After seven straight wins, the Columbia College men’s basketball team is ranked in the NAIA Division I poll for the first time since the preseason.
The Cougars (18-10, 7-1) learned Tuesday that they reentered the Top 25 at No. 19, the highest ranking among American Midwest Conference teams.
“It is important,” coach Bob Burchard said. “There are two ways to get in the (NAIA) national tournament. One is to win your conference tournament, the other one is to be in the top 25. Typically, all the (at-large bids) come right out of the top 25. So it’s huge.”
The Cougars, who were ranked No. 23 in preseason poll, started the season 4-7 and did not receive another vote until appearing in Tuesday’s poll.
“(The ranking) is a blessing,” senior guard Aaron Edwards said. “From where we came from as a team to where we are now, that’s just really impressive.”
The national recognition comes days after the Cougars won at then-No. 10 McKendree 63-57.
After losing two of five, McKendree (21-6, 7-2) dropped out of the top 25.
“It just goes to show you that it’s about the end of the season,” Edwards said. “A lot of teams start out with a great pace. But it’s a long race.”
Columbia College controls its own destiny in the quest for the AMC championship. The Cougars are tied with unranked Missouri Baptist (18-8, 7-1) for the conference lead. The two teams play Feb. 24 at Missouri Baptist.
The Cougars were ranked last in an AMC pre-conference poll. The perceived slight is something that continues to motivate the Cougars.
“When I started practicing,” said junior guard Justin Falker, who was added to the roster at midseason, “(my teammates) told me that (the rankings) put us at No. 7, at the bottom, last. So we still have something to prove.
“If they started us at No. 7 and we end up at No. 5, then we didn’t really prove nothing. If we prove that we’re No. 1, then they just messed up. They shouldn’t have put us No. 7 and never again should they put us at No. 7. Because we’re better than that.”
The Cougars’ next game is Thursday at Williams Baptist.
“We’re not done yet,” Edwards said. “We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. We just come out and play hard, play scrappy every night. As long as we keep doing that, playing hard and keep being intense, we’ll be just fine.”
Burchard agreed there is work to be done before the final rankings are released March 1.
“I’m personally excited about (the ranking),” Burchard said. “But I’d be more excited about it in two weeks.”