Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bengal M*A*S*H Unit Heads West

Just to be clear, injuries are not the reason Idaho State has struggled so mightily this year, particularly on offense. But they may well be a key reason why the Bengals don't improve significantly.

Idaho State has lost 47 player games to injury through the first five games of this 0-5 season, and 38 of them have come on offense: including 10 to running backs and 12 to wide receivers. Meanwhile it's on the offensive line, the perceived area of greatest concern to the Bengals, where injuries may keep ISU, the lowest scoring team in the league, from making noticeable gains. With three-year starter Lance Cartwright and junior college transfers Travis Nuua and Demetrius Grant all unavailable for Saturday's game in Sacramento, the Bengals will once again go with a cobbled together front five.

Also missing Saturday will be wide receiver Isaiah Burel, who may be out for the year, and quarterback Kyle Blum, who likely won't be cleared from a concussion he suffered last week. Listed as questionable as of Monday were running backs Ben Laporta, Jordan Scott and Skyler Morgan. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Jake Rouser tore his ACL last week and is done for the year; fellow end Jeff Tuua, who didn't play last week because of a shoulder injury, is questionable; and both Sean Rutten (end) and Chad O'Donnell (tackle), who played against Eastern Washington after not practicing all last week, are still less than 100 percent.

None of that is going to generate any sympathy from the Hornets, who are still stinging after Idaho State got its only win of the year against them in the last game of the 2008 season. That Bengal win kept Sac from its first 7-win season since 2001.

The Hornets are coming off their first win of the year, a huge road victory at Portland State, 31-14. Sac put together two "statement drives" in the Rose City, scoring on its first possession of each half. The Hornets featured a balanced offense, with Terrance Dailey picking up 111 yards on 34 carries and QB Jason Smith tossing for 256 yards and 3 TDS. With Sac getting out to a 21-6 lead, PSU had to abandon any pretense of a running game, and the Hornets responded with four sacks. The Vikings finished with minus-2 yards rushing.

Unfortunately the Bengals are more than familiar with negative rushing numbers this year, having finished in the minus category an astonishing four of five games so far. With that makeshift offensive line and no established running threat in the backfield, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bengals go with a lot of five wideout sets, three-step drops by QB Russel Hill and quick slants and outs by the receivers. Dink and dunk may be ISU's best shot at keeping Hill, who is still recovering from a broken thumb himself, from rejoining an already crowded injury list.

Road Work

Only a Northern Arizona rally against Northern Colorado kept all four Big Sky road teams from winning last week -- and kept me from an 0-ffer. In the last two weeks, road teams have won seven of eight Big Sky games. And there are at least three good opportunities for road teams to get wins again this week against what may be the best slate of games in the Big Sky all season. And with those four very-difficult-to-predict games ahead, we offer this week's shots in the dark:

Weber State at Eastern Washington: The Eagles ruined the Wildcats' shot at an outright Big Sky title last year. With EWU sitting alone atop the conference standings at 3-0, WSU could conceiveably return the favor this year. But something just doesn't seem right with the Wildcats, who have blown two late inside-the-10-yardline opportunities to win games. More concerning is that WSU gave up 210 yards and four rushing touchdowns in their loss to Montana State last week. That's got to have Eastern's Taiwan Jones, who looked as good against ISU as any of those Oklahoma thousand-yard rushers, licking his chops. I'm going with the Eagles in a shootout.

Cal Poly at Montana: The Mustangs and Griz have a history of close games, even though Montana almost always seems to find a way to win. Last year, the Grizzles won in San Luis Obispo, 30-28, when the Mustangs missed a 27-yard field goal with 38 seconds left. Cal Poly is 2-2 this year under new coach Tim Walsh, with their losses coming to two FBS teams -- Ohio and San Jose State. Averaging 219 yards a game rushing, the Mustangs will run up against the nation's second-ranked rushing defense -- the Griz have yielded less than 50 rushing yards a game. Montana is coming off a bye week, giving them plenty of time to heal up and game plan. And Walsh, the former Portland State head coach, will see his record at Washington-Griz fall to 0-6.

Northern Arizona at Montana State: Man, this should be a great game. NAU quarterback Michael Herrick has been on fire the last two games, tossing eight touchdowns and no picks. MSU, meanwhile, comes in on a three-game win streak, including two on the road. The Axers average almost five yards a carry running the ball; the Bobcats give up less than three yards a carry. NAU has the worst pass efficiency defense in the league, giving up 12 TDS and getting only one interception; MSU ranks only seventh in the league in pass efficiency, throwing just 4 TDS vs. 3 picks. The only real discriminator I can find is in the turnover category, where MSU is plus-3 and the Axers minus-1. That -- and 17,000 Bobcat fans -- are just enough to tip this one in MSU's favor.

Portland State at Northern Colorado: These are two teams headed in the same direction: south. The Vikings are coming off back-to-back losses -- at home. The Bears, meanwhile, blew a two-touchdown lead in Flagstaff, after losing at home against MSU. PSU is second in the nation in passing, while the Bears lead the Big Sky in pass defense. The Vikings have no running game to speak of. The Bears, meanwhile, may be missing feature back Andre Harris, who carried the ball just once last week after sustaining a concussion. Again, you have to go to the turnover category to find a real discriminator -- Northern Colorado is even on the year, the Vikings minus-10. On the road, that's a killer for PSU.

--Brad B.

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

Bengal Women Add New Faces to Roster

Idaho State's women's basketball Coach Seton Sobolewski has a nice recruiting class coming in this year, including seven fairly highly-rated scholarship freshmen covering every position on the floor. A look at the roster for this year, however, shows some interesting new -- and old -- names that weren't part of that official "recruiting class."

It starts with point guard Aralee Smith (above), who started her basketball career as a Bengal, then transferred back home to Southern Arkansas. Smith, who is listed as a senior, is back in Pocatello, where she will redshirt this season. Smith played in 23 games with ISU as a freshman in 2006-2007, averaging 9 minutes and 3 points a game. She shot 44 percent from the floor, including 38 percent from three-point range. The next season she played only four games before suffering a knee injury, then transferred to Southern Arkansas, where she averaged 7.7 points and 3.3 rebounds a game.

Other new names include Rayneiqua Edwards, a 5-8 guard from Freeport, Illinois who played one year at Spokane Falls Community College, and Mietra Smollack, a 5-9 guard who transferred from Washington State and will redshirt this season. Edwards has only played one season of basketball since graduating from Freeport High School in 2005, where she averaged 11 points and 3 assists a game. My broadcast partner, Mark Liptak, tells me she's quite athletic and is just an inch or two short of the team record for best vertical jump. She high jumped 5-7 in high school. She's still getting initiated into the nuances of Sobolewski's motion offense, but that athleticism might get her a few minutes of playing time.

Smollack, meanwhile, competed in track and field at Wazzu, where she finished eighth in the 800 meters in the PAC-10 indoor championships. She was a first-team all-league basketball player her senior year at Oak Harbor, Wash. High School, as well as being a track standout.

Liptak also tells me scholarship newcomer Ashlee Rigter, a 6-3 F from New Zealand, suffered an injury over the summer and will not be available at the start of the season. A decision on whether she'll redshirt will be made later.

Big Sky Meetings

ISU athletic director Jeff Tingey attended the Big Sky Conference meetings in Ogden last week and came back with some good news -- the conference athletic directors voted 5-4 to move the conference in-door track championships to Pocatello permanently. The proposal now goes to the league presidents for final approval.

Moving the championships to Pocatello permanently would give the Bengal men and women's teams a slight "home track" edge. It would also give the local restaurants and hotels a little bump, as well.

Tingey was also successful in convincing the league ADs to lift the recently-imposed limit on the size of travelling parties for basketball teams when they bus to games. This would allow ISU's men's team, for example, to take its full roster to non-conference games against Utah, Utah State and BYU.

--Brad B.

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Don't Look Now, but It's Hoops Time!

I consider the arrival of the Big Sky men's basketball prospectus as the official opening of the basketball season, even though teams can't start practicing for a week and a half. Since I received the prospectus from the Big Sky office last week, I'm already running late in putting together my early, early Big Sky preview. So let's get to it already.

I've sneaked a peak at a couple of college basketball preview magazines on the newsstands, and I'm going to preview the BSC teams in the approximate order the magazines have placed them. I'll give you my predictions as we get closer to the start of the season:

Weber State

Performance Over Last Five Years: The Wildcats have posted a 47-29 record in league play over that time period, including last year's 15-1, regular-season title effort. The Wildcats were shocked by Montana State in the Big Sky semifinals on their own floor just one week after punishing the Bobcats by 20 in Bozeman.

Outlook: With four starters back from a 21-10 team, WSU will very likely be a heavy favorite to win the league again this year. The one missing piece is a big one, however: league MVP Kellen McCoy, an amazing competitor for his size who led WSU in scoring and steals, finished second in assists and was the unchallenged leader of the Wildcats. Guard Damien Lillard, the first true freshman in league history to earn first-team all-league honors, is expected to inherit that leadership mantle. He averaged 11.5 points and 2.87 assists last year, and those numbers should increase significantly this year. Forwards Steve Panos, Kyle Bullinger, Trevor Morris and Darin Mahoney return a combined 33 points and 20 rebounds per game, and Pocatello's Nick Hansen is back after hitting 38 percent of his 3s.

Intriguing Newcomer: Guard/forward Franklin Sessions averaged a double/double at Saddleback JC last year (14.6 points and 10.5 rebounds).

How They Did Against Idaho State: The Wildcats came from behind to win in overtime in Pocatello, then enjoyed a 14-point win in Ogden.


Performance Over the Last Five Years: The Griz have been 48-28 over that time, including an 11-5 mark last season. They were upset in the first round of the Big Sky tournament by a Montana State team they beat handily twice during the regular season.

Outlook: With Anthony Johnson, the overwhelming pre-season Player of the Year, and three-point specialist Ryan Staudacher (45 percent from 3) both back on the wing, and big men Brian Qvale, Jack McGillis and Derek Selvig upfront, the Griz have a lot of depth and experience. Johnson single-handedly wills the Griz to a lot of wins (although there has been some concern raised on the Montana message board recently about a potential knee injury with Johnson.)

Intriguing Newcomer: The Griz hope 6-6 F Raason Young, a summer pick-up out of traditional JUCO power Hagerston CC, will finally provide a consistent back-to-the-basket presence on the offensive end. Freshman PG Will Cherry out of Oakland is equally intriguing, offering the Griz a true PG they lacked in recent years.

How They Did Against the Bengals: The two teams split, each defending home court by a comfortable margin.

Portland State

Performance Over the Last Five Years: PSU has posted the best record in the league over that period, 50-26. The Vikings took advantage of MSU's two stunning upsets in the league tournament to get back to the Big Dance after finishing 11-5 in the regular season. They lost to Xavier 77-59 in the tourney.

Outlook: The Vikings are the only team in the league with a new coach after Ken Bone took over at Washington State and was replaced by assistant Tyler Geving. PSU lost former Big Sky MVP Jeremiah Dominguez, but they still return plenty of talent, including guard Andre Waters (41 points against NAU), forward Phil Nelson (scored in double figures 17 times), and inside players Jamie Jones and Julius Thomas, who combined for 13 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.

Most Intriguing Newcomer: Melvin Jones, a 5-10 PG, shot 48 percent from three last year at North Idaho Junior College.

How They Did Against the Bengals: After the two teams split home-court blowouts in the regular season, the Vikings won the rubber game, 61-53, in the Big Sky tournament on their way to the league championship.

Montana State

Performance Over the Last Five Years: The Bobcats have been 37-39 in league play over that time, including 6-10 last year, but then they rose from the dead to shock Montana and Weber State in the league tournament before falling to Portland State in the championship game.

Outlook: Who was the real Montana State: the team that barely squeezed into the post-season tournament, or the one that pulled two huge upsets once they got there? The pre-season magazines seem to be saying the later, as they have ranked MSU ahead of an Idaho State team that was three games better during the regular season. Guard Will Bynum and wing men Bobby Howard and Erik Rush combine to return over 30 points per game. MSU will have to find an inside presence to replace leading rebounder Divaldo Mbunga.

Most Intriguing Newcomer: DiMarco Bourgaudt, a 6-5 F from France, got a lot of experience on European club teams.

How They Did Against the Bengals: Idaho State dominated the Bobcats last year, sweeping both games and holding MSU to a Holt Arena record for fewest points in a half.

Idaho State

Performance Over the Last Five Years: The Bengals were 32-44 in Big Sky play, but 25-23 under Joe O'Brien. ISU was 9-7 last year, losing in the semifinals of the league tournament to Portland State.

Outlook: All-league wing man Amorrow Morgan (sixth in the league in scoring, third in assists) leads a group of eight seniors who have played a ton of basketball at Idaho State. The question is: who among those other seven will step up to replace the scoring and leadership of the departed all-league Matt Stucki?

Most Intriguing Newcomer: There aren't many, but long-time Bengal fans are hoping JUCO PG Broderick Gilchrest is the equivalent of Terrence Fleming, who arrived as a one-year transfer in 1994 to lead a veteran Bengal team to a tie for the league regular season title. High-flying F Rolando Little would bring some much-welcomed athleticism if eligible.

Northern Colorado

Performance Over the Last Five Years: The Bears have only been in the league for three years, and they've been 16-32 during that time. Last year was their best at 8-8, and they lost to Idaho State in the first round of the league tournament.

Outlook: Diminutive PG Will Figures (12.1 PPG), outstanding wing shooter Devon Beitzel (49 percent from 3) and a number of role players return. The Bears will have to find a power player to replace the departed Jabril Banks.

Most Intriguing Newcomer: Emmanuel Addo, a 6-7, 230-pound F out of Minnesota, will get the first shot at taking Banks' minutes.

How They Did Against the Bengals: The Bears gave the Bengals matchup fits, but ISU eventually won the season series, including an OT win in the regular season and seven-point post-season victory, both in Holt.

Northern Arizona

Performance Over the Last Five Seasons: The Lumberjacks have been 43-33, including a nice 34-12 run sandwiched in between 4-10 and 5-11 seasons, the later coming last season when the Axers missed the post-season.

Outlook: Cameron Jones (who averaged 15.6 points in league play) and Shane Johannsen (shot 82 percent in the Big Sky) both emerged nicely as sophomores last year. Shane Lepley, 6-10, showed a lot of potential as a freshman. The Axers could be the surprise team in the league if those three continue to develop.

Intriguing Newcomer: Eric Platt, a 6-5 guard, saw a lot of playing time during two seasons at Wyoming. He averaged 6.5 PPG as a freshman for the Cowboys, and will likely line up at the wing opposite Jones.

How They Did Against the Bengals: In one of the key games of the season, NAU blew a big second-half lead against ISU to lose in Flagstaff, then the Bengals punished an injury-depleted Axer team in Reed Gym, 71-49, at the end of the regular season.

Eastern Washington

Performance Over the Last Five Seasons: Eastern has been 34-42 in league play during that time, including back-to-back 6-10 seasons under Kirk Earlywine.

Outlook: The Eagles return leading scorer Benny Valentine, a 5-7 PG, and leading rebounder Brandon Moore, 6-9 C, but that's about all the experienced talent.

Intriguing Newcomer: Would have been Treymayne Johnson, a 6-7 F who was recruited by some heavyweights early on, but I was told over the weekend that he is ineligible. The Eagles are bringing in three freshmen guards and two JUCO forwards, but none of them catch your eye immediately.

How They Did Against the Bengals: The two teams split, each winning on their home courts.

Sacramento State

Peformance the Last Five Seasons: The Hornets have clearly been the worst program in the conference over that time with a 21-55 mark. Their last non-losing season, and the last time they've been in the post-season, was 2004-05, when they went 8-8.

Outlook: Justin Eller, a 6-8 C who averaged 10 points and 6.7 rebounds, and fourth-leading scorer Antonio Flaggs, a 6-3 G who averaged 7.7 points, return. Six junior college transfers and two freshmen lend an air of mystery to the roster.

Intriguing Newcomer: Sultan Toles-Bey, a 5-10 G, averaged 17 points and 5 assists a game at Fresno City College last year.

How They Did Against the Bengals: Sac State earned its only conference victory against the Bengals at home, then ISU blew out the Hornets 74-39 on the last weekend of the regular season.

--Brad B.

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