It might be early October, and football and volleyball season has center stage right now, but it’s about to be showtime again in the Armory Gymnasium.
On Sunday afternoon, the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team makes its season debut. The Lights, who finished with a 23-10 record and a third straight trip to the NAIA national tournament last spring, open the season against Concordia of Alberta at 2 p.m.
And though it’s an extremely early season-opener, the Lights are excited and anxious to get a game under their belt.
“It is early,” Said Northern head coach Shawn Huse, who begins his 11th season with the Lights. “But Concordia had a couple of games scheduled in Montana this weekend and they wanted to play us on their way home. And with the way scheduling is, you just can’t pass up opportunities for home games.
“We’ll have had two weeks of practice in, a scrimmage, and preseason conditioning,” he continued. “So we’ll be ready to play. And I’m very excited to start the season and see this team get some game experience.”
The majority of the Lights’ roster has plenty of game experience. Northern returns four starters from last year’s Frontier semifinal and NAIA national tourney team. The starters include senior guards Roshawn West and Alan Brown, along with senior forwards Jesse Vaughan and Will Perry. MSU-N also returns senior sharp-shooter Alfie Miller, who is the Lights’ leading returning scorer, as well as junior forward Corbin Pearson, who had a breakout sophomore year which included Frontier All-Conference honors with West.
MSU-N will have to replace leading scorer and NAIA All-American Devin Jackson, but with key role players like Mike LaValley, Pat Jensen and Anfernee Standing Rock adding to Northern’s depth, as well as a bevy of talented newcomers, the Lights have a lot of options on their roster, and a lot of versatitliy. Look for the likes of 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 to have an immediate impact.
“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.
“And we certainly have a group of new players who are going to help us right away,” he continued. “They add a lot of skill, depth and versatility to our team. And I think there are coming together with the returners very quickly. One thing that will help that is game experience.”
As for Sunday’s opener, Concordia, based out of Edmonton, will have games against Carroll College and Great Falls under its belt before arriving in Havre. The Thunder were one of the top teams in their conference a season ago, and they have a solid roster with plenty of height.
Still, Huse knows the first non-conference games of the year are more about his team than the opponent. MSU-N has won 20 or more games for seven straight seasons, and has made four trips to the national tournament in the last five years. And Sunday’s game is part of the process of getting to that level again this season.
“It won’t be perfect right away,” Huse said. “We are working on mixing in new guys with veterans and it will take time for that to gel in game situations. And it’s a brand new season, so no matter how things were the year before, you have to start all over. So I don’t expect we’ll be perfect with our execution and those types of things right away.
“But I do know we will play hard for 40 minutes and the guys will give a great effort and have a lot of intensity from the first game on,” he added. “That’s something we expect every single night. I’m very excited to get started. It seems like just yesterday we were in that lockerroom in Kansas City and our season was over. And now we’re starting again. The guys have worked very hard, we’ve had great practices so far and they’re looking forward to getting this thing going.”
Sunday’s game, which tips off at 2 p.m. inside the Armory Gymnasium, is the first of three early-season home games for the Lights. Northern also hosts the University of Regina Oct. 18-19 as well as Montana State-Billings Nov. 1.