After winning the NAIA title, ex-teammates take a giant leap

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MILWAUKEE – They survived the devastation of a hurricane to win a national title at their old school.

Now former Loyola New Orleans teammates Zach Wrightsil, Myles Burns and Brandon Davis are aiming for another unlikely success as they attempt to make the leap from their National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) program and to the level of NCAA Division I to be successful.

Burns is in Mississippi, Davis is in Texas State, and Wrightsil is in Marquette.

“I’ve always known I could play at this level,” said Wrightsil, a 6-foot-7 forward. “That was never a question in my mind.”

The NAIA does not track how many players transfer from one of its schools to NCAA Division I. But the moves Burns and Wrightsil make appear to be particularly rare given that they go straight to one of the big six conferences.

None of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, SEC, and Pac-12 schools that responded to an Associated Press poll could recall an example where their school received a player directly from the NAIA has added.

Boston College forward CJ Penha Jr. began his collegiate career with the NAIA program at Taylor University but then transferred to NCAA Division II school Trevecca Nazarene before joining the ACC with the Eagles.

“Personally, I think I’m more than capable of playing at this level,” said Burns, a 6-7 forward.

Stacy Hollowell, who coached Loyola to the NAIA Championship, said there’s talent at that level. As an example, he cites EJ Onu, who was with the NAIA program Shawnee State from 2017-21 and now plays for the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle.

Hollowell believes the three former Loyola players can do well at their new schools.

He recalls how Davis’ arrival last season gave Loyola what it took to win a national title after falling short a year earlier. He believes that Burns and Wrightsil both have the athleticism to succeed in a high major program.

“What people don’t understand is that they have a great desire to win,” said Hollowell, who now serves as the associate athletic director for men’s basketball in Mississippi. “You can’t really quantify that by watching a guy. You have to be around him somehow and feel that, I guess.”

Hollowell has been with these guys enough to understand what they’ve been through over the past year.

When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans in August 2021, the storm ripped off a corner of the roof of the Loyola Building, which housed the basketball court.

Loyola practiced in Dallas for a few weeks while much of New Orleans was without power. After players returned to campus, Loyola played home games at other local colleges. The players practiced whenever there was a free time slot, sometimes as early as 5am

A local convention center donated a pitch to Loyola, which it used on campus as a temporary floor for a few home games beginning in January.

“We basically lost everything, that’s what brought us together,” Davis said. “When we played other teams, we had a common goal – not to let the things we went through stop us from winning games.

They went 37-1 and won the school’s first national championship since 1945. Early in the season, Wrightsil had 26 points, Burns 18 and Davis 11 in an exhibition win over NCAA Division I program New Orleans.

Wrightsil was named NAIA Player of the Year. Burns was a second-team NAIA All-America selection, and Davis received an honorable mention. Burns also won the Marques Haynes Award for most steals by any player at any level of college basketball.

Their success led to NCAA Division I offers. They couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I definitely dreamed of playing at a big Division I school,” Burns said. “I think every basketball player wants that.”

Now they are preparing to jump into the competition.

Burns noted that most NAIA programs don’t have the athletic big men he will face in almost every SEC game. All three former Loyola players spoke about dealing with extra time requirements.

Wrightsil had to catch up after arthroscopic knee surgery in June. He only played six minutes and scored two points in Marquette’s opening 79-69 win over Radford on Monday.

“I would definitely advise anyone following our team to watch how much better Zach is in November than October and how much better he is in December than November and so on,” said Marquette coach Shaka Smart. “He keeps getting better as he gets used to that level.”

Burns and Davis were both on the starting lineup for their new teams on Monday. Burns had nine points and six rebounds in 30 minutes as Mississippi defeated Alcorn State 73-58. Davis, a 6-1 guard, played 25 minutes and had two points and five rebounds in Texas State’s 83-61 loss to Washington State.

The three former teammates offer advice on how to be successful at their new schools.

“They go through their bumps and bruises the same way I do,” Wrightsil said. “It was really fun talking to them about it because we’re all in the same boat and we’re going from that level to a whole new level.”

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