Southern Utah University men’s basketball resumes Big Sky Conference play this weekend as the team takes on the University of Idaho in Cedar City. The two-game series kicks off on Thursday, Jan. 7, and finishes Saturday, Jan. 9.
The T-Birds last played on Dec. 21 where they came away with a win against Bethesda University, 96-57. SUU’s contests against Montana State University scheduled for Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 were canceled due to positive tests within the program.
Head coach Todd Simon has led his squad to a 7-1 record —the program’s best start to a season in over 20 years. The T-Birds have won seven in a row after dropping their season opener against Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif back on Nov. 25.
The Vandals (0-7, 0-4) are coming off an 83-78 overtime loss to Northern Arizona University on Jan. 2. Idaho has lost five of the seven games by double digits and has an average per game scoring margin of -15.3 PPG.
Senior forward Scott Blakney leads the Vandals in scoring with12.7 PPG on 61% shooting. Sophomore guard Gabe Quinnett leads the team in minutes with 32.0 per game and is scoring 10.7 PPG while shooting 40% from the field and a blistering 48% from 3-point range.
Junior guard DeAndre Robinson (8.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and senior guard Damen Thacker (8.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG) provide additional spacing for the Vandals, shooting a combined 40% from long range. While Thacker can certainly fill it up from deep, he also turns the ball over more than any other Vandal, averaging almost 3.5 TOPG.
Head coach Zac Claus relies heavily on his bench players, who have been responsible for over 20 PPG this season. They also have the potential to pickpockets — on two separate occasions this season the squad has recorded eight steals in a game. As a team, they shoot 42% from the field and 36% from deep, good for fifth and seventh in the Big Sky, respectively.
Idaho is also adept at moving the ball, assisting close to 15 times per game, good for second in the Big Sky.
On the other hand, opposing teams are shooting 40% from 3-point range against the Vandals. Idaho has also struggled to control the glass this season, losing the rebounding battle by a margin of 4.2 boards per game, which is next to last in rebounding margin in the Big Sky.
Keys to the Game
- Match the Bench Effort
Claus’ bench has scored in double digits in every game thus far this season.
SUU’s scoring comes mainly from its five starters, who score an average of 61 points per game. It will be up to junior sixth man Harrison Butler and redshirt junior sharpshooter Aanen Moody to match the Vandals’ punch off the bench.
In his first game back after missing four contests, Moody went 5-for-8 from deep including two late triples that iced the game against Dixie State.
Butler has been head coach Todd Simon’s first call off the bench all season and is averaging 8.5 PPG while pulling down 4.9 rebounds per outing.
- Continue to Take Care of the Boards
After losing the rebounding battle in their first game against LMU, the T-Birds have not been outrebounded in a single contest since, and even against the Lions, they only lost the differential by one.
Junior Miazen Fausett leads the team in boards with 6.8 per game. Seniors Ivan Madunic and John Knight III average 5.9 and 5.5 boards per contest, respectively, while three other players average above four.
On the year, the T-Birds have pulled down 107 offensive rebounds, while surrendering just 49.
- Take Care of Business
The T-Birds currently boast the best record in the Big Sky conference at 7-1, while Idaho has the worst in the conference at 0-7.
In both games this week, the T-Birds need to come out fast and come out heavy to put the Vandals away quickly. Idaho has yet to overcome a double-digit deficit on the season, so establishing early dominance should be a focal point in Simon’s pre-game speech to his team.
With that said, the T-Birds have had their fair share of slow starts, most notably against Bethesda on Dec. 18, when SUU allowed the Flames to remain within striking distance throughout the first half. It took a strong second half from the T-Birds to put the NAIA school away.
With the Vandals still hunting for their first win, Simon and Co. would do well to avoid giving Idaho any early advantage.
Where, When, How?
The T-Birds face off in the first of two straight games against the Vandals on Thursday, Jan. 7 at the America First Event Center in Cedar City. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. and the game can be watched online through PlutoTV. The second game is set for Saturday at the same venue with tip-off scheduled for 12 p.m.