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Cougars Set for NAIA Tourney

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March 17, 2009
Gary Pine
THIS WEEK: Azusa Pacific (24-9) opens play in the 72nd Annual Buffalo Funds NAIA National Championship Tournament Thursday (March 19) against MidAmerica Nazarene University (27-6) of Olathe, Kan., at approximately 4:15 p.m. (PDT) in Kansas City’s famed Municipal Auditorium.

Winner of the Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament, Azusa Pacific is 1 of 32 teams in Kansas City attempting to win the most difficult tournament in all of college sports. The eventual NAIA champion must win 5 games in 6 days, and for Azusa Pacific the trek toward a title begins with MidAmerica Nazarene, champion of the Heart of America Athletic Conference and sure to have a throng of hometown support in Thursday’s first-round game.

TOURNAMENT INFO: Click here for detailed information on the NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship, which includes purchasing live video stream and/or watching free live stats of the game. Also, the entire 32-team tournament bracket, championship press book and results of other first-round games are available.

RADIO: The Azusa Pacific-MidAmerica Nazarene game will be broadcast live on the Internet via Azusa Pacific’s student-run radio station KAPU. Senior Rob Schwandt will call all the action live from courtside at Municipal Auditorium at approximately 4:15 p.m. (PDT).

SERIES NOTES: MidAmerica Nazarene leads the all-time series with Azusa Pacific, 2-1. The 2 schools first met in the first round of the 1976 Point Loma Tournament in San Diego where the Pioneers edged Azusa Pacific, 89-87. They didn’t meet again for another 20 years when MidAmerica made its first-ever visit to the city of Azusa, Calif., in 1996. The Cougars prevailed, 92-68, to even the series. MidAmerica took the series lead last year when the Pioneers rallied from 17 down in the second half to beat Azusa Pacific, 88-82, in the Felix Event Center at Azusa Pacific. Twelve of the 18 players from that game will suit up for this year’s NAIA Tournament rematch, including 4 starters from MidAmerica Nazarene. Azusa Pacific did not have a point guard in last year’s meeting. All 3 Cougar points were out with injuries, including eventual starter Mike Caffese, thus forcing shooting guard Peter Bond into a rare start.

vs. MIDAMERICA IN THE POSTSEASON:Though this is the first time the 2 schools have ever met on the hardwood in postseason play, Azusa Pacific and MidAmerica Nazarene do have a postseason history in other sports. In 2000, the Pioneers downed Azusa Pacific, 27-21, in the opening round of the NAIA football playoffs in Olathe, Kan. On its way to the 2007 NAIA national championship, the Azusa Pacific men’s soccer team ousted tourney host MidAmerica Nazarene, 3-1, in an opening round game.

vs. THE NAZARENES: Azusa Pacific is 73-48 (.603) all-time vs. Nazarene colleges and universities (Eastern, MidAmerica, Northwest, Olivet, Point Loma, Southern and Trevecca). The majority of those wins have come at the expense of Golden State Athletic Conference rival Point Loma Nazarene University, against whom Azusa Pacific is 63-41 all-time. The Cougars are 3-0 vs. Nazarene schools this year (2-0 vs. Point Loma, 1-0 vs. Trevecca).

CONNECTIONS: Jed Stugart, MidAmerica Nazarene’s football coach the past 3 seasons until he resigned last month to take a position at UNLV, is a 1992 Azusa Pacific graduate and former 2-year player for the Cougars … MNU’s first-year Director of Athletics Kevin Steele is the former athletics director at GSAC rival California Baptist University.

AT THE NAIA TOURNAMENT: Azusa Pacific is 24-16 all-time in NAIA Tournament play. The Cougars advanced to the 2005 NAIA title game and have made it to the “Fab Four” 4 times (1998-99-02-05). Since 1998, the Cougars are 22-11 in the NAIA Tournament, which includes a 10-4 clip since 2005.

AN ELITIST PROGRAM: Azusa Pacific is the only school to advance to the “Elite Eight” of the NAIA Tournament each of the past 4 seasons (Robert Morris College did as well but later had to forfeit all of its victories from 2006, including one over Azusa Pacific in the NAIA quarters). Overall, the Cougars have moved into the “Elite Eight” 8 different times, all in the past 11 NAIA Tournaments.

A MAN OF EXPERIENCE: At the age of 31, Azusa Pacific’s Justin Leslie is the youngest coach of the 32 head coaches in this year’s NAIA Tournament (Andrew Brown of Northwest Oklahoma State is second at age 34). Despite his relative youth, Leslie is nonetheless one of the most-seasoned participants of the NAIA Tournament. As a former Cougar standout center, Leslie played in 13 NAIA Tourney games between 1997 and 2001, going 9-4 in those contests. As a 5-year Cougar assistant coach, Leslie was on the sideline for another 20 NAIA Tournament games, fashioning a 14-6 record. As a first-year head coach, he went 2-1 in the NAIAs last year, bringing his career NAIA Tournament record as a player, assistant coach and head coach to 25-11.

It is believed that only Georgetown’s Happy Osborne can exceed Leslie’s 36-game NAIA Tournament experience. Osborne has been a part of 59 NAIA Tournament games as either Georgetown’s assistant or head coach. Like Leslie, Biola’s Dave Holmquist has been a part of 36 tournament contests.

KING OF THE GSAC: Azusa Pacific has won a record 13 GSAC championships in men’s basketball, all in the past 17 years and 10 more than any other school. The Cougars won an unprecedented 9 straight from 1993 to 2001 and then claimed another 4 in a row from 2003 to 2006. Since 1993 when the Cougars posted the only undefeated season (12-0) in conference history (they did go 19-1 in 2004), Azusa Pacific is 238-52 (.821) in GSAC play. In that time, Azusa Pacific has had 6 GSAC Players of the Year, including Kevin Daley (2000), the current leader of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Caleb Gervin (2003), nephew of NBA great George Gervin. All-time the Cougars are 274-90 (.753) in the conference’s 23-year history, 42 games ahead of second-place Westmont.

NATIONAL RANKINGS: For the 16th straight year Azusa Pacific opened the season ranked in the NAIA preseason poll. Including this year’s 13 weekley polls, the Cougars have appeared in 133 of the past 147 NAIA Coaches’ Polls, and have been in the Top Ten 97 times during that stretch that dates back to 1997.

TOURNAMENT RUNS: Azusa Pacific is making its 14th straight NAIA Tournament appearance. Only Georgetown College (Ky.) at 17 in a row has a longer active streak in the NAIA Tourney than the Cougars. Mountain State is making its 11th straight NAIA Tourney showing while Oklahoma Baptist has an active string of 9 consecutive NAIA Tourney berths.

Azusa Pacific is making its 16th NAIA Tournament showing in the past 17 years. The Cougars won the 1995 GSAC regular-season title but lost in the conference tournament semifinals and did not receive an at-large berth into the national tournament (the GSAC had just 8 members then and the NAIA did not awarding 2 autos to conferences with 10-or-more members until a few years later).

Overall, Azusa Pacific has qualified for 17 NAIA Tournaments. The Cougars first came to the NAIA Tourney in 1974. The No. 11-seeded Cougars lost to Indiana University (Pa.), 79-74, in a 9 a.m. game to start the second day of first-round play. The following year the NAIA instituted the rule that a west coast team would never again play in either of the 9 a.m. first-round games.

EVERYWHERE A HOME: Azusa Pacific is 1 of 2 schools (Georgetown College is the other) to have played in all 5 NAIA Tournament sites — Municipal Auditorium, Kemper Arena, Mabee Center (Tulsa), the Reynolds Center (Tulsa), and the Tulsa Convention Center.

CALIFORNIA’S BEST: Azusa Pacific is California’s winningest 4-year college men’s basketball program over the past 17 years in both number of victories and winning percentage. Since 1992-93, Azusa Pacific has tallied 485 victories (UCLA is second with 394, Biola is third with 394) and has fashioned a winning percentage of .804 (485-118) in that same span (UCLA is second at .714 and Cal State Bakersfield at .703).

ABOUT AZUSA PACIFIC: Featured in TIME magazine and ranked as one of the nation’s best by U.S.News & World Report and The Princeton Review, Azusa Pacific is a comprehensive, Christian, evangelical university, known for excellence in higher education. Azusa Pacific’s main campus lies just 26 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, while its 7 regional centers are located throughout Southern California. The university offers more than 50 areas of undergraduate study, 23 master's degrees, and 7 doctorates to a total student population of more than 8,100 (4,200 undergrads).

ABOUT THESE COUGARS: The Cougars return 9 players from last year’s 24-11 team that went 14-3 in the second half of the season and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NAIA Tournament (Azusa Pacific’s fourth straight such trip).

They added 6 newcomers, including the 2008 Tennessee junior college co-player of the year, Dominique Johnson. Along with All-GSAC center in the fold, the Cougars appeared to have a team that could contend for an unprecedented 14th GSAC crown in 17 years.

Early season road losses to Westminster College (NAIA Tournament qualifier) and Cal State San Bernardino (NCAA DII Tournament qualifier) broke the Cougars’ stride from the gate, but a 7-point victory over then NAIA top-ranked California Baptist University momentarily restored confidence.

A 10-point loss at The Master’s College, in which the Cougars surrendered a game-ending 19-2 run, and a 3-point setback to Rocky Mountain College (NAIA Tournament qualifier), in which the Battlin’ Bears’ Devon Uskoski’s hit 53-foot shot at the buzzer, again rattled the Cougars.

Over the course of time, as roles became more defined and as sophomore Mike Caffese emerged as one of the Golden State Athletic Conference’s top point guards, the Cougars settled into a play that was difficult to beat.

After the loss to Rocky Mountain on the longest shot in Felix Event Center history, Azusa Pacific came back to win 18 of its final 23 games, with all 5 losses coming at the hands of NAIA Tournament teams (Concordia, Fresno Pacific and Biola).

In the end, they finally relied on their defensive play, which was expected to be a forte but hadn’t been through 3 months. In the GSAC Tournament they avenged 4 losses to Concordia and Fresno Pacific with convincing double-digit victories to capture its third conference tourney title in 4 years and clinch the GSAC’s second automatic berth.