The Southern Utah University men’s basketball team will attempt to remain undefeated at home when they take on conference foe California State University at Sacramento on Thursday and Saturday.
Sac. State (7-6, 4-4) comes into Cedar City after winning its last game against California Baptist University on Feb. 14. Before that victory, the Hornets were on a three-game losing streak and had five scheduled games canceled due to COVID-19.
The T-Birds (13-3, 6-2) scheduled two NAIA opponents to replace a pair of games against University of Northern Colorado that was also canceled due to COVID-19. The first rescheduled game on Feb. 6 resulted in a 110-58 rout of Benedictine University at Mesa. The second game on Feb. 9 followed in similar fashion, with the T-Birds dominating San Diego Christian College 109-50.
The T-Birds hold the No. 2 seed in the Big Sky Conference, just percentage points behind Eastern Washington University. Sac. State, despite a strong 4-1 start to conference play, have dropped three consecutive Big Sky contests and now sit at No. 6 in the conference standings.
The T-Birds split their meetings with the Hornets last season, winning at home by 25 before dropping the road contest by 15.
Sac. State ranks near the middle of the pack in almost every statistical category in the Big Sky. They have the fifth ranked scoring offense (72.5 PPG) and the fourth ranked defense (67.9 points allowed per game), while posting the Big Sky’s sixth best scoring margin (+4.5).
The Hornets don’t block many shots on the defensive end, but they steal the ball 7.7 times per game, good for second best in the conference. They also are the best team in the conference at forcing more turnovers than they commit, with a margin of +3.23.
Ethan Esposito leads the Hornets in scoring, averaging 17.9 PPG, the second highest figure in the Big Sky. He also snags 7.9 rebounds per contest, ranking him third. Esposito also boasts the fourth highest field goal percentage in the conference with 47%, and punishes teams who send him to the free-throw line — he’s shooting 80% on the season.
Esposito is followed in scoring by Bryce Fowler, who averages 12.9 PPG. Fowler is second on the squad in steals per game with 1.6, as well as assists per game with 4.3. Only Esposito shoots better from the line for the Hornets, as Fowler himself shoots 78%.
William FitzPatrick is the only other Hornet to average double digits per game. He’s currently putting up 10.8 PPG while hitting 41% of his 3-point attempts this season.
Brandon Davis leads the Big Sky in steals per game with 1.7 per contest. He’s also fifth in the conference and second on the team in assists per game with 3.5.
Keys to the Game
- Take care of the rebounding battle
Through 16 games, the T-Birds have only been outrebounded four times. SUU is the best rebounding team in the conference, averaging 40.4 RPG.
The Hornets themselves are an above average rebounding team compared to the rest of the Big Sky — pulling in 1.6 rebounds per game more than their opponents on average.
Esposito has terrific rebounding instincts. While he is listed at only 6-foot-7, he finds a way to get into the best positions possible for defensive boards.
SUU has also struggled with big dominant bodies down low previously this season. In their first contest against Loyola Marymount University, Mattias Markusson caused major problems for SUU rebounders to get into correct positions, and against Eastern Washington back in January, Tanner Groves proved to be a difficult guard for T-Bird center Ivan Madunic.
The T-Birds have countered opponents’ post threats by rebounding by committee. Maizen Fausett, Harrison Butler and John Knight III have all snagged big rebounds when their teams needed it, despite being undersized compared to some of the conference’s biggest post players.
- Move the ball
In wins, the Hornets assist on 17 baskets per game, and in losses, they assist just 10.17 times per contest.
For the T-Birds, in wins, they assist on 15.5 made buckets. In losses, they assist on just 12.6.
The math is simple. For SUU to have a better chance at claiming victory in these two games, they need to assist more than 16 times a game while limiting Sac. State to less than 10.
Lucky for the T-Birds, they are coming off their best game, in terms of assists, when they posted 26 against San Diego Christian in their 59 point win.
- Don’t fall asleep
Despite SUU’s record, some of their key players have a tendency disappear for games at a time.
Tevian Jones, SUU’s leading scorer, has posted impressive outings of 33 and 30 points this season, but has also had nightmarish games where he posted only 3, 9, 10, and 13 points.
Fausett has been, arguably, the most consistent T-Bird so far this season, but has also posted games with just 6, 9, and 10 points.
John Knight III is perhaps the most guilty of vanishing when his team needs him most. He’s had six games this season where he hasn’t broken double-digits in scoring, including a 0-7, 0 point night in Ogden against Weber State University.
While all have had ugly games so far this season, all three players have also shown up at key times for their team. Jones had a monster offensive board that led to his team beating the University of Montana back in December even though he only scored 3 points himself. Fausett holds down the post when Madunic is out with foul trouble and Knight III is keen at getting a strong rebound or a savvy assist.
With the season drawing to a close, the T-Birds need to use the last six games of the regular season to prepare for the conference tournament.
When, Where and How?
The T-Birds take on the Hornets for game one of a two game series at the America First Event Center in Cedar City Thursday, Feb. 18. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game can be viewed on PlutoTV channel 1055. Saturday’s game, also in Cedar City, is scheduled for a 12 p.m. tip.
Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletic Department Strategic Communications