If the Tennessee Temple University Crusaders return this month to the National Christian College Athletic Association Division I basketball tournament, they will have one national tournament already behind them.
They left Sunday morning for Uniontown, Pa., and the 2014 United States Collegiate Athletic Association culmination.
That's Uniontown in Fayette County, not far north of Morgantown, W.Va. All the games in four USCAA nationals going on this week will be in the two gyms on the Penn State-Fayette campus.
Temple (19-11) opens Wednesday at 3 p.m. against another Tennessee team, Victory of Memphis. The Crusaders practiced Sunday at West Virginia University and will do so again today.
After winning 13 games in a row going into the NCCAA nationals last year and winding up 23-13 under first-year coach Brac Brady, many of the same Crusaders have been part of another late-season surge this year another first-year coach, Jeff Haarlow. After a decent start, they were 1-6 in December but have been 12-3 since.
As Haarlow pointed out, the December win was against an NAIA Division I team, Mid-Continent, and that month's schedule also included Middle Tennessee State and four NCAA D-II and other NAIA D-I opponents. Helpful transfers Darius Davis and Tony Sparkman were activated after practicing with the team through the first semester, but Haarlow felt the biggest boost was the Crusaders' experience and maturity level that kept them going forward instead of getting frustrated.
"We have six seniors, coupled with [sophomore] Travaris Clarke and [junior] Weedlens Beauvil, who have played a ton of games together," Haarlow said before departure. "They were playing under their third coach in three years, but they kept battling and growing together."
There were a lot to blend. No fewer than 23 guys have played in TTU varsity games this season, and 14 have started at least once. Only three have started more than 15 times. But Haarlow said the players care more about contributing than being in the tipoff lineup, and he added that he felt virtually no resistance to his style and system, despite last year's success under a different leader.
Elliot Johnson, a 6-foot-8 senior from Milwaukee, has started only a handful of games but leads the Crusaders with 14 points a game and averages six rebounds.
"Elliot has the ability to come in and play three or four positions. At times he even brings the ball up the floor," Haarlow said. "We run some sets with him running the point.
"He can come in for whoever, whether it's because of foul trouble or size or a matchup, and he's a smart basketball player who sees things in the first few minutes that he puts to use when he goes in."
Senior point guard Jarrett Smith from Fairburn, Ga., meanwhile, is "the engine that makes us go," Haarlow said. "He is one guy we can count on for energy, passion and stats all over the place."
Smith averages 11 points a game, second most on the team, and leads with five-plus assists and seven rebounds a game, despite being only 6-foot tall. Senior forward Hampton Mack and 3-point threat Beauvil also score right at 10 points a game and like Johnson and Smith have had games with much more.
The Crusaders are guaranteed two games at Uniontown and will play in the NCCAA Mid-East Regional next week, so they still have a good bit of basketball ahead of them. Haarlow, tapping into the program's illustrious history under coaches such as Ron Bishop and Kevin Templeton, thinks his group is "competitive" with the other seven in the USCAA D-I bracket.
"We're excited with the accomplishments this group's made -- and Jeff's made," athletic director Kenrick Liburd said. "It says something about where we are that we could attract a good quality coach who kept the program moving forward, and in our first year in the USCAA we were able to qualify for the national tourrnament."
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.