SEWARD, Neb. – The start of conference play will arrive on Saturday as two teams that shared the 2021-22 GPAC regular season title will go head-to-head inside the Newman Flanagan Center in Sioux City, Iowa. The Concordia University Men’s Basketball team is coming off two wins at the 23rd annual Cattle Classic, 88-52 over Tabor College (Kan.) and 86-82 over Ottawa University (Kan.). Meanwhile, 24th-ranked Briar Cliff is 3-1 with a victory over No. 7 William Penn University (Iowa).
By the numbers
· Head Coach Ben Limback’s squad can play up the underdog mentality again this season after it was picked fourth in the GPAC preseason poll. The league’s top three teams, as voted upon by GPAC coaches, are Jamestown, Briar Cliff and Northwestern. The Jimmies are ranked ninth in the NAIA, Briar Cliff is ranked 24th and Northwestern and Concordia are receiving votes. The Bulldogs likely would have been ranked in or near the national top 10 after last season, but the NAIA does not conduct a postseason men’s basketball poll. Concordia reached the 2022 NAIA national quarterfinals while outperforming its pre-national tournament ranking of 23rd.
· Both opponents last week are members of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs were able to beat the full-court pressure of Tabor while shooting nearly 70 percent from the floor in the first half. Concordia owned a 51-20 lead at halftime on its way to the blowout victory. The individual standouts were Tristan Smith (23 points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals) and Noah Schutte (18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals). In addition, Gage Smith posted nine points and 11 rebounds and AJ Watson chipped in with six points and five assists. For the game, the Bulldogs shot 53.5 percent (32-for-60) from the floor while holding the Bluejays to 31.7 percent (19-for-60) shooting.
· The game the next day was a much different story. Ottawa led by as many as seven points in the second half and appeared to be poised to halt what is now a 22-game home win streak for Concordia. Sharpshooting guard Brad Bennett emerged and went an incredible 8-for-9 from 3-point range off the bench. Six of his 3-point field goals came in the second half as he willed Concordia to victory. Not only that, Schutte put away 26 points while going 12-for-13 from the foul line. Schutte also grabbed seven rebounds. Meanwhile, Gage Smith put up eight points and 14 rebounds and Watson contributed five points, seven assists and two steals.
· Based on past performance, the frontcourt is the strength of the Bulldog roster. Schutte garnered Honorable Mention All-GPAC accolades and then exploded at the national tournament last season while being named to the all-tournament team. Schutte averaged 13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 55.9 percent from the floor last season. Meanwhile, Gage Smith is back for a fifth year in the program. He enters the weekend having totaled 981 points and 659 rebounds for his collegiate career. That rebounding total ranks No. 9 in the history of the program. Gage’s brother Tristan is being counted upon as a breakout performer this winter. He has an ability to ‘wow’ the crowd with his athleticism and dunking prowess.
· Watson is in his fourth year as a Bulldog and second as the starting point guard. The Kansas City, Kan., native has tallied 580 career points and will serve as a major factor in how far Concordia goes in 2022-23. He’s been joined in the starting backcourt so far this season by Garrett Seagren, who has earned frequent praise from Limback for his defensive play. Of course, Bennett will be featured prominently for his ability to extend defenses. Bennett is 10-for-13 (.769) from beyond the arc to start this season. According to available records, Bennett’s eight 3-point field goals versus Ottawa tied a program single-game record also held by the likes of Josh Dahlke, John Puelz, Ryan Shrum and Bret Walter. Schutte (4-for-5 this season from 3-point range) and Gage Smith are also comfortable stepping out on the perimeter.
Briar Cliff brings back four of five starters from last season in Kyle Boerhave, Conner Groves, Jaden Kleinhesselink and Quinn Vesey. Kleinhesselink earned 2021-22 First Team All-GPAC accolades while Boerhave and Vesey were named to the second team. This is Mark Svagera’s sixth season as head coach of the program. Svagera is the reigning GPAC Coach of the Year thanks to leading the Chargers to a 19-12 record (15-5 GPAC), co-GPAC regular season title and national tournament appearance last season. So far in 2022-23, Briar Cliff has defeated Dakota State, No. 7 William Penn and Mount Mercy. The one loss came at the hands of Presentation. Through four games, the Chargers are averaging 79.8 points and allowing 75.3. Vesey leads the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game.
Conference play will continue as the Bulldogs host Midland on Nov. 16 and play at Dordt on Nov. 19.