Bulldogs earn one of final at-large bids to NAIA national tournament

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 2, 2023 in Men's Basketball

2023 MBB National Tournament Press Guide

Tournament Bracket | 2023 National Qualifiers

SEWARD, Neb. – Never before has the Concordia University Men’s Basketball program sweated out a selection show quite like the 2022-23 team did on Thursday (March 2). When the dust settled, the Bulldogs had been rewarded with one of the very last at-large bids into the 2023 NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament. As a No. 15 seed in the 64-team bracket, Concordia will get a rematch with an opponent it faced in the regular season, second-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan University, in Park City, Kan., on March 7.

Knowing it could have gone either way, Head Coach Ben Limback’s squad is elated to end up on the right side of the bubble. Said Limback after his squad fell at Jamestown in the GPAC semifinals, “We hope that the win over Northwestern was good enough to put us on the right side of that bubble. I told our seniors that if this was our last game, ‘I’m sorry.’ I think we faced a ton of adversity this year, and I feel like this team’s deserving of a shot at the national tournament.”

Park City Pod
--Site: Hartman Arena (Park City, Kan.)

Tuesday, March 7
12 p.m. CT – (2) Oklahoma Wesleyan vs. (15) Concordia
2 p.m. CT – (7) Ottawa (Ariz.) vs. (10) Baker

Wednesday, March 8
3 p.m. CT – Game 1 winners

Concordia’s tournament résumé included a final NAIA RPI rating of No. 59 and a strength of schedule that ranked as the 43rd most difficult in the nation. Based on the RPI, the Bulldogs also earned a road win over a top 10 team in No. 10 Dordt and twice defeated No. 34 Northwestern. Concordia also played a wire-to-wire game against RPI No. 6 Oklahoma Wesleyan University in what amounted to a 79-74 loss at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It appears the 90-77 GPAC quarterfinal win at Northwestern was just enough to put the Bulldogs into the field of 64.

The announcement extends the career of fifth-year player Gage Smith and fourth-year seniors such as Garrett Seagren, Kelly Vyhnalek and Skyler Woita. It also gives First Team All-GPAC star Noah Schutte a chance to return to the national tournament. He was named to last season’s NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship All-Tournament Team and will enter this year’s madness with a scoring average of 20.0 points per game. Other all-conference honorees for the Bulldogs were Gage Smith (second team), Brad Bennett (honorable mention) and Tristan Smith (honorable mention).

This will be the 12th national tournament appearance in program history and third under Limback’s direction. Concordia was an automatic qualifier in 2020 and 2022 and is coming off an appearance in the ’22 national quarterfinals.

Season Summary

The starting five the Concordia University Men’s Basketball team trotted out at the beginning of the season has been reshaped over the course of 2022-23. Despite the adversity the Bulldogs faced, they persevered and wound up placing fifth in the GPAC regular season standings while reaching the semifinals of the conference tournament. The 90-77 win at Northwestern in the GPAC quarterfinals may have been what pushed Concordia onto the right side of the national tournament bubble. The Bulldogs have earned an at-large national tournament bid for the second time in program history (all other national qualifications came via the auto bid).

Limback’s squad has been led all season by First Team All-GPAC honoree Noah Schutte, who should land himself All-America honors in the postseason. Schutte showed no fear in 2022 when he appeared at the national tournament for the first time in his career (all-tournament selection). The Laurel, Neb., native has ascended to even greater heights in his third college season. Schutte enters the tournament averaging 20.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Among GPAC players this season, Schutte ranks fourth in scoring average (20.0), fourth in 3-point field goal percentage (.452), eighth in rebounding (7.0), ninth in free throw percentage (.794) and 10th in field goal percentage (.540). In his career as a Bulldog, Schutte has totaled 1,134 points and 450 rebounds in 82 games.

Down the stretch, Schutte was joined in the starting five by fellow star frontcourt star Gage Smith, as well as guards Brad Bennett, Garrett Seagren and Jaxon Weyand. Concordia had to recalibrate in the middle of the season without two starters. In late December/early January, the Bulldogs endured a stretch in which they lost five out of six games. They responded by going 6-1 after the next seven. During that time, CUNE dominated the Concordia Invitational Tournament at home and defeated in-state rivals Doane, Hastings and Midland. In perhaps the team’s best performance of the season, the Bulldogs drained 20 treys in the conference quarterfinal win at Northwestern.

The national tournament berth extends the career of Gage Smith, who sports current program all-time rankings of second in rebounds (891), 12th in assists (276) and 15th in scoring (1,348). The Elizabeth, Colo., native has played in 133 games since arriving with the start of the fall semester of 2018. Gage has played on two separate teams that won GPAC championships – the 2019-20 and 2021-22 editions. Gage’s younger brother Tristan may even be available next week. Tristan averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game before suffering an injury on Dec. 30 that has kept him out ever since.

Limback owns an overall record of 182-125 in his 10 seasons at the helm of his alma mater. He needs three more victories to reach 300 for his entire 19-year collegiate head coaching career.

National Tournament Facts

·        The 2023 trip to nationals will mark the 12th all-time appearance on the national stage for the program. Head Coach Ben Limback has now led the Bulldogs to three national tournament appearances, including the national tourney trips in 2020 and 2022. In the first nine appearances, all presided over by former head coach Grant Schmidt, the Bulldogs went a combined 11-9. Limback played for the national qualifying teams of 1996, 1997 and 1998.

·        Concordia has won its first-round game at the national tournament six times. Two teams in program history have reached at least the semifinals: the 1991-92 squad and the 2004-05 team (national runner up). The 1994-95, 2002-03 and 2021-22 squads advanced to the national quarterfinals. The 2021-22 team enjoyed a dream season while led by NAIA Second Team All-American Carter Kent. The Bulldogs dominated in the first two rounds held in Omaha, where they won by scores of 96-78 over Indiana University Northwest and 90-67 over Marian University (Ind.). Concordia then advanced to the round of 16 in Kansas City, Mo., where it knocked off Indiana University Kokomo, 75-65, before being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Talladega College (Ala.), 77-69.

·        During the ’22 run at the national tournament, Noah Schutte burst onto the scene and was named to the NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship All-Tournament Team. During the four games, Schutte averaged 20.0 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 63.4 percent from the field. Of the 15 players on the postseason roster, seven have appeared in at least one national tournament game: Joel Baker, Schutte, Garrett Seagren, Gage Smith, Tristan Smith, Kelly Vyhnalek and Skyler Woita.

·        The 2004-05 team set a still-intact school record with 32 wins that season. On the way to reaching the national title game, the ’04-5 group defeated Trinity Christian (Ill.), Flagler (Fla.), Cornerstone (Mich.) and Cedarville (Ohio) in Point Lookout, Mo. The Bulldogs then fell at the hands of Walsh (Ohio) in the program’s lone national title game appearance.

·        Concordia’s Marcus Wernke was the NAIA Division II national tournament record holder for most blocked shots in a game (nine) and most blocked shots in a single tournament (23). Both of those feats were accomplished in 2005. Jason Jisa was also honored with the Hustle Award at the ’05 tourney. NAIA Division II came to an end with a fusion of the two divisions following the 2019-20 season.

·        Schmidt led the Bulldogs to their first-ever national tournament appearance in 1991. At that time, the NAIA was still just one division for basketball. Four members of the 1990-91 squad have been inducted into the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame: Matt List, John Puelz, Devin Smith and Mike Works. The latter three were also members of the 1991-92 squad that broke through with the program’s first-ever national tournament win.

·        On March 12, 2020, the Bulldogs played in the final NAIA Division II men’s basketball game ever. The remainder of the tournament following Concordia’s 87-84 loss to Ottawa (Kan.) was shut down due to COVID-19. Just one Bulldog on the current roster saw action in that national tournament game: Gage Smith. The contest took place at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.