It’s been a tale of two halves of the season for Southern Utah men’s basketball in 2019-20.
Back in November when the Thunderbirds nearly upset now No. 17 BYU, it seemed like anything was possible, but after four straight losses during a crucial stretch of Big Sky play, it seems like this team’s ceiling is much lower than it was just a few weeks ago.
Todd Simon’s squad sits at 14-13 on the season with a 7-9 record in the Big Sky after starting the conference play 4-2. After spending much of conference play among the top four, the T-Birds sit in eighth place.
The middle of the Big Sky is very congested. Fourth place and ninth place are separated by just two games. With only four games left in the season, there’s still a chance the T-Birds can leapfrog a few teams and claim a first round bye in the conference tournament by finishing in the top four.
However, SUU hasn’t done much over the last three weeks to instill confidence that they can make that leap.
Sacramento State beat the T-Birds by 15 in Sacramento less than a month after the T-Birds beat the Hornets by 25 in Cedar City.
Then came a 13 point loss at Northern Arizona, followed bya 15 point halftime deficit against Northern Colorado that the T-birds couldn’t overcome, losing 68-66. Weber State dominated in SUU’s final game of the road trip, sending the Thunderbirds home with their third double digit loss in four games.
A road trip that looked like a chance for the T-Birds to prove themselves away from home quickly became a freefall down the standings at the worst time.
Every team that has won the conference tournament since SUU joined in 2012 has earned a first round bye. Playing an extra game leads to tired legs, and that might have to be a reality Simon will have to face if he can’t turn things around.
The final four games are not exactly walkthroughs either. Three of the four come against teams in the top five of the conference, and two of those teams, Eastern Washington and Montana, are battling for the top spot.
This is a brutal stretch to end the season on, but the T-Birds made their own bed with home losses to Northern Arizona and Weber State earlier this season. Now they have to sleep in it, and winning twice in Montana is near impossible. Montana hasn’t lost at home to a Big Sky opponent yet this season.
For a team with NCAA tournament aspirations coming into 2019-20, eighth place is far from where they expected to be at this point in this season.
After a successful 2018-19 campaign that finished with the program’s first .500 finish since 2006, it seemed like Simon had put the pieces in place to reach even higher this year.
Transfers John Knight III, Jakolby Long and David N’Diaye were eligible to contribute. Dwayne Morgan, who was lost to injury last season, was returning. Standout freshmen Harrison Butler and Maizen Fausett seemed poised to build on their initial contributions.
On paper there was ample reason for optimism, but the on court product hasn’t lived up to the projections. The T-Birds find themselves with a worse conference record (7-9) than they had at this point last season (8-8).
That seems like a major cause for concern, but the team has tried to keep their losses in perspective all season.
“We’re going to peak at the right time,” SUU center Andre Adams told reporters after a home loss to Northern Colorado on Feb. 6. “You don’t want to get too high or too low. When the tournament comes, that’s where I feel like everything is going to fall into place.”
There’s not much time left to figure things out. The T-Birds are still among the top of the conference in every relevant statistical category short of three point shooting and assists, but those stats haven’t translated to wins.
Big Sky teams have identified SUU’s penchant for transition and inability to make 3-pointers (33% on the season, ninth in BSC), and they’ve adjusted by getting back on defense and clogging up the paint. The T-Birds have not been able to counteract the adjustments.
Cameron Oluyitan is shooting 30% from the field over the last five games (13-44). Knight was limited to 11 points on 2-8 shooting and 10 turnovers in 68 minutes against Sac State and NAU. Morgan was held to eight points on 3-10 shooting in 40 minutes against UNC and Weber.
When one player plays well, another inevitably struggles. It seems like the team can’t quite get on the same page, and there’s only two weeks left before the season’s final exam.
There’s still time to finish strong, but no one expected SUU to take a step back this season. If they don’t find their rhythm over the next week, this season might go down as exactly that.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz