Amid all the fuss surrounding the reappearance of football at Texas Wesleyan after a 75-year break is a men’s basketball team that has walked among the elite of the nation’s NAIA programs in 2015-16.
The No. 10 Rams — the Sooner Athletic Conference regular-season champions — left for Kansas City, Mo., on Monday with designs on bringing a second national championship back to campus.
Wesleyan (24-7), a No. 3 seed, faces No. 6 seed Campbellsville (Ky.) (22-10) at 9 a.m. Thursday at Memorial Auditorium.
The 32-team national tournament is a six-day event, concluding with semifinals on Monday and the national championship game on March 22.
Georgetown of Kentucky is the overall No. 1 seed.
Texas Wesleyan won the NAIA national championship in 2006.
Texas Wesleyan boasts a team that can score and rebound, particularly an overachieving guard from Haltom City who at 6-foot-2 ranks fifth in the nation in rebounds per game and first on the offensive end.
Coach Brennen Shingleton called senior Chris Gracela the embodiment of the leadership and motor of a close-knit team that climbed to as high as No. 3 in the nation during a 13-game winning streak in January and February.
A Division I-high five teams from the Sooner Athletic Conference are in the NAIA field.
“We had a bunch of new guys this season … essentially an entirely new team,” Gracela said. “But we saw that we had a lot of talent and personality as well.
“If we could put those two things together, which we did, we saw we had a chance.”
The Rams’ season is a complete turnabout from a 2014-15 campaign that never got off the ground after being marred by scandal. Two players were kicked out of school after being arrested on charges they pulled a gun on two women at a party.
That team finished 15-15 and 4-14 in conference.
“That was a humbling experience,” Shingleton said of the arrests. “If we were going to win this year, hopefully it’s with the right guys, and the guys who made it back embraced [what we are doing].
“It’s such a solid group. They enjoy each other’s company.”
It’s a deep team, too. Five guys averaged in double figures in the regular season and conference tournament, led by Jerrell Ellis, a San Antonio native and conference player of the year, who averaged 17.7 points a game. Sam Akano was next at 15.
“From the beginning of the year we knew we had 11 or 12 guys who could start,” Ellis said. “We knew we would have a deep bench.”
And, as Shingleton said, “they work for each other” and are willing to make any contribution.
We had a bunch of new guys this season … essentially an entirely new team. But we saw that we had a lot of talent and personality as well.
Senior guard Chris Gracela
Like Gracela, whom Ellis called “one of those guys.” If he’s on your team, you love him; if he’s on the other team you can’t stand him.
He’s always around the ball, as his 10-plus rebounds a game attest.
“I feel like we have a lot of great shooters on this team and the more shots I can get them … that’s my role,” said Gracela, who played two years at Kilgore Junior College. “And I love my role.”
As well as the regular season went, the Rams limped to the finish line, losing the last two of the regular season and being ousted in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Wesleyan dug a hole in the first half and could never recover in losing to University of Science and Arts (Okla.) by two.
“We regrouped … we needed to get healthy and get out legs back,” Shingleton said. “We had a fantastic week of practice. I expect nothing less than us going up there and playing with a tremendous bounce.
“Without a doubt we want to go up there and make a run, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. I’m going to remember this group for doing what they’ve done. They’re going to be great husbands and employees, and 20 years from now I’m going to look back and smile.”
Texas Wesleyan vs. Campbellsville (Ky.)
9 a.m. Thursday, Memorial Auditorium, Kansas City, Mo.