Every week in the Frontier Conference is big. But on the road, it doesn’t get much bigger than the next two nights for the Montana State University-Northern Lights.
The No. 10 Lights (15-2, 3-0) are in Dillon tonight to square off with arch rival UM-Western, while MSU-N heads to Salt Lake City Saturday for a nationally ranked showdown with the Westminster Griffins.
And make no mistake, even though it’s early in the conference season, both games are huge for the two-time defending Frontier champion Lights.
“Our kids know the challenges they are facing,” Northern head coach Shawn Huse said. “They are fully aware of how tough both Western and Westminster are. And at the same time, we’re a team that’s still learning, still trying to find ourselves each and every night.
“But I also think we’re a team that’s gaining confidence with every game, and that’s going to help us with these two very difficult road games,” he added. “I think winning those last two games at home was a big confidence builder for this team. It really showed them they can be successful in this league and that they are a force to be reckoned with. I know our guys feel that way.”
The Lights not only swept Dickinson State and Rocky Mountain College at home last weekend, they also got a big lift by rising 12 spots in the new NAIA Coaches Poll. Northern hasn’t lost since Nov. 3, a winning streak of 11 games, and the Lights haven’t lost in Frontier Conference play since Feb. 1 of 2012.
So, MSU-N comes into this weekend’s games with a lot of positives, which also include senior Devin Jackson averaging 16 points per game, while Jesse Vaughan chips in 13, Alfie Miller 11 and Will Perry adding five rebounds per night.
But to be successful against two of the Frontier’s best, on the road, the Lights will have to be almost flawless for 40 minutes in each game.
Tonight’s matchup with Western brings together perhaps the best rivalry in the league right now. The Lights and Bulldogs have waged some epic battles over the last three years, including last year’s Frontier title game in Havre. And while Northern holds a 6-3 edge in the last nine meetings with Western (11-5, 1-2), the Lights haven’t won in Dillon in their last three trips.
And though the Bulldogs are in somewhat of a rebuilding mode this season, losing four starters from last year’s NAIA Sweet 16 team, including Player of the Year Brandon Brown, they are still going to be a tough test for the Lights tonight.
“They are still a very good team,” Huse said of the Bulldogs. “They have good size, they defend and rebound the ball really well. They are really balanced offensively and they execute their stuff very efficiently. So we fully expect them to be every bit as good as we’re used to them being, and we know it’s going to take a big effort from our guys on both ends of the floor to have a chance down there.”
Western’s numbers don’t jump off the page this season, especially after the eye-popping stats Brown posted the last three seasons. But the Bulldogs are balanced, led by junior Maazin Butler, who scores 13 points per night. The Bulldogs are strong inside with 6-8 forward Jake Owsley averaging 10 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore guard Jordan Overstreet is leading the NAIA in 3-point shooting, making better than 54 percent of his long-range shots.
And if a rivalry game at Western tonight isn’t difficult enough for the Lights, Saturday’s trip to Westminster certainly will be.
The No. 17 Griffins (13-3, 1-2) were picked to win the Frontier this season, but after two early losses, including a heartbreaker at Montana Tech last Saturday, their backs are now firmly against the wall. And they’ll be out for revenge Saturday night after being swept by Northern last season — including losing to the Lights at home for the first time since they joined the Frontier.
And though Westminster may have stumbled early in conference play, the Griffins are loaded. They average a whopping 81 points per game, and play as many as 13 players each night. Senior Jake Orchard leads a balanced Griffin attack, scoring 13 points per outing, while 6-6 forward Tallon Robertson and shooting guard Blake Skidmore average 11 points each. The Griffins also have as many as seven other players who average between eight and 10 points per game.
“The thing that really stands out to me is, they (Griffins) are as disciplined as all the great Westminster teams of the past,” Huse said. “They take advantage of every little mistake you make. And even though they are scoring a lot of points this season, they really wear you down with their patience offensively. They move the ball and really work the clock to get the best shot possible, and they make you work extra-hard on defense.
“At the same time, what’s different about this team is, they will push the ball and up the tempo at times,” he added. “So they can really put you in some bad spots defensively. So for us, we’re going to have to be very patient on both ends, and we’re going to have to make sure we bring that defensive intensity for 40 minutes. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
Both the Griffins and the Bulldogs will be a tremendous challenge for a Lights team playing its first conference road trip of the season. And while there is a lot of basketball left in the season, this weekend is a big one for Northern, and its two opponents.
Tonight’s game between the Lights and Bulldogs tips off at 7:30 in Dillon. Saturday night’s tilt between the Lights and Griffins also begins at 7:30 p.m. Both games can be seen via the internet at http://www.msun.edu/athletics. The Lights are home to face Montana Tech next Friday and Lewis-Clark State Saturday.