By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
If the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team wants to make its mark as a defensive-minded squad, the Lights will certainly get tested this weekend, starting tonight when they travel to Billings to face the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears.
After facing the top scoring team in the Frontier Conference last weekend in UM-Western, Northern will now face the second-ranked scoring team in the conference in Rocky.
The Bears are not only proficient on offense, averaging 84.1 points per game, they are bound to be a little cranky after starting the conference season 0-2 after losses at Lewis-Clark State and Westminster.
"I would imagine that they are going to be fired up to play at home," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "It's hard to go into LC and Westminster and get wins. They have to be excited to be back at home playing in front of their own fans."
Rocky, 11-7 overall, was picked to be among the top teams in the conference in the preseason with good reason.
The Bears return seven players from last season led by all-conference center Luke Kunkel and point guard Eddie Stack.
Kunkel caused fits for Northern inside last year, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds in three games against the Lights.
This season he is averaging 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game for the Bears.
"Kunkel has always played us real tough," Huse said. "In the playoffs last year, Reid (Stovall) played him solid and slowed him down a little."
But even if the Lights slow down Kunkel, Rocky still has plenty of other weapons to give Northern problems.
Junior college transfer forward David Ellis is fourth in the Frontier in scoring at 16.1 points per game, while MSU-Billings transfer Wes Morales is averaging 10.1 points per game. Returning forward Bobby Coleman is chipping in with 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
"They are much more athletic and deeper than in years past," Huse said "We are going to have our hands full and we'll have to guard every position."
But defending is what Northern does best, at least this far into the season. The Lights are second in the Frontier in scoring defense, holding teams to 65.1 points per game.
"We have to go in there tough and mentally prepared to play a physical game if we expect to come out with a win."
Perhaps the best preparation was playing conference-scoring leader UM-Western last weekend. Even though the Lights came up short, the experience should pay dividends.
"It definitely helped playing Western," Huse said. "Rocky plays a lot like them with big post players surrounded by weapons. We played Western pretty tough for most of the game and we can draw some positives from that."
Because of that, Huse won't be changing up much in terms of overall philosophy.
"Our defense is nothing fancy," he said. "We try to get after people and really focus on the little things. We'll make a few small tweaks, but overall we won't make any major adjustments."
There won't be much adjusting for Northern on Saturday night when the Lights take on the Carroll College Fighting Saints.
Again, the Lights will be facing a potent offense as the Saints possess the third-ranked scoring offense in the conference at 82.5 points per game.
"It doesn't get any easier for us, obviously," Huse said. "Carroll has plenty of weapons, too. They are very adamant about running their sets and set plays. They are really solid and get good shots on most possessions"
Carroll lost several players to graduation, leading scorer Chris Bond and point guard Greg Johnson. However, the Saints may be even tougher this season.
"I think they may be more solid than in the past," Huse said. "They're much more balanced in terms of production, making them much more difficult to defend."
Carroll is led by newcomer and Turkish native Sinan Guler, who is averaging 14.6 points per game. Joining him in double figures is forward Andy Brown at 14.1 points per game. Brown is also pulling down 6.7 rebounds per game and shooting 56 percent from the field.
But the Saints' weapons don't stop there. Forward Jeff Hays, a former University of Montana player, gave the Lights troubles last season and is averaging 11.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
"They're a very physically strong team," Huse said. "Whether its on offense or defense, they play very physical. They crash the boards extremely hard. We have to be ready to match that type of play by playing physical ourselves."
While defense hasn't been a problem for Northern this season, the Lights' offense can get a little sporadic. Northern has at times gone long periods without scoring in games, particularly at the beginning of games and the beginning of the second half.
"It makes it awful tough to come back, especially on the road," Huse said. "You just can't dig yourselves holes like that. We have to be focused offensively and set the tone right away. We have to get shots where we can get them. It isn't going to be any one player that carries us, it has to be at least two or three."
Northern and Rocky will tip off tonight at 8 and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.