By John Goodspeed
The University of the Incarnate Word’s (UIW) men’s basketball team achieved what many called impossible in their second season in a four-year transition to NCAA Division I. They defeated the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, a team that played in last year’s NCAA Division I tournament.
“People were saying we had zero chance to win,” said head coach Ken Burmeister, at the helm of the Cardinals for a ninth season. “It was a great experience for our players. It shows that a lot of hard work paid off. Plus, it was on ESPN.”
Seven other games also were televised by midseason – including a victory over another high profile team, the Princeton University Tigers – giving the Cardinals the kind of national exposure they could only dream about before moving to Division I and the Southland Conference.
Feature articles followed in such publications as the Washington Post and USA Today.
The win over Nebraska was the Cardinals’ biggest victory since beginning the move from Division II to Division I.
Six-foot-5 guard Kyle Hittle’s baseline jumper with 3.2 seconds on the clock provided the stunning 74-73 win in the Cardinals’ first game against a Power 5 team. It was the first time since the 2010-11 season that a transitioning Division I team defeated a team from one of the five most powerful conferences.
“One of my dreams was to play in Division I against a team like that. But I never thought about beating them or making a win like that,” said Hittle, a junior who is one of the top scorers in the Southland Conference. “It was awesome for me, and awesome for the school. A lot of people know who Incarnate Word is now.”
The shot earned the No. 2 play on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays that broadcasted to some 20 million viewers.
Last year, the Cardinals made NCAA history with a 21-6 record, the best for any transitional team.
Leading the Cardinals is 6-foot-4 guard Denzel Livingston, who by midseason was Division I’s top scorer averaging 23.3 points per game and No. 9 in steals with 2.58. He is in the top five in UIW’s history in points, three-pointers, free throws, blocks and steals.
He scored a career high of 37 points in January against Northwestern State, although the Cardinals lost 103-101.
Many recruiters shied away from the graduate of Houston’s Waltrip High School because he weighed a mere 137 pounds. Now at 185, he savors the national attention he and the Cardinals are garnering.
“It makes me feel good because I always was overlooked in my high school days. It’s proving the other coaches were wrong,” said Livingston, adding that he spent a lot of time in the cafeteria and working out.
In his four seasons at the university, the senior said the team’s chemistry developed while he honed his skills in defense and ball handling.
In December, Livingston was the Southland Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week and College Sports Madness Southland and Mid-Major Player of the Week after scoring 30 or more points in consecutive wins against Grand Canyon University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He was also featured in the November 2014 issue of SLAM Magazine, a worldwide basketball publication. In January, College Hoops Daily named Livingston the Southland Player of 2014.
“It makes me think all the hard work is really paying off,” he said.
While professional teams are inquiring about Livingston, the Cardinals’ prospects are bright with talented freshmen, including forward Traylin Farris, guard Shawn Johnson and guard Jontrell Walker, one of the top shooters in the conference. He was named the Southland Conference Player of the Week and College Sports Madness Southland Player of the Week after scoring 30 points in the loss to the University of Texas at El Paso and a game high 19 points against Nebraska.
“The future is good,” Burmeister said. “This is what happens when you recruit quality people, and quality people attract quality people. They want to get better.”
Playing in Division I also offers alumni a chance to see the team in action as they play in cities across the nation.
“There’s nothing better than seeing alumni wearing UIW t-shirts at a game,” the coach said.
To learn more about the team, click here.