Cougars reaching top form

Thursday, December 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

At the beginning of the season, Columbia College coach Bob Burchard said he was worried about his men’s basketball team winning one game, much less producing the 13-1 record and No. 15 ranking it has accumulated.

Considering Burchard has one losing record in his previous 15 seasons at Columbia College, that statement was probably hyperbole.

Still, Burchard had at least two reasons to be concerned on the first day of practice.

For one, he had to incorporate seven first-year players into the program. Second, the Cougars’ post players were inexperienced and not particularly tall.

Starters Tim Melz, a power forward, and Craig Bryan, a center, are community college transfers, and sophomore Nahowan Saxon, the Cougars’ top inside substitute, played sparingly as a freshman.

Thus far, both transitions have gone smoothly for Columbia College. Four of the Cougars’ top seven leaders in minutes are newcomers, including junior guard Aaron Edwards, who has hit two winning shots at the buzzer.

Burchard said Saxon’s rapid improvement has been remarkable. Saxon is scoring 10.1 points per game this year after scoring 1.5 last season.

Bryan’s 60 percent shooting and 10 blocks lead the team. Melz gives the Cougars versatility in the post with his solid passing and ability to score with his back to the basket and facing up.

The Cougars, though relatively small, have outrebounded opponents 481-405, including 165-103 offensively.

“We’re not very big,” Khamari Ballard said. “If a team overlooks us just because we’re small, they’ve got another thing coming.”

Ballard and Andre Amos, senior guards, were All-Conference last season and Burchard said their steady scoring has made the first-year players’ transitions much easier.

Ballard is making a strong push for All-America honors after making the second team last year. He is leading the Cougars with 20.7 points per game. Amos is second in scoring with 16.4 and his 37 3-pointers are a team high.

Burchard said Ballard and Amos are great scorers but also great teammates. Ballard and Amos have attempted 50.5 percent of the Cougars’ field goals, but it’s hard to complain about their shot selection. Both are shooting 44.4 percent.

“I think our team has got a really good basketball IQ,” Burchard said. “They play that way, they like each other and they share the basketball. Those are really good qualities.”

Intelligent teams not only share the basketball, they also take care of it. The Cougars average only 12.1 turnovers.

“Ballhandling is a real key,” Ballard said. “We can handle the ball in tight situations, and (our) passing has equaled a lot of easy baskets.”

Other than the Cougars’ 67-48 loss at Lyon College on Nov. 15, Burchard said he has had little to complain about, and he hopes the wins yield increased attendance at the Arena of Southwell Complex.

“I think we’re fun to watch,” Burchard said. “One of our goals is to convince as many Columbians to come out and watch this team play. Whether it’s noon on a Friday or 8 o’clock on a Saturday, I think this team is worth paying admission to watch play. I think they play like they want people to come watch them. They play with that kind of passion, and that’s fun.”

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