With 31 games in six days, the NAIA brings wave after wave of do-or-die action before crowning a champion.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Uncertainty hangs over Frank Cordaro’s annual Springtime trip to Kansas City. For the last five years, he and his family have made the nine-and-a-half hour drive from Northern Louisiana, unsure exactly when they’ll return. Luckily, hotels have tended to understand.
“That’s the hardest part,” Cordaro said. “It’s knowing if you don’t make it, you go home. We make reservations until the end of the tournament, but we tell the hotel if we lose, we’ll leave. They give us a little slack.”
Cordaro’s son, Larry, is the head men’s basketball coach at Louisiana State of Alexandria, an NAIA program that Larry built from scratch. Cordaro (the younger) was named the school’s first head coach in 2014.
In that short time, Cordaro has built a power, literally, out of thin air at this school with an enrollment of only a little over 3,000 students.
The Generals have made the 32-team NAIA Division I Championship Tournament in each of their five seasons. Unlike the NCAA’s three-week March affair, the NAIA’s entire tournament is played over six days at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, with all 32 teams shuffling in and out of the historic arena in a blaze of games.
LSUA’s instant success has created an annual Midwestern pilgrimage with those fluid travel plans for Frank Cordaro. The hotel rooms, however, have stayed booked as scheduled more often than not. The Generals have twice made the NAIA’s “Fab Four,” playing until the last day of the 2018 tournament as they fell in overtime to Graceland (Iowa) in the championship. They came to Kansas City as one of the four No. 1 seeds this season, with the No. 2-ranking in the country attached to their name. Led by hefty 6’11 senior center William Claiborne, the Generals kicked off their title challenge by beating Central Baptist (Ark.) on March 21.
That was one of eight games — with 10 minutes in between — that Wednesday, which began at 9 a.m. local time and lasted late into the night, with the final game carrying a 10 p.m. scheduled tip. The Generals got a favorable draw, with their second round game not until Friday. That would end up being a tight win over Bethel (Tenn.), but the Generals didn’t get that same opportunity for recovery ahead of their next game in the quarterfinals.
“We were happy to play Wednesday, obviously we got a day of rest,” Larry Cordaro said after the second round win on Friday. “But now we don’t have a day of rest. Our depth was unbelievable, and we’ve got people that push us over the top, trainers, coaching staff, scouting reports, all that goes into effect.”
Carroll College (Montana) was not so fortunate from the jump.
The third-seeded Saints — making their 13th overall championship tournament appearance — opened with a first win over St. Thomas (Texas) on Thursday. Less than 19 hours later, they drew the bright-and-early 9 a.m. second-round tip. As Starbucks cups and blank stares staggered to work in downtown Kansas City last Friday morning, the concession stands were open and T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” was flowing out of Municipal Auditorium’s sound system. It was basketball as usual, and Carroll senior forward Match Burnham exploded for 34 points and 11 rebounds, as the Saints stymied Oklahoma City University late with a zone to move on to the quarterfinals.
“We just stayed up, it’s so early. We thought Oklahoma City would go to bed, so we were up longer than them and had a good start,” joked Saints first-year coach Kurt Paulson after the game.
As he got serious, he mentioned that the quick turnaround and frenzied format was more mental than anything else. As he stood there in one of Municipal Auditorium’s Art Deco hallways, he thought about returning the next day to take on Pikeville (Ky.) in the next round. Calories, rest and letting the adrenaline wear off were on the schedule for the rest of the day, and whatever the plan ending up being, it worked. The Saints bolted past the Bears on Saturday to reach the semifinals, their second-ever appearance in the Fab Four.
A compressed schedule within a compressed schedule is part of the challenge of navigating that far. On top of needing to win three games in three days, Carroll — like all teams — had to do so well outside of its usual pregame routine. With only 10 minutes between games, teams usually congregate near the tunnels as the first half of the preceding game wraps up, and take the floor during halftime to get shots up. That limited floor time is something Paulson had been getting his team ready to deal with.
“The last 12 days we’ve done a warm-up circuit before practice to emulate what this will be like,” Paulson said. “It’s been jump ropes, lunges and high knees, and then right into 10-minute layup lines.”
“We do it out in the hallway, right here,” he added, gesturing to the hallway he was standing in.
The mad dash of games is not just felt by players and coaches.
By the end of last weekend, plenty of basketball had passed before Steven Davis’s eyes. The veteran announcer is the play-by-by voice of UMKC basketball and the Arkansas Travelers, the Seattle Mariners’ Double A affiliate. For 15 games spread across last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then two more on Saturday, he was also the voice of the NAIA Network, calling games on the association’s webcast.
Armed with his beverage of choice — straight water — he said there’s only so much you can do to prepare for the rapid fire schedule with no breaks to regroup. But to Davis, that’s what it makes it fun.
“When the games are good, and they’re all intense and the kids are putting their heart and soul into it, it’s pretty easy to keep your head in a ballgame,” he said. “Knock on wood, luckily the voice has always held up.”
His Thursday smorgasbord of games did, in Davis’s words, start to “push it,” entering the fourth game. But with first-seeded Benedictine College (Kan.), located just over an hour away in Atchison, Kan. taking part, the arena filled with the energy of a few thousand fans. Any slight dip immediately vanished.
“It’s real easy to be up and into a game like that, and the game right after went right down to the wire, so it didn’t matter that it was past midnight before it got done,” he said.
Leaving Municipal Auditorium at 1:06 am. Great games up and down today. Fantastic atmosphere for the 2 OT game involving @ravenathletics.
Next tip off in less than 11 hours! pic.twitter.com/YOnDKe23qI
— Steven Davis (@StevenDavispxp) March 23, 2019
The wave after wave of basketball will lessen a bit in the coming years, as the NAIA revamps its format. The organization is set to merge its Division I (94 members) and Division II (138) ranks together, and create a 64-team tournament beginning in 2021. The opening rounds will be settled in 16 four-team regionals, with the 16 winners advancing to Kansas City.
Municipal Auditorium, which has hosted the event for 55 out of its 73 years, will continue to be the crowning ground for the NAIA championship. For its part, LSUA wound up falling to Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho) in the quarterfinals, unable to return to the championship game. But given the Red River Athletic juggernaut his son has built in Alexandria, Frank Cordaro may well make those 2020 reservations already. One of his favorite parts of the now-annual trip?
“You get to see so many different teams in such a short time.”
That number may soon be cut in half, but the charm and intensity of one of the nation’s most unique college basketball events should stay the same.
Georgetown (Ky.) will play Carroll (Mont.) at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday night in the championship.