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GPAC aims to stay competitive in potential NAIA merger

Dakota Wesleyan University head coach Jason Christensen applauds the Tigers during a game against Saint Xavier University in the semifinals of the NAIA Division II National Tournament in March at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the possibility of the NAIA merging Division I and Division II basketball into one division. The final installment will run in Tuesday's Daily Republic. Part 1 can be read here

NAIA Division II basketball has been good to the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

The league has strong fanbases, All-Americans and the reigning women's national championship team.

But with the impending merger of NAIA basketball into one division, the question lingers: Can the GPAC still compete at a national level?

GPAC Commissioner Corey Westra feels strongly the conference can.

"The Division II model has served us very well and we've been very competitive in it," Westra said. "So I think emotionally that was a big deal to us. Do I think we can compete? I really do. I think it's going to take some time."

The proposed merger is at the forefront of this year's NAIA Convention, which began Friday and continues through Tuesday in Kansas City, Missouri. The decision will come down to a majority vote of the 23 members on the Council of Presidents (COP). All indications are the merger will pass and go into effect in 2020-21.

"I think when you start having this discussion—15-18 months ago—it's kind of emotional if you are a conference, because you look at the success that you've had in Division II and the thought of possibly losing that success," Westra said. "Because we are an absolute Division II conference in how we operate. We don't even do the six full scholarships. We do equivalents in a lot of cases, where those scholarships have been spread out."

The biggest sticking point with the merger is the scholarship proposal. NAIA Division I basketball teams can currently offer 11 scholarships, while Division II has six scholarships. The current proposal for the merger would give programs eight scholarships to work with.

For the GPAC, there's another layer from a scholarship standpoint that limits the institutions. The most GPAC schools can offer by rule is full tuition. The league has a longstanding rule that teams can't cover room and board expenses, while other NAIA conferences can. The rule dates back to when it was the Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Westra doesn't expect the rule to be changed.

"We visited that notion a lot of the years—from whether or not we need to look at that—but we still feel very strongly that is something that serves us well and is a good ceiling for us to be at that tuition-only limit," Westra said.

But Westra points to the success in other sports—like volleyball—as reason to believe the GPAC could compete nationally. Basketball is currently the only sport in NAIA that has two divisions.

"It's going to be a big change and a lot of that depends on where the scholarship limit lands," Westra said. "But I do think we could compete and you only have to look at a sport like volleyball where it is one division and we are competing in the sport of volleyball. I would have reason to believe over time, we can compete. I think it is going to be a tougher road to a national championship in Division I."

In NAIA Division II, the GPAC has held its own, especially on the women's side. The league has had seven different teams make the national semifinals since 2015 and it has won 13 national titles since 2001.

The DWU women won the national championship in March, defeating conference rival Concordia University in the title game. Northwestern College advanced to the semifinals and Hastings College made the quarterfinals, giving the league four of the final eight teams. Future GPAC member University of Jamestown also made the quarterfinals.

DWU coach Jason Christensen is confident the GPAC could maintain its level of national success.

"I really do believe so," Christensen said. "I don't know if we are going to produce national titles, but we would be up there competing."

On the men's side, the GPAC hasn't produced a national champion since Northwestern College (2003). However, the DWU men are just three seasons removed from their national runner-up finish. This season, the GPAC had four teams—DWU, Briar Cliff, Northwestern and Morningside College—qualify for the 32-team national tournament.

"I am pretty confident that our league will still compete at a really high level and I think our teams have really shown that in our non-conference (play)," Midland University men's coach Oliver Drake said. "All of our teams play tough non-conference schedules and I think all of us in the GPAC will have a great opportunity to compete against anybody on any given night."

This past regular season, Briar Cliff defeated Graceland University, which won the NAIA Division I national title.

"As a whole, I think our league will still be one of the premier basketball conferences in the country," Drake said. "I do think, obviously, you are adding in some pretty heavy hitters that are offering a full ride. Certainly, they are going to be able to get their hands on some kick-back players from NCAA Division I that the GPAC—through its history—has been not been able to get their hands on."

From an entire national landscape, the GPAC is well represented in the NAIA's Massey Ratings (Division I and Division II). The ratings take into account a number of factors, such as offensive and defensive ratings, home-court advantage and strength of schedule.

In the women's ratings, five of the top-20 teams are from the league, including No. 1 Concordia and No. 2 Dakota Wesleyan. In the men's ratings, Morningside College, Briar Cliff and DWU are top 20.

"Our league gets heavily favored in that," DWU coach Matt Wilber said. "We don't have a uniform computerized rating system that's used. The Massey is out there, but we don't have anything that is used as a legitimate source to rank and rate. We use our national raters and so does the Division I, but if Dakota Wesleyan can stay competitive, I am all for what that looks like."