CEDAR RAPIDS — Bryan Petersen has fond memories of Danville, Ill.
Three years ago, the Kirkwood men’s basketball coach navigated the Eagles through the NJCAA Division-II national tournament from a No. 3 seed all the way to a national title.
This year, Kirkwood enters the tournament No. 1.
“The kids have earned it,” Petersen said. “With the schedule we played, what we’ve done, the wins we have been able to get and coming out of our region. It is a really tough region, so it is respected nationally. But now we’ve got to go prove it. That is the big message. What we said to the guys when the seeding came out was, ‘OK, we’ve earned this, but at the same time, we’ve got to go prove it.’ … We’re going to get everybody’s best shot and now we’ve got to go prove it.”
The Eagles (27-4) will open the 16-team bracket against North Central Missouri College (18-12) on Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Mary Miller Center in Danville, home of Danville Area Community College.
“They’re a good team,” Petersen said of NCMC. “They played a really tough schedule. They had Indian Hills down at Indian Hills at halftime. They’ve got a pretty well-rounded group watching them on film. They’ve got some size inside and they’ve got some guards that can do some things, too.”
Kirkwood is led by All-American sophomore forward Doug Wilson, who leads the team in points (20.8 per game), rebounds (8.6), blocks (1.8), steals (1.1) and is second in assists. A South Dakota State signee, Wilson was named player of the year in both the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference and the Region XI tournament.
“We’re ready and focused,” Wilson said. “We know we’ve got more at stake up in Danville. We’ve been locked in this week and we know what we have to bring.”
The emergence of freshman guard Devonte Thedford should give Kirkwood the necessary remedy for an expected uptick in athleticism at the national tournament. A high school teammate of Wilson’s at Des Moines Hoover, Thedford averaged 7.0 points and had six double-digit scoring efforts through the first 22 games of the season. In his last nine contests, Thedford reached double figures in eight of them, averaged 17.8 overall and was named to the all-region first team with a team-high 64 points in three games.
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“We’re very poised,” Thedford said. “We have a lot of talented players on our team, especially people who know the game. We know the game is a big-plus for our defense against athleticism like that.”
With a victory Tuesday, the Eagles would play again Wednesday against the winner of Wake Tech and Niagara County. The semifinals and final are scheduled for Friday and Saturday, respectively.
For sophomores like Wilson, Kyle Arrington, Sean Biernacki, Allante Pickens and Jalen Taylor, this is their last opportunity to wear the Kirkwood uniform.
“It’s really important to us,” Wilson said. “This will be our last go-around here at Kirkwood. We want to leave the best that we can.”
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