WICHITA – Watching video of Indiana University-Kokomo two things were abundantly clear to Anthony Monson: the Athletics are very good on the defensive end of the court and are ferocious rebounders.
“They play a really strong back line defense like we do,” he said. “They’re a little bit like Oklahoma Wesleyan in the way they keep you out of the paint … just the dynamic of how they want you to be on the perimeter. And they rebound very well as a group. They’re very committed to it, it’s their identity.”
Monson and the Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes play IU-Kokomo in the first round of the NAIA Men’s National Championship at 2 p.m. Tuesday inside Garvey Gymnasium on the Friends University campus. KWU (25-4) is the fifth seed and IUK (23-8) the 12th in the Liston Quadrant. The winner plays either fourth-seeded Morningside (Iowa) or No. 13th Columbia (Mo.) in the second round at 3 p.m. Wednesday in Garvey. The Morningside-Columbia game is at noon Tuesday.
Wesleyan is back in the Wichita area for the NAIA tournament for the second consecutive season and the fourth time overall. The Coyotes defeated Indiana-South Bend in the first round in Hartman Arena in Park City last year before losing to OKWU in the second round.
It will be the first game in 13 days for KWU after losing to Sterling in the first round of the Kansas Conference Tournament on March 22 in Mabee Arena.
“We’re itching to get back on a court and wondering how rusty we’re going to be,” Monson said. “You can practice all you want but simulating game situations is a lot different. We’ve had a little bit of a break, hopefully that was good in the right ways and doesn’t slow us down once we get going again.”
The Coyote players are ready.
“I’m getting tired of seeing purple and gold on the other side, I’m ready to see someone else,” said Easton Hunter (JR/Colwich, Kan.), who hails from nearby Colwich. “(The regular season) didn’t end how we wanted to so I think we’re all ready to get back on the court and be better.”
“It was a bad feeling losing (to Sterling) but at least to get to see another day,” Wichita product Izaiah Hale (SO/Wichita, Kan.) said. “We can’t underestimate anyone. No matter who we play we’ve got to go out on the court and give it our all.”
Success Tuesday will depend on how well the Coyotes handle IUK’s stellar defense. The Cougars ranked 20th in the NAIA in points allowed per game (65.7), 18th in opponents field goal percentage (41.4), 27th in steals (8.8) and 40th in opponents 3-point percentage (30.8).
“They want to stop dribble penetration then contest all 3-point shots,” Monson said. “They want you to get bottled up in the paint and have to kick it out and they’re going to run and close you out and run you off the (3-point) line.
“We’ve got to move the basketball against them. If we get jump shot happy and we’re not hitting we’re going to be in trouble. Whoever can find their rhythm offensively is probably going to win the game.”
“Their defense is very good,” Hunter said. “They’re kind of like us, they really strive on the defensive end which leads to offense.”
Rebounding another huge concern. IUK has a plus-5.1 rebounding advantage (41st in the NAIA), ranks 16th in defensive rebounds (29.3) and 25th in total rebounds (39.6).
IUK received an at-large bid after losing to Indiana Southeast 68-60 in the River State Conference championship February 28 in Kokomo. The Cougars won the RSC West Division title finishing one game ahead of Southeast.
IUK averages 77 points and is led by senior guard Hunter White, who averages 15.6 points along with 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Freshman forward Ty Willis averages 10.8 points off the bench; senior forwards Zach Rinehart and Darian Porch average 7.2 and 6.5 rebounds respectively.
“White is experienced and knows what to do,” Monson said. “He can score on different levels. He can shoot the three, get to the rim, hit the midrange shot and he’s lefthanded on top of that.”
“We’ve seen some good guards but we can’t let anybody get going,” Hale said. “We just have to play our game, get up and down (the court) and try to play fast. We have to defend and try to move the ball.”
Alex Littlejohn (SO/Newton, Kan.) leads KWU in scoring (14.6) and rebounding (8.9) and has 20 double-doubles. Jun Murdock (JR/Wichita, Kan.) averages 11.2 points, Cory Kaplan (JR/Merritt Island, Fla.) 9.1 and Hunter 8.9. Hunter has a team-high 61 3-pointers and is shooting 43.6 percent beyond the arc.
Playing in Wichita is a bonus for Hale and Hunter.
“A lot of friends of family will be there,” Hale said. “There’s a sense of familiarity having been in (Garvey) and played there.”
“It’s homecourt advantage,” Hunter said. “I hope we get a lot of fans there wearing purple and yellow. Being back in Wichita is going to be exciting and fun.”
Having played in last year’s national tournament will help to a certain extent, according to Monson.
“Last year we were excited to be there and compete,” he said. “This year we’re past that point, now we want to get something done. That experience is going to help but the same time it’s a win or go home situation. If you don’t show up you’re going home – we found that out the hard way a couple of weeks ago.”