Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Morgan Must Lead Bengals

Ah the best laid plans of mice, men and basketball coaches. Sometimes they just don't work out the way we hoped. Idaho State basketball fans have been pointing toward the 2009-2010 basketball season for the last three years, knowing that the four-man freshman class that Joe O'Brien brought in his first year here would be fully mature seniors then. With the addition of a big man here and a point guard there, surely this group of seasoned Big Sky veterans could compete for a conference championship and the first Bengal trip to the Big Dance since 1987.

And that might still happen, but the early returns on the non-conference portion of this season have not been as encouraging as anybody -- the players, coaches or fans -- had hoped. Nagging issues, like Felix Caspari's decision to quit the team right before the season started, Eric Segert's suspension, Rolando Little's academic problems and Deividas Busma's sore foot have thrown a wrench into things. But more troubling, certainly to the coaching staff, has been the lack of fire and purpose from this senior class. Three blowouts against Utah State, BYU and the University of Utah have left the coaching staff scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the intensity of a group that used to take teams like Marquette and BYU into overtime on the road, and beat the Utes at home.

On our coaches show last night, O'Brien was asked what he missed most about departed star Matt Stucki. He could have said any number of things -- his three-point shooting, his shot-blocking from the wing, his playmaking ability that allowed him to lead the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio last year. But what O'Brien cited was Matt's boisterous leadership. Stucki was that rare player who was smart and experienced enough to know the Bengal offense and defense inside-and-out, and respected enough to be listened to when he gave instructions to his teammates on the court. Oh, and talented enough that he produced big numbers himself, which also gave him great credibility in the lockerroom and on the practice floor.

But Matt's gone now, off to Germany to continue his career, and the mantel of leadership falls squarely on the shoulders of Amorrow Morgan (above). To be fair to Amorrow, whose scoring is actually up this year even while his shooting numbers are down, he's being asked to make an awful lot of adjustments this season. Last year, either he or Stucki started every possession with the ball in their hands, and that means Amorrow got to initiate the offense about half the time. This year, the ball is going to new point guard Broderick Gilchrest, and it's not clear yet that either Gilchrest or Morgan are sure where it should go from there. O'Brien said last night he thinks the fact that Amorrow is having to learn how to play without the basketball is one of the biggest adjustments he's having to make.

The other big adjustment is that, without Stucki, opposing defenses are concentrating on keeping the ball out of Morgan's hands. When he does get it, they are shading an extra defender in his direction, keeping him from getting to the glass, which is the best part of his game. That also makes it difficult for him to clear room to shoot the occasional three, which became a strength for Morgan at the end of last year, when he hit 40 percent of his treys in Big Sky play. This year, he's just 5-for-25 from downtown, a lowly 20 percent.

Those are all technical adjustments that Amorrow has to make this year. But there's a much bigger change he must embrace -- becoming the emotional leader of this Bengal team, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. O'Brien makes no bones about it -- he's a defensive coach and he hangs his hat on stopping other teams and creating offense off of turnovers and bad possessions by opponents. This year's Bengal team, despite its experience, has so far borne no resemblance to its three predecessors on the defensive end of the floor. Opponents are shooting almost 48 percent from the field (up from 43 last year), 38 percent from three (up from 34.5), and are averaging 75 points a game, an increase of about 7 points over last season.

Some of that has to do with the quality of opponents early on, but O'Brien believes a lot of it is related to a lack of intensity and focus. He's frankly mystified why a veteran team like this year's Bengals aren't bringing it every night on D, and he is looking to Morgan, a somewhat mild-mannered young man, to start setting the example. He saw some fire out of Amorrow at Monday's practice, and that's a good sign. The next test will come Wednesday night, when a high-flying Boise State team comes to Holt Arena. The Broncos love to run and gun, and they will test the Bengal defense about as much as anybody they've seen in this non-conference.

And we will see if Morgan and his senior teammates have accepted the challenge to play with commitment on the defensive end. This could be one of those corner-turning moments for the Bengals, who badly need a home game, with all the love, encouragement and momentum that can come with it. The opportunity to fulfill the promise this senior class -- Morgan, Demetrius Monroe, Austin Kilpatrick, Donnie Carson -- brought with them four years ago is still there. Now it's time to seize the moment.

Personnel Updates

O'Brien updated listeners on the status of Busma and Little last night. Busma has a sore foot and had x-rays taken Monday, which came back negative. He is scheduled for an MRI to see if he has a stress fracture. His status for the Boise State game is undetermined, but O'Brien said he was still in a lot of pain Monday and did not practice.

Little has caught up on some of his academic obligations over the weekend, and will be allowed to play against the Broncos. However, O'Brien will review his academic progress after the game and determine whether he will make the trip to USC or stay home and continue to hit the books.

Finally, the Bengals are waiting on a final decision from a potential walk-on from the football team. O'Brien expects to hear from the player today and he could join the team in time for the BSU game, although he'd still be learning the offense and defense and probably wouldn't see playing time.
Update: The Bengals announced Tuesday that Kelvin Krosch, the 6-6 wide receiver who was an all-state basketball player in high school at Mackay, will join the basketball team for tonight's game with BSU.

Portland State Picks Its Coach

Portland State is expected to name Nigel Burton, a bright, young defensive coordinator from Nevada and former academic All-American defensive back at Washington, as its new head football coach today. Burton, 33, spent two seasons on the PSU coaching staff of Tim Walsh before moving on to Oregon State and then Nevada.

John Canzano of the Oregonian writes an interesting column about Burton's selection, noting the importance of this hire to the future of Portland State football.

While we're on the topic of football, the Montana-Appalachian State semifinal playoff game will be televised by ESPN at 2 p.m. MT Saturday from Missoula. The high temperature is predicted to be 27 degrees on Saturday, with a slight chance of snow.

Appy State, which generated huge national buzz two seasons ago when they upset Michigan in the Big House, brings a loaded offense to Washington-Grizz. They are led by quarterback Armanti Edwards, the FCS version of Tim Tebow. Edwards has rushed for a 5.1 yard-per-carry average and 18 touchdowns. He's also completed 71 percent of his passes for almost 3,000 yards. This will be a fun one to watch.

--Brad B.

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