COLUMBIA — Experience in the postseason can be the difference between making a championship run and sputtering to an early exit.
But with four seniors in its starting lineup, the Columbia College men’s basketball team should be in good shape entering the American Midwest Conference tournament. The Cougars (23-7) face Williams Baptist (7-20) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Southwell Complex.
AMERICAN MIDWEST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
No. 7 seed Williams Baptist (7-20, 2-12 AMC)
at No. 2 seed Columbia College (23-7, 10-4)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: The Arena of Southwell Complex
“Having experience is very important,” Cougars coach Bob Burchard said. “You know there are only so many more times to participate. You really want to have them playing with some enthusiasm and excitement.”
Two season’s ago, Burchard had to bring in a “huge” recruiting class because the Cougars were returning only three players. This season's seniors went through everything together, including learning to deal with Burchard’s coaching techniques.
“We all had to learn Coach's system,” senior forward Christian Lewis said. “He’s more of a old-school guy.”
Although the seniors have been together for only two seasons after transferring from community colleges, many of them have formed strong bonds.
Lewis, the Cougars' leading scorer this season, is from Lincoln, Neb., and is a Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. Senior teammates Terrell Turner and Jason Ellis, who are Columbia natives, give him a lot of good-natured teasing about it.
“I put my red shirt on for game day,” Lewis said. “We joke around a lot.”
Off the court, the group plays video games, goes to the mall or simply hangs out at somebody’s apartment.
“If one of us is doing something, you can probably find at least two or three of us together,” Lewis said.
The group has developed a friendly rivalry. After a frustrating loss at William Woods, Burchard decided to split his players into a blue team and a white team to use for substitutions during games.
“At halftime, we’ll argue with each other to see who held the other team to the least amount of points,” Lewis said.
The system might cause jealousy and negativity on some teams, but the Cougars have thrived. The move seems to be the turning point in their season, with the Cougars winning 10 of their past 11 games.
“At the beginning it was different, but we’re getting used to it,” Lewis said. “Everybody believes in it.”
When asked which team wins during their practices Lewis said with a big smile, “Blue team all the way.”
At No. 23 in the NAIA national rankings, Burchard says Columbia College is a “bubble team.” Performing well in the AMC Tournament this week could solidify the Cougars' chances of being one of the 12 at-large bids for the 32-team NAIA National Tournament, which begins March 18 in Kansas City. The Cougars say they prefer to earn an automatic bid by winning the AMC Tournament.
“We want to win it,” Burchard said.