Not much this season has Idaho State looked like the Bengals of last season – which is a positive. The losses have been tight. The effort has been admirable. And, aside from the first three games, the hope has been bright. Saturday didn’t change that. But it tapped the brakes on the anointment of Idaho State as a serious Big Sky contender.
Perhaps the Bengals are. Time will tell. But they sure didn’t look like it on Saturday in a 69-43 loss at Portland State (3-8, 2-4 Big Sky). After collecting a seven-point win over the Vikings on Thursday, ISU scored its fewest points this season and suffered its worst margin of defeat of the year.
Heck, even during the Bengals’ abysmal 2019-2020 campaign, the one when ISU went 8-22 and won just a quartet of conference games, it never scored fewer than 48 points and never lost a game by 26 points.
“It’s just a sign of a program that’s continuing to grow,” Bengals’ head coach Ryan Looney said. “We’ve had some success this season, but now we see that we’re a long ways from where we want to be.”
And the stats of the game, however ugly, are important to contextualize the Bengals’ loss.
“I don’t even want to look at them,” Looney said.
That’s OK, we’ll do it.
A key for Looney heading into this week was ensuring his team set the tone against the Vikings. You can look at its record and understand Portland State has struggled this season, but the Vikings held some kryptonite for the Bengals. PSU is currently the best offensive rebounding team in the conference and a top-60 squad in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metrics. Basically, the Vikings play fast.
The Bengals, however, are the molasses of college basketball. They rank as ninth-to-last in tempo or, in other words, are the 348th-slowest team in the country.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On Thursday, Idaho State dictated the pace and stymied Portland State with a slower style of basketball. It took Looney all of one possession on Saturday to realize the script was flipped. There were a half-dozen more possessions in the Vikings’ victory versus their loss, and probably would have been many more if the score wasn’t so lopsided.
“As great as we played on Thursday making them play at our pace, we didn’t necessarily do that tonight,” Looney said. “I thought they were playing harder on defense, pressuring us, trying to dictate tempo.”
When teams miss shot after shot, spectators like to throw out the cliché that there’s a lid on the rim. There was no need to make that analogy on Saturday. Shots weren’t rolling off the rim, they were clanking off iron or bouncing astray from the backboard.
The other thing is, ISU’s misses weren’t tough shots that make the outcome seem like part luck. They were layups. In total, the Bengals missed 17 layups in their loss, which means that half their misses came from about two feet away.
If 17 seems like a lot, it is. On Thursday, ISU misfired on just one layup.
“I think it was a lack of discipline on our part getting down and not staying the course and shooting shots we don’t normally shoot,” Looney said.
Yes, PSU had length that can make layups trickier. Long arms provide most obstacles for shots. But they’re layups, after all, and it’s not like the Bengals had much trouble converting them two nights earlier against the same team.
But, Looney admitted, it all comes back down to tempo.
“It’s exactly what Portland State wants. They want to rush you into field-goal attempts,” he said. “They’re pressuring you on the perimeter and they’re OK if you get by them … and they’ll just contest you with their length at the rim and make you take shots you wouldn’t normally take.”
After four games, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that errant passes, mental errors and sloppy dribbling were bound to doom Idaho State. During its 0-4 stretch to start the season, ISU was second-to-last in the country, averaging 22 turnovers a game.
They didn’t all of a sudden flip the switch and start putting on a clinic, but the Bengals improved. After those first four games, ISU has committed more than 15 turnovers just three times. The first two ended in Big Sky victories. The third was on Saturday, as ISU committed 18 turnovers that led to 17 Viking points.
“We turned it over too much,” Looney said. “We didn’t do a whole lot of anything to deserve to win that game.”
Some made sense, like all the times Portland State’s full-court press led to a strip or intercepted pass. Others — like when guard Tarik Cool took two five-second violations in the game’s first minutes — are the frustrating anecdotes of a game that show just how much learning the Bengals still have to do.
“Regardless of where you’re at in your season — if you’ve won a bunch in a row, lost a bunch in a row — you have to stay level-headed and prepare each day the right way,” Looney said. “If you lose sight of that in the process, you’re going to have some days like today.”
PORTLAND STATE 69, IDAHO STATE 43
Idaho State 26 17 – 43
Portland State 37 32 – 69
Idaho State – Cool 10, Ford III 10, Parker 10, Smellie 4, Porter 3, Visentin 3, Carr 2, Buzangu 1.
Portland State – Scott 14, Thomas 14, Eyman 11, McCray 10, Hall 6, Burke 5, Hardy 4, Wood 3, Nelson 2.