By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse can't help but feel miles ahead of where he was last year at this time.
As the Lights prepare to open the 2003-04 regular season on Saturday against the University of Lethbridge, basketball has been the focal point of the preseason
For Huse, now in second year as Lights head coach, it's stark contrast to last year, being able to focus mainly on basketball in the preseason.
Last year, he spent countless hours tackling all of the administrative duties of setting up his program and even more hours just teaching his new players his philosophies on the game and what he expected from them.
From the big things like scheduling and finding game sponsors to the little things like dress code for road trips and how their uniforms should be worn.
"It's like day and night," Huse said. "We had to teach every philosophy from our approach to subbing, to pregame warmups, to community service, to academics. But this year we haven't had to do that."
With nine players returning from last year's 19-14 squad, much of what was taught and expected is being taught to his six new players by those nine returnees.
"I've been able to focus more on the court, not the office," Huse said. "Having kids in the system, having Coach (Nate) Larson taking care of so much stuff and our two graduate assistants helping out a lot, I feel like we're established as a program."
Huse is quick to point out that this year has been made easier because several of his returning players have demonstrated great leadership this early in the year.
"It's a testament to our leaders, who have taught our new kids the way we do things," Huse said. "You can't put a price on leadership."
Leadership was one of Huse's main concern following the end of last season. Northern lost its physical and emotional leader, Charlie Ereaux to graduation. The task of replacing Ereaux leadership presence was concern to Huse.
"I'll never replace Charlie," Huse said. "I would take him for the rest of my coaching career if I could, but we've had several players step forward and assume that role."
The Morinia brothers, Larry and Lamar, along with fellow senior Travis Moran have taken on Ereaux responsibilities.
"It starts with Larry and Lamar," Huse said. "They are very vocal and positive people. Even in adverse situations, they stay positive. It's like they've been here for four years. Travis is a more of a leader by example. He brings a lot intensity and hustle to the floor, which we need."
Besides leadership, the Morinias will be asked to share a bulk of the on court production.
Larry earned honorable mention All-American and first-team all-conference honors last season, averaging 19 points per game. Lamar, who sat out the first semester, made his presence felt immediately, averaging 14.4 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
Northern also returns three players who started games last season in Moran, Zach McLean and Reid Stovall.
"Those guys will all be expected to contribute," Huse said. "And Landen Grant got better and better after he came back from an injury."
Also returning is Brian McGowan, who brings defense, rebounding and overall physical play. Northern also returns guards Leo Bullchild and Walter Runsabove, who redshirted last year.
"Brian is much stronger than last year and Leo and Walter have proved to be great scorers when they are on the floor," Huse said.
One thing that pleased Huse about his nine returners is the amount of strength they added in the offseason. After being manhandled by physical teams like Westminster, his players spent a good portion of the offseason in the weight room preparing.
"All of our returners had their bench press go up by at least 30 pounds which is outstanding," Huse said. "After last season, they understood how important getting stronger was for us."
The biggest change from Northern's squad from last year can be seen just glancing at the roster. In his first full year of recruiting, Huse brought in some much needed size to go with his team's quickness.
Transfers Trenton Harbaugh (6-8), Dustin Sawejka (6-7), Pathe Yatera (6-7) and Berhane Williams (6-5) bring some inside presence to offset the loss of Ereaux and center Kent Douglas.
"We definitely got a little bit bigger," Huse said. "But we didn't lose any of our athleticism by getting bigger. All four of them bring us a little more inside presence."
Huse is blunt in saying that all four must contribute immediately for Northern to have success.
"When you bring in junior college transfers, you expect them to learn on the job because we don't have the luxury to wait like with freshmen," Huse said. "We brought them into fill some spots immediately."
Even with the added dimension of size, don't expect Northern to turn into a walk-it up, set offense type of team.
"Speed and ball-handling are our main strengths," Huse said. "We'll continue to try and spread teams out, get the ball down the floor quickly and try to attack people early.
Defensively, Northern will continue to play its aggressive, in-your face defense while trying to force turnovers. With 13 players suiting up, Northern will be deep enough to play at high level of intensity.
"It's a lot different than last year when we went in Division I Southern Utah with seven and a half healthy guys," Huse said. "We are much deeper and we're not losing much in terms of production when we go to our bench."
As for this weekend, Huse has never been big on scouting opponents. Lethbridge gave Northern trouble early on in last year's game while Sunday's opponent Red Deer College will also be formidable.
"I don't worry too much about scouting reports this early on," Huse said. "We need to worry more about us. We have to focus on the things we do well and how we are playing. If we do that the rest should take care of itself."
Northern will tip-off against Lethbridge on Saturday night while the game against Red Deer has been moved to Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.