It's always entertaining to see how wildly the Big Sky Conference standings can swing after a two-game weekend. When the dust finally settled on Sunday evening, Idaho State had jumped all the way from seventh to third in the league with the Bengals' two home wins over Montana and Montana State. This week the Bengals hit the road again, however, and their league standing is back in jeopardy as they travel to Northern Arizona and Sacramento, Thursday and Saturday.
Idaho State hasn't won in Flagstaff since the Jordie MacTavish-D'Marr Suggs-Tim Erickson team beat the Lumberjacks, 70-63, in 2001. That team finished third in the Big Sky regular season at 10-6, and is the only Bengal team to post an overall winning record in the last 11 seasons (14-13). Ironically, the Bengals lost the return game at home, 87-84, in overtime that season.
ISU has lost seven straight in Flagstaff since then, and 11 of the last 13. Is it the 7,000-foot elevation, the big, empty dome (NAU is averaging less than 1,000 fans a game this year, although they've typically drawn around 2,000 or so for conference games in years past), or the fact the Axers usually have a pretty talented, well-coached team? Probably all three of those factors, and each will be in evidence after the Bengals make the long drive up the mountain from Phoenix' Sky Harbor Airport this week.
NAU has been the most snakebitten team in the league so far, outscoring conference opponents by an average of over six points a game, but with only a 2-4 league mark to show for it. As is their custom, the Axers are a perimeter-oriented team, in fact maybe even more so this year, because they don't really have a physical post presence, like Kyle Landry, for example, from previous years. But make no mistake -- this year's Axers team can shoot.
In conference play only, NAU is hitting 54 percent from the floor, 48 percent from three-point range. The Lumberjacks put up 15 treys on Sac State on Sunday, and they average nine a game in league play. That puts Idaho State, which is averaging just over three 3s a game, at a huge disadvantage on Thursday. The Bengals managed to beat Montana State on Saturday without making a three-pointer, but they will not be able to get away with that kind of production in Flagstaff.
Sophomore Cameron Jones, a 6-4 G out of Los Angeles, has really developed into a star in Big Sky play, where he averages 19.5 points, and is making 65 percent of his field goals, 63 percent of his 3s, and 93 percent of his free throws. He will create some challenges for the Bengals' two star wing players, Amorrow Morgan and Matt Stucki. I wouldn't be surprised to see Donnie Carson and Phyllip Taylor get a lot of time on Jones in an effort to keep the two Bengal offfensive stars out of foul trouble.
They will still have to play good, solid defense, however, because all five Axers average in double figures in scoring in league play, including G Josh Wilson, who leads the league in assists and is making 58 percent of his three-pointers in league play; and G Matt Johnson (above), who is making 48 percent of his treys. F Shane Johannsen is not a physical presence inside, but he's made a whopping 87 percent of his field goal attemps while averaging almost 11 points a game in BSC contests.
The Bengals' best strategy is to keep the Axers working hard on both ends of the floor. Much like Stucki and Morgan play most of the game for Idaho State, NAU's big three of Jones, Wilson and Johnson all average over 30 minutes a game in Big Sky play. The Bengals need to isolate those three defensively, wearing them down and perhaps getting them in foul trouble.
Idaho State hasn't won a road game of any kind all year, so the Bengals certainly can't take the back end of the road trip to Sacramento for granted, either. A split would at least keep things on an even emotional keel as the Bengals get ready for the Weber State doubleheader next week. A rare win in Flagstaff, might indicate something special for this year's Bengals' team.
And thanks for being Bengal fans -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.