Over the course of the last two seasons, things couldn’t have been much better for the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball program.
In 2011, Northern went
on the road and won a Frontier Conference postseason title on Carroll College’s home floor, then made a second trip to the NAIA national tournament under head coach Shawn Huse. In 2011, things got even better. With a senior-laden group, the Lights ripped off a 27-win season, the most in Northern men’s history and won both the Frontier’s regular season and postseason championships. The run culminated with an emotionally-charged run of Frontier playoff games at home, a dramatic win over UM-Western in the championship game and a third trip to the national tournament in the last four years.
In essence, the last two years have been a hoop’s dream come true in Havre.
But with the graduation of four starters, and overall, seven major scorers on the Lights’ roster, the 2012-13 Lights, who open the season tonight in Edmonton, Alberta, will have a whole new look – though they will still have the same goals.
“Every year is a new challenge,” Huse, who begins his 11th year at the helm said. “But what I want doesn’t change. I want our team to play hard every night and to play together. That’s what matters most to me and if we do that, that will make me happy, no matter what happens over the course of the season. And I think you’ll see this team do that. They’ll play hard and play together, they’ll be a team and they’ll be good students and good members of the community. Those are the things that matter most to me.”
The Lights lost a heavy group of great players from the 2011 and 2012 Frontier title teams, including all-conference performers LaVon Myers, Joe Simpson and Shaun Tatarka. Together, that trio averaged 32 points per game a season ago. Also gone is starting center Sean Kelly, as well as shooting guard David Maddock and backup forwards Jordan Harris and Chris Brown, so there’s no doubt, the Lights had to reload coming into a new season.
“Ultimately, things change every season,” Huse said. “Whether you return a lot of guys or not, every season is different. We have a lot of roles to fill this year and we went out and got guys that we feel will play hard, play Northern basketball, guys who we feel can compete at this level, as well as be good members of our program, this school and the community. And it’s a good group of guys we’ve got. So I’m excited about that.”
Northern does return some key pieces to the puzzle, including senior guard Devin Jackson, who averaged 11 points and three rebounds per game a year ago. Jackson is a three-year starter and a two-time First-Team all-conference standout, as well as a veteran leader on a relatively new Lights’ squad.
“I’m excited to see what Devin does in his senior year,” Huse said. “I expect he’s going to have a big year. He’s been a tremendous player for us and he has really taken on a leadership role with this team.”
Also back is sophomore Corbin Pearson (6-6), who was a spark plug off the bench for the Lights a year ago. Joining Pearson as returnees are junior Mike LaValley and sophomore forward Pat Jensen (6-7 who’s made big strides in the offseason.
“That whole group of returning guys has done a great job so far of being leaders,” Huse said. “And of showing the new guys what we expect and how we do things in our program. All four of them have done a good job with that and we’ll continue to look for that leadership out of them.”
And while Northern does have some leadership back, the Lights also return just one starter in Jackson. So Northern’s lineup and its rotation will feature plenty of new and exciting faces this season.
The list of key newcomers includes 6-8 center Nilson Santana, a transfer from Marshalltown College in Iowa. Santana, originally from Brazil, gives the Lights a big presence in the paint on both ends of the floor and he will be a big part of a solid Northern interior, which also includes forwards Jesse Vaughn (6-5) out of Shorline C.C. and Will Perry (6-4) from Whatcome C.C.
“Nilson has certainly already proven he can play,” Huse said. “He’s long and athletic, he can block shots and rebound and he’s got a nice touch around the basket. I’m really excited about him. I think Jesse Vaughn will be another immediate impact player for us. He’s just a very good, versatile basketball player who does everything really well.”
Northern also added a bevy of new guards to the program, including Savion Udeh (6-2), Dontae Clark (6-1), Allan Brown (6-1), Roshawn West (6-4) and Alfie Miller (5-11) all of whom will likely be called upon to compete in MSU-N’s backcourt this season. Huse says several players were the Player’s of the Year in their respective junior college leagues and many are good shooters, while Brown is a consummate point guard.
Another player the Lights added this season will be very familiar to fans. Also joining the Lights is former Havre High and Rocky Boy standout Anfernee Standing Rock (6-6), who was a two-time All Central A performer for the Blue Ponies before spending a year going to school at the University of Montana. Standing Rock has grown since he played for the Ponies and gives the Lights an athletic swingman with a strong inside-out game.
“I’m really excited to see how Anfernee performs at this level,” Huse said. “He’s really sprouted up and I think as he learns how to play at the Frontier level and gets more game experience, he has a chance to be very good in this league.”
Huse rounded out the Northern roster with newcomers Derrick Stewart (5-10) and Australian big man Josh Tueta (6-8).
And with so many new faces, there will be some growing pains for the Lights along the way. Northern opens the season with back-to-back trips to Canada, followed by its home opener Oct. 26 against Lethbridge and a home game with talented Warner Pacific on Nov. 3. The rest of the nonconference schedule includes a tough trip to Las Vegas, as well as home games against Jamestown College and New Hope Christian in November and December. The Lights close out the preseason with a trip to Oregon just before Christmas, and sprinkled in between is an early Frontier opener against Carroll College Nov. 30 in Havre. The Lights re-open the Frontier season Jan. 3-4 with home games against Dickinson State and Rocky Mountain College.
“I think it’s going to take time and game experience, lots of hard work, practice and film sessions and more hard work to really get up to speed,” Huse said. “It’s not going to happen overnight and with so many new guys that’s to be expected. We know we will need to continuously get better, but that’s what this first couple of months is all about. We play a tough schedule before New Years, but that’s good because one of the ways we will get better is through game experience.
“But our expectations as a team and as a program haven’t and won’t change,” Huse added “Our goal is to go out and compete as hard as we can every single game and play together as a team every single game. We want to make sure we progress as the season goes along and we want to make sure these guys learn to play Northern basketball. That’s our expectations right now and that’s what we’ll strive to do.”
Tonight, the Lights open the season against Concordia of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. The Lights continue the trip with a game against King’s University Saturday night in Edmonton.
Lights at home
Oct. 26 vs Lethbridge, 7 p.m.
Nov. 3 vs Warner Pacific 7 p.m.
Nov. 23 vs Jamestown, 2 p.m.
Nov. 24 vs Jamestown, 1 p.m.
Nov. 30 vs Carroll College, 8 p.m.
Dec. 1 vs New Hope, 7 p.m.
Jan. 3 vs Rocky Mountain,8 p.m.
Jan. 4 vs Dickinson State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 18 vs Montana Tech, 8 p.m.
Jan. 19 vs LC State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 1 vs Great Falls, 8 p.m.
Feb. 14 vs UM-Western., 8 p.m.
Feb. 15 vs Westminster, 8 p.m.