At the beginning of the season, the Columbia College men’s basketball players thought success was inevitable. Now the Cougars are finally forcing their competition to think that too.“It was destined to happen,” Cougars guard Terrance Smith said. “We just had to figure out what we had to do on a consistent basis.”
The Cougars (16-10, 5-1) have won 10 of 12 since returning from winter break Jan. 4 and have re-established the team’s competitiveness in the American Midwest Conference.
Wins have started to come in bunches, and the Cougars are on a five-game winning streak. The defending conference champions were 5-8 on Dec. 15. The poor start took several Cougar players by surprise.
“You feel like you just had the wind knocked out of you,” junior forward Craig Bryan said. “When we came into the season, we thought we were going to have another season like last year…
“Last year, we didn’t have to work very hard because it seemed like everything just flowed for us. This year, we’ve had to work and work and work.”
Bryan and his teammates said the 4 1/2-hour team meeting after an overtime home loss to Lyon College on Jan. 8 helped the team’s resurgence.
During the meeting, coach Bob Burchard and his team examined the game tape play by play, rather than in segments as usual.
“That takes a long time,” Burchard said. “Nobody likes the evaluation process… You can’t argue when you see the video. It scrapes everything right to the bone.”
“That was definitely key,” Smith said. “(The feeling was) we’ve got a team that’s pretty good. We’ve been underachieving all year. It’s time to achieve something as a team. Make this our year.”
The Cougars have lost once since the lengthy meeting. On Jan. 20, they fell 68-63 to AMC rival McKendree, which the Cougars also play Saturday on the road. Burchard, though, did not want to overplay the meeting’s significance.
“I don’t know if there are certain turning points for a team,” he said. “But that was one of the low points.”
Burchard instead focused on more substantive reasons. He said senior Aaron Edwards’ return to full-time point guard and the insertion of guard Ryan Steinhoff into the starting lineup has improved the team’s ball security.
Also, the team added two new players in early January. The addition of junior guard Justin Falker and redshirt Marcus Bradford have helped improve practices, Burchard said.
A difficult non-conference schedule, which included playing its first seven games on the road, must also be considered.
“I felt we needed to be challenged and we set out to do that,” Burchard said. “I wasn’t exactly happy how we responded to that.”
“(The schedule) either would have broke us totally down, or we’d be playing like we are now, ready to step up to the occasion,” sophomore guard Andreas Jakobsen said.
The next test will be tonight at home against Harris-Stowe, when the Cougars may be without Bryan, who sprained his ankle against Central Methodist on Saturday. Tuesday, Bryan estimated he had a 50 percent chance of playing. Burchard on Wednesday said Bryan’s status was still uncertain.
Injuries aside, the Cougars are happy to be in the position they are in, competing for first in the AMC and ultimately for a berth in the NAIA Tournament.
Home court advantage in the conference tournament goes to the AMC regular season champion. The winner of the AMC tournament earns a bid to the NAIA Tournament.
Generally, bids are also extended to teams that finish the regular season ranked in NAIA’s Division I top 25. Although Columbia College has not been ranked since it was No. 23 in the preseason poll, it may get attention if its stellar play continues.
“We always had that mind-set that we were capable of doing big things,” Jakobsen said. “We’ll take it one game at a time, but we definitely have a goal of making our way through conference as a winner and our ultimate goal is to make it to the national tournament.”
Halfway through the season, some might have considered that goal preposterous — just not anyone on this team.