COLUMBIA — A black White Knight charter bus sat in the Southwell Complex parking lot Monday evening, scheduled to depart at 5:30 p.m.
Its estimated return time? That's up to the Columbia College men's basketball team.
The oxymoronic-colored bus took the basketball team from its home gym to Kansas City for the NAIA Division I Men's National Basketball Championship. Fresh off its third-straight American Midwest Conference title, the Cougars hope to avoid the trek back to Columbia until after Tuesday night's national championship game.
"This week is our bowl game," coach Bob Burchard said minutes before the bus left the campus. "It's the biggest atmosphere that we have an opportunity to play in."
Last year, the Cougars headed east earlier than they would have liked. LSU Shreveport eliminated Columbia in the quarterfinals of the tournament. It was the Cougars' only loss of the season: 79-78.
"It was a real tough loss," senior Wendell Crowder said by cellphone Monday during the team's bus ride. "We felt like we had a team that could make it all the way and win the championship. And to lose that close to a team that we really felt like we should have beat, it really hurt us."
While Burchard's focus is on the current season, that loss motivates the returning members of the 31-2 Cougars as they prepare for their first-round game Thursday against Belhaven.
"We're not undefeated this year, but we still have a really good record," senior Derrick Dilworth said from the bus. "We do know how losing feels, and we definitely don't wanna feel that again."
What the Cougars don't know is how it feels to play Belhaven. The Cougars had their eyes on the Blazers last season as a possible postseason opponent, but Columbia is "not very familiar" with Belhaven, which the Cougars have never played, Burchard said.
If the Cougars advance, however, they might have some first-hand scouting reports of their next opponent. All 32 teams in the tournament play in the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
"You all play in one gym, you get to see the teams before you go out there on the floor playing, and then, once you're playing, you've got everybody watching you," said Devin Griffin, co-conference player of the year in the American Midwest Conference. "So, everybody gets the chance to scout each other a lot and watch each other play."
While that environment is good for scouting, Burchard said the hubbub of the weekend can be a distraction. The teams don't just share court time. They also stay at the same hotels, which are located right next to the stadium.
"I think the critical thing in our tournament is, you put 32 teams all in one site, and to get to the end you have to win five games in six days," Burchard said. "And so, you really have to train yourself for that atmosphere."
But the Cougars are no newbies to the scene. The four-year seniors on the team have gone to the NAIA tournament every year.
"Having experienced guys helps because they're not spending any time looking around," Burchard said.
Crowder, one of those seniors, was prepared to take that to heart when the team approached Kansas City on Monday.
"We're chilling right now," Crowder said. "But once we get off the bus, it's strictly business."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.