Robert Ford Idaho State men's basketball

Idaho State’s Robert Ford III surveys the court during an exhibition against Multnomah.

Idaho State entered 2021 with expectations that it would turn the corner. Historically, coach Ryan Looney has shown to flip around programs in three years.

It has usually taken Looney two seasons to set his foundations. Two seasons to bring in his players. Two seasons to get players comfortable with his complex swing offense.

Looney entered year three in Pocatello off an impressive year two, when the Bengals finished fourth in the Big Sky and ended the season with a record over .500 for the second time in the last 18 years.

This season, though, has not gotten off to the start Looney expected. After trouncing NAIA program Eastern Oregon in the season-opener, the Bengals fell to Pepperdine by five then lost to Seattle U, 77-51, after being tied with the Redhawks at halftime.

Here are three concerns for the Bengals.

1. Three-point shooting

Perhaps nothing was more important to Idaho State this offseason than improving as a 3-point shooting team. Last season, the Bengals made just a third of their shots from beyond the arc — which is especially bad in an offense that frees up 3-point shooters.

Over the summer, Idaho State set up shooting machines in Reed Gym and had each player make 300 triples five-days-a-week. Numerous guys raved in the preseason how much more confident they felt taking 3-point shots.

Yet, through three games, Idaho State has connected on just over a quarter of their shots from deep, including shooting just 22% against Seattle U.

“They made a lot of tough shots and we didn’t make any,” Looney said after the game.

Among guys who have taken at least two 3-pointers, no one on Idaho State is hitting at above a 36% clip. Now, some of this is a product of playing against two good teams in Pepperdine and Seattle U. But even against Eastern Oregon, the Bengals hit just 33%.

When Big Sky play comes around, Idaho State will need to be better from deep to win.

2. Rebounding

There was not a better defensive team in the Big Sky last season – and it wasn’t even close. Idaho State allowed its opponents under 62 points a game. The next best team – Portland State – allowed 66.5 points a game.

The question for ISU was not its defense, but the Bengals have not shown that same prowess early in the year.

“We’re not playing as hard as we were during Big Sky play last year. We have to get back to that,” Looney said. “Our habits in all the areas that require toughness right now aren’t very good. If we want to improve, we have to get better in all those areas. I don’t think our rebounding is where it needs to be. I don’t think we’re playing hard enough defensively.”

A year ago, the Bengals were one of the best Big Sky teams on the boards, finishing the season averaging more than a half-dozen rebounds than their opponents. Through three games in 2021, ISU is getting beat on the boards.

One goal that Looney has for his team each game, too, is to rebound 40% of misses. The Bengals’ are snatching just over a third of its misfires so far.

3. Creating open shots

So often against Seattle U, the Bengals had to force up a shot as the shot clock was close to expiring. This isn’t abnormal in the swing offense. The scheme is predicated on patience. Moving the ball, setting screens until the defense makes a mistake and a high-percentage shot opens up.

But that didn’t happen against Seattle U. A big reason why: The Bengals struggled getting the ball into the paint.

“Some of it needs to be credited to the opponent for doing a good job,” Looney said. “I think we had trouble getting the ball anywhere, period, not just the post. Anytime you don’t even score 50 points in a game — or maybe we got to 50 there at the end. If you’re scoring around 50 points, you’re having trouble everywhere.”

Is this a good sign for Idaho State? No. Is it likely to continue? Also no. The Bengals have too many playmakers, too many offensive weapons to think their woes will stretch much longer than its next contest, a “buy game” at Nebraska on Friday.

Tarik Cool isn’t going to continue hitting 11% of his 3-point attempts. Brayden Parker is going to regain his groove in the post. The newcomers like Jared Rodriguez and AJ Burgin will start to find comfort in Looney’s offense.