Robert Ford III Idaho State men's basketball

Idaho State guard Robert Ford III attempts a shot against Kansas City on Nov. 22.

These games don’t really matter. Idaho State will not be judged off its non-conference slate. It will not be defined by its November record. But through a half-dozen games, the Bengals have not shown much they can hang their hat on.

Idaho State fell at Air Force, 59-48, on Saturday, dropping the Bengals to 1-5 before they kick off Big Sky play next week with home games against Portland State and NAU.

Idaho State’s lone win came against NAIA-level Eastern Oregon and it followed up that season-opening victory with a quintet of losses against Division I schools. But these weren’t incredible DI schools. No, most of them were on par with or slightly better than Idaho State.

Not one of the Bengals’ opponents was a top-100 team, according to the KenPom college basketball rankings. Not Pepperdine (213th) or Seattle U (182) or Nebraska (101) or Kansas City (196) or Air Force (274).

And the Bengals fell to those five schools by a combined 76 points. Even worse, most of that deficit stems from second halves. Idaho State has shown to be competitive in the first half – then they hit the locker room and come out flat. In those five losses, the Bengals’ opponents have outscored them by 56 points in the last 20 minutes.

Against Air Force on Saturday, guard Robert Ford III — who finished with a team-high 19 points — drilled one of his four 3-pointers just before the buzzer to give Idaho State a 24-21 lead heading into halftime.

The Falcons responded by picking apart the Bengals’ defense like a needle weaving through fabric. On too many occasions, ISU’s defense got lost and an Air Force wing cut to the basket, got a quick bounce pass and converted a wide-open layup.

If that wasn’t easy enough, Air Force seemed to intercept every other pass the Bengals threw for a routine transition bucket. In just the final half, the Falcons turned eight Idaho State turnovers into 14 points and scored 22 points in the paint to just a half dozen for the Bengals.

Perhaps the most telling stat is this: In the first half, Idaho State grabbed four more rebounds than Air Force. In the second, the Falcons won the rebounding battle by a dozen.

“You can control the level in which you follow a scouting report,” ISU coach Ryan Looney said after ISU’s loss to Kansas City. “You can control how hard you’re willing to play defensively. You can control if you’re going to block your guy out at the end of every defensive possession or not. That’s what we need to understand and what we need to get you.”

Last season, Idaho State built its identity on grit. Heck, most of Looney’s teams have succeeded because of that. After every game Looney evaluates three stats. He wants his teams to have less than 12 turnovers, out-rebound opponents by eight and grab 40% of its misses.

The Bengals weren’t near any of those marks on Saturday. Their defensive intensity and effort was miles behind where it was last season. The offense was been stagnant — with the post touches coming at a premium while tough 3-pointers near the end of the shot clock have become routine.

The first priority of Looney’s swing offense is getting the ball into the paint. It can be to guards or centers and whoever. But those post touches, Looney figures, will free up open shots on the perimeter.

But ISU’s centers have been almost nonexistent. On Saturday, Brayden Parker — who fouled out — Zach Visentin and Gedeon Buzangu combined for one point and three rebounds in 38 minutes of court time. That can’t happen for ISU to be successful.

“I know that we need to be much better,” Looney said. “We need to be a much tougher team in a lot of different areas.”