Morningside College’s old-school game
Tucked away in Sioux City, Iowa, is a quiet Methodist college just across the river from Nebraska. Also, it’s around ten minutes from South Dakota. Morningside College is old-school in itself, technically; the college is now 125 years old, and the first picture you see on Wikipedia is from the 1910s. (Without having been, this seems like it would be very pretty in fall.) More important to us, obviously, is their basketball program. I’m pleased to report it’s equally old-school, at a rate of efficiency that may seem foreign to the post-averse among us:
Per Synergy, of the 116 teams in college basketball that have posted 1,000 or more points from post-ups since 2015, Morningside is the third most-efficient offense among them all, ranking just behind St. John’s (MN) and Belmont. Morningside is a dominant figure down low, and it starts with an offense pretty similar to Belmont’s: the 4-in, 1-out motion. “What we do is very simple,” says head coach Jim Sykes. Sykes has been at Morningside since 2004, winning 334 games across his 15.5 seasons. What’s become common for his Mustangs has become a terror for opponents:
“I think we’ve got an advantage offensively with big, physical, athletic post players that can score around the basket against these leaner guys that are more fit on the perimeter,” says Sykes. Morningside is the most post-heavy team in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, which is probably the best offensive conference in the NAIA. Five different teams rated out in Synergy’s top 45 in offensive efficiency nationally. You have to be able to score frequently, and efficiently, to keep pace in the GPAC:
The premier 1-in option at Morningside is Tyler Borchers. Borchers originally walked on at South Dakota and redshirted, but transferred to Morningside after his freshman year ended. Alex Borchers, his cousin, is from south Sioux City and also went to South Dakota, but for track. It didn’t work out; he also transferred to Morningside after his freshman year ended. Together, they form a powerful duo that the GPAC was ravaged by this past season:
“Fortunately for us, they came back and made a huge splash in that recruiting class,” says Sykes. I’d say so: since their return to Sioux City, the Borchers boys have helped the Mustangs go 57-11 with back-to-back GPAC titles. Morningside’s made the NAIA II quarterfinals in back-to-back years as well. The collective powers of these tough cousins have befuddled GPAC defenses left and right. “You have to pick your poison as a defense,” notes Sykes:
“There’s not a lot of traditional back-to-the-basket post players [in the GPAC]. They want to be traditional pick-and-pop guys and that’s a different kind of player from our experience,” Sykes tells me. Being more physical in the post than an opponent leads to easier baskets, which is a little unusual in this day and age of basketball. I always think of a player like Ethan Happ at Wisconsin, a true throwback to a different era. At Morningside, you truly can’t fault them for trying to recreate it:
Oh, and I almost forgot: they’re a very good shooting team as well. Morningside made 37.7% of their threes this year, and four of their five starters shot 36% or better from three. This is by design, but it hasn’t always been this way. “We haven’t always had four guys that could shoot it at that rate. We’ve usually had two, three at most, but not all four,” Sykes says. Having that unusual ability to stretch the floor creates tons of havoc for their GPAC opponents:
It’s necessary for it to be this way. As mentioned earlier, the GPAC is one of the best offensive conferences out there, and Sykes finds himself stressed out by it frequently. “I’ll put the GPAC up skill-wise with anybody else in the country. All five guys on every team in the league are able to score. If you’re taking plays off on defense, you’re going to get scored on.” There’s a realistic path as a team to having to play groups like Morningside, Jamestown, and Briar Cliff (all three of which ranked top 25 in efficiency) back-to-back-to-back. “It’s like a meat grinder and you just hope to survive,” says Sykes.
Here’s the positive for Morningside: they’re the ones operating the meat grinder these days. They’ve dominated GPAC play the last two seasons, and this year’s Mustangs team brings back four starters from the group that just went 29-4. They’ve got high hopes for 2019-20; who could blame them? “The roster will look different next year because we’ve got six seniors, but we really like what we’ve got,” Sykes told me. Let’s see how much they can accomplish with this one before they graduate.