The Dillard Bleu Devils head into the NAIA men’s basketball tournament with much hope after a hot-shooting performance in winning the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament.
Meanwhile, the Xavier Gold Rush enters the national tournament looking to regroup after losing steam in the conference finals.
Dillard and Xavier play first-round games Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri. The Blue Devils (21-10), seeded sixth, play No. 2 seed Hope International (California) in a Liston bracket game at 12:30 p.m. The Gold Rush (21-12) are seeded eighth and play the No. 1 seed in the Cramer bracket, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) at 8 p.m.
“Usually, our post play carries us,” Dillard coach Mike Newell said. “If we can continue to get the type of guard play we got in the (GCAC) tournament, we’re going to be hard to reckon with in the national tournament.
“We played close games against tough competition early before we meshed. We had No. 1-ranked LSU-Alexandria beat but lost in overtime. So we’re going in feeling pretty good.”
Dillard put on a dazzling display in shooting 55.6 percent, including 54.5 percent (12-of-22) in beating Xavier in the tournament final. That had Gold Rush coach Dannton Jackson bent on fine-tuning his team, which beat Tougaloo in double-overtime, then knocked off No. 1 seed Talladega in the GCAC semifinals.
“I like the way we’ve shot the ball and how resilient and tough we were,” Jackson said. “We want to get a little better defensively. And there are some things we want to clean up offensively in terms of our continuity.”
Dillard heads into the tournament with post player Demetic Austin and point guard Dennis Hightower playing at a high level. Austin is the key, averaging 20.6 points per game, 11th in the nation, and 9.3 rebounds, which is 13th. Hightower, who had a triple-double in the GCAC semifinals, is fifth in the nation in assists (5.8).
His floor play, along with Austin in the post, has opened things up, and guards Jessie Ward and Houston Chatman are getting open shots and have become more confident.
Dillard also may have a weapon off the bench in 6-foot-9 post player Ramon Johnson, who often pairs with Austin.
Hope International (26-6) is ranked seventh in the NAIA. It is led by 6-8 forward Tuff Barnes and 6-6 guard Garrett Neilan, both of whom were chosen All-Golden State Athletic Conference. Neilan was the defensive player of the year.
It shapes up as an interesting battle between fast-paced, high-scoring Dillard (84.7 ppg) against Hope, which is second in the nation in defense (38.8 percent opponents’ shooting, 62.2 ppg allowed) and likes to play at a slower pace.
As the lowest seed, the Gold Rush appear to face an impossibly difficult task. However, Xavier, third in defense (39.1 percent allowed, 64.0 points), has good size and depth in the post, and fourth-ranked Lewis-Clark (28-4) has a lineup in which the tallest player is 6-6.
However, that player, forward Jacob Wiley, was the Frontier Conference player of the year. The Warriors lead the nation in 3-point shooting (43.1 percent) and are ninth in the nation in scoring (89.1 ppg).
If Dillard wins, it would meet the winner of the Texas Wesleyan-Campbellsville game at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Xavier would meet the winner of the No. 4 Feed-Hardeman-No. 5 Our Lady of the Lake game at 9:45 p.m. Friday.