Tough scheduling, tough state prepares Indiana teams to dominate NAIA hoops

Saint Francis junior guard Chandler White shoots over Indiana Wesleyan junior center Evan Maxwell in a recent game in Marion. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Saint Francis men's basketball coach Chad LaCross watches his team compete against Oregon Tech during the 2017 NAIA Division II National Tournament in Point Lookout, Mo. (Photo by Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Former Northrop High and current IU East guard Jacoby Claypool launches a shot earlier in his career during the NAIA Division II Men's Basketball National Tournament in Point Lookout, Mo. (Photo courtesy of IU East Athletics)

Just nine days into this basketball season, veteran Saint Francis men’s basketball coach Chad LaCross had already seen his team lose twice as many games as it had won.

The fans of the then-No. 3-ranked Cougars (1-2 at that point) may have been a bit taken aback, especially since the two defeats were at the Hutzell Athletic Center, but LaCross wasn’t particularly surprised.

“It’s one of those things where I always question our non-league schedule and is it too tough,” LaCross told News-Sentinel.com over the weekend. “But my mindset on that is that we need a tough schedule to prepare us for the Crossroads League and then the Crossroads League prepares you for the national tournament, if you are able to make it through that.”

LaCross and his team have been able to “make it through that,” as Saint Francis plays in the Final Four round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament tonight in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The Cougars (28-8) will face College of Idaho (30-6) at 9 p.m. (EST).

That second semifinal will follow the 7 p.m. opener that pits IU East (34-2) and Indiana Wesleyan (29-7).

The championship game will be played Tuesday at 7 p.m. (ESPN3).

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Saint Francis opened its season with a win over 28th-ranked Olivet Nazarene on the road before facing two teams that ultimately played in the national tournament in Cornerstone and Indiana Tech.

The season wasn’t three weeks old yet and Saint Francis had already faced six nationally-ranked teams and that didn’t even include Indiana Tech, which spent most of the season ranked.

“That has helped us out here,” LaCross said.

Stunningly, the Cougars have already played IU East and Indiana Wesleyan a combined four times this season.

Saint Francis beat IU East in Richmond 93-81 in November, but has fallen to Indiana Wesleyan three times by scores of 89-82 (overtime), 86-82 and 95-83 in the recent Crossroads League Tournament championship game in Marion.

It isn’t just Saint Francis that benefits from playing a difficult schedule (the Cougars played 17 nationally ranked opponents this season, as well as Indiana Tech), but other Crossroads League programs do, as well.

“I didn’t even know what the NAIA was until last year,” Indiana Wesleyan junior center Evan Maxwell told News-Sentinel.com recently. “I didn’t know about the competition or anything.”

Maxwell spent time playing at NCAA Division I programs Liberty and Kansas, before transferring to Indiana Wesleyan last summer.

“After playing a season in the Crossroads League,” Maxwell continued, “it’s competitive. There are no nights off. It was not easy for me.”

‘HOOSIERS’ TAKE CENTER STAGE

Only a 75-47 rout of Marian University by College of Idaho in the Elite Eight round kept the NAIA Final Four from being an all-Indiana affair, which really doesn’t surprise LaCross, who has coached at Saint Francis for 13 years.

“The quality of not only basketball,” LaCross said, “but the quality of coaches and what they are doing to get high-level players into their programs and it is not just the Crossroads League.

“IU East has been a national contender for many years. It’s about getting out and talking our programs up and the awareness that we have around the state of Indiana. We’re all getting very good players and it is showing.”

Indiana Wesleyan not only landed Maxwell, who has played at the highest level of college basketball, but the Wildcats also have three Indiana All-Stars (Grant Smith, Joel Okafor, and Kyle Mangas) on their current roster.

“The reputation of our program goes before us now,” longtime Indiana Wesleyan assistant Jeff Clark told News-Sentinel.com recently. “It is not as hard to get into conversations.”

With its win Saturday, Saint Francis advanced to its fourth Final Four in nine seasons, while Indiana Wesleyan is going for its third national championship in last five seasons.

“Players are seeing us as a legitimate option to reach their potential,” Clark said.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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