I'm on my own private "road trip," visiting my parents in Collinsville, Illinois, which is still "Big 10" country. I'll be watching the Bengals and Badgers on Big 10 TV here Tuesday night, and I'd thought I'd pass on my thoughts about the big win over Utah and what ISU has to do to compete with Wisconsin while I observe the vestiges of last night's Midwestern ice storm melt away.
First: Stuffing the Utes
Above all else, I have to say that was fun! There is just nothing like watching the Bengals compete and perform at a very high level against a good basketball team. That first half was a thing of beauty, and it all started with the aggressiveness with which the Bengals attacked. They pushed the ball up the floor at every opportunity, and took the ball inside with abandon. Even the bigs -- David Busma and Lucas Steijn, in particular, were unintimidated by Utah's 7-2 Luke Neville. Those two guys won't always put up great offensive numbers, but for Idaho State to succeed, they have to be active and aggressive every night.
Demetrius Monroe, who does not create his own opportunities but ALWAYS takes advantage of those presented, was also terrific Saturday night. Another very quiet 11 points and 7 rebounds for Meets. And I like the way Felix Caspari is slipping in for a few minutes here and there, grabbing rebounds, getting physical and keeping the energy level high off the bench.
Offensively, we saw what I think we all learned last year about this ISU team, but maybe forgot early in the season this year: the Bengals play better in space. They are not great shooters, and they don't create well out of set offenses. They play much better when they run and attack the basket.
That suits guys like Matt Stucki (above), Donnie Carson and Amorrow Morgan, and all three played well Saturday night. Stucki--my oh my--that was as good an all-around performance by a Bengal against a quality opponent as I've seen in my 30 years of watching Idaho State basketball. I arrived in town a year late to see the last ISU triple double by Lawrence Butler, but Matt really put on a show.
Despite the high energy level and great first half production, the Bengals still slipped into one of those offensive comas in the second half. They went eight minutes without a basket, and on our post game show, Stucki said it was largely because ISU was starting to settle for jump shots, rather than going to the rim. I agree with that assessment, but after Utah took a very brief lead, Morgan made two huge driving shots that put Idaho State back up for good.
Defensively, I was very impressed with the Bengals' ability to play man defense. Utah came into the game hitting 42 percent of its threes, and even though Luka Durca went out early with a rolled ankle, the Bengals still had to honor those other 3-point shooters and play a lot of man defense. While Nevill sometimes made them pay for it with dunks down low, overall, I thought Idaho State did a good job matching up with the Utes.
And Now: The Badgers
Wisconsin will be smarting, coming off a 61-58 loss at Marquette in which the Golden Eagles simply lived at the free throw line. The Badgers are still nearly unbeatable in the Kohl Center, though, and they will have the insulation of Big 10 officials that will allow their many bigs -- Joe Krabbenhoff, Marcus Landry, Jon Leuer, etc. -- to play the physical brand of basketball they love with impunity.
The Bengals will have to respond the same way they did against Utah -- with aggression going to the hoop offensively (and occasionally getting beaten up without any payoff), and with a willingness to play tough man defense on the other end. Badger PG Travon Hughes will be a key matchup for the Bengals, he's a quick penetrator who likes to finish at the rim, rather than a distributor. Landry, meanwhile, will step outside and shoot the three, opening the inside for the 6-10 Leuer. The Badgers are not the most athletic or skilled team in the Big 10, but they play physically, especially at home. This will be another good test for the continued growth and maturity of the Bengals. Will they carry over that "attack attitude" they displayed on Saturday night?
And thanks for being Bengal fans -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun (especially Saturday night!)