JUCO Men's Basketball | A first-person look at Logan's NJCAA championship win (2023)

When most people think of March Madness, they think of the NCAA Tournament that takes over televisions and conversation in the year’s third month.

Folks who couldn’t tell you who Florida Atlantic’s coach was until two weeks ago suddenly know Dusty May’s life story. Now they think they have an idea if the Owls can figure out San Diego State’s tungsten-tough defense in Saturday’s first semifinal at the Final Four.

But March Madness exists in other parts of the country, even if it’s not televised to the masses until the championship game. For instance, the NJCAA Tournament last week in Hutchinson, Kan. that John A. Logan won for its first national title.

It was the first time I’ve been to the town known as 'Hutch' and I hope it’s not the last, even if the hotel where I slept for six nights isn’t quite up to the standards of the ones I frequent around the Missouri Valley Conference while following SIU.

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Last week was a unique opportunity to cover a local team not just playing for a national title, but winning it. So we’ll take a look at the week that was in central Kansas, not just game days, but travel and off-days:

Monday, March 20

This one starts obscenely early, thanks to a 5:40 a.m. flight out of Lambert Airport in St. Louis. I drove up on Sunday after covering SIU softball’s 9-1 win over Valparaiso and grabbed a few hours sleep before dealing with the TSA ghouls.

I don’t mind flying, even when I get center seats as I did for the flight to Dallas and the connector to Wichita, but despise how TSA dehumanizes the process. It’s why for trips of eight hours of less, I always – and I mean always – drive.

Nevertheless, both flights go off as planned and I’m in Wichita before 11 a.m. A quick stop to pick up luggage and my rental car – first hybrid I’ve driven – and we are off on the 50-minute trip northwest to Hutch.

After making it through the 25-30 mph winds to Hutch, I find lunch and then try to check into my hotel. Offered the chance to kill another 90 minutes in town or pay $15 to check in early, I swallow hard and pay the money. There is writing to do and a teleconference to make.

Later that night, I try a steakhouse across the street from the hotel and enjoy it. One thing I soon discover about Hutch is that there are a number of good restaurants. It turns out I’ll have a chance to sample all of them.

Tuesday, March 21

Logan is the top seedin the 24-team tournament. That means it will play the first round of 16 game, first quarterfinal and semifinal. It has earned the most advantageous schedule by winning 27 in a row. Time to see if they can justify it.

The answer on this day is certainly. Monroe (NY) may have held South Georgia State to 63 points on Monday, but the Vols ring up 50 in the first half. Logan moves the ball like it’s starring in a Red on Roundball video (look it up on YouTube, folks) and drills 16 3-pointers.

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The Vols’ 105-85 win is only topped by the news that I get to sit next to the team bench when I’m covering their games. This is an increasingly rare treat any more as most colleges move media toward the top of their arenas to give those seats to alums who leave them empty as often as not.

But at Hutchinson Sports Arena, an old barn which is maintained very well by the town because it knows how meaningful this event is, I am courtside. And for all the times I’ll have to look around coach Tyler Smithpeters or a ref, it’s worth it to hear and feel the game from inches away.

Every once in a while, you even get a word from Smithpeters.

“Should have finished that one, huh,” he asks after one of his players biffs a layup.

JUCO Men's Basketball | A first-person look at Logan's NJCAA championship win (1)

That was about all he had to complain about. Even the weather was perfect. By the time I leave the arena for the short drive to the hotel, it’s sunny and 75 degrees.

Wednesday, March 22

As the No. 1 seed, Logan gets the day off. So it practices and gets ready for Midland (TX), which dumped Chipola (FL) 69-55 on Tuesday.

Chipola is coached by Donnie Tyndall, who was once a rising star in Division I. Tyndall recruited Kenneth Faried, one of the great rebounders in college history, out of New Jersey to Morehead State and put enough players around him to eliminate Rick Pitino’s Louisville in the 2010 NCAA tourney.

Tyndall parlayed that into a couple of good years at Southern Mississippi and then got his crack at a TV league school when Tennessee hired him. But he violated enough rules that he was fired after one year and then given a 10-year show cause violation, meaning if an NCAA school wants to hire him before April 7, 2026, it must show why it shouldn’t earn sanctions for doing so.

Too bad, because Tyndall really looked like a keeper. He also had one of the great quotes in basketball history after losing a round of 32 NCAA game to Richmond two days after stunning Louisville.

“This game," he said, “will hurt you.”

Will it hurt Logan? If it does, it won’t be because the Vols are running around and seeing the sights. While a traveling writer traipses around the Hutchinson Zoo and sees a pelican bite another pelican in the tail feathers, Smithpeters and his team opt to eat a takeout dinner in their hotel.

“No reason to be out too late,” Smithpeters said. “We do have the noon game tomorrow. Got to get our rest.”

Thursday, March 23

A hot shower in the hotel makes up for an early wakeup call. So does stepping outside and realizing it’s not 75 degrees any more, but about 40 as a cold front has blown through the plains.

Smithpeters’ strategy of keeping the team in the hotel and getting rest pays off with a 23-7 start. Good thing, because Midland isn’t all that interested in capitulating as easily as Monroe did. By halftime, the Chaparrals trail only 35-33.

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Their nickname reminds me of the old ABA team in Dallas that went by the Chaps. It also reminds me of an anecdote from Terry Pluto’s timeless book on the ABA, “Loose Balls.” Coach Tom Nissalke was so disturbed with how Pittsburgh’s John Brisker, a big scorer who also liked to fight, had dominated his team.

Before a game one night in Pittsburgh, Nissalke offered $500 to the first player who decked Brisker. Lenny Chappell volunteered and punched Brisker out on the jump ball, when no one was looking.

Midland came close to punching Logan out in the quarterfinals. But the Vols escape because James Dent, in what becomes a familiar theme as the tournament goes on, hits a spate of key free throws down the stretch.

Dent goes 9-of-10 at the stripe and Logan hangs on 74-70. It’s yet another example of the Vols’ excellent depth. Dent is the team’s sixth man who would start and be a go-to guy on many teams.

“It was his turn today,” Smithpeters explained.

JUCO Men's Basketball | A first-person look at Logan's NJCAA championship win (2)

Friday, March 24

The other thing that happened as the tournament progressed was that most of the top seeds got knocked out, which made it like the March Madness everyone else follows. Logan is the only top 5 seed still around by the semifinals.

It plays No. 12 Tallahassee, which has the tourney’s leading scorer in Malachi Lewis (37.3 ppg) and a coach who’s out the door when this thing ends. Rick Cabrera will take over at Northwestern State in Louisiana, becoming the rare JUCO coach to go all the way up to the other Division I.

Cabrera has a reinforcement today. Addison Patterson, who sat out his team’s first three games in the tournament after getting tossed out of their regional final, has made the trip from Florida. He brought his game, scoring 26 off the bench.

Smithpeters is not happy with the officiating and isn’t shy about expressing his feelings, even though they are muted. One observer at the scorer’s table, who apparently thinks this is Midget League, admonishes the coach for swearing. What would he think of Bob Knight or Gregg Marshall?

Tallahassee leads most of the second half but the Vols figure things out in the last five minutes. Dent makes eight straight foul shots – the Eagles dumbly fouled him twice on 3-pointers – and Curt Lewis, who carried the team most of the game with 27 points, makes the game-sealing steal. Justin Cross’ dunk makes the final score 94-89.

Lewis channels his inner Joe Namath following the game.

“We play at 1 p.m. tomorrow and by 3 or 3:30 p.m., we’re going to be celebrating a national championship,” he said.

JUCO Men's Basketball | A first-person look at Logan's NJCAA championship win (3)

Saturday, March 25

The four-letter network arrives for the championship game, which means the teams will play by one different set of rules.

NJCAA has taken “media timeouts” at the 15, 10 and 5-minute marks in each half. ESPNU’s telecast requires TV timeouts at 16, 12, 8 and 4. And let’s make one thing clear; these are TV timeouts. No self-respecting sportswriter is ever asking for a timeout.

Instead, Smithpeters takes one after Northwest Florida State, which is trying to defend a championship, takes a 22-17 lead on a transition hoop. The Raiders up the margin to 34-24 with 4:55 left in the half. What’s more, Smithpeters has a running feud going with an official who clearly thinks the tournament’s biggest crowd and a national TV audience has tuned in to watch him work.

However, Smithpeters won’t let his team join him in the battle with the refs. KJ Debrick yells out that a defender is grabbing Sean Smith on an inbounds pass. Smithpeters holds up the stop sign to Debrick. This game is too close for a random technical.

Logan fights back within 43-39 at the half and then locks in defensively. Chad Baker-Mazara, who might have been in Houston this week at the Final Four except for the fact that San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher tossed him in June for poor grades, looks the part of a star with 20 points in the game’s first 30 minutes.

“He’s (crapping) buckets out there,” said one Vol after Baker-Mazara tossed in a fadeaway from the baseline.

And then there were no more buckets for Baker-Mazara. There were only two shots and one made free throw in the final 10 minutes. This game is a grinder, fatigue overtaking both teams’ offenses in their fourth game in five days.

Logan shoots an unthinkable 26-of-78 from the field, including 4-of-20 from 3. But it compensates by doing one thing uncommonly well and not doing another thing. The Vols grab 21 offensive rebounds and commit just five turnovers.

The last of those o-boards results in Debrick’s 3-point play with 40.7 seconds left that snaps a 68-all tie. Two more free throws and one last defensive stop later, Logan has planted its flag atop the NJCAA Division I mountain.

As players and coaches climb the ladder to cut down the nets, Vols athletic director Greg Starrick reflects on the week.

JUCO Men's Basketball | A first-person look at Logan's NJCAA championship win (4)

“For an old guy,” he said, “they took me on a pretty magical ride.”

Sunday, March 26

There might be lonelier roads than the route from Hutchinson to Wichita at 3 a.m. in the morning, but there aren’t many of them. An early flight out of Wichita to Atlanta, a 3-hour layover and then the connector to St. Louis gets a sportswriter out of Lambert just after 1 p.m.

For Logan, the ride home lasts about eight hours via bus, arriving in Carterville to a campus celebration around 3 p.m. Two nets and a trophy have a new home in Southern Illinois, thanks to a team and its remarkable focus.

“It means a lot to us, the school and the community,” said Lewis, who will play next year at Missouri, where Smithpeters’ older brother, Kyle, is an assistant. “Nobody thought we could do it, but everyone in Carbondale and Carterville thought we could.

“We came out here and showed everybody else we could do it.”




  • Logan Vols
  • Njcaa Tournament
  • March Madness
  • Tyler Smithpeters
  • Curt Lewis
  • Njcaa
  • College Sports
  • Midland
  • North Florida State
  • Hutchinson Kansas
  • Finals
  • Semifinals
  • Bucky Dent
  • Smithpeters
  • James Dent

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