Whether Morningside College of Iowa rises to the occasion against top-ranked UDC in Friday's NCAA Division II semifinal game remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. The Chiefs will rise no higher than the middle of Earl Jones' jersey.
Morningside, the North Central Conference champion, has built a 26-5 record this season with a lineup that includes no superstars, no scoring machines, and not much height. The Chiefs' centers, 6-foot-7 1/2 starter David Krantz and 6-7 backup Bob Conaway, would qualify as forwards, possibly guards, in the UDC lineup, and the team has been outrebounded by its opponents by an average of almost five a game.
But Coach Dan Callahan has taken his team's lack of height and made it work. The Chiefs run a fast break created by steals, not rebounds, and the team shoots well (50 percent) from the field. Callahan also plays down the importance of rebounding, allowing his center to play as a third forward, drawing the opposition's center away from the basket.
"If we rebound poorly, we can still win," said Callahan. "But if we shoot poorly, we'll lose."
In addition, all 11 team members have seen significant playing time.
"Coach Callahan has a group of players who simply play very well together," said Drake Coach Gary Garner, whose team narrowly defeated Morningside, 81-77, earlier this season. "They are not supertalented and they don't have any standouts. (Callahan) just has found the right chemistry."
The Chiefs, who finished 10-17 a year ago, have earned the best record in the school's history this season with essentially the same personnel.
"This is definitely the best personnel we've had since I've been here," said Callahan, who began coaching the Chiefs in 1972. "In putting this team together, it all happened early. We had our two leading scorers, starting guards and seven lettermen back. The players blended together.
"We've played 31 games, and only once (an 87-79 loss to Northern Colorado) did we not play as well as we could."
Krantz, a senior who played forward until this season, is the team's third leading scorer (11.1 points per game), but will play a crucial defensive role against UDC. Krantz is almost five inches shorter than Firebird all-America center Jones, but hopes his mobility and strength will allow him to tire Jones out.
"We've got a couple of seven-footers in our conference, so at least I know what one looks like," said Krantz, who has blocked 52 shots.
The Chiefs' leading scorers are forwards Steve Brandsma (13.9) and Bob Beneke (13.8). Guard Vernon Simmons has 62 steals. The team has been aided by the play of point guards Paul DeBey (94 assists) and junior redshirt Rick Egli.
Brandsma, a 6-6 junior who is shooting 55 percent from the field and 72 percent from the free throw line, feels the key to the Chiefs' success is depth. "We play a lot of players," he said. "As soon as the first five are tired, the second five come in. And the reserves are just as good as the starters."
Morningside is averaging 78.3 points per game this season, but has slumped lately, winning its last four games by a total of six points. Nevertheless, Callahan denies that his team will attempt to defeat UDC by holding the ball, a tactic the Firebirds' two previous tournament opponents tried and failed to do.