Carroll meets sixth-seeded St. Thomas of Texas at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday. A win in that game moves the Saints into an 8 a.m. game Friday against the winner of No. 2 Alabama Stillman-No. 7 Oklahoma City contest.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Paulson said of the bracket. “We were told that L-C State and Carroll were locks for the tournament, after that it was up in the air. It was good to see a third team get in from our league.”
Rocky faces No. 1 Kentucky Georgetown at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday. The winner goes on to meet either No. 4 California William Jessup or LSU Shreveport at 11:30 a.m. Friday.
The Battlin’ Bears showed well enough to get in by finishing third in the regular season, even though they were upset by Montana Tech in the first round of the conference tournament that Lewis-Clark State won.
The Warriors start off with No. 7 Kentucky Campbellsville at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday with the hopes of a 1:15 p.m. Friday game against California Vanguard or Iowa’s William Penn.
“Those are tough teams,” junior guard Dane Warp said of the Frontier teams. “They both have size. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make runs.”
The Saints (25-7) have been using the last week since the conference title game loss to recover from the long season, while also fine-tuning their game.
A lack of depth and injuries took their toll on the players late in the season. And that contributed to a sluggish second half.
“For our group it was good to have this week in-between (tournaments),” Paulson said. “We played so many games in January and February, there wasn’t a lot of practice time. Last week and this week we’ve been trying to take advantage of that (time).”
The last loss haunts the Saints, so they want finish the season strong. Paulson knows the team didn’t play its best at the end and there’s plenty to improve before the next tournament.
“This is the lowest seed we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Warp said. “We are still excited. We feel we have a chip on our shoulder. We feel we didn’t play our best game (against L-C State). We think we can put it together in Kansas City. We got guys who have been down (to the national tournament before). We’ll are looking forward to putting the best team out there and be best version of ourselves.”
One of the team’s key players, Matt Wyman, continues to feel better after a hyper-extended knee injury. After missing four weeks, he returned in the semifinals on March 2 and he’s expected to closer to his old self in Kansas City.
“Matt Wyman is getting better every day,” Paulson said. “And the rest of our guys just needed to get stronger and rest. We’ll be ready. We have a lot of guys with experience down there.”