Idaho State-Montana Tech

ISU men’s basketball coach Ryan Looney high-fives players during the Bengals’ exhibition game on Oct. 29, 2019, against Montana Tech at Reed Gym.

Despite returning three prominent players from a year ago, Idaho State men's basketball coach Ryan Looney said "it feels like a new team" that he's working with going into this season.

Looney and the rest of his coaching staff will begin shaping that new team this week, as most of the players returned to campus Thursday in preparation to begin workouts next week.

"It'll be good to have them here for a complete summer to try to get a realistic feel for what we really have," Looney said. "I think this summer and fall are going to be very valuable for us in terms of building a team and chemistry, but how we go about that with the rules that are in place is, I think, going to be the part of it that's completely new."

Tarik Cool, Austin Smellie and Malik Porter all played over 27 minutes a game for ISU last year. Then there's Brayden Parker and Daxton Carr, who redshirted while dealing with, respectively, and injury and a battle with the NCAA over transfer eligibility.

But no one else — 10 of the 15 players on the Bengals' new-look roster — has any experience in ISU's program.

Looney, heading into his second year as ISU's coach, brought in an eclectic group of recruits that includes international players like Denmark's Liam Sorenson, junior college stars like Robert Ford and Gedeon Buzangu, and high-school recruits like Austin Cook and Kyle Karstetter.

On the court, it's a group that he thinks will mesh with his returners to fix ISU's three biggest problems from a year ago — point-guard play, 3-point shooting and height.

"I think we feel much better about the depth that we have at the point guard position," Looney said. "All of the guys we recruited to play the 1 through the 4, we recruited them because they can stretch the floor, shoot the 3, so I think we're much better in that area too. But then also, I think we might have gone from the smallest team in the Big Sky to the biggest, which is something that has been a consistent on the teams that I've coached in the past."

Off the court, the coronavirus pandemic has ensured that what was already going to be an unorthodox summer and fall will come with its own special challenges.

Looney said that he's been in the position of integrating so many new players before at two of his previous head coaching jobs, Eastern Oregon and Point Loma Nazarene.

But neither of those previous two instances came in the middle of a global pandemic.

"I think, in a normal summer right now at Idaho State, we'd be able to be in the gym more, up to eight hours a week. Right now, that's not necessarily the case," Looney said. "I think, just like we had to with the recruiting, we're going to have to be really creative in regards to how we build our team. Even though we might all be in Pocatello, we might have to have some nights where we're on Zoom. We might have to be creative in ways in which we get the team together. It might be activities that have nothing to do with playing basketball, as we try to build some chemistry and trust within our program here."

That started Thursday. Looney talked with the Idaho State Journal from outside one of ISU's dorms on Thursday, as he was in the process of getting players checked in and settled.

They'll start workouts with strength and conditioning coaches Dan Ryan and Brandon Stephens on Monday, the first step of preparing for the season, and can also begin voluntary workouts by themselves.

Looney is hopeful the coaching staff will be able to get in the gym with players for an NCAA-permitted eight hours a week starting in July.

"I think also, because of the circumstances and who's allowed to work with the guys right now and who's not, we're going to place a huge emphasis on strength and conditioning," Looney said. "We're going to try to get bigger, faster, stronger this summer. ... These first couple weeks, we know it's going to be a lot of weight room, a lot of conditioning, but then on July 1, our coaching staff will be able to get in the gym with a lot of these guys too. We're of the mindframe right now, regardless of what we are and aren't allowed to do, it's just great to have all these guys in town together and start building our team."