Havre Daily News sports editor
Every college basketball team's goal at the beginning of the season is to be playing in a postseason tournament. The Montana State University-Northern Lights are no different.
But, because of an up-and-down season, the Lights are now faced with the daunting task of having to win the 2006 Frontier Conference tournament in order to keep their postseason dreams alive.
Northern (7-7, 18-11) finished the regular season in a three-way tie for third place in the conference. Because of tiebreakers, the Lights are the fourth seed as they open tournament play tonight at 8 at the MAC in Butte against fifth-seeded UM-Western (7-7, 13-17).
What makes MSU-N's run to a conference championship so difficult isn't just the inconsistency that has plagued its offense all season. Finishing where the Lights did put them in the toughest opening-round game of the tournament - the dreaded No. 4 versus No. 5 matchup.
“We knew down the stretch that we were going to have a really tough first-round game,” veteran MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “But we also know that in order to go to the national tournament we're going to have to win this thing, so we were going to have to beat three really good teams anyway.”
No matter who the Lights play this weekend, their success will rest solely on whether or not they can find the basket. Northern has been at the bottom of the league in field goal percentage for most of the season, and the Lights only have two players who average in double figures in Jordan Matthews (16 ppg) and Ronnie Simpson (11 ppg).
MSU-N has shown flashes of being a very good offensive team as illustrated in impressive victories over the league's top two teams in Carroll College and Westminster College. But, just one week after knocking off the highly-touted Griffins in Havre, the Lights offense stumbled in their season-finale against last-place UGF.
“Sometimes it really is a simple game,” Huse said. “We know we can play with anybody in this tournament and we know that if we get hot we could win the whole thing.
“But it is really going to come down to whether or not we make shots,” he added. “It sounds pretty simple, but it is the truth. If we shoot the ball well, we'll play well. If we don't, it is going to be tough for us to advance.”
UM-Western's season has been almost a mirror image of the Lights' campaign. The Bulldogs' offense was nowhere to be found when the Lights beat them by 12 points on the opening night of the conference season in Dillon. But a month later in Havre, Western returned the favor by shooting 56 percent from the field in a double-digit win of its own.
Western's Ty Palmer, who had been leading the league in scoring for most of the season, cooled off some down the stretch. But in Havre, 6-4 forward Wes Morales picked up the slack by scoring a game-high 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Morales, Palmer and freshman sensation Charlie Cox give the Bulldogs plenty of offensive firepower.
“Western is a lot like us in that they need to shoot the ball at a high percentage to be successful,” Huse said. “And they are plenty capable of doing that. They have a lot of really good shooters and they aren't shy about putting the ball up.
“I also think Morales has made a huge difference,” he added. “They are playing pretty well right now and he is a tough matchup for us. We didn't do a very good job on him in Havre, so we're going to have to be better this time around.”
Unlike the women's tournament, the men's tourney is a little top-heavy. Despite bad losses in Havre, both Carroll (12-2, 25-3) and Westminster (11-3, 21-6) have had little trouble navigating the Frontier regular season. Both teams are firmly ranked in the NAIA Top 25, and both are headed to the national tournament in Kansas City regardless of this weekend's outcome.
“I think they are both heavy favorites,” Huse said. “Not only are they both really good teams, but they are very experienced and they have a lot of veteran players. That makes them very tough to beat in a tournament.”
But Northern has some leadership of its own. Couple that with the fact that the Lights are the only team in the field to have beaten both the Saints and Griffins this season, and one could make a strong case for the Lights as a dark horse this week.
“Jordan (Matthews) has been pretty vocal this week,” Huse said. “He has talked to the guys a lot about what we have to do in order to be successful and he really appears like he is going into this tournament ready to lead us in one way or another.
“I also think the guys have a lot of confidence because we did play very well at times this season,” he added. “Again, it will all come down to how well we shoot the ball.”
The winner of tonight's game between the Lights and Bulldogs will face the top-seeded Saints at 8 p.m. on Friday. Carroll thumped UGF, 93-71, Wednesday night to open the tournament. Westminster is also in Friday's semifinals after squeaking by Montana Tech, 81-74 Wednesday afternoon. The Griffins will play the winner of today's first-round game between RMC and LC State.
The 2006 Men's Frontier Conference tournament will continue through Saturday night in Butte. The championship game is slated to tip off at 8 p.m.