The Southern Utah University men’s basketball team claimed victory in its return to Big Sky Conference play against California State University at Sacramento Thursday night by a score of 88-69.
The T-Birds remain undefeated at home with the win and move to 7-2 in conference play this season. Six players finished in double figures for SUU, and the T-Birds won the rebounding battle 44-23. The Hornets showed some bite early but could not keep up with SUU’s offensive outburst.
“We’re really finding the open guy right now, and that’s leading to some really quality catch-and-shoot threes,” SUU head coach Todd Simon told reporters postgame. “That’s a huge deal. We have so many great attackers that when we keep all our shooters on the floor, we’re very hard to guard.”
Here are a few takeaways from SUU’s big win before the teams run it back on Saturday at noon.
1. A Surprise 3-point Barrage
Before Thursday’s game, the most 3-pointers SUU had hit in a game this season was 13, a mark the team hit on a couple of occasions against NAIA opponents. The most the team had made against a D-I team was 11, which came in the first game of the season against Loyola Marymount University on Nov. 25.
The T-Birds matched that number with 11:30 left in Thursday’s game. They finished with 13 makes on 25 attempts, good for 52%, which is the best they’ve shot from behind the arc this season.b
Sac. State tried to implement a hyper-aggressive half court trap in the first half, but abandoned it after the T-Birds knocked down a few too many open threes. The Hornets then switched to an ultra-passive 2-3 zone in the second half after the T-Birds extended their lead beyond 20 points.
SUU didn’t need any time to knock the rust off after not facing a D-I opponent for nearly a month. Dre Marin made his first three attempts from behind the line to get things started, and SUU made 8-of-12 attempts in the first half.
That opened up the lane for John Knight III and Tevian Jones, who attacked the rim with ease throughout the second half.
Maybe Sac. State’s defensive style is to blame for SUU’s hot shooting. SUU’s opponents should pray that it was just a fluke. Shooting the ball like the T-Birds did on Thursday opens up a world of possibilities for the offense. Teams won’t sag off of Knight or be tempted to help off of Harrison Butler to clog the lane.
Spacing will prove key if SUU is serious about making a deep conference tournament run. The best way to force opponents out of the lane is by knocking down threes like SUU did on Thursday.
2. Tevian Jones Can Be the Best Player in the Conference
If you’re wondering whether or not Tevian Jones is deserving of this season’s Big Sky Newcomer of the Year award, then you should check out the tape from tonight’s game.
Jones was sensational, scoring 24 points on 8-of-13 from the field. He poured in 4-of-7 3-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds and had a steal to boot.
Thursday’s performance may have been his most complete one during his time at SUU so far. Jones set the tone from the tip on defense, shouting commands when the T-Birds started in a 2-3 zone and clapping his hands after big plays on offense.
Much has already been made about Jones’ offensive prowess. He led the Big Sky in scoring for a period earlier this season and exploded for 33 points on Utah Valley on Dec. 9.
But on Thursday, Jones wasn’t just SUU’s leading scorer, he was the team’s best player on both sides of the ball. He used his agility to blow up pick and rolls and cluttered passing lanes with his pterodactyl-like wingspan.
Jones doesn’t need a screen or any kind of dribble hand off to generate space. He simply receives the ball on the wing, faces up with his opponent and attacks — using slithery drives and a devastating stepback jumper to leave defenders in his wake.
Sometimes all he needs is a single jab step to rise and fire, and teams in the Big Sky just aren’t able to stick with him.
In terms of sheer talent, Jones may be the best player to ever pass through Southern Utah University, and that’s no disrespect to Fred Monaco or James McGee. When Jones is locked in on both ends of the floor like he was tonight, there may be no stopping the T-Birds.
It Doesn’t Matter What the Standings say, SUU is a Contender to Win the Big Sky
There’s been some scuttlebutt among fans and members of the media about a standings graphic that the Big Sky announced on Twitter Wednesday.
There are only three weeks left until #BigSkyInBoise! Where would your team be seeded if tournament play started today?#BigSkyMBB | #ExperienceElevated
*NOTE* Teams that have played 10 or more conference games are seeded before teams that have played nine or less. pic.twitter.com/AheTa1piuI
— Big Sky MBB (@BigSkyMBB) February 17, 2021
Big Sky rules require a team to play at least 10 games to deserve their seed in the conference tournament, and since the T-Birds have only played nine conference games after Thursday’s win, SUU would be ranked No. 11 if the conference tournament started today.
Simon downplayed the standings postgame, and he’s right to, but it’s still weird to see SUU ranked behind the winless Idaho Vandals.
That won’t be the case after Saturday’s game, and if the T-Birds can complete the sweep of Sac. State, then they’ll be in prime position to finish in the top five of the standings and earn a first round bye.
SUU’s defensive intensity is hard to match. There are so many above-average athletes on the roster, and Simon coaches his players hard on defense. They frenetically rotate around the ball, lunging hard into passing lanes and contesting every shot near the rim.
Nothing comes easy against SUU. Just ask Sac. State’s Ethan Esposito. Esposito came into Thursday’s game as the Big Sky’s second leading scorer, averaging 17.9 points per game. He managed 12 points in the first half on a variety of fadeaway jumpers in the post, but only scored two points after the break in just six minutes of action.
“He’s such a good isolation player, and we just tried to make it really crowded for him,” Simon said. “We’ve got a length and the guys fly around pretty well. That makes it tough down [in the post].”
Completely erasing a team’s best offensive player for an entire half like that completely changes the game, and it speaks to the way the T-Birds are competing on defense this season.
The offense tends to ebb and flow depending on the matchup, but the defense is always locked in. No one gets easy baskets against SUU, and that means they can hang with just about anybody, no matter what the standings might say.
SUU men’s basketball will be back in action against Sac. State on Saturday at noon in the America First Events Center. The game will be broadcast live on PlutoTV.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz