The men’s basketball team just finished off the most successful regular season in program history, winning a regular season title and reaching the highest ranking in school history. There still remains one contest for the Golden Eagles’ season to try to prove their worth.
The Eagles will open the NAIA National Men’s Basketball Tournament today at 12:30 p.m. against Life (Ga.) in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
JBU has a fourth seed in the tournament where seeds do not matter. In the last decade, the top four seeds have won a championships as often as unranked teams.
One of those unranked champions was the 2005 Golden Eagles, who rode a hot shooting streak from Tournament MVP Brandon Cole to a national title.
This year’s team will open against the unranked Life University Running Eagles, who have a history of their own in the tournament. Life won three national championships in four years from 1997-2000. Since then, Life made the tournament four times, losing in the first round each time.
This season, Life went 19-2 en route to a TranSouth Athletic Conference title. The Running Eagles are ranked first in the nation in steals per game with 3.13.
“They are probably the most athletic team we’ll go against all year,” said men’s head coach Clark Sheehy. “They create a lot of turnovers … [and] they put a lot of pressure on you defensively, and that’s how they generate a lot of their offense.”
Life presents a particularly difficult first round opponent for the Golden Eagles considering their recent struggles with turnovers. In the Sooner Athletic Conference title game, the Eagles had 13 first half turnovers and fell behind by 22 points. A second half, in which the Eagles only committed two turnovers, saw them almost come back and erase their deficit.
“We’re not going to have a game with no turnovers, … because they’re really athletic, and they’re going to create some,” Sheehy said. “We’re going to have some [turnovers], … but what’s hard is when you have four straight turnovers.”
Even before the Eagles knew their first round opponent, they were focusing on cutting down turnovers, as well as rebounding, both of which were issues in losses to Oklahoma Baptist and Oklahoma City.
“We try to focus on the things we’ve been talking about and understanding that in order for us to have a chance to play to the very best of our ability, we’ve got to focus in on one possession at a time,” Sheehy said. “We’ve got to play our best ball our first game. Every [tournament] game means the same because if you don’t play well it’ll be your last game.”
The atmosphere in Kansas City is a lot different than Bill George Arena, and part of that is the uncertainty of playing schools that the team has never encountered before.
“Our guys understand that it’s hard to get a real good feel for the teams across the country because you don’t see them,” Sheehy said. “There’s an excitement that comes with playing in a national tournament. We want to let that work for you not against you.”
This year’s seniors have experience succeeding in a tournament setting. Abel Galliguez, EJ McWoods and Coleson Rakestraw were all part of a 2010 squad that won five straight tournament games, winning the SAC Conference tournament and advancing to the national Elite Eight.
“Our three seniors have played so well the second semester and postseason, and hopefully we can continue that. How they play is a big part of how we play,” Sheehy said. “Having been there and having some success there, they’ll feel good about it and maybe we can have some more success.”