The court at Santa Clara is a Da Vinci on hardwood. It’s a masterful design, a silhouetted picture of the Broncos’ Northern California campus with its palm trees and the school’s Mission Church in the middle of a basketball court. The free-throw lane doesn’t have quite the luster. It’s plastered with the school maroon and the West Coast Conference logo in white.
In its season-opening 62-49 loss at Santa Clara, the paint turned into the Lost City of Atlantis — the place Idaho State couldn’t find.
ISU head coach Ryan Looney tried set plays. He tried pick and rolls. He tried new guards. None of it worked. For all its efforts and tweaks, Idaho State could not funnel the ball to its big men.
Yet, because of the level of opponent, because of their length and because of early foul trouble, Looney’s postgame reaction was surprisingly upbeat.
“I’m honestly not frustrated at all right now. I fully believe we are a much better team, much more talented than we were a year ago,” Idaho State coach Ryan Looney said. “We held them to 62 points. On most nights that’s good enough to win.
“That, physically, was by far maybe the best team we’ll play all year.”
Well, the improvement of Idaho State’s bigs was noticeable — it just didn’t put points on the board. The Bengals actually out-rebounded Santa Clara, besting the Broncos on the glass 36-35. It wasn’t a case of Idaho State getting bullied — the Bengals rarely gave up easy points near the rim — and though Santa Clara had 38 points in the paint, 15 of those came from fast breaks.
“We were just trying to be deliberate to get the ball to Brayden (Parker) and it was hard to get a catch,” Looney said. “Their length was overwhelming — not only trying to score around the basket but it’s hard to make a skip pass with all that size on the backside.”
Wednesday wasn’t like last season. This wasn’t Idaho State getting outclassed by a mediocre Big Sky team because it didn’t have the size. Looney couldn’t stop raving about Santa Clara, noting that the combination of the Broncos length and ISU’s early fouls doomed the Bengals.
“We had large stretches of guys in foul trouble. Brayden Parker being the No. 1 example and Robert Ford got in early foul trouble. Daxton Carr got into foul trouble. Liam Sorenson got into foul trouble,” Looney said. “When you’re a young team with only four guys who have ever played in a Division I game, it really hurts.”
But, through the adversity, the Bengals showed an imperfection in their offense that it couldn’t overcome, a deficiency in being able to use the size they now tout.
In some of his first minutes as a Bengal, freshman guard Liam Sorenson was surveying Santa Clara’s defense from the backcourt. In a matter of seconds, he was caught eyeing his big man down low and got the ball stolen, a turnover that turned into two points for Santa Clara.
On another play, forward Brayden Parker set a screen for Tarik Cool and rolled to the basket. Cool tried to whip a back-handed pass to his center, but it was easily snatched by a Bronco.
A little later, Daxton Carr caught the ball on the block and thought he could back down his defender. He took a few dribbles before spinning into the paint. His baby hook went into a swarm of three Santa Clara forwards who had collapsed, easily blocking the shot.
Other instances weren’t tough to find, which is a maddening fact for Idaho State fans who thought the Bengals’ size troubles were behind them. Some may have nightmarish flashbacks to Looney’s first season in Pocatello, when ISU’s lack of height forced 6-foot-5 Malik Porter to play center.
The Bengals, though, had the size to defend down low and seemingly had the size to get offensive production from its frontcourt. This was more about the concerns in ISU’s backcourt. At times, Cool brought the ball up. Other times it was Sorenson or 6-foot junior college transfer Robert Ford III.
The name didn’t seem to matter. The results rarely varied: stagnant dribbling, not much cutting and no great plans to deliver the ball down low. But, of course, all this has to be judged on a curve given their opponents.
“They weren’t playing a zone,” Looney said of Santa Clara. “It just looked like it because they were so big. There were stretches where they had a 6-5 point guard, two 6-7 guys on the wing and a 6-9 and 6-11 in the post.
“We turned it over too much. Credit Santa Clara, their length had a lot to do with it.”
Idaho State did have three players — Cool (11), Porter (10) and Carr (10) — who finished with double-digit points. Heck, Idaho State was up with eight minutes left in the first half.
The Bengals initially overcame their shooting woes and backcourt offense with a phenomenal defensive display, one that routinely saw ISU’s bigs collapse to perfection, which forced Santa Clara into wild, misfired shots near the basket.
Yet, Santa Clara’s 6-foot-9 senior all-conference forward, Josip Vrankic, still managed to do damage, scoring a game-high 24 points. Behind him, 6-foot-6 guard Jalen Williams scored a baker’s dozen against the Bengals.
“There’s not many 6-9 guys who can play inside-out,” Looney said of Vrankic.
Though the first 12 minutes were encouraging, no one expected to win Wednesday. ISU’s season-opener was the Bengals’ first of two ‘buy games’ this season (The other is their Dec. 8 road matchup at Utah). An underdog victory over a West Coast Conference team on the road would have been a nice way for Idaho State to begin this uncertain season.
Instead, the Bengals’ concerns seem to have shifted. It finally has size. Now it has to find a way to utilize that size.
Up next: ISU will stay in Santa Clara to face Nicholls St. Friday at 5 p.m.