Battlin' Bears eager for another shot in K.C.

2014-03-18T20:00:00Z 2014-03-19T00:10:05Z Battlin' Bears eager for another shot in K.C.By BILL BIGHAUS bbighaus@billingsgazette The Billings Gazette

In coach Bill Dreikosen's dreams, his Rocky Mountain College men's basketball team qualifies for the NAIA Division I national championships every season.

"I think that's a dream for me with every group that we put on the floor," the 14-year Battlin' Bears coach said. "I'd like to see them get that opportunity to go play at a national tournament. They do such a great job with it. It's such a neat atmosphere.

"It's exciting to be heading back down to Kansas City."

Rocky, in returning to historic Municipal Auditorium for the fifth time under Dreikosen, will take on the University of the Cumberlands, Ky., in the second game on Wednesday morning, which is the opening day of the 77th annual tournament.

Five years ago, Rocky won it all.

"We're not going to be sneaking up on anybody," said Dreikosen, whose Bears also qualified last year. "We know we're going to have to go in and give an outstanding effort and play our best basketball. We're excited about getting the opportunity."

The No. 10-ranked Battlin Bears (23-7) and the No. 24 Patriots (19-11) will tip off at 9:45 (Mountain time).

"The thing that I like about this team is that they've got good versatility," Dreikosen said of his ninth-seeded Bears. "We're not one-dimensional. I think we can score and defend in different ways, and we've got a very strong bench."

Rocky, which swept the regular-season and postseason tournament crowns in the Frontier Conference this season, has won 10 of its last 11 games.

"We did play some of our better basketball here in the last couple of weeks -- and that is exciting," Dreikosen said. "I think our team is peaking at the right time. Now we've just got to find a way to replicate that type of basketball as we go into the national tournament."

Rocky is being led by the 17.8 points per game from junior guard Tyree Anderson. Senior forward Joel Barndt is close behind at 17.7, followed by senior center Jeremy Nicolas at 16.2.

Cumberlands, from Williamsburg, Ky., and the Mid-South Conference, has won six of its last eight games. The Patriots are making their 22nd appearance at nationals, with a 13-21 record overall.

Guards R.J. Scott (13.8 ppg) and Tony Bradley (13.2) are the Patriots' top scorers.

"They play very good defense," Dreikosen said of Cumberlands. "They've got big guards, they like to play physical and they like the half-court game.

"They're definitely a very good opponent out of an excellent league."

Besides league rivals Montana State Northern and Westminster College, Rocky has played two other national tournament teams in top-seeded Cal State San Marcos and MidAmerica Nazarene of Kansas.

The Bears lost to 30-1 Cal State San Marcos 77-70 in Las Vegas in November and beat 23-10 MidAmerica Nazarene 99-97 in Billings in December.

"We've been in lots of different situations and played great competition in our league and out of our league," Dreikosen said. "The kids know they can play with the caliber of teams we're going down there with, but now it's time to go out and put the proof in the pudding."

NOTES: Live stats and audio will be available at www.naia.org. ... Rocky has a 5-6 record in seven previous trips to nationals. ... Associate head coach Wes Keller is making his third trip to K.C. with Dreikosen. "That's a big experience factor and a big positive for our program," Dreikosen said of Keller's presence on the bench. ... New assistant James Bulluck was a starter on the 2009 Rocky team that went 5-0 and won a national championship. "He hasn't lost there yet, so we don't expect anything different out of him," Dreikosen said with a grin.

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