Bulldogs open play at national tourney on Thurs. with four all-conference picks

Sneaky good

UMW point guard Dom Robinson, a first team all-conference performer, leads Western into the national tourney on Thursday. J.P. Plutt photo

Regular visitors in recent years to the annual NAIA Division 1 National Men’s Basketball Championship tournament in Kansas City and the Frontier Conference All-Conference team, the University of Montana Western men’s basketball team in announcements last week earned prominent spots in both.

The Bulldogs put four players—Dom Robinson, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, Brandon Jones and Kooper Kidgell—onto the Frontier All-Conference roster released by the league office last Tuesday.

The next day, the Western men found out that for the fourth straight season and seventh time in the last eight years that they’d gained an invitation to the NAIA’s version of March Madness.

The #3 seed in the tourney’s Duer Bracket of the 32-team, NAIA tourney, the Dawgs face a first-round showdown with sixth-seeded Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU), the team that halted the Dawgs’ deepest foray into the tourney.

“SAGU comes from a great conference, the Sooner league,” said Montana Western Head Coach Steve Keller, whose Bulldogs fell, 84-79, in the Elite Eight round of the 2013 NAIA tourney to SAGU.

“They won the Sooner league tourney this season. The team that won the national championship last year did that,” added Keller of SAGU and its Sooner Athletic Conference stablemate, no. 15 Texas Wesleyan—the defending NAIA champs who will also compete this week in Kansas City.

Runners-up in their league regular season and tournament and ranked no. 11 in the final NAIA Coaches Poll last week, the Dawgs will bring four All-Frontier Conference players to the national battlefront.

UMW’s Dom Robinson and Zaccheus Darko-Kelly earned first-team Frontier honors, while teammate Brandon Jones took a spot on the second team and Kooper Kidgell gained honorable mention honors.

“We figured they’d all make it – we just didn’t know what order they would be,” said Keller, the only coach in the Frontier to place two players on the conference’s first team.

Robinson led the league in assists

(5.1 apg) and finished third in scoring

(17.4 ppg) and ninth in steals (1.3 spg).

Usually the smallest guy on the court, the 5-foot-7-inch Robinson has often showed the most heart of anyone on the floor with his leadership and crunch-time heroics during his two seasons at UMW.

A sophomore guard-forward combo capable of scoring inside, outside and at all points in between, Darko-Kelly placed sixth in the league in points (15.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.5), as well as fourth in steals (1.5 spg) and third in blocks (0.8 bpg).

Already projected as a future Frontier Player of the Year winner, the 6-foot-6-inch Great Falls product garnered a NAIA Division 1 National Player of the Week and a pair of Frontier Conference Player of the Week awards this season.

Another Bulldog who gained a National Player of the Week distinction this season, Jones got a second-team conference nod with a first-teamcaliber resume. The powerful 6-foot-5-inch junior from Texas with a wide array of inside moves placed third in the league in rebounding (7.4 rpg), as well as fourth in scoring (15.8 ppg) and field-goal percentage (54.0 percent shooting).

If he played for any other team, Kidgell may well have been the runaway winner of the league’s scoring title and competed for Player of the Year honors. Capable of burying a quick shot from beyond the 3-point line or speeding past his man to the basket, the Billings Senior grad posted a 12.6 ppg within the Dawgs’ balanced scoring attack.

“In my mind all four could have been first team,” said Keller of the All-Conference quartet that also could have easily been a quintet with the addition of Marcus Payne, the Bulldog center who does so many big things and little things well un-quantified by statistics while battling opponents’ biggest players.

“They are all willing to do what’s best for team to get a win,” added Keller, whose regular seven-man rotation includes five players who competed for Montana Western at last year’s NAIA tourney

“Our experience should help.”

If Montana Western wins tomorrow morning against SAGU, it would play a second-round game scheduled to tip off at 3 p.m. Friday against the survivor of Thursday’s first-round game between Campbellsville and Columbia (MO), the second seed in the Duer Bracket and no. 6 ranked team in the NAIA.

“Both of those teams are very good. Columbia has already won 27 games this season and Campbellsville is out of the Mid South, which I think is best league in NAIA.

“But first we have to beat SAGU, and that’s going to be be a handful,” added Keller of playing a Lions team ranked first in the NAIA in steals (10.5 steals per game) and among the leaders in numerous statistical categories.

A pair of 6-foot guards Cameron Hill (16.2 ppg) and Joshua Swearingin (11.7 ppg) lead the Lions in point production, with forward Lance Tipton (10.6 ppg) also averaging in double figures in scoring and standing as one of four SAGU players listed at 6-foot-6-inches or above.

But more than their height, the Lions’ depth could pose a challenge for Western.

The third best rebounding and sixth top scoring outfit in the nation, SAGU (24-9 overall, 13-7 in conference) boasts 10 players averaging at least 7 points per game and eight who pull down at least 3 rebounds per outing.

SAGU freshman guard Joshua Kashila, came off the bench to pour in 21 points in the Lions conference tourney title win last week.

“They are athletic, big and strong,” conceded Keller, whose team ranks ninth in the NAIA in scoring (89.7 ppg) but 50th in scoring defense (77.2 ppg), though still well above SAGU.

“SAGU’s defense give up 81 points a game, and we average more that that,” noted Keller, whose team eclipsed the century mark in points eight times so far this season.

“But the biggest thing will be keeping them off the boardsthat’s what we’ve been struggling with.”

With five players who saw significant court time at last year’s national tourney and a head coach who has navigated his team to Kansas City seven times, the Dawgs could enjoy an experience advantage over a young SAGU squad led by a head coach making his first trip to the Division 1 tourney with just a pair of seniors and a single junior at his disposal.

“I expect our guys to be ready, and to compete and play at a high level,” said Keller, whose Dawgs also have the experience of playing the NAIA’s top team.

“We played right with them until the end,” recalled Keller of his team’s loss in mid-December to no. 1 The Masters in a game that was tight to the closing minutes.

“I think The Masters have a chance to win it all, but I think Carroll does, too,” added Keller of the champs of the Frontier Conference, which in addition to Western and Carroll will also be represented in Kansas City by Lewis-Clark State College.

“Every team that makes the national tournament is a good one.”

The Montana Western men’s basketball team will play its first-round game at the NAIA National Men’s Basketball Championship in Kansas City tomorrow, Thursday, March 15, starting at 9:45 a.m. MST.

For regular updates on the tomorrow’s game and any other contests Montana Western competes in at the national tourney this week, check MPRegan@ Dillon_Tribune on Twitter or the Dillon Tribune website.