KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the final four teams in the NAIA Division I men’s basketball tournament set to tip off for the rights to Tuesday’s championship, Carroll College and Montana Western have begun looking to the future.
Carson Cunningham and the Fighting Saints made their second straight run to the round of eight in Kansas City, but fell two points short to Life University (Georgia) on Saturday. Cunningham appears to have revived some magic in a Carroll program that won only two games before his arrival, leaving the Fighting Saints as a perennial contender at the national level.
“It’s a real compliment to our players,” Cunningham said. “I’m grateful for the coaches I get to work with too. … It’s a compliment to those guys and the work they put in. We’re going to keep staying hungry and try to get after it.
“This stings, I’ll be kicking myself trying to think of what buttons I could have pushed or things I could have done differently to help us get over the hump,” he continued. “That’s always tough, but you have to work through that and not lose sight of the positives, which there are unbelievable positives with this group – the way they carry themselves, the work they do in the classroom, obviously the way they play – so we won’t lose sight of that, it’s just going to sting for a little while. I know the guys that are returning are going to stay hungry and fight to get back to this point and try to get through this round.”
Zach Taylor, the Frontier Conference MVP and winner of Saturday’s 3-point shootout, played his final game in a Saints’ jersey. Replacing that caliber of athlete will be Cunningham’s biggest challenge next fall, but with all-American Ryan Imhoff returning, and a great cast around him, Carroll figures to please its fans again next season.
“I think people who support Carroll and follow Carroll feel that approach these guys have and they appreciate it and celebrate it,” said Cunningham. “That’s awesome and we’re grateful for that. We want to keep trying as best we can to represent Carroll well.”
Montana Western’s run at the national tournament ended a night sooner, as the Bulldogs fell to Dalton State 79-60 on Friday evening. Steve Keller loses two seniors from this roster, including one he’s certain to spend plenty of time with in the future.
“Shyke (Smalls) and Chase (Haack), well Shyke has been with us for five years and has improved every year,” said Keller. “Now the bad news, Shyke isn’t going to be done with me because he’s marrying our daughter and going to be my son-in-law so I don’t know if that’s good or bad for him.
“Chase came in here for one year and did a good job for us,” Keller continued.
The Bulldogs return a bevy of talent in starting guards Dom Robinson and Kooper Kidgell, forward Riley King and post Marcus Payne, plus key contributors Zaccheus Darko-Kelly and Cameron Evans.
“We have everybody back,” said Keller. “I just told them that we have to get better and we have to get stronger. When you see the athletes out here, and we can’t get that type of athlete in Dillon, Montana, but we have to shoot the ball and rebound. We didn’t do those two things and that’s why we got beat.”
Carroll and Western will each tip off their 2017-18 seasons in late October or early November.