By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
North Dakota. It's not just the fodder of Montanan's jokes. There is also some solid basketball being played in the Badlands, and the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's basketball teams will get to see that firsthand weekend.
The Lights and Skylights will be spending the next four days in the Dakota flat lands, with each team playing three teams against opponents from a steadily improving DAC-10 conference.
"We're going to play some very quality opponents on a very demanding road trip that covers a lot of miles," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse."It's going to be a test."
Skylights head coach Mike Erickson put it a little more bluntly: "This is the biggest road trip of the season for us."
LIGHTS LOOK FOR REDEMPTION
Huse and his squad already got a taste of North Dakota with a pair of home games against Dickinson State and Minot State last week. The Lights split the games, defeating DSU but falling to MSU in a disappointing performance.
Northern will get a chance to avenge the loss against Minot on Monday, but it first must deal with Valley City State tonight at 6:30 p.m. and the University of Mary on Saturday.
Complicating matters for the Lights will be the absence of back-up point guard Leo Bullchild, who will not make the trip following the recent death of his father.
"We'll miss him for sure," Huse said. "He's steadily improved since he's been here and has done what we've needed him to do on floor as far as getting the ball where it needs to be."
When Bullchild will return to the team is uncertain.
"We're going to give Leo as much time as he needs," Huse said. "I know he wished he could be here to help the team, but there are certain things that take precedence over basketball. This is one of those things."
With Bullchild out, starting point guard Antonio Jordan will see increased minutes, while shooting guards Rodrick Carter, Landen Grant and Jordan Matthews will fill in as needed.
Northern will need its guards to play well in tonight's game against Valley City State. The Vikings won just seven games a year ago, but do return four starters, along with a wealth of junior college transfers. They already picked up a win over the University of Great Falls earlier this season.
"Valley is going to show us some zone," Huse said. "They've got some very athletic guards than can score in transition. Their big guys shoot well and they've recruited some good players in. They're a much improved team."
Things will only get tougher on Saturday when the Lights travel to Bismarck to face a nationally ranked University of Mary squad.
The Marauders have been picked to finish first in the DAC-10 preseason polls and return six key players from last year's 18-16 season and some talented junior college transfers.
Northern swept Mary last season, and Huse is prepared to play at the Marauders' deliberate pace.
"They've been running the same offense the past few years and with so many player returning, I doubt they'll change too much," he said. "They have a very veteran team that know what it needs to do on offense and defense. We'll need to be very disciplined against them."
After taking Sunday off, the Lights will be in Minot for a rematch with the Beavers. MSU guard Courtney Haley torched the Lights for 28 points a week ago, and his team's athleticism gave Northern fits.
"We need to do something different defensively to try and slow their guards down," Huse said.
Turnovers, 22 to be exact, also contributed to the Lights' woes as Northern struggled against Minot's trapping 1-1-3 zone defense.
"We have to take better care of the ball," Huse said. "We know they're going to run the same thing defensively. We put in some plays that should be successful against it. We just have to execute."
Regardless of the game's outcome, Huse wants to see his team improve in all areas.
"We need to be more consistent on both ends of the floor," he said. "We go through mental lapses and stopped executing on a few possessions due to fatigue and teams changing defenses. We need to keep our focus throughout the game."
MUCH AT STAKE FOR SKYLIGHTS
Erickson won't downplay the importance of this road trip, which starts tonight with a 6 p.m. game against Jamestown College at the Minot State tournament. Northern will take on the host Beavers, coached by Northern hall of famer Sheila Green-Gerding, on Saturday night.
The Skylights have set the goal of only three no conference losses on the season. With one already on their record, there isn't much room for more.
"To cover this many miles and to play three good teams, I would be very happy winning two of three," Erickson said.
Jamestown returns four starters and four reserves to a team picked to finish second in the DAC-10. The Jimmies are led by 6-0 all-conference post player Lindsey Ness. Northern defeated Jamestown last season and Erickson admitted his team must be prepared for a battle.
"Jamestown is going to play very aggressive on both ends," Erickson said. "They really put a lot of pressure on the ball and will show us some zone full-court pressure."
Aggressiveness was a trademark characteristic of Green-Gerding when she played at Northern, and it's a trademark of her basketball team. The Beavers suffered some wholesale losses to graduation, but Erickson knows they will be ready, especially on their home floor.
"Sheila always wants to beat us," Erickson said. "They are going to get right up into us on defense. They are down a little, but traditionally we don't shoot well in that dome they play in. We need to have the mindset that we will do whatever it takes to win each game. We're going to have to make adjustments as we go."
Northern will play its third game in as many days when it travels to Bismarck to face Mary at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
"It's going to be a tough stretch to play the night before, drive all night and get up early to play," Erickson said. "Mary has everybody back from last year and they've already beaten three teams in our conference. They are going to be tough."
Indeed, the Marauders were picked to finish atop the DAC-10 after going 32-3 last year and advancing all the way to the NAIA women's Final Four.
Mary returns All-American forward Jessica Zundel, who averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds per game last year. Also back is all-conference guard and DAC-10 defensive player of the year, Andrea Ronderos.
"They have great size, great quickness," Erickson said. "They are very tough to defend because they are so aggressive on offense."
If Northern is able to win two of three games - coupled with a few more wins - an appearance in the NAIA top 25 is likely.
"That's a goal of ours," Erickson said. "And it would be big. This is a road trip that either way, we will remember in March."