Pilots poised for 18th-straight NAIA Sweet 16 contest

PILOT PLAN: Coach Kyle Blankenship, shown during a regular-season timeout, has the LSUS basketball team back in the NAIA Sweet 16 in Kansas City.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Kansas City may not be a premier travel destination for many people, but for the LSUS men’s basketball team, it’s as good as it gets. Especially since they’ve been there 18 straight years.

“Let’s just say we know all the good places to east,” said head coach Kyle Blankenship, who has been there for 10 of those 18 trips.

Once again, the Pilots find themselves in the “City of Fountains,” but they are looking to do a little more than toss a few coins in the water. LSUS will open play Friday in the 2022 NAIA men’s basketball national championship at historic Municipal Auditorium, which was built in 1935 and has hosted more Final Fours (9) than any other arena.

By now, the Pilots should know every part of that building, but they are really looking for wherever it is the championship trophy is being kept. They’ve come close, but so far LSUS hasn’t brought that piece of hardware back to Shreveport.

Still, just getting to Kansas City has certainly been an accomplishment for this year’s team.

“You never take winning for granted,” Blankenship said. “Winning is hard. And to win year after year is even harder. When you make it to the national tournament, that’s the hardest thing of all to do. This has been one of the most satisfying years I’ve ever been a part of. It didn’t start out the way we wanted, but we never quit and never stopped believing and found a way to get here.”

The Pilots will take on Oklahoma Wesleyan at 1 p.m. Friday as part of the Sweet 16 that will determine the national champion. Oklahoma Wesleyan is the No. 1 seed in that part of the bracket and LSUS is No. 5; Loyola (New Orleans) is the overall No. 1 seed.

“Every year our goal is to play in the national tournament, but if you had asked me back in November whether we were going to keep that streak going, I probably would have questioned you,” Blankenship said. “Our guys have really bought in over the last two months on what we are trying to do and what LSUS basketball is all about. We’ve shown a lot of heart, toughness and togetherness to get to where we are today.”

Blankenship played at LSUS for a year after transferring from Tulsa. He became an assistant coach under Chad McDowell, who was also his coach at Byrd High, and then returned as head coach when McDowell became athletic director.

What Blankenship has accomplished is no surprise to McDowell, now the school superintendent at Calvary Baptist Academy.

“He’s hard to beat with all of the controllables,” McDowell said. “When it comes to game prep, in-game adjustments, game management, scouting, knowing strengths and weaknesses, plays coming out of timeouts, time and score … all the things a coach can control, Kyle Blankenship is going to be hard to beat.”

McDowell knew Blankenship had the makings of a coach going back to his high school days as a Yellow Jacket.

“He would spend as much time hanging out with coaches as he would with his peers, just talking basketball,” McDowell said. “You could tell the way he carried himself and the way he could get his teammates into position, he was very selfless player and person. He didn’t have to have his name in the limelight.”

“Shreveport is my home town and we have grown to love LSUS since we’ve become a part of it as a player and as an assistant and head coach,” Blankenship said. “I take a lot of pride in putting on the LSUS gear every single day. I’m just thankful for the support and what everybody does for our program. It is special to do this in a place you call home.”

Even with the ups and downs of the 25-7 season, Blankenship has tried to keep one constant for his team.

“The most important thing we talk about in our program is having fun,” he said. “Every single day, we want to enjoy coming to practice. We want to enjoy spending time around each other and with each other. Winning makes that easy. Sometimes winning can mask a lot of flaws in a program, but we do our best to help these guys enjoy this experience. We just try to be the best we can be, every single day in everything that we do.”

Photo by JOHN JAMES MARSHALL