By Ryan Divish
If it seems like the same thing is being written week after week, there's a reason for it.
Basically, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team will face yet another formidable challenge this week. It seems like the games only get tougher each week for the Lights.
Northern will host the previously-ranked Westminster College Griffins tonight at 8 and the ninth-ranked Lewis-Clark State Warriors on Saturday also at 8 p.m.
"It doesn't get any easier does it?" said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "We're coming off a very tough road trip and now we host two of the top teams in the conference."
Indeed, Westminster (2-1 in conference, 12-7 overall) was ranked 25th in the country last weekend, but a 63-54 loss to Lewis-Clark dropped the from the rankings.
But don't let the loss fool you, the Griffins come into Havre with yet another solid squad under head coach Tommy Connor. Westminster already owns a win over Carroll College and handled NCAA Division I Idaho State on the road earlier this season.
A year ago, the Griffins bounced the Lights from the Frontier Conference tournament in decisive fashion. This year several key players return to form a solid squad. But there were a few losses.
Gone is all-conference guard Adam Hiatt and his league-leading 21.9 point per game scoring average. Also graduated is Frontier Conference defensive player of the year Isaac Butler.
"I wasn't exactly sad to see Hiatt graduate," Huse said. "He was a rare player than doesn't come around often in this conference. But Westminster is much more balanced this year, and that can be tougher to defend."
The statistics don't lie. The Griffins have three players averaging in double figures led by guard Shane Humphreys at 13.8 points per game, who is also shooting 41 percent from three-point range.
Junior college transfer Jared Ruiz is scoring 12.2 points per game, while forward Nick Booth is chipping in with 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The Griffins also have solid weapons in forward Matt Mark and long-range specialists Nick Buroker and Steve Cramer.
"From what I've seen on tap, it looks like they can get big production from any player on any given night," Huse said. "They are all capable of hurting you."
But when you play Westminster it isn't just the on-floor talent, but Connor's solid offensive system.
"They are very deliberate and very patient on offense," Huse said. "They use a lot of shot clock and they just don't take bad shots. They run a Princeton-based offense and they run it very well. They are extremely disciplined offensively."
That type of discipline causes nightmares for teams, even defensive-minded ones like the Lights.
"You really have to be focused and disciplined on defense because you have to guard them for a long time on each possession," Huse said. "Rebounding becomes a factor because you can't allow them to get a second possession and run more clock."
Besides their offense, the Griffins also run a variety of defensive looks that can change from possession to possession. No matter what look they give, the Griffins are going to play a physical brand of defense.
"Playing Carroll last week was good preparation for how physical Westminster can be defensively," Huse said. "They are going to show us a bunch of looks and we have to be smart and recognize what they are doing defensively."
If possible, things will only get tougher on Saturday night for Northern.
Lewis-Clark State (3-0 in conference and 15-4 overall) rolls in with a wealth of returning players from the team that advanced to last year's NAIA national tournament.
"LC reminds me of an NCAA Division I type of team," Huse said. "They have just so much size and athleticism all the way down their roster."
Don't forget experience.
Lewis-Clark is a senior-laden team with every starter seeing significant minutes last season, led by guards Danny Allen and Joey Ray. The duo combines for 25 points per game. They have combined to hit 65 three-pointers on the season.
"They are both very explosive scorers that can really shoot with great range," Huse said. "They're kind of streaky and when they are hitting, they can be almost impossible to stop."
But the Warriors weapons don't end there. Forwards Martin Brothers, John Moore and James Idoko are all solid up front with imposing size and athleticism. Brothers is averaging 13.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. A left-hander, Brothers has a variety of moves around the basket and finds ways to score. Moore, a junior college transfer, is averaging 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists in LC's win over Westminster.
"They can roll out three or four 6-8 guys at you," Huse said. "And they all bring different things to the floor. And they all play very well together."
While LC typically has some of the conference's best talent, this year's team is playing with a sense of urgency.
"They're playing as focused as I've seen an LC team play," Huse said. "They are really focused on the floor and there are a lot of guys with conference experience out there."
That lack of conference experience showed a little in Northern's road losses at Rocky Mountain and Carroll College.
"We have to be more consistent," Huse said. "We play very well for stretches, but then we miss a shot here and turn it over there and it doesn't take long for teams to take advantage of it."
Huse hopes a return to the MSU-Northern gym will help his team get back on the winning track.
"We're real anxious to get back and play at home," he said. "That road trip was tough. We were gone from Wednesday night to Saturday night. With the students back, we're hoping that playing at home will give us a lift."
Northern's games can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM or on the net at www.msun.edu/athletics.