There are a couple of ways to look at the beginning of Idaho State’s men’s basketball season: 1) Total frustration over what could have been or, 2) Optimism that with just a little bit of luck, the Bengals could be very competitive in what is a very down Big Sky Conference.
In case you haven’t been keeping track, the Bengals have started off the season 2-6, losing four games in row by a combined total of eight points — including two overtime heartbreakers — with three of those games on the road. ISU finally broke a five-game losing streak Wednesday night, winning at the University of Missouri-Kansas City 75-65, offering a bit of hope during what has been a disheartening run of tight losses.
For the first time in two weeks, the Bengals get to play at home again Saturday night, hosting former Big Sky Conference rival Southern Utah at 6 p.m. in Reed Gym. The Thunderbirds, who joined the Western Athletic Conference this season, are 4-4 following their 86-83 loss Wednesday night to Montana State.
Under ordinary circumstances, you’d expect the analytics to show Idaho State near the bottom of most important conference statistics, given the Bengals’ 2-6 record. But that’s not the case right now, due to two factors: All of ISU’s losses, including to power schools Utah and BYU, have been relatively close games; and the rest of the Big Sky is not exactly lighting the world on fire.
Some context: Big Sky teams are a combined 10-57 against Division I opponents this year. Portland State has two of those wins, both over the PAC-12’s Oregon State. Against neighboring D-1 Conferences, Big Sky teams are 0-9 against the Big West, 0-5 vs. the Mountain West, 2-7 vs the PAC -12, 2-8 in games with the WAC, and 1-4 vs. West Coast Conference opponents.
No Big Sky school has a winning record. Ken Pomeroy, who produces the highly-respected analytical site KenPom.com, has the Big Sky ranked 25th out of the nation’s 32 Division I conferences.
The fact that the league is struggling so mightily certainly contributes to Idaho State’s relatively good statistical rankings. The Bengals are fourth in the league in scoring, second in scoring defense, third in scoring margin, first in three-point shooting and three-point shooting defense, second in turnover margin and first in steals. The only major statistical category that is flashing red right now is rebounding, where Idaho State is ninth with a -4.5 margin.
A wise coach once told me that for most basketball teams, 25 percent of their games will be blowout wins, 25 percent lop-sided losses and 50 percent toss-up games that either team could win. The ultimate success of most seasons, then, is determined by a team’s ability to win those games that could go either way.
So far, Idaho State hasn’t found a way to win those close games, although holding off the Kangaroos on the road Wednesday night is at least a good sign. How they do in close games the rest of the season will certainly determine whether the beginning of the season ultimately defines this team, or if was just an aberration and a learning experience.
Looking at Bengal individuals, a few things stand out:
• New point guard Miguel Tomley started the season in disappointing fashion, culminating in a seven-turnover performance in the one-point loss to Denver, when Bengal coach Ryan Looney benched him down the stretch in favor of freshman Malik Arington. Tomley has started to respond in promising fashion, putting up 57 points in Idaho State’s last two games. He leads ISU in scoring at 15.4 points a game. The Santa Clara transfer still needs to become more of a facilitator for his teammates — his assist to turnover ratio is a modest 20-22 — but he’s cut back significantly on his turnovers since the Denver debacle.
• Fellow transfer Brock Mackenzie has redefined the term “shooting guard.” The graduate transfer from D-2 Point Loma has made 14 of his last 20 shots, including a perfect 7-for-7 effort from 3-point range against UMKC. He ranks 58th in the nation in effective field goal percentage at 68.4%. Mackenzie is shooting about 52% from both two and three-point range and is second on the team in scoring at almost 15 points per game. It’s hard to imagine him bringing more to this Idaho State team; the only down-side is he has only this season to play for the Bengals.
• On the other end of the transfer spectrum is the play of former BYU post man Kolby Lee. The 6-9 graduate student was supposed to provide Idaho State with a physical presence, both offensively and on the glass. But so far, Lee is averaging only 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds a contest. That later number is particularly important to an ISU team that is struggling on the boards. The hope is that Lee, who sat our last year, will become more productive as the season progresses.
• Who’s the best playmaker on this ISU team so far? How about two forwards — Brayden Parker and Jay Nagle, who lead ISU in assist to turnover ratio at 2-1. Parker, who probably played his best game Wednesday night with 14 points off the bench, has 12 assists to 6 turnovers. But Looney would gladly trade an assist or two from his big man for more presence on the glass, where Parker is averaging only 2.4 rebounds in almost 15 minutes a game.
Meanwhile Nagle, who has 14 assists to 7 turnovers, needs to improve his shooting — he’s hitting just under 30% of his shots overall, and only 20% from three-point range.
• Jared Rodriguez had a terrific game against Denver, but then cooled off considerably on the road trip. He’s averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds a game, while shooting 43% from the floor, 33%. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but Idaho State needs consistently more from the fifth-year senior if they’re going to be successful.
• Austin Smellie continues to be Mr. Do-It-All off the bench, shooting 46%, averaging four rebounds a game, ranking third on the team in assists, and leading the Bengals with 12 steals. Outside of Smellie, however, the rest of the Bengal bench has been decidedly inconsistent.
To his credit, Daxton Carr has significantly improved his shooting so far this season, hitting 60% of his shots, but he’s only getting 10 minutes a game right now. AJ Burgin is shooting just 29% from the field, Arington 26%. Newcomer Ed Chang is still getting the hang of things, and hasn’t made a shot in his four brief appearances. If the Bengals are going to compete when Big Sky play begins, they will need much more production from their bench.
Saturday night’s matchup with the Thunderbirds should be another litmus test for how much this year’s Bengal team has improved. Southern Utah returns several players from the team that beat Idaho State 79-71 on senior night last March, including 6-10 center Jason Spurgin, who dominated ISU inside for 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
Brad Bugger has been observing athletics in southeastern Idaho for over 40 years as a sportswriter, broadcaster and fan. He can be reached with comments, questions and column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org