BY CHRIS STONER
NEW ALBANY —
A highly-ranked Indiana college basketball team begins its quest for a national championship on Wednesday and it does not hail from Bloomington.
The IU Southeast Grenadiers are the 11th seed in the 32-team NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship tournament in Point Lookout, Mo., on the campus of College of the Ozarks and will battle the Valley City State (N.D.) University Vikings in Round 1 at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday.
The national tournament appearance is the Grenadiers’ sixth straight under head coach Wiley Brown. In 2010, the Grenadiers (27-4) achieved their highest NAIA national ranking in the history of IU Southeast athletics and advanced to the NAIA Elite Eight for the first time. This year’s squad has its sights set even higher after coming off last week’s sixth straight Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament title.
“We gave them (last) Wednesday off to relax,” Brown said. “Then we found out who were playing and what seed we were and then we were back at practice. We got together some film on our opponent and started putting in sets of what we need to do to beat them. We had a great four to five days of practice.”
The Vikings (21-8) are making their first-ever appearance in the national tournament. VCSU averages just 70 points per game, which pales in comparison to the Grenadiers’ high-powered attack that puts up 87 points per contest.
“If you look at them (VCSU) on film, you would think they scored 90 per game,” Brown said of his team’s first-round opponent. “They’re going to try to run with us. They have the athletes to do so. It’s going to be a great game. I just hope our pressure wears them down, and in the end we get the scoring up near 90 where we want it.”
The Vikings make an average of eight triples per game and have four players averaging in double figures, led by senior guard Sekani Milligen at 18 points per game.
“They are a very good shooting team,” Brown said of VCSU. “We played a team like that in Point Park. They shoot it well from all five spots. They play great defense also. It’s going to be a good test for us.”
Cameron Mitchell, who was named the KIAC Player of the Year, leads IU Southeast in scoring at 17 points per game. Jake Simpson, who Brown has called his most consistent player all season, puts up 15 points and five rebounds per game.
But the Grenadiers’ head man was not bashful about who can and needs to step up and be the X-factor this week in Missouri.
“Kegan Clark can be that difference maker for us,” Brown said of the former Jeffersonville Red Devil. “He can take this team a long ways. Not only does Kegan have it physically, he has the other aspects of the game. He’s the best player when he goes out there and has to realize that. He was an Indiana All-Star [in high school]. He has to step up and put this team on his shoulders. Kegan should get you 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] every night. He has that much talent. He has to believe it. I’m hoping he will.”
While IU Southeast’s high-scoring offense grabs most of the headlines, Brown talks continually about the defensive pressure his team can apply on its opponent. The Vikings have a statistic anomoly for a team that has made the national tournament: they have more turnovers than assists on the season.
That’s a statistic that Brown and his coaching staff noticed immediately.
“When we noticed their turnover numbers, we worked on our presses extensively in practice,” Brown said. “We’ve seen games they played when they were pressured and we like what we think our pressure can do to them. We have to challenge their shots. We have to make every possession uncomfortable for them.”
If the Grenadiers advance, they will play the winner between Saint Xavier (Ill.) and Saint Mary (Kan.) at 4 p.m. on Friday.