The Heart of America Athletic Conference will get an early opportunity to prove it is National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division I basketball material.
Just a year after its inauguration into the highest NAIA rank, the HAAC will play host to what is deemed by many to be "College Basketball's Toughest Tournament."
The men's National Championship is slated for March 18-24, 2009, and will be held at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo. According to naia.org, the tournament usually garners about 40,000 fans.
"The conference negotiated an agreement with the NAIA to provide strong help for the tournament in exchange for having the tournament in Kansas City," athletic director Dan Harris said.
Harris said he and assistant athletic director Theresa Yetmar have already begun the process of preparing to host the tournament. With 600 participants and 31 games, Baker's athletic department will be working from now through the regular season to ensure the conference makes a good impression on its new Division I partners.
Due to their proximity to the tournament site, Baker, Mid-America Nazarene University, William Jewell College and Avila University will be the primary contributors to the championships.
"If anyone is interested in helping out at the tournament, they should contact me," Yetmar said. "We're definitely looking for some volunteers."
While some might think the jump to Division I could hamper some of the HAAC teams' chances of success – given the elevated level of competition – the tournament's setup allows for some early opportunities. The conference will receive three bids to the National Championships, although there are several factors that will contribute to which teams receive a bid.
The champion of the conference tournament will receive an automatic bid to the tournament as well as the squad in first place at the end of the regular season. The third bid is considered an at-large bid, Harris said.
"There are so many different options," Harris said. "For instance, if the tournament champion is also the regular season champion, then the second automatic bid would go to the second place team and the at-large bid to the runner-up of the tournament."
The three automatic bids can only help head coach Rick Weaver's team, as it does battle in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
"We're looking pretty good this year," Weaver told HAAC reporters. "I think we could definitely surprise some people this year."
If they do so, and earn one of the three bids to the National Championships, players said they will certainly have a home court-like advantage playing so close to Baldwin City.