By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It isn't often that a coach asks his team to be a little more cocky, especially a team that is 21-0 on the season. But Big Sandy boys basketball coach Roy Lackner does as his team enters today's Class C State Boys Basketball tournament in Billings.
Obviously, Lackner doesn't want his players to be too smug or arrogant, but he wants them to be more self-confident than usual. After all, they earned it.
"I don't think they will be too nervous," Lackner said. "I want them to be a little more cocky, not to believe that we're better than anyone else, but that we deserve to be here as much as anyone else."
Going through the entire season ranked No. 1 should give plenty of reason for the Pioneers to be confident. But when Big Sandy hosts the Noxon Red Devils tonight at 8 in the opening round of the tournament, that ranking means very little to Lackner or his players.
"It's a totally different season now," Lackner said. "The records, the rankings don't mean a thing. All that matters is playing your best basketball."
And the Pioneers have been doing exactly that. After a somewhat sluggish District 9C tournament, Big Sandy played near perfect basketball at last weekend's Northern C Divisional, culminating with a 71-59 trouncing of Dutton-Brady in the finals.
"If we continue to play at this high of level, we should be fine," said senior guard Jay Jamieson shortly after the divisional tournament.
Jamieson along with fellow seniors Gage Brumwell and Mason Ophus form a talented trio that has led the Pioneers in scoring and rebounding for much of the season.
Jamieson has become one of Class C's top point guards with good ball handling, solid decision making skills and the ability to score points in bunches from inside and outside.
At 6-5, Brumwell causes match-up problems galore for defenses. He has the low post game and size to score inside, but is just as comfortable shooting 10- to 15-foot jumpers. He is also a terror on the boards.
Ophus is also in the 6-5 to 6-6 range and plays the game with the same mentality that made him a standout on the football field. Ophus' moves around the basket would hardly be described as fluid, but he can finish inside and is a strong rebounded.
Most teams would love to have any one of the three if not all of them. But that's where Big Sandy hurts teams the most is when defenses focus on those three. Forward Skylar Pearson along with guards Devin Genereux, Adam Jesperson and Adam Butler are also good enough to start and star for most Class C teams in Montana.
Pearson has shown the ability to step back and hit three-point shots and at 6-1, 200 pounds, he can also finish around the basket. Genereux is also a capable three-point shooter as evidenced by his seven three-pointer output against Box Elder earlier this season. Jesperson, who has been bothered by a sore knee, is a strong rebounder and can also hit the three. Butler can spell Jamieson at the point or play shooting guard. He has good quickness and is starting to return to form after a dislocated shoulder limited his time on the floor earlier in the season.
It's a lot of talent for any team, but Noxon also has plenty of talent. The Red Devils defeated Alberton in a challenge game on Monday to qualify for state.
Noxon, 21-3 and ranked No. 10, has a pair of solid players in Daniel Beaudin and Kevin Wilson.
Beaudin, a 6-4 senior, is averaging 18.5 points per game while Wilson, a junior guard, is leading the Devils at 20.5 points per game and has made seven three-pointers in one game twice this season.
"Those two kids are very solid players," Lackner said. "They take a lot of their shots."
Still, Lackner isn't intimidated.
"We match up pretty well with them," he said. "Gage is a little more athletic than their big man and Mason should be fine against him as well."
But at this point in the season, there is only so much scouting a coach can do. Lackner is more concerned with his own players. State tournament play does have a little different feel than the regular season.
"We have to be aggressive from the start," Lackner said. "It's always more physical at a tournament and they let you play a little more. We have to be ready to play that style."
It shouldn't be a problem as Big Sandy has been very adaptable to any style of play. The Pioneers have seen just about every type of defensive scheme in basketball. Yet they still have success, which Lackner credits to a few things.
"We take 70 percent of our shots inside the key," Lackner said. "Once we do that it will open things up for our shooters. You don't want to let my guards stand around and get ready to shoot because they will take that shot."
If the Pioneers can win that first-round game, they would most likely face Melstone in the second round. The Broncs are a solid team, but Lackner definitely likes to see Class C's only other undefeated team, Gardiner, on the opposite side of the bracket.
"We got a pretty good draw," Lackner said. "I like where we are at and having Gardiner on the other side of the bracket."
A matchup with the Bruins would have to wait until Saturday night's championship game.
But that is the future and Lackner just wants his team to focus on the Red Devils.
"We have to be confident we can play with anyone," Lackner said. "We have to go in an play like it's the championship game right away. We can't just be happy with just getting into the state tournament."
The Big Sandy-Noxon game can be heard on 101.3 KRYK-FM.