This time one year ago, the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team was preparing to open the season with a lot of uncertainty. After all, the Lights lost four starters and seven key players from a 2011-12 team which swept the Frontier Conference regular season and postseason championships and went to its second straight NAIA national tournament.
But the uncertainty at the beginning of the 2012-13 season quickly faded and the Lights went on to reach yet another national tournament, record another 20-win season under Shawn Huse and continue to be a major factor in the Frontier.
Now, Northern gets set to open a brand new season, and the uncertainty isn’t there. Sure, MSU-N will still need to build and gel and work out the kinks in the coming months, but this fall, the Lights return four starters and a solid nucleus of veterans to build around a bevy of talented newcomers.
The Lights, who open their season against Concordia of Alberta Sunday afternoon at the Armory Gymnasium, returns nine players from a team which went 23-10 a year ago, 10-6 in the Frontier and reached the Frontier tournament semifinals as well as the NAIA national tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons. And Huse says his team is much more ready to begin a new journey, than it was a year ago.
“Right now, we’re light years ahead of where we were last October,” Huse said. “That’s due in large part to the experience and leadership we have coming back. And due to how hard our guys have worked in the offseason. They didn’t hang their heads after that loss in Kansas City last year, instead, they came back and went right to work. They want to make this season better than the last.
“This is a really solid group of guys,” he added. “The leadership has been outstanding. All of our veterans are very vocal in practice. There’s been a lot of chatter, a lot of veteran guys showing the new guys how we do things, showing them what Northern basketball is all about. We have great leadership and it’s already showing. I’ve had to do a lot less of that because we have so many guys who are being vocal and showing great leadership right now.”
Leadership and experience will serve the Lights well.
Northern will feel the loss of four-year starter and 2013 NAIA All-American Devin Jackson, who led a balanced MSU-N scoring attack with 13 points per game a season ago. But, back for Northern are guards Roshawn West (6-1), Alfie Miller (6-0) and Alan Brown (6-1). West earned All-Conference honors a season ago, averaging eight points per game, but nearly 12 during Frontier play. Miller came off the bench to average 10 points a season ago, and is one of the most dangerous 3-point shooters in the Frontier, while Brown is a steady point guard and a savvy floor general. Add in senior Mike LaValley (6-0), and the Lights have an ultra-experienced back court.
Northern also returns a wealth of talent and experience on the front line. Junior Corbin Pearson (6-6) is back after a breakout sophomore campaign which earned him All-Conference honors. Pearson averaged seven points and a five rebounds per outing last year, and is one of Northern’s biggest emotional leaders and toughest defensive players. He’s joined by front-court mates Jesse Vaughan (6-5) and Will Perry (6-4). Vaughan averaged 10 points and four rebounds per game a year ago, while Perry led the Lights with over five rebounds per night. Northern also returns reserves Pate Jensen (6-7) and Anfernee Standing Rock (6-5).
“The guys we have coming back, we’re very excited about,” Huse said. “Those guys gained a lot of experience last year, they had a great a season. And they are back being leaders this year. It’s a great group of veterans and they bring a ton of experience and skill to our team. We lost Devin (Jackson), and a player like he was is the type you can’t just replace. But with all the guys we do have coming back, we’re very fortunate to go into this season with that much experience.”
While players like West, Miller, Pearson and Vaughan will be asked to carry a lot of the scoring load for the Lights this season, Northern will always look to hang its hat on defense. And though Huse brought in several newcomers who can help the Lights offensively right away, those newcomers will also add to an already outstanding Northern defense. A year ago, the Lights led the Frontier in scoring defense and were first in turnover margin. So Northern will once again look to its defense to light the torch.
And newcomers like Nick Blount (6-3) from Los Medanos College, Gabe Finley (6-4) from Sierra College, Damien Robinson (6-3) from Bakersfield College, and 6-8 power forward Xavier Shaw, a transfer from BYU-Hawaii, will all help the Lights on both ends of the floor. All four talented transfers are tenacious defenders, and that goes along with a solid offensive skill set. Blount averaged 26 points and seven rebounds in junior college a year ago, while Finley averaged 11 points per game and is a standout shooter. Robinson and Shaw will also give the Lights’ added depth and power in the interior.
“This group is really pushing our returners,” Huse said. “They are working extremely hard and we’re having some very competitive practices and that’s a good thing. We certainly have a group of new players who are going to help us right away. They add a lot of skill, depth and versatility to our team. And I think there are coming together with the returners very quickly. Our chemistry with this group is really good and that’s something we’ve always had, great chemistry on and off the court, and I think that will continue with this group.”
Depth should be one of Northern’s many strengths this season. Of course, Huse wants his team to play trademark Northern defense too. A year ago, the Lights led the Frontier in scoring defense, allowing just 64 points per outing. Northern was also first in the league in 3-point field goal defense. And those are trends Huse expects to continue this season.
MSU-N will still be a ball control offense where the premium is on unselfish play and getting the best shot available. But Huse feels like this year’s Northern squad has a chance to be a bit more dynamic. Northern has relied heavily on the 3-pointer in recent years, but with an exceptional amount of depth, Huse said his team will have a chance to be far from one-dimensional.
“Defense has been our staple and will continue to be,” Huse said. “We are going to give a great effort on defense every night, just as we always have. I think, with this group, we have a chance to be a bit better of a shooting team this year. I thought we weren’t quite as good as we needed to be last year in that department.
“I also think, with all of the talent and skill we have, we can be a very interchangeable team,” he added. “Depth is going to be a strength for us, and we can be very different with our rotations, and with our starting lineups. With the guys we’ve added this season, I think we can be a little more diverse with our rotations, and that will make us a little more difficult to prepare for.”
Preparation is also key for the Lights, and once Frontier play rolls around in January, Northern should be extremely prepared via a difficult schedule.
MSU-N plays its first three games at home, with back-to-back affairs against a tough University of Regina squad. The Lights also have a pair of huge home games in November, including Nov. 1’s date with Montana State-Billings. The Yellowjackets, who once resided in the Frontier, are coming to Havre for the first time since 1996. The Lights also begin conference play with Carroll Nov. 30 in Havre. November is also Northern’s biggest non-conference road stretch too. In between games with the Yellowjackets and Fighting Saints, the Lights will travel to Arizona for games against NCAA Division II New Mexico Highlands and rising NAIA power Arizona Christian. A trip to Jamestown, another NAIA contender is also scheduled for November. The Lights also have a return trip to MSU-B, while December will see the Lights make trips to Canada, as well as host two more non-conference tilts.
“Our schedule is a good balance of teams both home and away,” Huse said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a great challenge playing MSU-Billings twice. We’ve got some Canadian teams on our schedule that will really present us with different styles of play, and our trip to Arizona, we’re playing a very good (NCAA) DII team in New Mexico Highlands and an Arizona Christian team who went to the national tournament last year.
“So our non-conference schedule is going to really help us,” he added. “We’ll see many different styles of play, and we’ll see teams that will kind of mimic what we’ll see every night in our league. So we’re going to be tested a lot in the preseason. And we should be very well-prepared when we get to our full conference schedule.”
A Long Season
With a difficult non-conference schedule which will help prepare the Lights for league play in January, and a season-opening game in early October, Northern’s season will once again be a marathon, not a sprint. And with so many veteran players returning, the Lights know how to grind through the rigors of an NAIA basketball season.
MSU-N also knows how to go after its goals. The Lights have at least vied for a regular season Frontier title in each of the last six seasons, and have reached the Frontier semifinals every year since 2004. This year’s goals are no different, and while Huse knows the season is a process, and expects some growing pains along the way, he’s very excited about the upcoming year and seeing what this new Northern team can achieve.
“It’s very excited that it’s about to start all over again,” Huse said. “It seems like just yesterday we were sitting in that lockerroom in Kansas City talking about next season, and now it’s here. It’s going to be a process and we have a lot of work in front of us. We understand that progress takes time and hard work and game experience too. So we won’t be perfect right away. But I know we will come to play with energy and intensity and with great team chemistry right away.
“I really like this group,” he continued. “They’ve worked really hard in practice. Practices have been great so far. And they’re excited to get out on the floor and get started. I’m very excited about this team and very excited to get the season started.”
MSU-N Quick Facts
Lights went 23-10 overall and 10-6 (T3rd) in the Frontier. Lost to Western in the Frontier semifinals. Lost to Evangel in NAIA first round. Northern returns four starters and 73 percent from its scoring from a year ago. The Lights have led the Frontier in scoring defense in each of the last four seasons. MSU-N is seeking its fourth straight berth in the NAIA national tournament. Under Huse, the Lights have won 20 or more games seven straight seasons, and 19 or more games in a season nine times.
Oct. 13 vs Concordia
Oct. 18 vs University of Regina
Oct. 19 vs University of Regina
Oct. 25 vs Lethbridge
Oct. 26 vs Mount Royal
At Lethbridge Tournament
Nov. 1 vs MSU-Billings
Nov. 15-16 at Arizona
At Phoenix, AZ
Nov. 22 at MSU-Billings
Nov. 24 at Jamestown
Nov. 30 vs Carroll College
Dec. 5 vs Lethbridge
Dec. 6 at Augustana
Dec. 7 at Augustana
Dec. 29 vs Northwest Indian College
Jan. 2 ar Rocky Mountain
Jan. 4 at Dickinson State
Jan. 9 vs UM-Western
Jan. 11 vs Westminster
Jan. 17 at Montana Tech
Jan. 18 at Carroll College
Jan. 24 vs Great Falls
Jan. 30 at Great Falls
MSU-N's Corbin Pearson, right, drives by a Western defender during last season's Frontier Conference semifinal game. The Lights have been to the NAIA national tournament three straight times.
Feb. 1 at Lewis-Clark State
Feb. 7 vs Montana Tech
Feb. 8 vs Lewis Clark State
Feb. 13 at UM-Western
Feb. 15 at Westminster
Feb. 20 vs Dickinson State
Feb. 21 vs Rocky Mountain
Feb. 25-March 3 Frontier Conference Tournament.