Irvine Scene: Eagles find way home

The Concordia University men's basketball team will play a game on its home floor Tuesday night against San Diego Christian. But it's been so long since the last one there, the game might as well be on the moon.

The Eagles are 6-0 this season, all six games away from CU Arena. In fact, the Eagles have not played a game on their home floor since March 8, when they beat Azusa Pacific to win last season's Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament.

Tuesday's game against San Diego Christian is also the GSAC opener, so San Diego Christian didn't have a choice. As it is, the Eagles were able to schedule only three nonconference home games all season.

"We have a hard time getting home games," Concordia Coach Ken Ammann said, noting that of the team's 12 scheduled non-conference games, nine are away from CU Arena.

Asked why, Ammann said: "I think in the last five years we're 75-4 at home."

Truth is, it doesn't really matter where the Eagles play. They are ranked No. 4 in the NAIA national poll, and only one of their six victories so far this season ended with a margin of fewer than 15 points — a 97-89 win over NCAA Division II Sonoma State on Nov. 19.

The Eagles are picked to win the always-tough GSAC and contend again for a national title. It's par for the course at Concordia, especially since Ammann took over the program 10 years ago.

But what makes it even more impressive is that Concordia hasn't missed a beat despite losing Justin Johnson and Taylor King from a team that finished 32-4 last season.

Johnson was the NAIA Player of the Year in his senior season, and the vagabond King was an first-team NAIA All-American who reportedly decided to play professionally in Germany instead of return for his senior season.

This year's team is making an art form of spreading it around, as the Eagles have had at least five players score in double figures in all six games. And they've had five different players lead the team in scoring in their six games, the only repeat high scorer being Austin Simon.

Six players, led by Simon's 19.3 points per game, are averaging double figures in scoring — Cameron Gliddon (16.8), Edward Willis (12.0), Donnell Phifer (11.5), Tommy Granado (11.5) and Dakota Downs (10.7) are the others.

"We've always been pretty balanced," said Ammann, who coached the Eagles to an NAIA national championship in 2003. "It always seems to work out that way, the way we play. Even Justin last year only averaged 14 a game and still got player of the year.

"Our guys typically are unselfish and they all buy into the team concept. That helps us; it gives us an advantage when we get guys that don't care about their stats. It's a fun way to play too. Austin's getting 19, 20 a game but he's not trying to score 20 a game. He's just trying to play hard and lead the team."

The Eagles not only are talented, but they are experienced, led by seniors Simon, Granado, Gliddon and Willis. And Phifer, a junior, might be the best point guard in the conference, Ammann said.

While the Eagles have national championship aspirations, Ammann says he and his players need to focus on the short-term goals.

"Our goal every year is to try to win the league title if we can, and we've won four of the last five," Ammann said. "That gets us to the national tournament. We've been in three [national] title games and won one of them. To win a national championship is hard, you have to win five games in six or seven days. It's tough but it's great to get back there, and our goal is to get back there."

Last year's team was ranked No. 2 in the nation when it was beaten in the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament, a game marred by some controversial fouls on Johnson, who fouled out in a two-point loss to Georgetown (Ky.).

But Ammann said last year's sudden and disappointing finish didn't leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

"We had a great season last year; we didn't lose for like three months," Ammann said. "We won almost every game in the preseason, went 19-1 in league, and won our conference tournament. We felt like we had the best team and one of our best chances to win a national championship. But it doesn't always happen."

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