Starting next year, some of the NAIA's most successful basketball programs will meet for a competitive early season tournament that aims to benefit both teams and fans.
The Cascade Hoops Talk Crossroads/Cascade Classic is a meeting of two leagues — the Cascade Collegiate Conference and the Crossroads League — and of four storied basketball programs.
In the inaugural November 2022 event, Cascade's Oregon Tech and Bushnell University will travel to Indiana take on some of OIT's national tournament rivals and Crossroads representatives in Grace College and Bethel College. Then, in 2023, all four teams will rumble here in the Oregon Tech-hosted classic. Those four programs share a total of seven national championships.
"It's gonna be unbelievable out there in Indiana," said Justin Parnell, OIT's head men's basketball coach. "But here in Klamath, it's gonna be a blast. We'll sell out. The fans will get to see four really good games."
Oregon Tech has established history with both of its Crossroads counterparts, Parnell said. Aside from that there's also practical reason to play tough competition prior to conference play going forward.
Up until last year, the NAIA split basketball into two divisions. OIT and its foes in the Classic were all division two and they were all awarded berths in the 32-team national tournament based on where they fell in the coaches' poll.
Now, the tournament is up to 64 teams and eligibility is based on a more metrics-based rating system that includes RPI, strength of schedule, matchups against top-25 teams.
"In the past, you could kind of do a cupcake preseason schedule and get you know, 9-10 wins," Parnell said. "Now, you can go 5-5 in the nonconference and get it done in league. If your strength of schedule is high enough, you're going to get in the tournament."
Parnell said he hopes there's going to be more of these types of tournaments and added that it'll be great for fans because they're going to be less likely to pay for a blowout.
Bill DeWitt, the founder of the Cascade Hoops Talk podcast and a longtime member of the Owl faithful is the "champion" behind the Classic, Parnell said.
His podcast puts him touch with coaches around the NAIA and DeWitt said that a conversation with Scott Moore, Grace College's head coach, really sparked the idea for the Classic.
Parnell was on board soon after and later Bushnell and Bethel were on board too thanks to some "poking" at everybody and keeping the conversation going, DeWitt said.
Starting the podcast and helping to organize the Classic were labors of love for DeWitt who has his heart in NAIA basketball. At the Classic, he's hoping to spread that love by allowing local fans to get a chance to meet some of the athletes and coaches that make up the teams so that they become more than just schools.
"These aren't just names on a bracket at the end of the year," DeWitt said. "These are programs from all across the country, and they're full of just absolutely fantastic athletes."
Of course fans too will get to witness the coming chapters of basketball rivalries that already have some history to them.
Both Grace and OIT boast the benefits of two longtime, program-building coaches, Parnell said. Tech's Coach Danny Miles led the Owls for 45 years and helped deliver three national titles, while Grace's Jim Kessler led the team for 42 years and a national championship of his own.
Both coaches have retired in the past five years and have been replaced by former players -- Moore for Lancers and Parnell for the Owls. Oregon Tech also defeated Grace enroute to the team's 2008 championship.
"The big history is us and Bethel," Parnell said.
In 1998, the Owls had the lead with a few seconds left in their first national championship appearance when the Pilots sunk a 17-foot, buzzer-beating heartbreaker.
"It's the Mt. Rushmore of NAIA basketball," DeWitt said. "And we want it to be a celebration when we bring those teams into Klamath Falls, we're not only going to play excellent basketball, we're going to celebrate small college basketball."