Rocky Mountain College will be an early riser at this year’s NAIA Division I men’s basketball championship tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
The ninth-seeded Battlin’ Bears will be taking on unseeded University of the Cumberlands, Ky., of the Mid-South Conference next Wednesday morning during the opening round of the 32-team tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
No. 10-ranked Rocky, 23-7, and No. 24 Cumberlands, 19-11, are scheduled to play at 9:45 a.m. (Mountain time). It will be the second game of the tournament.
The pairings for nationals, which will run March 19-25, were announced by the NAIA on Wednesday night during a 30-minute selection show.
The Bears, who won their first outright Frontier Conference regular-season title in 20 years this season and followed up with their second-straight conference tournament crown, gathered in the Fortin Center’s Hall of Fame room to watch as the bracket was unveiled.
“I think that’s great,” Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said of the early start. “You’re going to get a chance to get down and get in the atmosphere for a little bit, and then step up and play.”
Senior forward Joel Barndt said the Bears, who received an automatic berth and will be making their second consecutive appearance at nationals, will be ready.
“We get a pretty good matchup. We’re excited about it,” he said. “We know no matter what it’s going to just come down to executing on offense and playing as hard as we can on defense.
“I mean, basketball is basketball. It doesn’t matter who you play. We know it’s going to be a fight. We’re just going to put it all out there on the line for the first game.”
This is the second year in a row Rocky will play a team from Kentucky in the first round. The Bears lost to Lindsey Wilson in last year’s tournament.
The winner of Wednesday’s Rocky-Cumberlands game will play the winner of the first-round game between the University of St. Thomas (Texas), 20-10, and eighth-seeded Emmanuel College (Ga.), 29-3.
This will be Rocky's eighth appearance at nationals since 1951 -- and fifth under Dreikosen. The Bears won it all in 2009.
This will be Cumberland's 22nd appearance at nationals. The Patriots received an at-large bid this year after losing to Georgetown, Ky., 76-69 in overtime in their conference tournament championship game.
"I'm sure they're a good program," Dreikosen said of Cumberlands. "I don't know a lot about them. We had looked at them just a little bit, but I can't even remember exactly what we'd seen on them.
"That's our job now. Now our work starts. We have to be focused on us and prepared for them. That's been our motto all year."
Rocky will be joined at the tournament by Frontier rivals Westminster College and Montana State Northern.
Westminster, 19-12, will play 11th-seeded Benedictine, Kan., 22-8, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Northern, 23-8, will take on 10th-seeded Freed-Hardeman, Tenn., 27-5, at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday.
In addition to its championship bracket, the NAIA also released its final regular-season Top 25 poll on Wednesday afternoon.
Cal State San Marcos, 30-1 and riding a 21-game winning streak, was No. 1 for the seventh consecutive week.
Besides Rocky's No. 10 ranking, Westminster and Northern wound up ranked 21st and 23rd, respectively.
For the NAIA women, Frontier regular-season and conference-tournament champion Westminster, 23-2, remained No. 3 in the final national poll.
Lewis-Clark State, 26-4, stayed at No. 15 and Montana State Northern, 21-9, remained at No. 21.
The three ranked Frontier women's teams also qualified for nationals, set for March 19-25 at the Frankfort Convention Center in Frankfort, Ky.
L-C State will play Wayland Baptist, Texas, 20-11, at 11 a.m. next Wednesday, while Northern will go up against Columbia, Mo., 26-7, at 4:45 p.m.
On Thursday, Westminster will meet William Woods, Mo., 22-10, at 1:15 p.m.
Vanguard, Calif., 26-1, went wire-to-wire as No. 1 team in the national balloting for the women.