The madness of March is not exclusive to the so-called big boys of college basketball. While the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament's Final Four is still a couple weeks away, the NAIA's version is right here, right now.
Irvine's Concordia University has put together another remarkable season, going 19-1 to win the Golden State Athletic Conference regular season, winning the conference tournament, then went into the NAIA Division I men's 32-team tournament in Kansas City, Mo. seeded No. 2, sporting an impressive 30-3 overall record.
Saturday, they lost to Georgetown (Ky.), 69-67, falling a game short of reaching the Final Four and ending their season. Georgetown guard Eddie Gray converted a layup to win the game with 1.6 seconds left.
Despite falling short of their national championship goals, the Eagles enjoyed another incredible season. They ended their season with the fifth 30-win season in program history, at 32-4.
In reaching the NAIA's Elite Eight, Concordia won its first two games of the tournament earlier this week.
In Thursday's first-round game against Southern Poly State (Ga.), the Eagles jumped out to an early 18-6 lead and were never seriously threatened the rest of the way. Though Southern Poly cut Concordia's lead to 10 points at the half, the Eagles ran away with the game in the second half to win, 96-64.
Justin Johnson, the GSAC Player of the Year, led the way with a game-high 25 points, while Taylor King added 18 points and eight rebounds.
Then on Friday against Evangel (Mo.) University, Concordia put the game away by halftime, taking a 64-35 lead at the break. It allowed coach Ken Ammann to clear his bench, as all 11 players who played in the game scored in the 102-62 victory.
Johnson led the way with 24 points in only 19 minutes, and King had 16 points and six rebounds as the Eagles moved on.
"More than a little," Ammann said when asked if he was a little surprised by how easily his team won those first two tournament games. "Especially the first one. We were nervous going into that game."
The Eagles shot 55% or better in both games, but Ammann said it was his team's defense that made the difference.
"Our defensive intensity is the best I've ever seen," he said. "It was surprising. We're playing at a very high level right now."
Johnson, a 6-foot-2 guard from Tustin, became even more vital to Concordia's success when 6-foot-8 center Ben Smith, a four-year starter, broke a bone in his leg during practice before the tournament began.
"We're missing our low-post defensive presence, forcing us to rely on our guards, our quickness and our depth," Ammann said.
But Ammann was quick to add that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing to rely on Johnson.
"He's extremely talented, he's a hard worker and he's a rock solid person," Ammann said of Johnson, who played just 22 minutes in Saturday's game because of foul trouble. He was whistled for two offensive fouls and went on to foul out for the third time in his career.
"It was a shame to see the best player in the country go out with five suspect fouls," Ammann said. "He was jumping sideways and feeding people, and guys were just flopping because they knew they had to get him out of the game.
"I was sad to see Justin go out that way. He's the best we'll ever have. He is the greatest worker, the greatest person, and the greatest player in the country. He had a tremendous career."
Johnson, who still scored 12 points and grabbed a pair of steals, finished his career as the only player in school history — and just the second player in conference history — to win back-to-back GSAC Player of the Year honors.
He finished his two-year career with Concordia with 1,076 points, tying former assistant coach Chris Victor for sixth on the all-time list.
Complementing Johnson's perimeter play was King, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Villanova. He led the Eagles in scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg).
"We have two of the top players in the country," Ammann said.
And one of the top coaches.
Ammann has taken Concordia to the national championship game three times, losing in the final in 2004 and 2007, but winning the national crown in 2003 while earning national coach of the year honors.
He came to Concordia in 2001 with solid credentials — he was a two-year starter as a player at Stanford, from which he graduated in 1991. He was an assistant at San Jose State, Canada College, Pepperdine and GSAC rival Azusa Pacific before taking the head coaching job at Concordia.
While his accomplishments at Concordia certainly qualify him for a step up in the coaching ranks, he says he is in no hurry to move on.
"I like where I'm at a lot," he said. "It's a great life, it's a great level and I'm very satisfied with what we're doing here."
The NAIA's Final Four games on Monday and the title game Tuesday will not get nearly the attention the NCAA Tournament gets, but don't sell Ammann's Eagles short.
"We're better than some of the lower teams in that (NCAA) tournament," he said. "We've beaten UC Irvine the last two years. We could compete in the Big West. I'd say we play at a high (NCAA) Division II level, or lower Division I level."