Cougars open with tough test

Thursday, March 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:24 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

With all the hoopla surrounding the NCAA men’s basketball tournament each March, it’s easy to forget about the sport’s original extravaganza.

The NAIA Tournament began in 1937 with an eight-team field. The next season, the tournament adopted its 32-team format. The tournament’s five rounds are played during a seven-day span, compared to the NCAA’s six rounds in 19 days.

Columbia College coach Bob Burchard said the NAIA Tournament is a unique challenge, both physically and mentally.

“It’s always been played in this fashion, and every team knows it when they come,” he said. “You don’t have great preparation time, and you don’t have great recovery time. To use a reality show comparison, it’s ‘Survivor.’”

The seventh-seed Cougars (32-3) play Oklahoma City in the first round at 8 p.m. today in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.

For the first game, the Cougars will need to survive without their leading scorer. Khamari Ballard, the American Midwest Conference’s Most Valuable Player, received a one-game suspension for what officials called a fight with Missouri Baptist’s Joe Rothweiler in the AMC Tournament’s championship game March 13. Following the game, Ballard said he didn’t punch Rothweiler, and contact was accidental.

Junior guard Aaron Edwards will likely make his first start of the season in Ballard’s place. Edwards played the entire second half of the AMC title game after Ballard’s ejection, and his steady court presence helped the Cougars beat No. 16 Missouri Baptist 79-65.

The NAIA Tournament’s bracket looks more like Wimbledon’s than the NCAA’s. There is no regional seeding, and the top 16 teams are seeded while the rest are unseeded.

Although Oklahoma City (18-11) has the lowest winning percentage of the tournament’s at-large selections, Burchard said he thinks the Stars are a better team than 16th-seeded Missouri Baptist.

The Stars’ Eric Tatum, a senior guard, is the nation’s sixth-leading scorer, averaging 22.2. Burchard said Tatum plays much bigger than his 6-foot-1 frame.

“He can shoot the ball with range, and he is strong enough to get past you,” he said. “He just knows how to get the ball in the basket.”

The Stars also have two starting post players shooting better than 60 percent. Jay Spurlock, a 6-11 center, and Emigijus Lukosius, a 6-6 forward, could be difficult matchups for the Cougars. Craig Bryan, at 6-8, is the only Cougar taller than 6-5.

“I think they’re strong on the perimeter and strong in the post,” Burchard said. “We’re going to have to avoid fouls, and we can’t let (Spurlock and Lukosius) have point-blank shots. We’ve got to be able to get them moved away from the basket.”

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