After claiming the program’s first Big Sky Conference regular season championship last week, the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team will take on the University of Northern Colorado in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament Thursday at 11 a.m.
SUU hopes to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and Big Sky Coach of the Year Todd Simon will need to win three consecutive games at the Idaho Central Credit Union in Boise, Idaho to reach that goal.
The T-Birds face the eighth-seeded Bears on Thursday after UNCO outgunned the ninth-seeded California State University at Sacramento Hornets, 90-83, Wednesday morning.
Four SUU players were named to the Big Sky all-conference teams released earlier this week. Junior wing Tevian Jones was named to the first team. Senior guard John Knight III and junior forward Maizen Fausett were both named to the second team while senior guard Dre Marin was named to the Honorable Mention team.
SUU finished the season with a 19-3 overall record and a 12-2 record in conference play, including a perfect 14-0 record at home.
All four players who earned all-conference honors finished in the top-20 of the Big Sky in PPG, so while Jones may lead the group with 17.1 PPG, the offense is versatile and a variety of different players lead the offense on any given night. The T-Birds led the conference in scoring this season, averaging 84.2 PPG.
With the most important stretch of the season upcoming, here’s a look at what the T-Birds will need to do to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2000-01.
Path to the Championship:
First, SUU will have to knock off a team that they haven’t played yet this season when the team faces Bodie Hume and Northern Colorado on Thursday. Hume was named to the All-Big Sky Third Team after being named to the second team as a sophomore last season and Freshman of the Year two seasons ago.
The original matchup between these two teams in February was cancelled after COVID-19 cases surfaced within UNCO’s program, so the teams will have to gameplan from scratch to get ready for Thursday’s matchup.
Hume leads the Bears with 15.2 PPG and is second in rebounding with 7.1 RPG. In Wednesday’s win over Sac. State, the junior guard scored a career-high 30 points and had three blocks to help propel his team to victory.
Redshirt junior guard Matt Johnson II also earned third team honors after averaging 13.1 PPG and 3.0 APG this season. Johnson is a lethal shooter (45% 3PFG, 92% FT) who can also create for others.
If the T-Birds advance to the semi-final with a win on Thursday, they’ll face the winner of the matchup between fourth-seeded Idaho State University and fifth-seeded Montana State University to take place Thursday at 2 p.m. SUU did not play either of these teams during the regular season due to COVID-19 cancellations.
Idaho State sports the best defense in the conference in terms of scoring as the Bengals held opponents to just 61.3 PPG this season. The Bengals are led by all-conference third teamer Tarik Cool, who averaged 13.8 PPG this season.
Montana State finished fourth in scoring among Big Sky Conference teams this season, averaging 74.9 PPG. The Bobcats are led by All-Big Sky second team honoree Xavier Bishop, who averaged 14.4 PPG and 4.0 APG this season.
Bishop is supported by All-Big Sky third teamers Amin Adamu and Jubrile Belo. Adamu finished seventh in the conference with 14.7 PPG while Belo finished 14th with 13.5 PPG.
MSU poses more of a threat offensively whereas ISU hangs their hat on their defensive effort. Either team would present a real challenge for SUU, though perhaps not as much as the teams the T-Birds would face if they reach the final on Saturday.
SUU would likely face either Weber State University or Eastern Washington University, who finished second and third in regular season standings respectively. These are the only teams who handed SUU a loss during conference play this season.
Weber walloped SUU by 24 points when the teams met in Ogden back in late January, though the T-Birds got their revenge with a 77-72 win when the Wildcats made the return trip to Cedar City a few days later.
Unanimous All-Big Sky First Team selection Isiah Brown leads the way for Weber State after finishing third in the conference in scoring with 18.0 PPG. The Wildcats finished second in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense during the regular season. Sophomore guard Seikou Sissoho-Jiwara was selected to the All-Conference Second Team after averaging 12.0 PPG this season.
Eastern Washington beat SUU 75-63 on Jan. 14, but the T-Birds bounced back with a 99-94 win two days later. The Eagles are led by conference Player of the Year Tanner Groves, who finished in the top five of both scoring and rebounding with averages of 16.5 PPG and 7.9 RPG this season.
Kim Aiken Jr., who was also named to the All-Conference First Team, led the entire conference in rebounds per game this season. Aiken and Groves form the most powerful one-two punch this conference has to offer, and they’ll be tough to stop if SUU faces them in the final.
What, When and How to Watch
SUU will play against Northern Colorado on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Boise, Idaho. If the T-Birds advance to the final, they’ll play Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. All of the games will be broadcast on PlutoTV.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz