Championship in Sight, Arizona Christian Enters NAIA Fab Four

The nation has again been put on notice by the Grand Canyon State. Arizona Christian University mens’ basketball has reloaded for a shot at a national tournament run. For the first time in program history, the Firestorm have reached the NAIA semifinals.

For the fourth straight season, the ACU Firestorm qualified for the 64-team NAIA national championship tournament. This year, the Glendale-based school solidified its mark in NAIA men’s basketball as a number one seed in the 2022 tournament.

“They are a joy to coach, it’s a team that responds to the things we challenge them to do,” tenth-year head coach, Jeff Rutter, said. “I think this is the best defensive team I’ve had. Being really good at offense or defense doesn’t really get it done. Most of the champs, if you look back the last ten, fifteen years, are pretty elite at both offense and defense.”

While they earned their second Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season championship, ACU fell short of claiming their second straight conference tournament championship. Regardless, ACU was ranked fourth in the nation in the NAIA’s final poll of the season and was awarded one of the four number one seeds in the tournament.

On Monday, ACU, the number one seed in the Cramer Quadrant, will face Loyola University New Orleans (LA), the number one seed from the Naismith Quadrant. The victor will earn the right to play in Tuesday night’s national championship game. This is Loyola’s first quarterfinal appearance in the NAIA Tournament since 1946. Loyola is the second-ranked team in the nation overall and has only suffered one loss in their 2021-22 campaign.

The game is a rematch from the 2019 NAIA tournament Round of 16. The seven-seeded Firestorm tallied a tournament record, 19 three-pointers, en route to an 83-77 victory over six-seeded Loyola.

Through ACU’s four tournament games, the Firestorm have flattened their opponents with double-digit victories. Likewise, ACU has been a rebounding menace. The Firestorm have outworked their opponents on the glass and out-rebounded opposing teams by an average of 10 boards per game.

Coach Rutter attributes the hustle to the team’s depth and the ability to wear their opponents. “This is the deepest team I’ve had. We really have 12 guys that deserve to play a lot every game.”

ACU has shot over 48% from the field in each game as well, led by senior, Angelo Johnson, the two-time GSAC Defensive Player of the Year. Rutter believes Johnson is the best point guard in the country and showed what he is capable of in the tournament. The Florida native has shot 53% from the field this season. While ACU averages a substantial 81 points per game, Arizona Christian loves to share the scoring. Johnson is the Firestorm’s leading scorer at just 12 points per game.

“We don’t have a guy that has to get 20 for us to be successful,” Rutter said. “We have ten guys that can score and take advantage of whatever matchup they have in a given game.”

Senior, Xander Bowers, has been a vital piece to the Firestorm’s success and is characterized as ACU’s “sixth starter.” The Californian has come off the bench in all four tournament games and averaged 12 points per contest.

“We talk all the time about being tough, smart, and unselfish. Guys like Xander have really embraced that,” Rutter said. “He’s so important to us because he can guard everybody and he can make championship plays and above-the-rim plays that not many can. His energy defensively and his versatility on defense and offense is such a great asset to us.” 

In the 2019 tournament, ACU set tournament and program records in their upset of Loyola en route to a quarterfinal appearance. With a wave of momentum, Arizona Christian was slated to enter the 2020 tournament as a five-seed until the postseason was canceled due to the rise of COVID-19. 2021 saw an opening-round loss in the tournament but the Firestorm returned famished in 2022 with an appetite for history.

The 2019 tournament was ACU’s first quarterfinal appearance. In 2022, the program earned its first semifinal appearance with a chance to play for a national title. The Firestorm’s previous record of 25 wins in a season has been shattered in 2022. They now vie for their 32nd victory of the season on Monday against Loyola.

The first two rounds of the NAIA tournament were broken up regionally at 16 different sites across the nation. ACU made their stake in Lakeland, FL. The following games from the Round of 16 to the National Championship take place in Kansas City, MO. ACU handled Tougaloo College 76-61 and Xavier University (LA) 75-63 in Florida. They traveled to Kansas City and earned a 82-66 win against Bethel College. Most recently, the Firestorm defeated conference opponent William Jessup 90-79 in the quarterfinals.

The tournament caps off the tenth year with Rutter at the helm of the Firestorm mens’ basketball program. In his decade of leadership, ACU has made seven national tournament appearances. In 2022, Rutter was also named the GSAC Coach of the Year for the second straight season.

“We’ve had a pretty steady progression of just trying to do things a little bit better,” Rutter said. “A lot of great coaches have assisted me along the way and a lot of really good players from year one till now have really bought into what we are doing and have bought into something bigger than themselves and being unselfish.”

Arizona talent continues to surge in the NAIA. Arizona Christian wasn’t the only Arizona-based school to make the 64-team national tournament. Cross-town rival, Ottawa University from Surprise, also made the prestigious tournament as a six-seed. Ottawa made their way to the Round of 32 before falling at the hands of the three-seed, College of Idaho.

Monday’s Fab Four semifinal game tips off at 3:00 p.m. MST. The will be no rest for the weary as the winner will advance to the NAIA National Championship game on Tuesday. You can keep up with live stats from the game here.