Past experiences have enabled the Lindenwood-Belleville men's basketball team to be unfazed about its inaugural appearance in the 32-team NAIA Division I Tournament.
The Lynx (22-8), in their first season of eligibility for the tournament, will meet the Pikeville Bears (30-2), of Pikeville, Ky., in the first round at 12:30 p.m. today at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
Pikeville is seeded second in the 32-team field, but unseeded Lindenwood owns two victories over Freed-Hardeman this season, one of them a 78-77 decision Jan. 30 in Henderson, Tenn., when Freed-Hardeman was ranked No. 1 in the country.
"I listened to Rick Venturi in the morning, before he left (St. Louis) to go back to Indianapolis," Lindenwood coach Scott Spinner said of the former St. Louis Rams assistant who co-hosted a radio program on ESPN-FM 101.1. "He always said, 'The hardest thing to do as a coach is to inspire belief without evidence.'
"Before we beat Freed, that's what we were telling the guys: 'Hey, you can beat a team like this. You can beat the No. 1 team. You're among them.' But we had to inspire belief with no evidence, because we had never beaten a team like that. We had never competed at that level.
"Now that we have, we have evidence. Now our guys know that we can beat the No. 2 team in the country. That changes things for us."
Spinner, however, said the assignment is difficult. Pikeville, in its eighth NAIA Tournament, is on a 16-game winning streak and boasts a roster dotted with Division I talent.
Senior point guard Elisha Justice (Louisville), junior forward Kenny Manigault (Wichita State), senior forward Bruce Reed (Morehead State), senior guard Devante McClung (Tennessee State), junior forward Chris Cantino (Xavier) and 6-foot, 5-inch guard Keala King (Long Beach State) all joined the Bears from Division I programs.
"When you look at them on paper, we're not talking about your typical NAIA basketball team," Spinner said. "Their Division I transfers aren't the typical mid-major transfers. They've got guys that can really, really play.
"I do feel like it's a favorable matchup for us because of the type of basketball both teams play. We both rely heavily on our post players, so that means we're going to be able to defend them, I think. We both set a lot of ball screens up top. That means we've had a lot of practice against ourselves every day. I feel like our guys are ready for the challenge."
The 6-8 Reed leads the Bears in scoring at 18.2 points per game. The 6-5 King (15.3), 6-8 Cantino (13.7), 6-0 senior Josh Whitaker (11.3) and 6-5 Manigault (10.3) also are in double figures. Cantino averages a team-best 10 rebounds.
Justice, just 5-10, averages 9.5 points and leads Pikeville with 50 3-pointers. He also has 115 assists and just 48 turnovers.
Junior Craig Anderson is the Lynx's top scorer (21.4 points) and playmaker (3.5 assists). He is second in 3-pointers with 40.
"Craig Anderson is the game-changer," Spinner said. "When it comes to March, you need guys who can take it to another level. He's our guy for that."
Anderson is joined in the starting lineup by 6-7 junior Lawson Warren (11.3 points), 6-6 junior Garrett Gaffner (10.9 points, 8.3 rebounds), a graduate of Central High who didn't become eligible until the second half of the season, 6-0 sophomore Jacobby Anderson (8.4 points) and 6-2 junior Chris Stevenson (7.9 points).
Tyler Boring, a 6-10 senior, will come off the bench along with 6-5 junior Darius Holman and 6-2 junior Brandon Ehlinger, who has a team-high 50 3-pointers.
"Gaffner is a workhorse," Spinner said. "He's kind of given the team a new identity. Before he came, we definitely did not have a defensive identity. He brings a grittiness and a toughness. He inspired the other guys to become a defensive team."
Gaffner is the only player to appear in an NAIA Tournament game. He was a freshman at McKendree University when the Bearcats played Southern Nazarene and Georgetown (Ky.) in the tournament in 2011.
"We know we can play with just about anybody here," Gaffner said. "We go about nine or 10 deep and I have confidence that everybody is going to leave everything on the court. It's hard to ask for anything more than that. There's a lot of balance on this team."
Lindenwood received the final at-large bid to the tournament after losing to Life University (Ga.) 99-85 on March 8 in the Association of Independent Institutions Tournament in Marietta, Ga. The Lynx will play in the American Midwest Conference next season.
Pikeville, which is 8-7 all-time in the NAIA Tournament, gained an automatic berth by winning the Mid-South Conference Tournament. The Bears, ranked second in the NAIA poll, would have received an at-large bid even without winning their league tournament.
"We're excited to be in this for the first year," Spinner said. "Honestly, I had never been to Municipal Auditorium. I know of the history of it and I know this is where (James) Naismith started the tournament. I'm kind of a history enthusiast when it comes to basketball, so to be here is just awesome.
"To be here is a huge accomplishment for our program. We keep meeting people and meeting new coaches and new staffs in the NAIA who constantly say, 'Wow, congratulations. This is your first-year (eligible). Nobody does that.' So we're very excited about putting ourselves in the conversation on the national level. It will be a great recruiting tool for us."