Concordia University men's basketball team boarded a plan Sunday morning for Kansas City, Mo., where the NAIA will host the 32-team tournament. But while the NCAA Tournament lasts weeks, the NAIA's gathering will be finished in less only six days.
Concordia, which is seeded No. 4, will play in the first round against Oklahoma Christian on Thursday.
"I just love this tournament," said Concordia Coach Ken Ammann, who is taking his team to the tournament for the sixth year in a row and ninth time in the past 10 seasons. "I played and coached in [NCAA] Division I, and I've been a part of the NCAA Tournament. We won the NIT my senior year at Stanford. But this is the most fun tournament to be a part of. Thirty-two teams at one site. … It's a great tradition, it's a great set-up and it's great basketball."
This year is the 75th anniversary of the NAIA tournament, the longest running tournament in basketball. The first three days of the tournament feature games from 9 a.m. to midnight, all played at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium.
Oklahoma Christian will pose a challenge to the Eagles, having just knocked off Oklahoma Baptist, the No. 2-ranked team in the country, in their conference tournament last week.
Meanwhile, Concordia is coming off a loss as well, losing to Biola in the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament final. It marked the third loss in three games to Biola this season.
Concordia won the GSAC's regular season championship despite being swept by Biola, which is seeded 10th in the tournament.
"We struggled against Biola," Ammann said. "That was the only problem losing to them the other night — we wanted to get them at least once. But other than that it was the perfect test for the tournament. They're a physical team, they play hard, they're well-coached, they're tough. It couldn't be a better prep team for the tournament to see if you're ready."
Ammann said his team has played well overall the past month, is peaking at the right time and is battle-tested. While last year's team was led by NAIA player of the year Justin Johnson, this year's team is more balanced — five players average double figures in scoring.
Austin Simon leads the team averaging 15.3 ppg, followed by Cameron Gliddon (14.0), Edward Willis (12.5), Tommy Granado (12.4) and Tim Harris (10.2). Dakota Downs has been big off the bench, leading the team with 7.4 rebounds per game while chipping in 9.9 points.
Ammann says everyone needs to contribute in such a fast-paced tournament, during which winning teams that advance will have to play games Thursday, Friday and Saturday to reach the final four. After Sunday off, the semifinals are played Monday, March 19 and the championship game is on Tuesday, March 20.
"You have to be really scrappy and tough," Ammann said. "It's five games in six days we're going to have to win, so it's mentally and physically tough."
"It's very different than the NCAA Tournament because it comes so fast and you have such little time to prepare for your next opponent. … It's exhausting in every way possible. If you get to the final four or the final game, you're mentally and physically drained."
But it's a good kind of draining, especially if it finishes with a national championship. Ammann has taken the Eagles to the championship game three times, but has lost the last two. The Eagles won the national championship in 2003.
"Your bench, your starters, everyone has to play well," Ammann said. "It's a battle of wills."