It took eight years of excellence for the Vincennes University men's basketball team to tie the record, but the Trailblazers accomplished it Monday with an at-large berth in the NJCAA Finals in Hutchinson, Kan.
VU (28-5) received the 10th seed in the 24-team field, opening up against 23rd-seeded Central Georgia Tech (23-10) at 5:30 p.m. next Monday. The winner takes on seventh-seed SC Salkehatchie (27-4) in the round of 16 at 9:30 p.m. next Tuesday.
The Blazers have to play an extra game than it did a year ago when they captured the first national championship since 1972 and fourth all-time. This year they have to win five times in six days to defend their title, but VU knows all about the itinerary at "Hutch." The Blazers are making their eighth consecutive trip to the final, tying Moberly Area (Mo.) for the most in a row in NJCAA history. The Greyhounds set the mark in the 1950s.
"We're excited that we tied the all-time record. It started with Deshawn Delaney and Darius Carter (in 2013) and kept going through Keith Clemons, George Dixon and Lony Francis last year. It's all intertwined and that's what makes it a tremendous feeling, that so many former players are involved in this," VU coach Todd Franklin said. "We tied a streak that was set in the 50s, and no one has done that or come close. The next streak was five."
Franklin had held out hope that his team would receive one of the eight first-round byes. One of those went to fifth-seeded John A. Logan, which ousted the Blazers in last Friday's Region 24 championship game, 78-67.
But VU seems to find a good spot. Ranked ninth in the final NJCAA poll, the Blazers have a better ranking than both No. 25 Central Georgia Tech and No. 13 SC Salkehatchie. The top seed on their side of the bracket, two-seeded and No. 4 Indian Hills (Iowa), was an opponent VU topped in a preseason jamboree. Third-seeded and No. 6 Clarendon (Texas) is the top seed as a possible semifinal opponent.
If the Blazers win their first two games, they get Wednesday off before their quarterfinal game. In last year's championship run, VU played on four consecutive days.
"Our pod says we have a chance if we play well, and that's all you can ask. The times are fine, and we get a day of rest Wednesday if we can win the first two games," Franklin said."We thought our seeding would be between sixth and 10th and ended up on the bottom end of it. We didn't want to play the first day, but that's OK. Maybe it works to our advantage, to knock some rust off that first day.
"That was a burdensome route last year, just brutal. Our guys handled it so well."
VU went through three consecutive Texas schools to claim last year's championship. Through Franklin's eight-year Hutch run, the Blazers have played several opponents from Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. The coach said he's never gone against Central Georgia Tech or SC Salkehatchie.
"I don't know much about either team yet. Central Georgia Tech hasn't been to Hutch a lot. Salkehatchie has had good teams recently, and South Carolina and North Carolina have put more of an emphasis into their programs," Franklin said. "I know there are a lot of athletes in that part of the world. We're not going to have an advantage, athlete-wise, against either."
The only undefeated junior college team, Pearl River, Miss. (28-0), is the top seed.
The opening game of the tournament pits 16th-seeded Moberly (27-6) against 17th-seeded Northern Oklahoma-Tonkawa (28-4) at 11 a.m. Monday. The championship game is at 2 p.m. March 21 and televised by CBS Sports Network. VU's title game win was the first nationally-televised NJCAA championship game.
The Lady Blazers (27-5) had held out hope to be one of the eight at-large teams in the NJCAA women's final in Lubbock, Texas, but were not selected Monday. Region 24 champion Wabash Valley, Ill. (30-2) earned the ninth seed and was the only region team picked.
At Hutchinson, Kan. | First-round games
(Seeds, records in parenthesis)
Monday, March 16
11 am — (16) Moberly Area, Mo. (27-6) vs. (17) N. Okla.-Tonkawa (28-4)
1 — (9) Ranger, Texas (28-3) vs. Columbia State, Tenn. (23-10)
3 — (15) Coffeyville, Kan. (26-8) vs. (18) South Plains, Texas (22-9)
5:30 — (10) Vincennes (28-5) vs. (23) Central Georgia Tech (23-10)
7:30 — (13) Western Wyoming (30-4) vs. (20) Angelina, Texas (23-9)
9:30 — (12) Tallahassee, Fla. (27-6) vs. (21) Shelton State, Ala. (28-5)
Tuesday, March 17
11 am — (14) Murray State, Okla. (25-6) vs. (19) Cowley, Kan. (26-6)
1 — (11) Colby, Kan. (27-5) vs. (22) Monroe, NY (24-9)
3 — (1) Pearl River, Miss. (28-0) vs. Game 1 winner
5:30 — (8) Gulf Coast State, Fla. (24-7) vs. Game 2 winner
7:30 — (2) Indian Hills, Iowa (30-3) vs. Game 3 winner
9:30 — (7) SC Salkehatchie (27-4) vs. Game 4 winner
Wednesday, March 18
1 — (4) Salt Lake, Utah (29-4) vs. Game 5 winner
3 — (5) John A. Logan, Ill. (28-5) vs. Game 6 winner
7 — (3) Clarendon, Texas (29-3) vs. Game 7 winner
9 — (6) Florida Southwestern State (29-2) vs. Game 8 winner