The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team hasn't played poorly on the road this season. In fact, the Lights have split in both their Frontier Conference road trips thus far, and a road split is always a good thing.
However, as the 18th-ranked Lights (7-3, 19-5) embark on this weekend's trip, which includes a visit to surging Montana Tech tonight in Butte, and a stop at struggling Carroll College Saturday night in Helena, veteran MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse would like to see his team be a little more complete for two nights.
"As far as we go, I'm pleased with where we're at," Huse said. "I really like how our kids have fought. I like how we came back and beat Great Falls last weekend. And I don't think we've played badly on the road. But now is the time for us to put two good games in a row together. We haven't done that on the road, and that's what I'd like to see us do this weekend."
Montana State University-Northern's Jesse Vaughan tries to drive to the basket during a Frontier Conference men's basketball game against Lewis-Clark State last month in Havre. The Lights are on the road to face Montana Tech tonight in Butte, as well as Carroll College Saturday night in Helena. MSU-N is ranked No. 18 in this week's NAIA Poll.
Road games are always critical in the Frontier in the sense that, if a team can steal two, it's like winning an extra game. And Northern could use that right now. MSU-N's 58-54, come-from-behind win over UGF last Friday night helped put the Lights back into first place in the Frontier, but they're tied with both Westminster and Lewis-Clark State, and as of now, both teams hold tiebreakers over the Lights. So this weekend is a chance for MSU-N to make up some ground.
And Northern can do that with its continued good shooting and suffocating defense. The Lights continue to allow under 60 points per game, which is second-best in the Frontier, while MSU-N gets a solid 15 points and four assists per night from senior Devin Jackson. Juniors Alfie Miller and Jesse Vaughan average 11 each, while Will Perry is coming off a 14-point output against the Argos. Northern's bench has also been big of late, particularly the duo of Corbin Pearson and Mike LaValley, who join Miller to form one of the best scoring punches off the bench in the Frontier.
Yet, as well as MSU-N is playing on both ends of the floor, and as exciting a comeback as the Lights had at home last Friday, tonight's opponent, Montana Tech (5-5, 14-10) will put up a huge fight. The Lights beat the Orediggers 82-68 last month in Havre, but Tech is playing at a very high level right now, and the Diggers' have the size and the scorers to give Northern's defense trouble.
Tech is big inside with 6-6 Daniel Simon, who averages nine points and seven rebounds per game, while Bryan Bock (6-3) is part of a Tech shooting core which makes 40 percent of its 3-pointers. However, the key is 6-6 Adam Greger, who is second in the Frontier in scoring at 19 points per game, and is a bona fide player of the year candidate. Greger can step out and shoot, he can hurt teams in the post and he's a lengthy defender and rebounder.
So, not only will the Lights have their hands full with him, but with a deep and talented Tech squad playing with a lot of confidence right now.
"Tech is coming off a game in which they really handled Dickinson State from tip to finish, in Dickinson (N.D.) too," Huse said. "So we fully know how capable they are. They have good perimeter shooters, they have solid size in the paint, and they run a lot of different stuff which can hurt you in a number of different ways if you go to sleep defensively. And they just seem to execute really efficiently. So we know we're going to have to be on our toes. We know they are as capable as any team in this league."
Tech is indeed capable and the Lights have always found themselves in tight games in Butte. And that's usually the case when Northern travels to Carroll too. But this isn't a usual year in Helena as the Fighting Saints are in the midst of their worst season in longer than anyone can remember. Carroll is 0-10 in the Frontier, including a season-opening 85-66 defeat in Havre back in November. And overall, the Saints have managed to win just once in 21 total games this season.
And the losing in Helena is perplexing considering the talent Carroll has on the floor. Senior Nick Jones (6-5) is as dangerous a scorer as anyone in the Frontier, as he averages 16 points per game. And Dennis Mikelonis (6-7) is a talented inside-out post player who does it all for the Saints on both ends of the floor. Add in a great shooting guard like Chris McGrath and athletic role players, and on paper, Carroll doesn't look like the worst team in the Frontier by any stretch of the imagination.
So that's what Northern will be guarding against Saturday night, getting lulled into thinking Carroll will be an automatic victory.
"You have to overlook Carroll's record," Huse said. "You can't be fooled by it. You have to go in prepped and ready to play them because they have really good players, they put up good offensive numbers and they are usually very tough on their home floor. So we're not looking at them as the last-place team in our league. Truthfully, they've been really close against the best teams in our league. They've played really well lately. So we know we have to go in and play our very best on Saturday night."
Playing their very best on Saturday night is what the Lights are hoping for because that's what they haven't done on the road this season. Northern will be solely focused on tonight's game against the Orediggers, but the Lights have struggled in their second game of a two-game road trip this season. And with so much at stake as the season is drawing into the stretch run, both road games are huge for the Lights' postseason future.
Tonight's game between the Lights and Orediggers tips off at 7:30 in Butte. Saturday night's game between Northern and Carroll also gets underway at 7:30 p.m. in Helena. MSU-N returns home to face UM-Western next Thursday and Westminster College next Saturday.