COLUMBIA — After the Columbia College men’s basketball team finished 16-16 in 2006-07 and returned three players for 2007-08, expectations for the season were low.
A preseason coaches poll conducted by the American Midwest Conference predicted the Cougars would finish third in theeight-team conference. A berth in the national tournament? Laughable. Even Cougars coach Bob Burchard admitted he didn’t expect a banner year for Cougar basketball.
They were wrong.
The Cougars are 23-6, 11-2 in the AMC conference, in the middle of a seven-game winning streak and a game away from a conference title. As the No. 20 team in the NAIA, the Courgarsare also all but assured one of 32 bids in the NAIA Division I National Championship tournament beginning March 19 in Kansas City.
Although others’ expectations were low, Columbia College didn’t allow that to affect itsgoals as a team.
“When we started conference play, one of our goals as a team was to be ranked in the Top 25,” said senior Mikel Fields, one of the returning Cougars. “Our other goal was to win the conference, and now, going into Tuesday’s game, we have a chance to accomplish that, so it’s really exciting for everybody involved.”
Although Burchard says he is surprised by what his team has accomplished, the Cougars’success isn’t difficult to explain.
“First off, these guys like each other, and I think chemistry is one of the biggest things any successful team has and it’s the hardest thing to coach,” Burchard said. “You can’t force people to like each other, and I think it’s been evident from day one that this team gets along, likes coming to practice and likes being together. They’re also very level and put out a consistent level of effort from practice to games, which really keeps a team running through the long haul. Lastly, I think this team is full of intelligent guys, they’re very sincere in wanting to do well and it shows.”
Burchard is impressed with his team’s consistency, but the Cougars willneed an above average effort to get passedits final obstacle, No. 12 McKendree (Ill.). In their first matchup, McKendree beat the Cougars 79-50 in Lebanon, Ill., and Burchard says even if the Cougars don’t win the second time around, just playing the Bearcats could be valuable for the rest of the season.
“I feel like McKendree has put together a top 10 season, and this is one of the most talented teams they’ve had in recent memory,” Burchard said. “You’re going to see teams like this on the national level, and if we feel like we can compete on the national scene, then we’re going to have to compete well against teams like McKendree.”
McKendree’s only conference loss came on Feb. 9 to Illinois-Springfield, a team Columbia College has beaten twice this season. McKendree averages more than 85 points a game, and features the conference’s top scorer in junior guard Eric Palm, who scores more than 18 points a game.
A regular season title would give the Cougars more than just a banner to hang inside Southwell Complex, though. With a victory, Columbia College would earn homecourt advantage throughout the AMC Tournament next week.
As the season winds down, Burchard says the importance of the games aren’t that much different from what his players do in the classroom.
“You prepare all year, and then at the end, you start taking finals,” Burchard said. “End of the year games, conference tournaments and all that are very much like finals, you want to be prepared, show improvement and I think this game is a great opportunity to see where we are in comparison to earlier in the year, and on the national level as well.”
Tuesday’s game is a rescheduled date from a game that was postponed Thursday because of bad weather.