When it comes to the Frontier Conference season, the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's basketball teams have similar approaches in preparing for league play.
And with their Frontier openers at UGF just two days away, the Lights and Skylights are hoping their philosophy has paid off.
Both Northern teams have spent the last two months taking on a rigorous nonconference schedule, mostly built around difficult road and neutral sight games. The hope is, that after the schedule both teams played in November and December, that nothing in league play will be a surprise. And that both teams are adequately prepared for what they'll face over the next two months.
"Our non-conference schedule was again a tough one, with a very tough stretch of games in November," Northern head coach Chris Mouat said. "I have to believe that it toughened us up a lot, as we were playing nationally-ranked teams every weekend. We were competitive and able to find out a lot about ourselves. We were also able to build some depth that we will really need heading into the conference season. With the loss of a couple of starters and key players, we have had to rely on a lot of new players to make an impact, and many have stepped into roles and done a great job.
"One thing I really like about our non-conference schedule is that we were able to see a lot of quality teams that play very different styles, which will be very helpful in the league," he added.
And it's worked for the Skylights (9-7) in the past. After a similar stretch last season, Northern turned it up in league play and wound up with an outstanding finish and a home playoff game.
And after taking on stalwarts like Fresno Pacific as recently as last weekend, the Skylights are looking for similar results in 2011. But things won't be easy. Not only is the league loaded with good teams — Lewis-Clark State, Westminster and Carroll College are all ranked, but the availability of senior point guard and two-time all-conference star Taylor Keller is still uncertain. On top of that, MSU-N is playing this season without starting center Laci Keller.
Still, with injuries and new faces this season, Mouat has seen his team grow through the first two months of the season, and while there is plenty to work on, he also feels good about where his team is at heading into conference play.
"Over the past few weeks, we have done a much better job on the boards, which was really a focus. We are not that big, and will have to do a great job rebounding night in, and night out, to be competitive," he said. "Defensively, we have found a few things that are a bit new this year and we’ve been able to be successful throwing some new looks at teams and it’s helped.
"This group has responded to a lot, especially given the number of new players on the floor on a given night," he added. "They are learning more and more about themselves all of the time and I think our best basketball is still ahead of us. Our leadership has been outstanding and the chemistry of this team is as good as any we’ve had."
While the Skylights enter Friday night's road game at Great Falls on a bit of a roll, the Lights are even hotter.
The Northern men have won four straight heading into the season-opening showdown with UGF and into a league which boasts five teams which won at least 10 non-league games this season.
And the Lights are one of those teams, sitting at 11-4 on the season. And like the Skylights, they are certainly battle tested.
Of Northern's four losses, all came against ranked NAIA opponents. The Lights lost to NAIA DII then No. 4 Black Hills State back in November, but returned the favor late last month in Havre. MSU-N also lost by one point to now No. 1 Robert Morris, by a slim margin to GSAC power Vanguard and also to former No. 1 Azusa Pacific.
So when it comes to facing good teams, which Northern certainly will over the next two months, the new-look Lights have certainly already seen their share.
And that should make a big difference when it comes to taking on the Frontier's best, especially this season.
Northern has just two players in leading scorers Devin Jackson and Shaun Tatarka, who have played in a Frontier Conference game. And with all the new faces which have emerged for the Lights this season, head coach Shawn Huse was hoping a tough non-conference schedule would be just what his team needed to be ready for Frontier play.
"I'm really pleased with where we are at," Huse said following last week's wins over Black Hills and Lethbridge. "You have to give this team a lot of credit because three months ago, we really weren't sure what to expect. We knew we had plenty of talent, but had no idea what kind of team we'd be with so many new guys.
"But I think our schedule really helped us come together as a team," he added. "We played a lot of very good teams, and most of those games were on the road, and I think through that process, we've found out a lot about what kind of team we have. There's always areas where we need to get better, but we feel pretty good about where we're at, and we feel very prepared for what we're going to face in conference play."
And not only are the Lights prepared, but they have now shown they are one of those very good Frontier teams.
And with what Northern's men and women's teams have managed to achieve and build through non-league games, the Frontier season should be another exciting one in Havre.
The Lights and Skylights open conference play with three straight road games, starting Friday night at UGF.
Note: The third part of the Havre Daily News' 2011 Frontier Conference Preview, a complete overview of the league's men's and women's teams will appear in Thursday's HDN.