Above image by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
CLARKSVILLE, Arkansas- UMHB head men’s basketball coach Clif Carroll’s inaugural season in Belton has been full of surprises and unexpected occurrences at seemingly every corner.
The Cru, like every other team in the country, has dealt with Covid-19 protocols all season, but also faced a winter storm that left the Mayborn Campus Center without power for five days, had a game moved to an unfamiliar gym 24 hours before tip-off, and five games canceled due to Covid. Add earning a bye straight to the ASC conference tournament semifinals to the list, and that sums up the list of oddities this season.
After UMHB won the ASC West Division Title and closed out the conference schedule with a flawless 13-0 record, the Crusaders were scheduled to host an ASC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against Concordia (TX) on Wednesday. But by noon on Tuesday, the game was called off due to Covid-19 within the Tornadoes program, sending the Cru straight to Clarksville, Arkansas and the tournament semifinals.
“I try to keep the guys on schedule, so on Wednesday we did a simulation game, a little 20 minute up and down,” said Carroll. “We waited until Wednesday night to see who we were going to play and went from there.”
No. 2 East seed Louisiana College prevailed 79-72 over UT-Dallas on Wednesday, setting up a semifinal meeting between the Wildcats and the Cru, with the right to advance to Monday’s championship on the line. It does not seem that there is a better opponent standing in UMHB’s way to the ASC title game than Louisiana College, considering it was a 74-71 win over the Wildcats 13 games ago that set off the Cru’s historic season.
“They’re a lot better team now than what we played a couple months ago,” said Carroll. “I think the big guy on the inside is playing a lot better, and we know what they got in Kae’ron Baker. He is a really good player. Comparing our game from when we played earlier to Wednesday night, I think you’ll see a more confident team and a team that is playing harder.”
Not only has Louisiana College improved, but it is also March, and single-elimination tournaments like this one tend to bring out more in teams. Knowing that it must survive and advance in order to keep its conference championship hopes alive, teams play with a sense of urgency and determination. UMHB enters the matchup as the overwhelming favorite, and the only team in either division that went undefeated in conference play. The target on the Crusaders’ backs has only grown as the season has gone on,
“We talk a lot about humility, and staying humble,” said Carroll. “We have weaknesses. We’re not the perfect team, we can be beat. We talk about that everyday. Staying humble and staying where your feet are.”
Looking ahead to the ASC championship before winning in the semifinals would be an ill-fated mistake, but the coaches have no other option. The players must remain focused on Sunday’s duel, but the coaches have to split their minds between preparing for Sunday, but also scouting a possible opponent for Monday.
“That’s where having a great staff comes into play,” said Carroll. “My assistants are unbelievable. They work hard. They know what they’re doing. I’ve got guys prepared for Hardin-Simmons, I’ve got guys prepared for Ozarks and I’ve got guys prepared for Louisiana. I haven’t had to do much preparation for the ‘what-if’ game. I’ve been able to focus on Louisiana. On Sunday night if we win, it won’t take us long to get a gameplan in place.”
Without even knowing it, UMHB was able to prepare for the idea of playing on consecutive days, as the Cru faced Concordia on January 8 and Midwestern State on January 9. Of course, those did not hold the same meaning as the conference tournament, and were scheduled due to late cancellations from conference opponents, but the fact that the Crusaders have done it once is evidence that they can easily do it again.
“We kind of plan for [the idea of playing on consecutive days],” said Carroll. “This year is a little different with the Covid because we had to just have games as we went, but in a normal year try to emulate this. We try to put ourselves in a position that will emulate what a conference tournament feels like.”
Kae’ron Baker leads Louisiana College’s offensive attack, as the Navasota, Texas native averages 21.5 points per game and is shooting 41 percent from the field. Similar to UMHB’s leading scorer, Josiah Johnson, Baker has scored in double figures in all but one game this season.
While Baker and Johnson are strong on the perimeter for their respective teams, Galen Smith Jr. anchors the Wildcats’ post. The 6’8 junior has a height advantage, and as Carroll noted, has improved tremendously during the last several months, now averaging 14.0 points per game.
Sunday’s matchup tips off at 3 p.m. CT Sunday on the campus of the University of Ozarks.