After advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NAIA National Tournament for the second consecutive year, the IU Kokomo men’s basketball team ended its season unexpectedly after the cancellation of the remainder of the tourney earlier this month due to COVID-19.
Ending 27-7 as the ninth-best winning percentage in all of NAIA Division III, the Cougars qualified for the national tournament in South Dakota for the second year in a row despite the close loss against IU East (65-70) in the River States Conference (RSC) Championship. After defeating the number 12th-ranked team in the country, Madonna University, 70-68 in the opening round, the team was set to play the overall number-one team in the nation, College of Idaho, before getting word of the cancelation.
“It was so surreal at the time that it happened. We’re out there on Thursday. We won a big game Wednesday … We go back to the tournament to watch some games, get ready to practice ourselves. All of a sudden … one of the tournament officials came up (to me) and said, ‘When this game’s over, the tournament’s done.’ [We] had heard the night before that the NBA had canceled their season. It didn’t really cross our minds like, we’re done at that moment,” said Head Coach Eric Echelbarger.
With two seniors on the team, Akil McClain and Bryce Hudson, the sudden end to the season was particularly emotional for them, according to Echelbarger. Every senior wants some kind of closure, he said, and to have that taken away was a difficult concept to grasp.
However, Echelbarger thought the team’s “silver lining” was its final win of the season.
“For those guys to be able to end their season on that, I do think there’s some silver lining in that right there. The fact that we got to go out there, play our best, and get a huge win. There’s a lot of teams that didn’t get to play. There’s 12 teams out of 32 that didn’t get to take the court. There’s 10 teams that lost and 10 teams that won. And we’re one of the 10 that won, so I do feel fortunate,” Echelbarger said.
Before arriving in South Dakota, the Cougars stopped for a night at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to use the exercise facilities. Once in Sioux Falls, S.D., the team participated in a community service project with All City Elementary School where the players spent time in the classroom and gym with students, mentoring them academically and athletically.
Besides playing and watching other talented teams from across the country in the tournament, these were highlights of the trip, Echelbarger said.
Ranked in the top-25 of the national rankings this season, Echelbarger said he was proud of what the team accomplished overall for 2019-2020. He thanked the seniors, coaches, and fans for their dedication to the basketball program.
“Assistant Coach Perry Michael has done a wonderful job for our program and is instrumental in many different day-to-day operations of our team. Associate Head Coach Roosevelt Jones has done a fantastic job working with our players and preparing in-depth scouting reports that make us one of the most prepared teams at our level. Thank you to all the fans that supported us this season. It was one I will never forget,” Echelbarger said.