By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
You can say it's in the past and it's a new season with new goals and new teams to focus on. You can also say you're a pilot and it doesn't mean you can fly a plane.
No matter how much the returning players of the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team talk about this season, a lingering thought remains in the back of their minds. It was the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears that ended their season abruptly in the first round of the Frontier Conference tournament.
The Lights will meet Rocky for the first time since last year's 76-74 loss in Butte tonight at the MSU-Northern gym to kick off a big weekend of Frontier Conference basketball.
"I hope last season is in the past for us now," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "Still, I'd imagine our guys will be pretty fired up to play them again. We just have to keep the whole season in perspective and focus on our immediate goal of protecting our home court."
After the way they played last weekend, the Lights would be fired up to play a junior high girls team. It wasn't that Northern played badly, but it was far from inspired.
"We didn't play our best basketball and still managed to get a split," Huse said. "But we know we can't do that this weekend."
The Lights suffered through what amounted to a flat performance in a 96-84 loss to UM-Western. Northern didn't shoot particularly well or defend particularly well, which is a bad combination against any team. Conversely, Western shot 56 percent from the field and did basically what it wanted to do on offense.
Northern bounced back on Saturday night to defeat Montana Tech 82-76 in Butte. While they were happy with the win, neither Huse nor his players would call it their best basketball of the season. It left them anxious to erase the recent memories at home against a solid Rocky team.
"Rocky is very good basketball team," Huse said. "They are solid at every position and very tough mentally. They know a little something about winning big games."
Indeed, the Bears are the two-time defending Frontier Conference tournament champs, despite not going in as the favorite in either year. This year's Bears' squad is 2-1 in conference play and is coming off an impressive home sweep of conference favorites, Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College, last weekend.
The seven players that return from last year's squad all play prominent roles for the Bears. But the most important contributions come from a familiar face.
Former KG star Jake Stuart is having a stellar senior season for the Bears, leading them in scoring at 15.8 points per game, which ranks him fifth in the conference.
Besides being Rocky's leading scorer, he is also pulling down 5.9 rebounds per game and has made 45 three-pointers on the season. He is also a solid leader and has a habit of performing well in the MSU-Northern gym as evidenced by a 27-point, five-three-pointer performance last season.
"Jake may be playing on the road, but I'm know he feels very much at home in this gym," Huse said. "He'll have plenty of fans here cheering him on and feel pretty comfortable. It's our job to make him fell uncomfortable especially on the offensive end."
In that game last year, Stuart scored 14 of those 27 points in the first half. Huse inserted Landen Grant to guard Stuart and Grant responded holding him to zero points in the last six minutes of the game, while scoring two key baskets in Northern's 92-81 win. Huse wasn't sure if Grant would get the unenviable task of defending Stuart.
"We haven't decided on our matchups," Huse said. "But we have been working hard defensively because we're giving up too many points."
But Stuart isn't Rocky's only weapon. Senior forward Ken Waldo and junior college transfers Bobby Coleman and Luke Kunkel are also very dangerous players. The 6-7 Waldo is a versatile player that can score, pass and rebound.
Kunkel, a 6-7 post player, is averaging 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Kunkel was this week's Frontier player of the week after scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in Rocky's two wins last weekend.
Coleman is much like the player he's replacing in the lineup, Marshaun Jordan. He's extremely athletic and can defend but unlike Jordan, he can step outside and hit the outside shot.
"Kunkel is pretty physical and is starting to play well," Huse said. "Coleman is an inside-outside player, who can shoot from three-point range. They have plenty of weapons that can hurt you and I think they're just starting to gel as a team."
One thing is for certain, Huse doesn't believe his team will come out flat tonight. It can't afford to and expect to still win. But he is worried about coming out with a little too much emotion.
"We have the type of kids that play with so much emotion," Huse said. "Sometimes it gets the best of us. We want to try and stay even keel and not get too high or too low. We can't let one play or one shot affect us for the next four possessions. We just keep telling them, 'next play, focus on the next play.'"
The perfect example of that would be in last year's home loss to Carroll College. Northern's players were so emotionally keyed up for the game that they could have ran through a brick wall and not even known it. That emotion came crashing down in the first five minutes of the game as Carroll capitalized on the frenzy of emotions, putting Northern in a early hole.
When the Lights take to the floor on Saturday against the Saints, Huse wants his team to play with a businesslike intensity.
It will be tough to do, Carroll is usually one of the teams to beat most years, and is the team that everyone wants to beat every year.
The Saints have gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow 1-2 start to start the conference season. Carroll suffered a pair of tough home losses last weekend to Lewis-Clark State and Westminster. But don't let the Saints record fool you they are still 14-4 overall on the season and one of the league's best.
"They are still a very good team," Huse said. "Those two losses came against two tough teams. Carroll certainly has a lot riding on this weekend and is going to come out and play hard."
While the Saints return eight players off of last year's NAIA national tournament qualifying team, this year's squad plays a little different style of basketball.
Unlike last year's team, this year's Saints' squad isn't totally dependent on the three-point shot. Despite the graduation of three-point specialist Gary Lynch, the Saints still have solid long-range threats in Randy Ranalli and former Chester standout and Northern transfer Jeff Graham. Still, Carroll has been more balanced this season working the ball into senior Chris Bond, junior Andy Brown and University of Montana transfer Jeff Hays.
"Carroll is playing with more of a balanced attack this year," Huse said. "They play more of an inside-out game, focusing on getting the posts touches to open up their shooters. It's not because they don't shoot well from the outside because they do, but I think it's because their big men are more skilled."
Bond is averaging 14 points per game to lead the balanced Carroll offense. He has a variety of low posts moves and is fairly physical. But Hays actually may be the most dangerous Carroll post player because of his versatility.
"Jeff is a very tough, hard-nosed kid," Huse said. "He can score inside, step out and shoot the three and is a great passer and defender."
Hays, whose father Eric was a star at Montana, is averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting close to 60 percent from the field. He also leads Carroll in rebounding at 6.5 boards per game and is shooting 82 percent from the free-throw line. Hays complements Bond's game by being a solid passer from the high post.
Brown has also played a key role for Carroll, averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while doing much of the dirty work inside.
"Carroll's a very good passing team," Huse said. "They see the floor and know how to get the ball to people where they can score. We can't fall asleep defensively."
With two good teams coming in, Huse reminded his team this week that it wasn't picked to finish anywhere near either of them in the preseason polls.
"We want to go out and play with nothing to lose," Huse said. "We need to keep that mentality of having to prove something and playing that way."
Both games will tip off at 8 p.m. and be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.