By Ryan Divish
After three Frontier Conference games, Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse isn't ready to crown his team the conference champs.
With a perfect 3-0 record, Northern is a game behind Westminster College in the conference standings. Not bad for a team picked to finish second to last, but there is still plenty of season left including this weekend's very tough road trip as the Lights face Rocky Mountain College tonight in Billings and Carroll College on Saturday in Helena.
Both of Northern's opponents were picked to finish near the top or win the Frontier Conference this season. It might not be the longest road trip in the conference, but it could be the toughest.
Rocky, 1-2 in the conference and 13-6 overall, dropped a pair of road games themselves last weekend at Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College. The Battlin' Bears struggled shooting the basketball and lost standout center Spencer Allred for the final five minutes of the Lewis-Clark State game.
"Rocky may have dropped a couple of games this past weekend, but they are still a very good basketball team," Huse said. "We're coming off two conference wins and they're coming off two conference losses, but they had a little tougher time last weekend. They had to go on the road and play two of the top teams in the conference while we were at home against two of the teams that probably aren't going to finish in the top of the conference."
Indeed, Northern's wins over UM-Western and Montana Tech were impressive, but those two teams aren't quite at the same level as Westminster and Lewis-Clark. Still, if the Lights have proven one thing this season it's that they play hard at all times and will compete with anyone.
"One thing I do know is that our guys have a lot of fight in them," Huse said. "We still have our work cut out for us this weekend. We're very realistic. Does that mean that we don't think we can win? No, we still feel like we can win but we know we're going to have to play well."
Against Rocky, Northern's big men, in particular, will have to play well. The Bears biggest strength might be Northern's biggest weakness - size. The Bears have plenty of it while Northern doesn't.
"They have a lot of threats," Huse said. "But more than anything, they are much bigger than we are."
How big? Rocky has three players 6-8 or taller along with three players right around the 6-4 range. In comparison to the Lights whose tallest players are around the 6-4 range.
There is still some question marks surrounding the status of Allred. The University of Montana transfer suffered a break in his cheekbone and a concussion as he was trying to defend an alley-oop dunk from Lewis-Clark's Jason Brazier.
Allred, who averages 17 points and nine rebounds a game, is listed as very likely, but Allred or not, Huse still thinks Rocky will stick to its same style
"Rocky will definitely pound it inside regardless if they have Spencer or not," Huse said. "But we're approaching the game as if Spencer is in there."
"Our post players are going to have to play much bigger than they are, if we are going to beat Rocky," Huse said. " We have to keep them from getting second chance points to have a chance. If they continually get second shots and putback points, we'll be in trouble.
But Rocky isn't just a post driven team. The Bears feature a balanced attack that can hurt you from inside and out. Former KG star and UM transfer Jake Stuart is averaging close 14 points per game for the Bears and offers a quality outside presence to compliment Allred. The Bears also feature perhaps one of the most athletic players in the conference in Marshaun Jordan. Listed at 6-3, Jordan plays much bigger with his great leaping ability and his slashing style to the basket.
It doesn't get any easier for Northern on Saturday as they travel to Helena to face preseason favorite Carroll College.
The Fighting Saints split on the Westminster - Lewis-Clark State trip last weekend and feature a 1-2 conference record with their other loss coming at Rocky.
Still, Carroll was picked to finish on top of the conference for a reason. They have a solid nucleus of players and the capability of putting up a lot of points in a hurry.
Carroll has a shoot first, ask questions later mentality. The only bad shot for them is a shot that isn't taken. Any team can take a lot of shots, but Carroll's go in pretty frequently. The Saints are 10th in the NAIA in scoring averaging 89.9 points per game.
Led by UM-Western transfer Randy Ranalli and shooting guard Gary Lynch, the Saints have made a ridiculous 222 three-pointers already on the season and average almost 11 three-pointers a game.
Ranalli, who averages 17.1 points per game has knocked down 79 three's on the season. Lynch, who is scoring close to 17 points per game has sank 73 three-pointers.
Point guard Greg Johnson, who leads the Frontier in assists at 6.5 per game, can also knock down the three along with subs Newell Roche and Kurt Paulson.
"Carroll can really exploit you from the outside, but I have a lot of respect for their post players," Huse said. "They pound the glass hard and they are very athletic. It's not as though we can take away their guards away and expect to win. "
Indeed, Carroll's post play from Jeff Mason and Kevin Downs really makes their outside attack effective. Mason is averaging 17 points and seven rebounds a game and can score in a variety of ways. Downs plays very physical and sets hard screens for the Carroll shooters.
Both Rocky and Carroll boast solid home court fans who should be out in full force this weekend.
"I like that atmosphere myself ," Huse said. "I hope that our players embrace that atmosphere and use it to motivate them instead of it letting them lose focus, because that kind of atmosphere is what the Frontier Conference is all about."
While Northern raised a few eyebrows with their early performance, Huse knows most people in the conference are looking at this weekend to see how good the Lights can be this season.
"Both of these teams are very well-rounded teams," Huse said. "This will be a very, very good measuring stick. If we can go on the road and get a split that would give us the confidence that we can compete
for the title."
Both games will tip off at 8 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.