In many ways the Columbia College men’s basketball team will define its season in the next 24 hours.
The Cougars (19-12, 8-2) play at No. 18 Missouri Baptist at 7 p.m. today in a game that will likely determine the American Midwest Conference regular season championship and postseason tournament seedings.
“This game is just as important for them as it is for us. There is going to be that extra emotion,” senior guard Aaron Edwards said. “We’re just going to have to go out with that attitude of leaving it all on the floor. We don’t want to come back to Columbia with any regrets.”
If the Cougars win, they would tie Missouri Baptist (19-8, 8-1) for the conference lead with one regular season game remaining. Each team will host a sub-.500 conference opponent Saturday.
A win would also give Columbia College a regular-season sweep against the Spartans – and the edge in a tiebreaker to determine home-court advantage in the AMC tournament.
“That would be huge for us. Just because this is our gym, this is where we practice at everyday,” junior guard Terrance Smith said. “Now we’re in a position where we can bring the tournament here, and we like our chances here on this court.”
Although the Cougars handed Missouri Baptist its only AMC loss, a 90-89 overtime thriller Jan. 29 in Columbia, the Spartans still pose a significant threat.
Missouri Baptist has won 11-of-12 and seven straight at home. After beating formidable
McKendree (Ill.) 67-59 on the road Saturday, the streaking Spartans are ranked for the first time since the preseason.
The atmosphere approaching the game is that of a heavyweight title fight.
“There’s definitely a buzz of excitement, but there’s also an extreme level of intense focus,” Smith said. “We want to do what we’ve been doing 10 times better.”
Columbia College will have to contend with three Spartans threats: inside stalwart Jason Kaplan, the excellent perimeter play of the versatile Ryan Edwards and the sharp-shooting Joe Rothweiler.
“I think (Kaplan) is the hardest person to deal with, just because of his physical size and his ability to finish plays,” coach Bob Burchard said. “I don’t know that just stopping him is the whole critical issue to the game though. I think they have great perimeter players. … Edwards is really key and Rothweiler, he’s liable to go crazy. So we have to pay attention to him a lot.”
In the first game, Edwards scored 20 pointsand Rothweiler had 13 while Kaplan, a stocky 6-foot-8 post player, scored 25 and added 11 rebounds.
Burchard also said he wants a low-scoring game, as opposed to the teams’ first match-up, when the teams combined for 179 points.
Without question, defending the physical Spartans will be a more daunting task on the road.
“(Missouri Baptist) is a really tough environment to play in,” sophomore guard Andreas Jakobsen said. “Tough gym, really tight, gets really hot, and they have really good fans.
“If we go out there… in a tough place against a tough team and we beat them, I think we really proved a lot.”
The Cougars have had a chip on their shoulders since Burchard told his team he thought Columbia College would finish last in the AMC before conference play began.
Columbia College was 9-9 entering conference play, but is now playing its best basketball.
“I think we’re as ready as we’ve ever been. … At one point this year we didn’t know if we could win a game,” Burchard said Tuesday with a triumphant smile on his face. “That’s nice, it’s exciting.”
Ultimately, Columbia College aims to earn a spot in the 32-team NAIA tournament, a distinction awarded to conference tournament champions and teams receiving at-large bids.
With a win at Missouri Baptist, the Cougars would most likely be ranked among the season’s final Top 25, the primary qualification for receiving an at-large bid.
In that sense, a win tonight would be definitive for the Cougars.
“When teams get to a certain level, they’ll play great basketball no matter where,” Burchard said. “I always said that’s a goal of ours. You try to get your game to a level where you can say, OK anytime, anyplace, anywhere, just name the spot and we’ll play.”
Is this team to that point?
“We’ll find out,” he said.