Must all good things come to an end?
While Southern Utah men’s basketball coach Todd Simon has led his team to a record-long nine game winning streak early in the 2020-21 season, the T-Birds may well confront their toughest test on Thursday and Saturday on the road against preseason favorites Eastern Washington University.
After sweeping the two-game series with University of Idaho in the America First Event Center last week, the T-Birds have won nine straight games and are undefeated in conference play.
The two wins against Idaho and two early-season wins against the University of Montana in December give the T-Birds a 4-0 conference record.
The Eagles have, however, had perhaps the worst luck in the conference in terms of canceling games due to COVID-19. Of the six conference games the team had scheduled, EWU has only been able to play in one — a win against Northern Arizona University.
Head coach Shantay Legans has led his team to a 2-4 start thus far this season. The four losses have come against opponents from larger conferences: Washington State University, the University of Oregon, the University of Arizona, and Saint Mary’s College.
Despite a .333 winning percentage, the Eagles have put up a fight in all six of their games.
Against Washington State (9-2), the Eagles never trailed by more than four points and even built a double-digit lead early in the first half. Against Arizona (9-3), EWU came back from an eight-point deficit to take the lead with about three minutes remaining, only to be defeated by the Wildcat’s free-throw shooting.
The Eagles had a forgettable game against Oregon (9-2) losing by 17, but rebounded to give St. Mary’s (9-3) the fight of their lives before a couple of Tommy Khuse jumpers iced the game for the Gaels.
The team’s two wins have come against Division II opponent the College of Idaho, 80-56, and NAU, 80-64.
The Eagles have not played since that December 19 win.
Redshirt senior Jacob Davison led the Eagles in scoring last season with 18.4 PPG but has struggled to open the 2020-21 campaign, averaging just 11.8 PPG shooting just 38% from the field and 21% from downtown.
Redshirt junior Tanner Groves leads EWU in both scoring (14.5 PPG) and rebounding (9.5 RPG). At 6’9”, Groves isn’t quite as tall as many of the centers in the Big Sky, but at 235 lbs, he is a force to be reckoned with down on the block.
Groves is followed in scoring by sophomore guard Tyler Robertson. The Australian sharpshooter is making 44% of his 3-pointers this season and had a 5-of-7 outburst from beyond the arc against St. Mary’s.
Redshirt junior and preseason All Big-Sky selection Kim Aikin Jr. has played well as of late. He scored 19 points on 6-8 shooting against NAU and put up 14 points while snagging 8 rebounds against St. Mary’s. Aikin is second on the team in rebounding, with 7.0 RPG.
The Eagles are rounded out by Tanner Groves’ little brother Jacob Groves (10.3 PPG), Casson Rouse (7.4 PPG), Jack Perry (3.2 PPG) and Ellis Magnuson (2.5 PPG).
Legan’s keeps his rotation to those seven players, with the remaining players on the roster getting blow-out minutes.
Statistically speaking, EWU is in the middle of the Big Sky pack in just about every measurement six games into their season.
In the Big Sky, they rank 7th in offense, 9th in field goal percentage, 10th in 3-point percentage, 6th in rebounding, 10th in free-throw percentage, and 5th in assists per game. With that said, they have played three PAC-12 schools who have a combined record of 26-7.
However, if last season was any indication, the Eagles like to play at an extremely fast pace, which can be a significant threat to any opposing defense.
While the offense has struggled when compared to last season, the Eagles’ defense does boast a few redeeming qualities.
Though they rank last in steals, they rank second in blocks (3.3 BPG). EWU pulls down the most defensive rebounds in the conference, averaging 29.8 per game. They also only allow 68.3 points per game, good for fifth best in the conference.
Keys to the Game
- Don’t allow the deep ball
While they may have lacked a “wow” factor so far this season, the Eagles have players that can fill up the occasional stat sheet and make life difficult for the T-Birds, especially from deep.
The T-Birds allow the highest 3-point percentage in the Big Sky, which could mean Aikin (33% from deep) or Robertson (44% from deep) see a few open looks.
For streaky shooters, all it takes is one to go through.
The T-Birds perimeter defense will need to step up and take away catch-and-shoot opportunities, especially for those off the curl.
Against Idaho, the T-Birds allowed guards Gabe Quinnett and Damen Thacker to get plenty of open mid-range looks after they came off screens set in the post.
The keyword there is “mid-range.”
If Aiken Jr. or Robertson get a good pick from Groves, it could spell trouble for the T-Birds.
Unfortunately, this likely means redshirt junior Aanen Moody will see limited minutes, as Simon has preferred senior John Knight III, junior Nick Fleming, or sophomore Damani McEntire on the floor when opposing guards have found easy looks against his team this season..
The catch-22 there is Moody is one of two T-Bird’s that can go blow for blow from deep with the EWU guard tandem with senior Dre Marin the other.
- Who steps up down low?
Filling the post minutes while senior Ivan Madunic rests has been a tall task for the SUU coaching staff.
The early season experiment of Courtese Cooper has left more than enough to be desired. Cooper ranks last on the team in points, and next to last in minutes and rebounding while only seeing minutes in six games this season.
Freshman Jason Spurgin has had a couple of bright and shining moments here or there. The big man has demonstrated he can hit from deep if he’s open, but he regularly gets outmuscled on the glass and struggles to field the ball in the post.
Simon has routinely gone to a combination of junior forwards Maizen Fausett and Harrison Butler down low while Madunic sits. Fausett draws the assignment of taking on the opposing big, while Butler rotates over if help is needed.
During these minutes, the T-Birds make a dedicated effort to team rebounding, which is a large reason why guards Knight III and Marin are fourth and fifth on the team in rebounding, respectively.
But Groves is a big body, and is first in rebounding in the Big Sky. He has 10 pounds and three inches on Fausett, which could pose a problem, especially if Madunic gets into foul trouble.
- Isolation scoring
SUU’s offensive scheme is adjustable to really any opponent.
Against competition that is big and physical down low, SUU relies on Knight III and Marin to get inside to get good looks. It’s not too hard for them because Madunic does not hesitate to hoist up the long ball (16 attempts through 10 games), and Fausett is making half of his attempts from deep this season.
Against pesky guards, SUU is comfortable dropping the ball down low to Madunic, Fausett or Butler and letting them go to work.
But what could give SUU the edge in the series is the individual isolation scoring they can get from junior forward Tevian Jones.
Jones is leading the team in scoring with 19.2 PPG and is coming off a 30 point outing against Idaho. However, Jones rarely gets his looks through diagramed plays. Usually, the 6’6” forward scores by rising above defenders with a jump shot, or beating the opposition down the floor for a transition layup.
Jones getting inside usually results in one of two things: a foul or a finish. If it’s a foul, that could put Groves in jeopardy. Getting the big man in foul trouble could open up finishing lanes for Knight III/Marin and post plays for Madunic/Fausett/Butler.
Where, When, How?
The T-Birds and Eagles face off in a two game series in Cheney, Washington, on Thursday, January 14 (8 p.m. MST), and on Saturday, January 16 (1 p.m. MST). The game can be streamed on PlutoTV channel 1055.
Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletic Department Strategic Communication