Updated Wed, Jan 22, 2014 7:54 pm
First place in the Mid-South Conference is on the line as the No. 20 Rio Grande RedStorm (13-5, 6-1) square off against the No. 4 Pikeville Bears (15-2, 6-1) on Thursday night at the East Kentucky Expo Center. Rio looks to extend its winning streak to seven games and claim sole possession atop of the MSC against yet another ranked conference foe.
The RedStorm received 102 points in the latest NAIA Coaches Poll, which marks their first appearance in the top-25 since they were ranked No. 17 on Jan. 19, 2009. The national ranking nearly five years ago came when Rio was still in Division II of the NAIA and a member of the now dissolved America Mideast Conference.
In this heavyweight battle, Rio Grande sophomore D.D. Joiner must play at the top of his game. After a nagging foot injury haunted him through the first 15 games, Joiner broke out in a major way for the RedStorm last week.
Joiner averaged an impressive 23.5 points and eight rebounds in wins against No. 14 St. Catharine and Campbellsville last week. He also shot 56.3 percent from beyond the arc and his impressive two-game stretch earned him MSC Player of the Week honors. His performance against Pikeville must match and challenge that of his Pikeville counterpart, Chris Cantino.
Leading the pack for the Bears is Cantino who leads all Division I players with 5.4 offensive rebounds per game. Cantino also ranks seventh with 174 total rebounds through 17 games and leads Pikeville with a shooting percentage of 57.5 percent.
The contest with the Bears is not Rio Grande’s first go-round against a team nationally ranked. In fact, the RedStorm have already upset three top-25 teams this season including a 79-72 win over the No. 2 Georgetown Tigers back on Jan. 4.
In order to continue their perfect month of January, the RedStorm must overcome a Bears team that ranks first in offensive rebounds per game with 16.5. Pikeville is also unbeaten at home and has a margin of victory of nearly 25 points, which ranks first in the NAIA.
“They have 10 [NCAA] Division I transfers and they are loaded,” RedStorm head coach Ken French said. “They have at least six players that could score 30 points on any given night. They’re definitely a top five team and the best in our conference at this point.”
Do not overlook the phrasing “at this point” because French realizes the caliber of his squad as well and a fourth upset is not out of the question.
“We’ve had success against teams in our conference mainly because of playing smart, team-oriented basketball.” French said.
With three wins over ranked opponents, upset is not the right word for a possible RedStorm victory. Now that the RedStorm have positioned themselves to claim the top spot in the conference, it may be time to stop perceiving them as an underdog and see them for what they truly are – a contender.