ATLANTA -- Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor are vying Sunday for the NCAA Division III men’s basketball championship, and yes, it’s a smaller stage than what’s being played out over at the Georgia Dome.

But if there’s even the slightest temptation to consider this small potatoes, don’t. How many playground and gym basketball court regulars around the country can say they’ve played at this level, lower though it may be? This matters, and it matters a lot.

Amherst head coach Dave Hixon and Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Ken DeWeese have made careers out of leading teams at this level, and they have more than 1,000 wins between them.

The Crusaders of Mary Hardin-Baylor and Amherst’s Lord Jeffs are every bit as dedicated as their Division I brethren. They’re here because they played their hearts out, and those are just some of the many, many reasons why this matters.

This is the third time in the last seven years that Amherst has made the final game of the DIII tournament, and the Lord Jeffs won it all in 2007, but Hixon can’t afford to allow the Lord Jeffs to get comfortable.

“It’s interesting to watch new students walk into our gym,” Hixon said. “There’s a lot of banners up there. We have a great basketball tradition here. Very often, [opposing] coaches will bring their teams in and you’ll see the teams stop and just stare at the wall.

“Each year is a different year for sure, but there’s a great tradition here. We get kids who want to come here because of the tradition and the success of the program.”

If you’d told me Oct. 30 that this was going to happen with this team ... I would’ve argued with it, so it means everything to us because these guys have really come to trust each other and like each other.
-- Ken DeWeese

Despite the fact that Mary Hardin-Baylor has advanced as far as the Round of 16 in the DIII tournament only once, DeWeese has one basic pitch that he makes with each of his players before they actually come on board. It’s bold, but it evidently works.

“We tell people we’re recruiting, ‘If you don’t want to put yourself in a chance to win a national championship, we’d prefer you’d go somewhere else,’” DeWeese said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We make no bones about the fact that’s been our goal for a long time.

“If you’d told me Oct. 30 that this was going to happen with this team, I might have argued with it,” he said. “No. There’s no question. I would’ve argued with it, so it means everything to us because these guys have really come to trust each other and like each other. There’s an unusual cohesiveness on this basketball team.”

That “unusual cohesiveness” isn’t really the kind of thing that can ordinarily be taught, so how does he know it’s there?

“We see it every day in the way they treat each other," DeWeese said. "You can see the respect that they have for each other. This is one way that does not always translate into wins.

“But the other thing is when we’re behind, they don’t look at each other and say, ‘If you’d played better, we wouldn’t be behind.’ There’s none of that. If we’re way ahead, nobody says, ‘We’re way ahead because I played great.’ They just look at each other and say, ‘We’ll take care of this together.’ That’s a very unusual, very enjoyable thing to watch.”
Asked what it will take to win Sunday, DeWeese laughed out loud and when he responded, he didn’t sound much like he was kidding.

“I think I need to get out and recruit right quick,” DeWeese said. “We need to go find somebody big enough that I can get eligible right quick to guard the inside player for Amherst [6’9” senior center Pete Kaasila], and then I’ve got to get one more that’s going to be good enough defensively to cover their All-American guard, [Aaron] Toomey. So I think we need to get busy and pick up two new players between now and Sunday.”

When he hears of DeWeese’s assessment, Hixon can’t help but chuckle as well. Amherst, he said, has played at least a couple of teams very similar in style to Mary Hardin-Baylor. That’s a good thing, helping prepare for the Crusaders’ fast-paced brand of ball.

“They’re really athletic and fast,” Hixon said of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “They can get to the hoop, and they’ve got a couple of good outside shooters. But more than anything, they just play really fast. They offensive rebound, all the things that really athletic teams do.”

Both men have long and storied careers in the sport. Hixon graduated from Amherst, and he’s been the school’s head coach for 36 years. DeWeese had his first high-school coaching job back in 1969, and he’s been at Mary Hardin-Baylor for 15 seasons now.

They know very well what it means to win at this or any other level.

“All of these kids, they should just realize how special it is,” Hixon said. “I’ve been there a few times, but you never know if you’ll be back again. So I feel really blessed to be back again. It’s a real special thing.”

“When you coach as long as I have, you’ve made it your life, your family’s life, your children’s life,” DeWeese said. “When everything in a person’s life is wound around competing in a team sport like basketball, it would just be wonderful to wind up on top.”