By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball can forget about its Frontier Conference road woes for at least a week.
The Lights gladly return home to the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gymnasium this weekend to host Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College in their final home contests of the season.
Northern is coming off two frustrating road losses to Montana Tech and UM-Western last weekend, which dropped the Lights to 3-9 in road games and 0-4 in conference road games this season.
"It's really good to be back at home," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "Everybody likes to play at home, but for our team with its lack of experience and maturity, playing at home gives us some confidence."
Indeed, the Lights' best performances this season have come on their home floor and they will need a pair of those same type of performances if they are going to get wins against Carroll and Rocky.
Northern may have to get those wins without its most consistent performers of the season. Junior Marcus Wilson, who is averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, sprained his knee against Montana Tech last week. He has been limited this week in practice and his status is still day-to-day.
"There's no stability problems, it really is more of an aggravation," Huse said. "The more he is off it, the better it can heal. It swells up pretty bad after he plays. Basically, it's a matter of pain tolerance and effectiveness. We're not going to keep him out there if its going to hurt him worse or hurt the team."
Carroll comes into Havre tonight with a 7-2 record in the conference and in a three-way tie with Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State atop the Frontier standings.
The Saints are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak including wins over wins over Westminster and LC State last weekend in Helena. One of the wins in that span was a 98-73 pasting of the Lights in Helena. In that game, the Saint shot 60 percent from the field and 65 percent from 3-point range.
"Carroll is playing some of the best basketball in the conference right now," Huse said. "They are a very smart team that executes well offensively, plays physical on both ends of the floor and has good size. You have to play more than good basketball to beat them."
As a team, Carroll ranks second in scoring, averaging 84.3 points per game, while holding teams to 67.1 points. The Saints lead the conference with a gaudy 51 percent shooting percentage. They also bring down a conference-best 37.7 rebounds a game and hold opponents to just 26.6 rebounds a game, while forcing teams into 19.7 turnovers a game.
The Saints possess a balanced attack, getting contributions from eight players, including three players averaging in double figures.
Senior Andy Brown is averaging 15.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting just over 58 percent from the field.
Junior college transfer Sinan Guler has made an immediate impact by averaging 14.2 points per game, 4.5 assists and 2.4 steals.
But perhaps Carroll's most dangerous player is junior forward Jeff Hays. The former Grizzly player torched Northern last year in Havre to the tune of 34 points and eight rebounds. Hays is averaging 12.6 points per game and is leading the conference in 3-point shooting at 50 percent.
The Saints also get contributions from posts Ross Gustafson and Travis Williams and guards Derek Johnson, Kurt Paulson and Dallas Leslie. Pauslon, who starts at point guard, leads the conference in assists, but probably won't play after suffering a separated shoulder a few weeks ago.
"Carroll has solid, capable posts and their guards are very dangerous from the perimeter," Huse said. "You really can't focus on any one player defensively and expect to shut their offense down. You just have to play solid overall team defense."
One thing that was readily apparent to Huse in the first game against Carroll was how physical and strong the Saints were on the floor. It was major eye-opener for several of his players, who had never played that type of rugged basketball.
"I really think we will be better prepared for how they play," Huse said. "Our guys learned a lot from that experience and by watching the film. They are understanding how important all the little things we need to do beat teams like Carroll."
Unfortunately for the Lights, the remainder of their home games will wrap up on Saturday when they host Rocky Mountain College for senior night.
The Bears come into Havre with a 3-6 conference record and a 14-11 record overall and fresh off three straight losses to Carroll, LC State and Westminster.
Despite the recent spate of losing, the Bears are still a very dangerous team.
They average a gaudy 80.5 points per game and shoot close to 48 percent from the field. The Bears are more than capable of dropping 100 points on a team and already own a 65-62 win over the Lights in Billings.
"Rocky just has a lot of weapons and a lot of athleticism," Huse said. "You just can't solely focus on Luke Kunkel because somebody is going to make you pay from the perimeter."
While you can't solely focus on the 6-9 Kunkel, you do have to have to pay attention to him defensively. Kunkel is one of the top low post presences in the conference.
His numbers are down a bit from last year at 13.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but he is capable of big games and dropped 29 points and 14 rebounds on the Lights in Havre last year. He is still shooting a conference-best 63 percent from the field which means if he takes a shot, it usually goes in.
"He is as good as there gets in the conference," Huse said. "I think we've done a good job slowing him down the last two times we played, but they have had other players step up."
One of those players is junior college transfer David Ellis, who is averaging 15.2 points a game and has buried 61 3-pointers on the season. Also contributing is Montana State transfer Wes Morales, who is averaging just over 10 points per game and is also a capable long-range shooter.
But Rocky will be without one of its big weapons as senior Bobby Coleman left the team shortly into the conference season. Coleman had been averaging 13 points and five rebounds a game.
Northern had its opportunities to win the first matchup with Rocky, but lost the game in the final minutes - an overriding theme to the Lights' season thus far.
"One thing that bothered me in that game was that they were beating us to loose balls and out hustling us at times," Huse said. "That's not acceptable. That is the type of basketball we play."
Perhaps nobody on the Lights knows that type of basketball better than senior Landen Grant, who will be playing his final home game as a Light.
Grant is averaging 4.6 points per game and has made 24 3-pointers on the season, but numbers don't really illustrate his contributions.
"Landen has definitely been a great team leader," Huse said. "He's been as a reliable player as we've had here. He knows and understands all of our philosophies. He works hard at conditioning and has made himself into a solid off-guard in this league."
Senior night festivities aside, this weekend's game are even more important with the Lights' facing three straight road games to close out their season.
"We're still a young team searching for ourselves on the road," Huse said. "To get a couple of wins would really give us some momentum going into those road games."
Northern will tip off at 8 p.m. both nights and the games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM or www.msun.edu/athletics.