Friday, January 23, 2009

It's Been a .... Good Week!

Can I say that on this blog? Well, okay, it's been a darn good week, how's that? Hey, what could be better than Northwestern winning AT Michigan State, followed by Idaho State winning AT Northern Arizona? Well, how about NU winning at Michigan, followed by ISU winning at Sac on Saturday? Now that will be one hel...heckuva week!

Some random thoughts and observations on the Bengalsphere:

The Continuing Rebirth of AK

Sure, Amorrow Morgan continued his first-team all-Big Sky caliber play in the Bengals' win over NAU last night, but I really thought the key to the game was the continued rebirth of Austin Kilpatrick (above). His three-pointer ignited the Bengal 21-0 run, and he wound up with 6 points and 4 rebounds. If AK can continue that kind of contribution off the bench, the Bengals are going to be competitive with just about anybody in the league.

I also like the way Chron Tatum (8 points, 7 rebounds) continues to fill his role as designated mid-range shooter and garbage rebounder. And Lucas Steijn (12 points, 3 rebounds) filled a nice niche off the bench on a night when David Busmas didn't bring much to the table. We are starting to see the kind of chemistry and understanding of roles and rotation that were missing earlier this season.

What if They Played a Game and Nobody Came?

Was it just me, or, for those of you who watched the game on Dish last night, was that the most sterile, empty, boring atmosphere for a college basketball game you've ever seen?

If you're the AD at NAU, you've got to be asking some serious questions about what needs to be done to stimulate interest in your basketball program. Mike Adras has done a consistently good job putting together NAU's basketball program, but it's pretty apparent the people in Flagstaff don't care anymore. Couple that with NAU's propensity for blowing double-digit second half leads this year (Portland State, Northern Colorado, Montana and ISU), and Adras has to be feeling some heat.

The Bengals will have to self-motivate again Saturday night in Sacramento, where the Hornets drew 791 for their game with Weber State last night. The Bengals will have to bring their own energy and toughness to the Hornet's Nest to avoid giving up the huge momentum surge they picked up with their win in Flagstaff. A sweep of this road trip would mean a four-game winning streak with Weber coming to town. That might be enough to stimulate a 3,000-plus turnout for the Wildcats at Holt Arena on Thursday night.

Boomer Sooner

I was talking to Mark Campbell, the Bengals chief strength pooh-bah, at the ISU women's basketball game last night, and I reminded him of the job he has ahead of him -- getting the Bengal football team physically fit to play Arizona State and Oklahoma back-to-back. The school made it official Thursday, announcing ISU will play Oklahoma in September a week after the trip to Tempe, for a combined two-game payoff of just short of a cool million bucks.

Mark was virtually drooling at the prospect of preparing his athletes to play the best in the nation. The Bengals are already in off-season conditioning, and he has thrown out the gauntlet to the returning players -- if you can compete physically with the Sooners, who in the Big Sky will intimidate you? Campbell is telling his charges they have essentially eight months to "be all they can be" physically before they take on the Sun Devils and Sooners. If that doesn't motivate the Bengals, well, they are in for a worse thumping than any of us are fearing right now.

The Bengal coaching staff, meanwhile, is trying to close on this year's recruiting class, with national signing day coming up Feb. 4. I'm told the Bengals have four mid-year junior college transfers in the fold and on campus. They will be announced with the high school and beginning- of-the-year JC transfers on signing day. My biggest concerns right now are these: the Bengals will be down to one scholarship running back (Ben LaPorta) for spring practice, after Clint Knickrehm underwent wrist surgery this week; and there still does not appear to be a left offensive tackle on campus. Filling those holes will be keys between now and the start of fall camp. Bengal fans are advised to be patient, as productive JC and four-year-transfers have been known to accrue well after national signing day.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being Bengal fans -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Would It Take to Win in Flagstaff?

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.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being Bengal fans -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.