By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
While it may seem about a month too early, Shawn Huse and his Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team can't wait to take the floor Friday to open their 2004-05 season.
You would too, if you'd been practicing for over a month with the alumni game and a scrimmage with Dawson Community College as your only form of game competition
The Lights will be in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for a pair of games starting Friday night at 8 p.m. with a match-up against the University of Saskatchewan. Northern will face the University of Windsor on Saturday at 8 p.m.
"We are really ready for a game," Huse said Wednesday. "It was really evident in yesterday's practice. They got a little taste with the alumni game and the scrimmages and they are starting to see how all the fundamentals and little things we work on in practice come together in a game. "
A reason for Huse's excitement for game competition is to see how far his team has progressed through the month and half of practice. With a bevy of new faces, game situations and competition will allow him to see how everything and everyone will fit this season.
"There is nothing that can replace game experience," Huse said. "With so many new faces, it's important that we learn from these early games. The conference season may seem like a long way away, but it will be here sooner than they think."
But the nonconference games aren't just a learning experience for the players, but for Huse as well. With the high turnover of players, Huse plans to use this time to learn about his players in game situations.
"It really is a measuring stick," he said. "We're going to find out a lot about our different combinations, which players handle fatigue and adversity and which players fit best in situations. We also get to see how well they grasp our offensive and defensive game plans."
For many players on this year's Lights squad, this is a brand new experience. The Lights return just three players - senior Landen Grant, junior Reid Stovall and sophomore Leo Bullchild - that saw any playing time in last year's 21-13 campaign.
Gone are stalwarts Larry and Lamar Morinia and emotional leader Travis Moran to graduation. Northern also lost Trenton Harbaugh, Zach McLean and Walter Runsabove, who chose not to come back, while Dustin Sawejka was released from his scholarship.
Close to 80 percent of Northern's offensive production is missing with the Morinias accounting for the majority. Most teams lose players, but losing a pair of first-team all-conference guards at the same time will be difficult to replace.
"Larry and Lamar are as good of players that have played in the Frontier Conference," Huse said. "Obviously you don't replace them, you just try and replace certain aspects that they brought to the floor."
The Morinias' leadership aspect falls directly on the shoulders of Grant, Stovall and Bullchild.
"They have been every thing I've hoped for and more," Huse said. "Landen has a real positive attitude and has been very focused. It's what you expect from a senior. He's been a good leader on the floor and in the locker room.
"Reid is the same way. He is probably the most consistent player I've ever coached. You know what to expect from him every night. He makes up for what he lacks athletically and size with hustle.
"Leo is just an extremely hard worker. He's embraced and made the adjustments to what it takes to be a solid player at the college level. I expect for him to give us quality minutes at the point guard."
Northern also returns three players from redshirt years last season. Junior Pathe Yatera (6-6) and freshmen Cody Gillespie (6-4) and Ed Lowe (6-3) all benefited from a year of practice in the program.
"All three of them showed the commitment for what it takes to be successful," Huse said. "They are all great team players."
Yatera, who transferred from the University of Great Falls last year, brings added size, defense, rebounding and outside shooting. Gillespie will also be a factor inside, but is versatile enough to shoot from the perimeter. Lowe will make his living from the perimeter as one of Northern's top shooters.
"Pathe has a great outside touch and he works really hard on the boards," Huse said. "Ed is probably our best shooter we have in terms of consistency Cody is a very versatile player, who can play inside and also step outside. He's a very smart player that's very efficient on the floor."
With the departure of so many players, Huse brought in six junior college transfers and two freshman to fill out his squad. The JC transfers will expected to step in and contribute immediately.
"We expect them to play important roles, that's why we brought them here," Huse said. "They have a tough job because they to pick up in one semester what a lot players get to learn in two or three years."
Huse recruited a foursome of transfer guards, all expected to see playing time. Antonio Jordan (6-0), Jordan Matthews (6-4), Rodrick Carter (6-0) and Tim Hutchins (6-3) each bring different types of games that Huse hopes will help offset the losses of the Morinias.
Matthews, who transferred to Northern from the University of South Dakota right before the school year began, is a solid outside shooter that averaged 21 points a game last year for Dawson Community College and will see time at the shooting guard.
Carter will also see time at the shooting guard and is an explosive slasher and solid shooter from the outside.
"Jordan has the potential to be an impact player in the Frontier Conference," Huse said. "Rodrick's really only played one year of college basketball and he really got better in the second semester. I think his best basketball is ahead of him
Jordan and Hutchins were teammates at Treasure Valley Junior College and combined to average 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. Jordan is a true point guard and is a solid playmaker and a tenacious defender. Hutchins will play more at the "3" position with his strengths being rebounding, defense and finishing in transition.
"They're both great defenders that really understand what they bring to the floor," Huse said.
The remaining junior varsity transfers are posts. Marcus Campbell (6-6) and Dan Brigham (6-4) will be looked to provide immediate help up front. Campbell will be looked for defense , rebounding and added scoring. Because he played a semester of junior college football, Brigham will have to sit out the fall semester. But he will bring much needed size and strength to the front line.
Huse's two high school recruits are familiar names to Montana basketball fans. Havre's own Cory Brothers chose to stay at home and join the Lights and his decision is paying early dividends. Brothers is in the mix for immediate playing time even as a true freshman.
"We look at Cory to be a very good player for us," Huse said. "He's coming along really well and making the adjustment from the high school level to the college level."
Physically, Brothers tested as one of the strongest players on the team and Huse believes it helps prepare him for the rigors of college basketball.
"Cory has to get used to playing against teams with the same size and athleticism on a consistent basis," Huse said. "We expect for him to contribute this season. He will have to pick his spots. The more he adjusts to playing at this level, the more he'll contribute."
Besides Brothers, Dutton-Brady scoring machine Colby Bliss also joins the Lights. Bliss racked up monster numbers as a four-year contributor for the Cardinals. Huse will red shirt Bliss this season to add size and strength.
"Colby is going to be a good player in the future," Huse said. "He needs to use this season to get ready to contribute next year."
Because of the different mixture of players, Huse believes Northern fans will see a different team on both sides of the ball.
"Our style of play has definitely changed," he said. "Our scoring is going to be a little more distributed more evenly. We also expect to be much better from top to bottom defensively than in the past. They are really grasping the concepts of defense that we are teaching."