A few weeks after his introductory press conference, Idaho State head coach Ryan Looney was back in Pocatello – for good this time. It was May 1, 2019, when he flew into Boise then jetted east to Idaho State’s campus.
With little knowledge of the school or campus or city, Looney guided prospective recruits on a tour. Idaho State lacks a rich basketball tradition that sucks in talent like a vacuum. It had been the laughingstock of the Big Sky Conference for a while before Looney. So the young coach, instead, explained his championship history and his vision for the future of Idaho State basketball.
Looney didn’t know where he was walking, but knew how he was going to build the program.
After the tour, Looney’s sales pitch was ringing in the ears of a number of recruits – including Tarik Cool and Malik Porter, who became two of Looney’s first few commits at Idaho State.
Two years later, the Bengals are coming off one of their best seasons in more than decade. Despite multiple cancelations and quarantines, Idaho State went 13-11 and earned its first Big Sky tournament bye in five years.
Though Montana State bounced ISU in the quarterfinals, the upward trajectory of this longstanding downtrodden program is tough to deny.
Cool and Porter are big reasons why.
On Tuesday, the two seniors announced they were going to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and come back to Idaho State for another year.
“I still have stuff to improve,” Porter said of his decision. “I had a few conversations with my parents and with coach Looney also about what would be best for me.”
“I had conversations with my parents and some people in the professional world, like some of my friends who have played professionally,” Cool added. “I just got a feel for what it would be like if I chose that route. … Talking with people, I got a fair evaluation of my game and understand what I need to work on.”
Cool had flashes of brilliance last season. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound guard admitted he would be well-served to bulk up before a potential professional career, but it didn’t hold him back much in the Big Sky. Cool led the Bengals in scoring, averaging 14 points a game, and seemed to shine in tight games – never afraid to step back for a 3 or dart inside and draw contact.
Porter’s senior trajectory was a bit different. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound forward was one of Looney’s most talked-about returners. After just a few games, though, his production lacked and he was benched for Daxton Carr. Instead of moping, Porter took his role as sixth man in stride, excelling off the bench to give the Bengals an energetic high-flyer who could change games. He finished the year averaging eight points and five rebounds while shooting over 50%.
Cool and Porter are really good players. But good players aren’t bolting off to professional basketball with extra eligibility remaining – at least not this year.
“In a normal year, they wouldn’t have had a decision to make. This is an unprecedented situation,” Looney said. “I was open to supporting them in whatever they thought was best for their future.
“At Idaho State, over the course of the last two years, we’ve really been trying to build a program. I think all of us believe that if we can keep our group together and we are all on the same page going into next season, we think we have a chance to make something pretty special happen.”
Looney is stoked that his continuity is intact. That he can add a solid recruiting class of guards A.J. Burgin and Louis Stormark to an experienced team. That he can head into 2021 knowing 100% of Idaho State’s production is returning. What he should be more jovial about is the satisfaction that he’s built a program where good players like Cool and Porter are using their extra eligibility in Pocatello.
After it gave athletes an extra year for COVID, many believe the NCAA will soon also implement a rule change that would nix transfers having to sit out a season. As a result, the transfer portal looks like spring break in Miami Beach and multiple Big Sky teams – including Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington – now have to replace some of their best players.
But not Idaho State.
The Bengals will be fully loaded heading into a 2021 season where ISU has real expectations of capturing a Big Sky title. And, confident about the Bengals’ ability to reach that goal, Cool and Porter opted to stick around and try to make it happen.
“I wouldn’t be coming back if I didn’t feel like our team had a chance to win the Big Sky,” Cool said. “Over the course of the last two years, this program has come a long way, like coach Looney said. I think it’s time in this third year to take that final step.”