If there's a single catch phrase permeating the Drury basketball Panthers practices and meetings this week, leading up to Saturday's opening in the NCAA-II Midwest Regional at the O'Reilly Family Event Center, it would "part of the process."
That would be how Coach Steve Hesser and his Panthers (25-4), top seeds in the regional, would now prefer to refer to their Great Lakes Valley Conference championship they picked up last weekend by defeating GLVC East powers and regional qualifiers Indianapolis, Bellarmine and Southern Indiana on the way to the crown.
Because Hesser and his coaching staff clearly remembers the last time Drury won a GLVC title - 2008 - and clearly does not want a repeat. That year, the Panthers swept through three opponents at home (Weiser Gym), including an overtime win over Lewis in the finals, only to fall flat six days later in a first-round regional upset loss against Gannon in Allendale, Mich.
It's a flip-flop of the scenario this time - with the Panthers winning the league title on the road and earning the right to host, for the first time, the regional at The O' - but nevertheless, the DU seniors clearly have received the message that league titles are great, but they are not the big prize in the big picture. That chase starts this weekend, where eight teams come to Springfield in hopes of winning six games and finishing with a cutting-down-the-nets ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia after the national title game on Sunday, April 7.
Drury's matchup with Findlay (22-7) is one of four first-round games at the O'Reilly Center on Saturday. In other matchups, third-seed Bellarmine (22-7) will take on sixth-seed Indianapolis (20-8) at noon; No. 2 seed Southern Indiana (22-7) will play No. 7 seed Wayne State (17-9) at 2:30; and No. 4 seed Michigan Tech (20-8) will face No. 5 Wisconsin-Parkside (20-8) at 8:30.
Semifinals are at 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, with Tuesday's championship game to tip off at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $4 for students, or an all-tournament pass is available for $25. Reserved seats may be purchased at the O'Reilly Center box office, by calling (417) 873-6389 or by visiting www.drurytickets.com.
Drury will take a 17-game winning streak into its opener against the Oilers of Findlay, who were champions of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tourney champs and have won nine of their last 10 games. This is the sixth NCAA-II tourney appearance in nine years for the Panthers under Hesser, who advanced to the regional semifinals in Louisville two years ago in their most recent post-season appearance.
And if the Panthers are likely to make an extended post-season run this time around, it will likely be built around the solid play of their standout senior backcourt of shooting guardAlex Hall and point guard Brandon Lockhart. Hall was named the Daktronics Midwest Region Player of the Year on Thursday, and was selected GLVC tourney MVP last weekend after scoring a meet-record 79 points in three games, including 34 in the 71-65 championship game win over Southern Indiana at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
Hall is averaging 19.6 points per game and has scored at a 25.5 ppg pace over his last 10 games as he's moved into the No. 3 all-time slot on DU's career scoring charts with 2,056 points. He's also the school's career leader in 3-pointers with 367 after making seven more in the win over USI on Sunday. Lockhart adds 11.5 points per game and ranks among the national Top 15 in both assists (5.8 per game) and steals (3.0).
But those two will need help this weekend, particularly in an opener against a Findlay team that's led by 6-6 junior Greg Kahlig, who averages a team-high 16.9 points. Drury got strong inside play off the bench on Sunday from 6-5 sophomores Cameron Adams and Derek Daniels, particularly valuable since 6-6 senior Teddy Simniok played just eight minutes against the tall and athletic Screaming Eagles of USI before fouling out.
Brad Piehl, a 6-8 senior, adds 11.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for a team that takes care of the basketball, averaging just 12.7 turnovers per game. The Oilers also have a defensive whiz in 6-3 senior guard Aaron Robinson, honored by the league in that capacity for his work the last two seasons.
Findlay is in its second year under head coach Charlie Ernst, who spent 20 seasons with the Oilers as an assistant before being promoted to the top spot. UF was No. 22 in this week's final NABC Top 25 Coaches Poll (Drury moved up a spot to No. 7). The Panthers and Oilers will be meeting for the first time in history on Saturday.
Findlay has 12 players back from a 24-7 team that advanced to the Midwest Regional semifinals last season. The Oilers finished 36-0 and were national champions in 2008-09.
Saturday's game can be heard live on JOCK 98.7 FM (streamed at www.jock987.com), with John Miller and Ray Meyer on the play-by-play call. All games of the NCAA-II Midwest Regional at the O'Reilly Center will be streamed live, and available by clicking the "Live Video" link on the regional website page listed above.