Big Sky conference play has lost its novelty, and the dog days of the college basketball are upon us. There’s a whole lot of travelling, injuries and film study left, and there’s still 12 conference games left on the schedule for SUU men’s and women’s basketball.
With two important games on the dockett, let’s check in with SUU basketball and preview this weekend’s contests.
Women’s Basketball (8-7, 2-4)
SUU women’s basketball roared out to a 7-3 start before conference play began, but the T-Birds have hit a bump in the road after opening conference play.
The team has lost four of its last five heading into Saturday’s contest against Eastern Washington. All four losses came on the road, and three of them came against teams that are in the top five of the conference standings.
That’s a really difficult way to begin conference play, but the T-Birds outgunned Portland State and came from behind to win against Idaho State. The team is undefeated at home, but just 1-7 on the road. Translating the home performances on the road has been a massive obstacle for the T-Birds this season.
Senior guard Rebecca Cardenas leads the conference in PPG with 18.5 (3.1 PPG more than Northern Arizona’s Khiarica Rasheed who is second with 15.4). Cardenas has emerged as a star, and if she can stay healthy and get the team back on track in the standings, she’s a lock for the all-conference team. There is a case to be made that Cardenas is the conference’s player of the year, but the team will need to do some more winning before that conversation can really begin. Cardenas also leads the team in assists and steals.
Fellow senior Harley Hansen has improved from 11.5 PPG last season to 13.6 in 2019-20. That mark is the seventh best in the conference, and it has a lot to do with Hansen shooting 42% from the three point line.
The offense has been strong (fourth most PPG in BS), but the defense has struggled of late. SUU has given up more than 80 points in their last four losses. Opponents have capitalized on the T-Birds’ lack of size inside.
If the team can make some adjustments to defend the paint more effectively, they could make a second half run and contend for the top of the conference, but that’s a big if, especially given the team’s struggle to win on the road.
The pieces are there. Cardenas and Hansen can get the tough buckets needed to win close games. Shaylyn Fano has become a key contributor in her freshman season. Ashley Larsen, Jessica Chatman and Darri Frandsen are capable of consistent frontcourt production, but slowing down opposing bigs could prove make or break for the T-Birds.
SUU will look to remain undefeated at home against Eastern Washington (2-13, 1-5) Saturday, January 25 at 2 p.m. and against Idaho University (10-5, 5-1) on Monday, January 27 at 6:30 p.m.
Men’s Basketball (11-6, 4-2)
Women’s basketball is enjoying it’s best season since 2015-16, but the Men’s team might be enjoying its best season since 2006-07. The T-Birds need seven more wins to lock in their first above .500 season in 13 years (SUU finished 17-17 last season, but staying above .500 and just hitting it is a small, but important difference).
Led by Cameron Oluyitan (14.0 PPG) and John Knight III (13.5 PPG), the T-Birds have picked up conference wins at home against Montana State and Sacramento State and at Idaho State and Portland State (that’s a lot of states).
Winning at PSU was the perfect way to start conference play, and the T-Birds very nearly took down the reigning conference champs Montana University in Cedar City.
SUU is tied for second in the conference standings, and outside of a disappointing home loss to Northern Arizona University, have looked deserving of the spot. There was a lot of preseason excitement surrounding the team, and they’ve responded well.
Head coach Todd Simon has had to work some magic with his rotation due to injuries, but the T-Birds’ eight most important players are healthy heading into this weekend’s contest with Eastern Washington.
There’s still big questions regarding the rotation, and while Simon will always adjust things according to the opponent, deciding who is out there for the last five minutes will be key. John Knight III, Dre Marin and Cameron Oluyitan seem to have locked down the perimeter spots, which leaves Jakolby Long, Harrison Butler, Maizen Fausett, Dwayne Morgan, Andre Adams and David N’Diaye fighting for the last two spots.
Morgan is the team’s most experienced player, and his ability to defend opposing bigs and make 3-pointers makes him invaluable. So who takes the last spot? It could be all matchup dependent, or a clear option could emerge as the season wears on.
At times the T-Bird offense can stagnate. The offense is built around driving into the heart of the defense, and when Knight and Oluyitan have struggled to get into the lane, they’ve had a hard time getting points on the board.
In the early going, SUU has looked like a serious contender for the conference championship. Few teams in the conference can match them athletically, and their defense has been the third best in the conference. If the rotation settles in and the Knight/Oluyitan duo can score late into games, then the T-Birds could be lifting the regular season trophy.
The biggest test of conference play thus far will come Saturday, as the T-Birds travel to Cheney to take on one of the nation’s fastest offenses in EWU (11-6, 4-2). Tip off is set for 3 p.m.
Monday night the T-Birds will head to Idaho to take on the Vandals (5-12, 1-5). The game will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: SUU Athletics