BILLINGS — Taking a little bit of everything, the Rocky Mountain College men’s basketball players loaded up their plates at Pizza Ranch on late Wednesday afternoon.
The group was quiet as they ate, waiting for the pairings for the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship to be announced.
After the pairings flashed on the screen, the players were a bit more chatty.
Nothing makes for dinner talk like a berth in the NAIA Tournament.
And a few might have had slight indigestion after it was announced that the Battlin’ Bears had drawn No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Georgetown of Kentucky in the first round.
“I felt the same,” said senior guard Craig Wilmore. “I was all right.”
The Battlin’ Bears (19-12) received an at-large bid. They are one of three Frontier Conference teams that will be playing March 20-26 at Municipal Arena in Kansas City. Joining Rocky are Frontier Conference Tournament champion Lewis-Clark State (27-6) and Carroll College (25-7).
Rocky will play the Tigers of the Mid-South Conference (28-4) at 3:45 p.m. on March 20.
The Warriors, winners of 12 straight, play Campbellsville of Kentucky that same day at 9:45 a.m. while the Saints play March 21 against St. Thomas (23-10) of Texas at 11:30 a.m.
Campbellsville, also from the Mid-South and nicknamed the Tigers, is an at-large selection while St. Thomas was the tournament champion for the Red River Athletic Conference.
This will be Rocky’s 10th appearance at the national tournament. The Battlin’ Bears won the national championship in 2009. Their last time in Kansas City was 2015.
“This is a good group of guys,” said Rocky head coach Bill Dreikosen motioning to his players across the room. “They really wanted this moment. This era of players have never been to the tournament. It’s fun that this group finally gets the opportunity.”
Dreikosen’s phone rang in mid-sentence. It was former Rocky player Matt Strickland, who is an assistant with LSU Shreveport. LSU Shreveport also received an at-large berth and is on the same side of the bracket as the Battlin’ Bears.
Rocky’s postseason chances looked to be more precarious after it lost to Montana Tech in the first round of the Frontier Conference Tournament, but Dreikosen remained confident.
“Third place in the Frontier Conference overall,” he said of the regular season standings. “They look at what you do overall, not just one game.”
And those 19 wins include victories over Lewis-Clark State and Carroll.
“Coach kept saying to believe, there was hope,” Wilmore said. “Our season was up and down. Sometimes we played well, sometimes we didn’t.
“Now, it’s a matter of just having everybody together. We know we’re going to the tournament. We have to get ready and get locked in. We need to go there, have fun and play some basketball.”
Georgetown is making its 38th appearance at the national tournament and 28th in a row, both best among the 32-team field.
It will be the third time Dreikosen has played the Tigers on a national stage as a player or coach.
“The players told me it’s tough to beat a team three times,” Dreikosen said. “We’re just happy to be one of the teams that get to represent the Frontier Conference.”
NOTES: The top four seeds are Georgetown, LSU Alexandria (28-3), Benedictine of Kansas (30-3) and Tougaloo of Mississippi (28-4) … There are no undefeated teams in the field, and 17 who played in the 2018 tournament return … Stillman (Alabama) is the lone team making its debut in the NAIA Tournament … This is Carroll’s 13th appearance. The Saints are 12-12 at the national tournament … Lewis-Clark State is playing in the national tournament a 14th time, where they are 3-13.