ISU MBB: Bengals begin busy 6-day stretch with high-powered Northern Colorado
POCATELLO — When Idaho State hosts Northern Colorado on Monday, it will be the Bengals’ first home game in 16 days and last home game for 10 more.
It also begins a stretch of three games in six days — all against teams in the top half of the Big Sky Conference standings. Such is life under the league’s new 20-game schedule.
ISU’s Monday-Thursday-Saturday league schedule is a first, and it’s not the same every week. North Dakota’s exit from the Big Sky shrunk the conference to 11 teams, which altered each team’s unbalanced 18-game conference schedule. Under that format, no team played every conference opponent two times. This season, the league opted for a round-robin, 20-game slate with two games against each Big Sky opponent.
The change figures to create fairness league-wide. In the past, some teams avoided playing top-tier conference opponents twice, while others drew opposite luck, with only one game against the Big Sky’s bottom dwellers.
But the new 20-game conference season also created scheduling issues. Every Big Sky game used to be played on Thursday or Saturday, but the addition of two conference games and an odd number of teams (11) give each Big Sky squad multiple stretches of many games in few days and vice versa.
After Idaho State (7-8, 3-3 Big Sky Conference) opened league play with four games between Dec. 29 and Jan. 5 (eight days), the Bengals had two games from Jan. 6-17 (12 days). Later this season, ISU has eight days off between road games at Portland State and Northern Colorado, and two days later starts a stretch of three home games in six days — meaning ISU will play four games in eight days leading up to the Big Sky tournament.
Bengals coach Bill Evans is in favor of the new balance the 20-game league schedule has brought. But the inconsistencies of how often games are played has been hard to adjust to.
“I think it’s the best way to do it because it’s equitable. It’s fair. Everybody plays everybody twice,” Evans said of the 20-game schedules.
“I think it’s really difficult,” Evans said of varying game days. “We play one game last week, one game the week before and three games the next week. I don’t know why we have to do that. I don’t understand that, but I’m not a scheduler.
“In about three weeks, we’re at Northern Colorado on a Saturday and home against Weber on Monday,” Evans continued. “If our administration didn’t let us charter that flight, Weber would be here before we would. How are we supposed to win that game? That’s a hard game to play.”
EVANS UNHAPPY WITH OFFENSE
Evans criticized his team for taking ill-advised shots after Thursday’s 76-59 loss at Weber State.
The Bengals, who have been one of the best 3-point shooting teams in Division I and the Big Sky for most of the season, made of 6 of 26 long balls against Weber State for a season-worst 23.1 percent clip.
ISU has scored 40.8 of its points from long range this season — the 14th-highest percentage in Division I. The Bengals also rank 39th in D1 with 44.8 percent of their shots coming from 3-point range — tied with Monday’s opponent, Northern Colorado.
Jared Stutzman, Gary Chivichyan and Balint Mocsan are all among the best 3-point shooters in ISU history — an easy justification for a 3-happy offense. But, as Evans said Saturday, if opponents take away the 3-point line, ISU needs to score elsewhere.
“We can shoot, but if you don’t let our shooters shoot, it doesn’t do us any good,” Evans said. “Maybe we’re too one-dimensional. I don’t know if we can throw it inside.”
Point guard Brandon Boyd and center Kelvin Jones are the Bengals’ best inside scorers — Boyd on drives into the key and Jones on post-ups. But neither can be relied on as a go-to 2-point scorer if the 3-point line isn’t open. Boyd splits his usage between shooting 2s, 3s, assisting teammates and committing turnovers — a natural component of running an offense — and Jones has played 46.4 of available minutes this season as he has struggled with foul trouble.
Stutzman said Saturday that ISU doesn’t necessarily have to change its 3-heavy offense. Rather, the Bengals have to play sharper to get better looks.
“We talked a lot today about running offense harder, running things more precise so the 3s that we do take are more open,” Stutzman said. “Because when we get guys open 3s, we’re really, really good. But sometimes, we can fall in love with it a little too much. We’ll take bad ones or contested ones. That was one of our points of emphasis today: taking the right 3s. Getting in the lane, jump stop and finding open guys so we can shoot the right 3s.”
MAKER LEADS ISU’S IMPROVED REBOUNDING EFFORT
Rebounding, as Evans put it, has not been Idaho State’s MO over the years.
The Bengals have mostly been stuck at the bottom of the Big Sky’s rebounding stats since Evans took over in 2012. ISU’s average rebounding margin has been in the negatives for all but one season, and reached a low point of minus-7.5 in the 2016-17 season.
This season, though, ISU is back in positive territory with an average rebounding margin of plus-0.4, and ranks third in the Big Sky with 10.5 offensive rebounds per game. First-year Bengals Chier Maker, Alonzo Walker, Jones and Chidi Udengwu are the team’s best boarders, led by Maker’s 6.8 rebounds per game — good for fifth in the Big Sky.
Idaho State’s additions have helped the Bengals stay above water on the glass, despite losing three of their top four rebounders from last season.
“That’s our mindset this year as a whole team,” Maker said. “Our main job is to rebound the ball, and then the rest will take care of itself.”
ISU has outrebounded its opponent seven times this season, winning five of those games. The Bengals are 40-28 all-time under Evans when winning the rebounding battle and 24-95 when being outrebounded.
“Every game, that is our main priority,” Maker said. “Just rebound, and then that will give us more chances to win the game.”
GAME INFO/SCOUTING REPORT
Monday’s game tips off from 7 p.m. at Reed Gym. Live audio of the game is available at isubengals.com and 102.5 FM. Live video of the game will be streamed at watchbigsky.com and Pluto TV, and live stats are available at statbroadcast.com.
Northern Colorado (11-7, 5-2 Big Sky) entered the weekend tied atop the Big Sky standings with Weber State, but fell 78-64 to the Wildcats on the road Saturday. The Bears were picked to finish third in the Big Sky’s preseason coaches and media polls. UNC set a school record last season with 26 wins, including a College Insider Tournament championship — the first national postseason tournament ever won by a Big Sky team — led by Andre Spight’s single-season Big Sky record 855 points.
The Bears also broke multiple single-season Big Sky offensive records last season, and they haven’t dropped off much a year later. UNC ranks second in the Big Sky in scoring, third in shooting percentage and leads the league in 3-pointers made and attempted.
The Bears are led by 6-foot-2 senior point guard Jordan Davis, who leads the league in scoring (24.3 points per game) and several advanced offensive metric, such as player efficiency rating, assist percentage, usage percentage (third in D1), points produced and win shares.
Davis made SportsCenter’s top 10 plays when he threw down a vicious one-handed dunk over 6-foot-8 Montana defender Fabijan Krslovic during last year’s Big Sky tournament.
“He’s a terrific athlete,” Stutzman said of Davis. “He’s great in transition, comes off a lot of ball screens in transition, and their offense is just centered around him, so he has the keys.”
Maker said he’ll be tasked with defending Davis on Monday. Maker has 5 inches on Davis, and a long wing span to boot. But Davis’ quick first step and explosiveness will challenge Maker and the rest of ISU’s defense.
“I’ve just got to be smart with it,” Maker said. “Use my length and move my feet.”
Northern Colorado also boasts players who Evans calls “one of the best freshmen in the league” and “one of the toughest guys in the league,” in Bodie Hume and Jonah Radebaugh, respectively.
Radebaugh, a 6-foot-3 redshirt junior, leads the conference in minutes played and is one of the league’s best rebounding guards. Hume is a 6-foot-6 first-year player who ranks fourth in the league in 3-pointers made, fifth in blocked shots and has the Big Sky’s highest offensive rating.
Like ISU, UNC scores over 1/3 of its points from beyond the arc. The Bears rank second behind the Bengals in 3-point percentage (37.2), but defend the arc worse than any team in the league.
ISU leads the head-to-head series 37-23, but has lost the last three matchups. The Bengals are 20-6 at home versus the Bears, but haven’t beaten them in Pocatello since 2016.