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Bethel men apparently win title

Mark Schnabel
The Kansan
Bethel junior Jaylon Scott defends a shot during play earlier this season. The Threshers had their final conference game of the season cancelend and will play Friday at William Penn.

The Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference’s men’s basketball race won’t end on any kind of buzzer-beating dramatics, but in a slew of cancellations.

Although the title won’t be crowned until the conference regular-season ends Saturday, it appears the Bethel Threshers are going to take the conference crown for the first time since 2003.

Bethel is 16-4 in conference play, while Oklahoma Wesleyan is 13-4. Bethel’s final scheduled conference game for Saturday at Saint Mary was canceled, while OWU’s game against Tabor and Bethany were both canceled.

Other top teams in the conference include Ottawa at 12-7 and McPherson at 13-8.

“It’s a different year than it usually is, but we are done playing conference games,” Bethel coach Jayson Artaz said. “We are expecting to be named conference champs Wednesday. The official rankings come out Wednesday. With us not playing any games and Oklahoma Wesleyan not playing any games — they are going into quarantine right now — we should be officially named conference champs Saturday.”

Along with the the conference title, Bethel will take the top seed in the KCAC postseason tournament and earn an automatic berth in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Championships.

“We’re in,” Artaz said. “It will be nice to get back and see what we can do.”

The last (and only) time Bethel competed in the national tournament, Artaz was a player for the Threshers.

Bethel’s season started 1-3, 1-2 in conference play, followed by a 10-game winning streak — one of the longest in team history.

After a loss on the road to Southwestern, Bethel won four straight.

Bethel dropped a 92-91 decision at Ottawa, but came back to top rival Tabor 90-71 on Saturday.

“It’s been a weird year for sure,” Artaz said. “Everybody’s had to go through something the second semester. We had a bunch of games canceled because of other teams. We started out 1-3, we had been in quarantine for like two weeks straight before we started playing those games. We hardly had a chance to practice before we had to play all those games. That was where we hit our rough stretch. Once we got going, our guys were pretty smart and stayed away from large gatherings as much as they could. They get a lot of credit for that. We were very lucky there.”

The next goal for the Threshers will be to win the conference tournament, something the team has never done. Bethel has only been in the finals twice since the tournament started in 1993.

Bethel is making just its third appearance in the KCAC tournament, since the field was reduced to eight teams in 2011. 

“When we recruit guys, we recruit guys who are ultra competitive,” Artaz said. “Everybody wants to go play at Hartman Arena (the site of the finals) and have a chance to win the conference championship tournament, as well. It’s still a very big deal. That’s the next thing circled on the list that these guys want to accomplish. Our junior class keeps wanting to check things off the list that Bethel College has not done.”  

In place of the Saint Mary game, the Threshers picked third-ranked (NAIA) William Penn University in a nonconference game at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

The game will take significance because Bethel has played just one nonconference game this season — falling to eighth-ranked Sciences & Arts of Oklahoma 101-78.

“Our two nonconference games are against No. 3 in the country and No. 8 in the country,” Artaz said. “Strength-of-schedule wise, that really helps us. If we could go beat them, that will help your postseason ratings. The way the tournament is set up this year, dropped down to 48, one team is going to get a bye. If we can jump in the ratings, we could put ourselves in that conversation.”

Artaz described William Penn as “huge,” going 6-foot-10, 6-9, 6-6 and 6-4 among the starting five.

Bethel is led by junior Jaylon Scott, who is averaging 16.6 points and 11.3 rebounds a game. Bryant Mocaby is averaging 14 points a game. Clifford Byrd II is averaging 13.7 points a game.

Scott and Byrd are among the three-year letterwinners for the Threshers. Scott is a three-year starter and the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year.

“Jaylon Scott is as good as any player in the country,” Artaz said. “Bryant Mocaby, Cliff Byrd, Adam Gouro have all been huge for us. Tavaughn Flowers has been our coach on the floor. The biggest thing for me since taking over has been culture-wise. We don’t have anybody complaining about minutes. Everybody is bought in trying to win. We’re dialed in to supporting their teammates. Our depth is better than it’s ever been.”

Mocaby came to Bethel after two seasons at NCAA Division I Northern Kentucky, where he reached the NCAA tournament in 2019. The team qualified in 2020, but the NCAA tournament was canceled.

“His role has been so different,” Artaz said. “When he went to (NKU), they were basically asking him to be a shooter. ‘You stand there in the corner, make open shots and we kick it out to you. Then play some defense.’ We’ve asked a lot more out of him. We want him to be a more rounded player and attack the basket. We want him to do the things he did in high school that made him a Division I player. There was an adjustment period for him. He’s had his struggles here and there. Teams are focused on him, not letting him get his shot off. He has to relearn those things. He hasn’t moped. He hasn’t pouted. He’s been happy for all the guys doing well.”

Bethel played two junior varsity teams this season with a total of about 20 players. Artaz called the JV teams an “in-house” junior college.

“We are definitely a program that wants to be in it for the long haul,” Artaz said. “If you bring in a lot of JUCO guys, it’s very easy to be up and down, inconsistent to what we are. We want to be a consistent winner. You will do a lot more with freshmen.”

Two NAIA first- and second-round sites are in the Wichita area — Hartman Arena and the Garvey Center on the Friends University campus.

“I would assume that’s where we’re going to get put,” Artaz said. “I don’t anticipate going too far away.”

The NAIA has granted players in 2020-21 an extra year of eligibility.

“It’s going to make it interesting,” Artaz said. “The one challenge for us is, we don’t have a graduate programs at Bethel, so if someone is on track to graduate or start their career, we want them to do what’s best for them. The one nice thing is, if someone wants to come back, maybe get a second major or minor in something, and play one more year at Bethel and have another good experience.”

Bethel’s only trip to the NAIA championships came in 2003, losing in the first round to fifth-ranked St. Vincent 76-62.

Before 1992, teams qualified for the NAIA tournament through the District 10 tournament, which featured teams from the KCAC, Kansas teams from the Heart of America Athletic Conference, Kansas teams from the Central States Intercollegiate Conference (now part of the NCAA Division II Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) and independents Marymount (now closed) and Newman (now NCAA II).

Bethel qualified for that tournament in 1987, 1983, 1980 (the Threshers’ last win in nonconference postseason play, beating Ottawa 78-62 before losing to Marymount 69-66), 1973 (beating College of Emporia 83-79 in the semifinals and falling to Marymount 82-60 in the finals), 1957 (losing a best-of-three series to Emporia State 77-70 and 69-55) and 1956 (losing to Pittsburg State 75-67 and 103-72).

Mark Schnabel can be reached at mschnabel@thekansan.com