Eagles return to program’s birthplace for start of NCCAA postseason era

Senior Devan White was a key player in OC's run last season to the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title. He and his teammates will shoot for another title this week in the NCCAA Central Region tournament in Bartlesville.
Senior Devan White was a key player in OC's run last season to the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title. He and his teammates will shoot for another title this week in the NCCAA Central Region tournament in Bartlesville.

OKLAHOMA CITY (March 6, 2013) – Oklahoma Christian’s basketball program began in Bartlesville almost six decades ago. Now the Eagles are starting another hoops era of sorts in that northeastern Oklahoma town.

OC (16-10) will play for the first time in the National Christian College Athletic Association postseason this year at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and will face Central Christian (Kan.) at 9 p.m. Thursday in a first-round NCCAA Central Region tournament game.

Oklahoma Wesleyan now occupies the campus where OC – then known as Central Christian College – began in 1950. Then a two-year school, OC began playing other junior colleges in the mid-to-late 1950s before the school moved to Oklahoma City in 1958. OC has competed as a four-year basketball program since the 1961-62 season.

OC left its longtime home in the NAIA after last season and has started the NCAA Division II membership process. During the three-year transition period, OC isn’t eligible to compete in the NCAA postseason, so the university (along with numerous other former NAIA powers) joined the NCCAA to provide postseason opportunities for its student-athletes.

Longtime OC coach Dan Hays welcomes the opportunity to play for a championship, as the Eagles were considered somewhat of an afterthought by the Heartland Conference this season. Games involving two new league members, OC and McMurry (Texas), didn’t count in the conference standings. (If they had, OC would have finished fourth in the 10-team league.)

OC is seeded second in the nine-team NCCAA regional.

Last year, the Eagles were seeded seventh but swept to an unlikely Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title, giving the program its first postseason title in 30 years. OC’s top nine players from that team – seniors Will Reinke, Brandon Troutman and Devan White; juniors Derek Johnson, Eric Randall and Kendre Talley; and sophomores Josh Faurot, Willie Harper and Nick Tate – are back and Hays said that experience should pay dividends this postseason.

“It’s an advantage,” Hays said. “Every year is a new year, but in all honesty, this is the only thing we’ve had to play for all year long. You can say what you want in the Heartland, but this is the first time that ratings count, seedings count and the games really count. To me, that’s plenty of motivation.”

Hays and his staff already have compiled a dossier on seventh-seeded Central Christian (19-11), which finished tied for fifth in the NAIA Division II Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference.

The Tigers and OC never have met, but they shared two common opponents this season in Dallas Christian (Texas) and Southwestern Christian. OC beat Dallas Christian 89-65 and Southwestern Christian 81-75, while Central Christian beat Dallas Christian 95-84 and swept Southwestern Christian, winning 86-78 and 72-70.

Chris Jones – the brother of former OC player Gary Jones – is Central Christian’s top player, averaging 17.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-6 center ranks seventh in NAIA Division II in the latter category and is tops in offensive rebounds (4.6 per game). He’s a two-time first-team All-MCAC selection.

Kaelon Gary (14.9) and Michael Lyons (12.4) also have double-figure scoring averages for the Tigers. Both received honorable mention on the All-MCAC list.

Central Christian started the season 10-0 but has lost six of its last eight games.

“They’re a capable team,” Hays said. “They’ve got some good wins. They didn’t finish the season real strong, but they beat York, which made the NAIA Division II tournament. They beat Oklahoma Wesleyan. They’re athletic. They score a lot of points.”

OC is led by one of small-college basketball’s best players in the 6-foot-10 Reinke, who averages 19.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.5 blocked shots and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 57.3 percent from the field.

Other first-round games will pit top-seeded McMurry (17-9) against the winner of Wednesday’s play-in game between Crowley’s Ridge (Ark.) (9-21) and Ecclesia (Ark.) (2-23); third-seeded Mid-America Christian (14-11) against sixth-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan (20-9) and fourth-seeded Southern Nazarene (14-12) against Colorado Christian (15-16).

OC is 3-1 this season against the tournament’s eight other teams. The Eagles split with Heartland rival McMurry, winning the second game by 16 points at home on Feb. 7. OC won 86-78 at Southern Nazarene on Nov. 13 and routed MACU 87-63 on Dec. 6.

OC would play the MACU-Oklahoma Wesleyan winner in the semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday. The title game is set for 3 p.m. Saturday. The tournament champion will advance to the NCCAA national tournament, set to start next Wednesday at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind.

“If you don’t win the first game, there is no second game,” Hays said. “I don’t think we’ve taken anybody for granted this year and we certainly won’t here. We’ve been playing good and hard so there will be no letdown.”