SANTA FE, N.M. — The road to a hoops national championship begins today for the Northern New Mexico College men’s team.
But just getting there was quite the trip as its 1,103 miles to Lincoln, Ill., for the Association of Independent Institutions tournament, where the fifth-seeded Eagles (13-14) meet No. 4 College of the Ozarks.
“We already burned three CDs from their previous games, so have a lot of film to watch, just trying to prepared,” said coach Ryan Cordova.
The teams have met three times previously, with NNMC winning twice on their home court and losing once on the road.
“The College of the Ozarks are a team that for the past 15 years hosted the national tournament, and this year they’re not,” Cordova said. “They don’t have an automatic bid so they’re going to be fighting to make the national tournament.”
If the Eagles win today, they will face games Saturday and Sunday to earn a spot in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament that will be played March 7-13 in Sioux Falls, S.D. The top two teams from the conference tournament will get an invite into the 32-team national championship. The school will be setting up TVs in the gymnasium to broadcast the 3 p.m. game and it is being streamed on YouTube (youtube.com/channel/UCU39AnRPrcjUosSPQFYIboA).
The Eagles last reached the national tournament in 2014, but Cordova is cautiously optimistic that this season’s group has a chance.
“We’re such a young team, and we’re not funded really well and we only have two scholarships,” he said.
The Eagles, however, soar across the floor with aplomb, wreaking havoc with athleticism and enthusiasm.
“We have some really good guards,” Cordova said.
Leading scorer Bryce Simmons is putting up 14.4 points a game and Walid Aly is at 12.4.
Cordova credits New Mexico coach Paul Weir for helping bring Aly from Cairo, Egypt, to northern New Mexico.
“Paul Weir sent me a kid from Cairo,” he said. “Paul doesn’t only help the programs he’s associated with, but also all the programs in New Mexico. He wanted him (at New Mexico State), but didn’t have any more scholarships for him, so he sent him to us.”
Sophomore Kevin Moore, an Oñate grad, has been a surprise at the third guard position.
“We tend to do really well when we pick up the press,” Cordova said. “Those three are pretty athletic, and they run and finish well in the open court.”
The Bobcats, from Missouri, are almost completely the polar opposite in their makeup.
“We’re two completely different teams,” Cordova said. “Take an old Bobby Knight team from Indiana or from Texas Tech that gets in a passing game and is very methodical in their offense. They do a good job of reading defense and if you jump the passing lanes, they’ll make you pay with the back door.”
Typical of most northern New Mexico high school teams, Cordova has his squad gunning up and down the court.
“We’re more athletic, like Kentucky teams,” he said. “We rely on athleticism. We spread the court and help people get to the lane. The objective we’re trying to achieve is to turn their shooters into dribblers and turn their dribblers into shooters.”