As I mentioned in today’s paper, and is common knowledge, MSU is 0-5 on the road this season. If Brad Huse and Co. want any chance of competing for a Big Sky Conference tournament spot, they need to win on the road. True, in 2008-09, MSU went 2-6 on the road and wound up in the Big Sky championship as the No. 6 seed, but the last team to have a losing road record in league play and earn the auto berth to the NCAA tournament was Montana in 2001-02: The No. 5 seed went 7-7 overall and 3-4 on the road during the Bobcats’ last Big Sky regular-season championship.
Basically, they need to start winning away from the Fieldhouse. With three road games in the next quartet of contests, it has to happen sooner rather than later.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Keep the god vibes going
Things are very good in Bobcat land right now: adversity was overcome, both on and off the court, and MSU is on a three-game win streak for the first time since last January. Brad Huse won his 100th conference game coached (43-57) behind a strong effort from MSU’s defense, its post play and the stability of its point guard position, which is helmed by a true freshman and true sophomore. They went up against a veteran backcourt in Portland State and, to some extent, Eastern Washington, and came out on top.
Talk the last two weeks is about this being a different team, a team linked together by its want to win. It worked at home, can the magic continue on the road? Remember, last season MSU held a 14-point lead on the road at UNC before completely becoming derailed and losing in OT.
2. Watch the matchup between Flavien Davis and Derrick Barden/whomever guards each of them
Barden averages 13.5 points and 8.3 boards in conference play, ranking 14th and fourth, respectively, amongst individuals. Barden shoots 67.6% (23-for-34) from the field. Davis, who averaged 17.5 points last weekend, is at 13.3 ppg in league play and shot 12-for-23 from the field in the home sweep. Oh, his 13.3 ppg is 15th amongst individuals and he is shooting 18-for-35 in conference play (51.3%). It will be interesting to see, especially if they guard each other, how the 1-on-1 matchup turns out on both ends of the court. Davis and frontcourt mate Paul Egwuonwu (11 ppg, 7.8 boards) seem to be the focus of the refurbished MSU offense and stalwart on defense.
3. Contain the Bears backcourt
Sure, guards Tevin Svihovec, Tate Unruh and Paul Garnica, who are all experienced beyond one season, are struggling at this point for whatever reason as UNC has fallen in three of four on the road. It doesn’t mean that you can look at them and say “They won’t hurt us.” Unruh and Svihovec still average in double figures during league play and Garnica averages 15 while UNC plays at Butler-Hancock Pavilion. Garnca has hit 6-of-10 3s while Unruh has hit 11-of-26.
BIG SKY POWER POLL
Where I rank them and why in three sentences or less.
1. Weber State (4-0, 9-3): Eighty points per game, scoring margin of plus 20.5 in Big Sky play. Four players at 10 points or more. Production, night in and out, from everyone in its top six.
2. Montana (4-0, 8-4): Seventeen straight wins against the Sky, and 21 straight at Dahlberg. Mathias Ward and Jordan Gregory are producing a little more than maybe expected, which helps Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. Defense is keeping up with Wildcats (59.8 ppg allowed WSU, 59.2 ppg allowe UM), but offense has maybe not reached its peak.
3. Sacramento State (2-2, 7-5): Missing 26 free throws and still holding out for a win over league newbie is relatively big for CSUS, who probably would have folded and lost in years past because of that. Defense allows conference-low 59.5 ppg. Must split to maintain standing.
4. Southern Utah (3-1, 5-8): MSU might be here if not for SUU’s three league wins, which can’t be discounted especially since they beat Northern Arizona at NAU, which Bobcats did not. SUU has talent with Jackson Stevenett (16.3 ppg) and Damon Heuir (15.7 ppg). The Thunderbirds are at a plus-8.7 scoring margin & 73.3 ppg, but have the second-worst total ppg in one less game.
5. Montana State (2-2, 5-7): What a wonder a home sweep, and some housecleaning, does for a program. Players bonding together, playing like a unit and in Huse’s system. Big test will be over next three road games, as MSU has yet to win outside of Bozeman.
6. Northern Arizona (2-2, 5-9): Southern Utah loss at home is definitely a head-scratcher and bad for resume, even if the Lumberjacks rely on relatively young players, including a freshman guard. Good test during Pacific Northwest road swing.
7. Portland State (1-3, 3-8): Why the Vikings over UND? Portland State rallied in both Bozeman and Missoula before ultimately falling and Aaron Moore looked beastly over the weekend. If Lateef McMullan or Michael Harthun start hitting from outside with regularity, PSU can make a nice climb.
8. North Dakota (1-3, 4-9): Must-win road W at Pocatello was snagged; Weber just too strong from most of conference right now. Wing Troy Huff is playing in the Derrick Barden/Flavien Davis sphere – 6-5 and contributing down low and mid-range. Home court defense crucial.
9. Eastern Washington (1-3, 3-11): Expect them to move up now that they’ve had some time to prepare for games without Justin Crosgile. Venky Jois continues to impress the conference with his abilities. Collin Chiverton is needed to step up and be a team leader, but can the senior come through?
10. Idaho State (1-3, 2-11): A moment out of the cellar as they trounced UNC at home, which was as surprising as SUU winning at NAU. ISU hit 15 3s against UNC and scored 86 points, its first game over 54 against DI competition.
11. Northern Colorado (1-3, 3-9): The Bears are too talented and too experienced to be at the bottom, but the loss to ISU was bad. We’ll see how UNC rebounds with two games at home.