After perhaps their best win of the season on Saturday, Jan. 16 against Eastern Washington University, the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team looks to take on in-state rival Weber State University in a two-game series.
The Big Ssy conference set up a schedule where teams would play each other twice in the same week at the same venue to reduce the risk of COVID-19, but the conference afforded rivals like Southern Utah and Weber state the opportunity to play a home-and-home series. Game one will take place in Ogden on Thursday and game two will take place in Cedar City on Saturday.
Head coach Todd Simon began the 2020-21 season with a record-setting nine-game winning streak before EWU ended the run with a 75-63 victory in Cheney, Wash. on Jan. 14. SUU responded with a Jan. 16 win in game two of the series, 99-94.
The T-Birds found their groove in the second game against the Eagles by diving into the paint and either hitting tough layups or getting fouled. The T-Birds went 30-of-34 and scored their final eight points from the charity stripe.
The split in Cheney put SUU at 10-2,5-1 on the season. Weber State won their last contest against Tarleton State, 94-79, and are sitting with a record of 6-3, 1-1.
Coming into this week’s contest, SUU finds themselves second in the conference, while Weber State finds themselves in seventh place.
Weber State boasts some of the most impressive statistics in the Big Sky conference, including the No. 1 scoring offense (85.0 PPG), the No. 1 scoring margin (+16.7 PPG), No. 2 free throw percentage (78%), No. 1 field goal percentage (50%), No.1 assists per game average (17.0 APG) and No. 1 3-point percentage (42%).
However, these statistics are slightly inflated due to a 124-44 victory over Yellowstone Christian College.
Before their Jan. 16 shellacking of the Centurions, the Wildcats averaged 78.1 PPG, had a positive scoring margin of +7.9 PPG, shot just 45% from the field, assisted 13.7 times per game, and connected on 33% of their looks from 3-point range.
With that said, head coach Randy Rahe enjoys a roster led by upperclassmen.
Senior guard Isiah Brown leads the team in scoring with 17.8 PPG on 43% from the field. Brown also leads the team in rebounding with 4.8 RPG, despite standing at 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
Junior forward Zahir Porter is second on the team in scoring, posting a clip of 13.6 PPG on 49% from the field. Porter also connects on over half of his 3-point attempts (51%).
Senior center Cody Carlson holds down the paint for the Wildcats. He’s averaging 12.0 PPG on 67% shooting. He’s joined on the block by senior forward Michal Kozak, who currently leads the Big Sky in blocks with 1.3 BPG.
Seikou Sisoho Jawara is fourth on the team in scoring with 9.1 PPG. The sophomore guard from Spain leads the team in assists with 3.6 APG.
Senior center Dantay Bassett and freshman guard Dillon Jones lead the bench unit for Rahe. Bassett claims the team’s best free throw percentage (minimum five attempts) and Jones leads the Big Sky in steals with 2.0 SPG.
As a team, the Wildcats average 14.4 TOPG but they make up for it by forcing their opponents to commit 15.6 TOPG. They are especially adept at scoring off TO’s, averaging 18.0 PPG off turnovers.
They are, however, a relatively poor rebounding team. They average 35 RPG and are last in the Big Sky in offensive rebounding (6.7 ORPG). Before Yellowstone Christian, the Wildcats had a defensive rebounding rate of 26.9 defensive rebounds per game, which would place them in the middle of the conference rankings for defensive boards.
(Note: Weber State gathered just four offensive rebounds against Yellowstone Christian).
Weber State is sound on the defensive end, as the team averages 3.3 blocks per game, good for second in the Big Sky. In addition to the blocked shots, they rank third in the BS in steals with 7.3 per game.
Keys to the Game
- Continue taking care of the ball
Simon is never shy to praise his team for having low turnover games. Against the University of Montana on Dec. 3, the T-Birds turned the ball over just nine times. Against the University of Idaho on Jan. 7, they committed just seven, and against Eastern Washington on Jan. 16 just eight.
Proud of our guys for their effort and attitude in a big road win 99-94 at Eastern Washington. First time since 1992 to win there.
Keys were shooting 56% from the floor, 88% from the line and only 8 turnovers.
Thunderbirds are 10-2 and 5-1 in conference. Weber St. up next.
— Todd Simon (@CoachTsimon) January 17, 2021
On the flip side, the T-Birds have had games where they can’t seem to hang onto the ball. Against Idaho on Jan. 9, SUU coughed it up 17 times. They’ve also had two performances this season with 16 TO’s and against Bethesda on Dec. 21 they committed a season high 23 turnovers.
Against an offense that converts off turnovers, the T-Birds will need to have a low-giveaway game to keep the Wildcats from getting within striking distance.
- Continue the aggressive play
Eastern Washington hit 19 3-pointers in the Jan. 16 game against SUU. SUU was able to counter the long ball by getting into the lane, getting easy layups, and getting to the line.
As mentioned previously, the T-Birds shot 30-of-34 from the line. In addition to the free throw shooting, Simon’s crew scored 38 points in the paint. And it wasn’t primarily big man Ivan Madunic feasting, it was guards John Knight III and Dre Marin infiltrating the defense and getting buckets.
Perimeter defenders Brown, Jawara, and Jones could cause issues for the T-Bird guard tandem of Marin and Knight. But the x-factor here is whatever scheme Rahe has in store to try and slow down Knight.
EWU chose to sag off Knight and dare him to shoot. It took three halves of basketball for Knight for Knight to find a way to consistently score the basketball by driving down low and getting to the free-throw line.
If WSU sags off, Knight should feel free to pick up where he left off and get to the free throw line. If WSU sticks closer to Knight, SUU could employ a pick-and-roll action with forwards Maizen Fausett and Harrison Butler to give Knight a running start towards the hoop.
A good screen and roll game could also free up space for consistent 3-point threats Marin and sharpshooter Aanen Moody.
In short, playing aggressive opens things up for SUU. They’d like to see that continue.
- Don’t be afraid of the deep ball
While SUU should look to stay aggressive, they should also be ready and willing to pull the trigger from deep.
The T-Birds are shooting 34% from downtown, and with players like Moody and Marin, they possess worthwhile threats from outside.
Even players like Butler, Madunic and Fausett have shown they have the ability to hit the longball from time to time, but are having a tough time finding the bottom of the net the last four games, shooting a combined 4-of-27 on 3-pointers since SUU’s Jan. 7 contest against Idaho.
With Simon’s propensity to play Butler and Fausett down low late in games, their ability to spread the floor is crucial to open up driving lanes for SUU’s guards.
Unfortunately for Butler and Fausett, the only way to break out of a shooting slump is to… well… shoot. The two junior forwards need to feel free to fire from deep in order to re-establish themselves as threats who can hit from the outside.
When, Where, How?
The T-Birds and the Wildcats are set to take the floor for game one of the two-game series in Ogden at the Dee Events Center on Thursday, Jan. 21. Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. and the contest can be viewed on PlutoTV. Game two will take place in Cedar City on Saturday, Jan. 23 at 12:00 p.m. inside the America First Event Center.