Havre Daily News sports editor
Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse is all about taking things one game at a time, even one half at a time. And while it's still early in the Frontier Conference season, even Huse can't deny how important this weekend's games are to his program and to the rest of the conference.
Northern (13-5, 2-0) will play host to Rocky Mountain College tonight and to defending conference champion Carroll College on Saturday night.
“We try to put the importance of each game strictly on that game and not look ahead,” Huse said. “Especially with every team getting into our conference tournament this year, your season isn't over until you're knocked out of that tournament.
“But we know these are big games,” he added. “We have two very good teams coming in here and it is always important to try to defend your home court.”
Tonight's game with Rocky will be big, because if the Lights can get past the Bears, and Carroll can take care of the University of Great Falls in Great Falls tonight, that would set up an early- season showdown of undefeated teams in Havre on Saturday night.
First things first, however, and Huse is not overlooking the Bears.
“They are a very good team with a strong inside game,” Huse said. “We are really going to have to control the paint against them and rebound the ball well if we want to have success.”
Rocky (8-8, 1-1) boasts one of the top post players in the Frontier Conference in Devin Ukoski. The forward is averaging 14 points per game, and he is the league's leading rebounder with nine per contest. The Bears are also getting solid production from 6-0 junior Curtis Dunwoody and 6-3 sophomore Ryan Gomendi, and their play shows that they are not just an inside team.
“I think the key to beating Rocky will be establishing an inside game and playing good defense,” Huse said. “We did that last weekend and we were able to play really well as a result.”
Northern opened its conference season with a pair of impressive road wins at UM-Western and Montana Tech. In both games the Lights played sound defense and were efficient and patient on offense.
When the No. 2-ranked Carroll College Fighting Saints come to town on Saturday night, the defense and efficiency on offense will have to be raised to a whole other level.
The Saints (2-0, 15-1) picked up right where they left off last season when they made it all the way to the NAIA Final Four. They were a unanimous pick to win the league this year, and they are showing no signs of relinquishing their hold on the conference anytime soon.
“We understand just how good Carroll is,” Huse said. “But we also feel like we're a much better team than we were at this point last year, and we believe we match up well with them.”
The Saints returned almost their entire roster from last season, including all-conference selections Jeff Hays and Sinan Guler, as well as key scorers like Dallas Leslie and Travis Williams. So far this season, Hays is leading the league in a myriad of offensive categories, and is third in scoring at 16.7 points per game. Williams is the league's leading 3-point shooter and is averaging close to 14 points per game. Guler is one of the top assist men and is close to the league lead in steals.
If Northern is going to find success against the high-octane Saints, they are going to have to get big scoring from Jordan Matthews (16.0 ppg), Cory Brothers (12.7 ppg) and Ronnie Simpson (10.0 ppg).
Something else the Lights will have to have is mental focus and strength, because Huse has no doubt that Carroll will be more than composed, even with an expected capacity crowd on hand Saturday night.
“That is one of the things that makes Carroll so tough and so impressive,” Huse said. “They have been in a lot of big games the last few years and they have been in some high-pressure situations.
“So we don't expect them to get rattled or shaken and we know they are going to come up here and play well,” he added. “But our guys were very composed and focused last weekend on the road. If they can maintain and we shoot the ball well, I think we will give them a very tough game.”
Tonight's game between MSU-N and RMC will tip off at 8 at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse. Saturday night's game also begins at 8 p.m.