By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It wasn't quite the road trip from hell, but it was far from a walk in the park for the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team.
Last year's trip south to Butte and Dillon for matchups with Montana Tech and UM-Western produced little if any good. The Lights suffered a pair of painful losses, playing far from their best basketball.
This year, the order is flipped around and Lights' head coach Shawn Huse hopes the results will turn around too. Northern will open the road trip tonight in Dillon with a matchup against the 8-11 UM-Western Bulldogs.
Western's record is a bit deceiving, considering the talent level it has. In the preseason, the Bulldogs were picked to be among the favorites to contend for a Frontier Conference title.
With touted transfers Jason Buell and Sam Riddle, and Josh Keller and Neil Christiaens fully recovered from knee surgeries, added to the solid core of returning players, Western was supposedly loaded.
However, much has changed since the conference preseason polls came out. Western flexed its offensive muscle early in the nonconference season, pounding several junior colleges. But the ride started to get a little bumpy in November with three consecutive losses to Dickinson State and Jamestown College.
Western also suffered through three straight losses in a tough tournament in Florida. The downward spiral culminated with Riddle, a former UM point guard, becoming one of the few Frontier Conference players to leave school early to chase the dream of professional basketball. While Riddle didn't declare himself eligible for the NBA draft, he did average 14 points and 10 assists against competition he deemed "inferior."
But all is not lost in Dillon. In fact, without Riddle, the Bulldogs traveled to Salt Lake City and knocked off league power Westminster College on its home floor last weekend.
"They have a very talented team without Riddle," Huse said. "Every player has the ability to shoot the ball. From looking at the tape, everyone seems to be more involved in the offense than they were when Sam was the point guard."
Indeed, there is shortage no shortage of talented players on the Western roster. Buell is the second leading scorer in the conference at 20.1 points per game and leads the conference with a whopping 81 three-pointers made on the season.
Huse is plenty familiar with Buell's explosiveness, having coached him when both were at Montana Tech.
"Buell can definitely shoot the ball and shoot it from deep," Huse said. "He's a coaches' son and he may not look like the most athletic player on the floor, but he's a really good player with ability to score points in bunches."
The 6-7 Christiaens and the 5-7 Keller return after both sat out last season with ACL injuries. Christiaens can bang like brute inside, but can also step outside and knock down three-pointers as evidenced by his conference-leading 58 percent three-point shooting percentage. He is averaging 18.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Keller returns to point guard duties which he took care of early last season. Before getting injured, Keller was averaging close to 23 points per game. Before the injury he was a phenomenally quick player, post-injury he is still quicker than many guards in the conference. This year Keller is scoring 10.6 points per game and dishing out 4.1 assists per game.
Lost in the talk of transfers and injury recoveries is the return of 6-4 forward Brandon Day, 6-6 post player Kevin Flatow and 6-2 guard Derrek Hibbert. Day was Western's leading scorer last season and is averaging 9.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Flatow is a solid defender and rebounded while Hibbert will spell Keller at the point and can also shoot from outside.
The main difference in the post-Riddle era at Western is the tempo of play. Before Riddle pushed the offense at breakneck speeds, now the Bulldogs run a more deliberate, slower-paced look.
"Coach (Mark) Durham told me that they've become a little bit of a possession-by-possession team. He figures it will give him best chance to win by playing a more deliberate style. They look to spot up shooters early and if not they work it around and take the shot clock down."
In Western's last two games, the Bulldogs scored 60 and 56 points, respectively. Conversely, Western gives up a league worst 88.8 points per game, which has Huse and the conference's highest scoring offense ready.
"We have to be prepared to guard for a long time," Huse said. "We should certainly be used to it after last weekend. We know we can still find ways to score in this style as long as we defend."
The style won't change much on Saturday as Northern travels to Butte and Huse makes his annual homecoming to his alma mater where he was not only an assistant coach, but also a three-time all-conference player.
Last year's homecoming wasn't friendly as Northern squandered a 12-point lead late in the second half to lose 107-106 in overtime.
Montana Tech, picked to finish last in the Frontier preseason polls, is 5-12 on the season, including a pair of rough losses to Lewis-Clark State and Westminster to open the conference season.
But preseason prognostications hold little weight with Huse, because his team was picked to finish just above Tech and the University of Great Falls.
"We were all in the bottom half, us, UGF and Tech," Huse said. "I'm sure Tech feels like these two games are games it can get. And they are very capable of beating us."
Glancing at the rosters and stats would make Huse's statement seem ludicrous, but overlooking any team in conference play is far worse.
"I don't think there is any team in the conference that can just show up, not play well and expect to win," Huse said. "There is going to be a lot of changing and shuffling in the conference standings from week to week because of the parody in the league."
Tech is led by senior guards Shane Sutton and Jeremy Rudolph. Both players are solid leaders and deadly three-point shooters. The duo scored 51 points including nine three-pointers in last season's win.
"We have to communicate on defense," Huse said. "They do a good job of finding them shots. They are deadly shooters and we have to be alert and know where they are for the entire 40 minutes.
The Diggers also have a little bit of size in 6-8 junior forward Clinton Kaufmann, 6-7 freshman center Kellen Ori and 6-5 junior forward David Scott.
"They start a fairly good-sized front line," Huse said. "They're a solid team. They play hard, they play together and are getting better every time out."
Like Western, Tech also gives up more than 80 points per game, which doesn't bode well against Northern's potent offense.
With offenses tending to go stagnant on road trips, Huse is relying more than just outscoring teams to win.
"If we get outrebounded, outhustled to loose balls or don't play defense, we will be in some serious trouble," Huse said. "But if play like we're capable of, get some rebounds and take care of the ball, we have a good chance of having success."
Northern will tip off both nights at 8 p.m. The games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.