Let’s start with the good news of the weekend for Idaho State men’s basketball. It played all three of its games as scheduled. Woo-hoo! Forget a championship, that is seemingly the most elusive feat in sports right now. Only thing is, none of those games were pretty.
The Bengals concluded their stretch at the Bronco Invitational on the campus of UC Santa Clara with a trio of losses, losing to the hosts, Nicholls State and UC Davis. Idaho State is now 0-3 for the first time since 2017, raising concerns about the Bengals in coach Ryan Looney’s second season.
Here are three takeaways from ISU’s first week of action.
1. Turnovers are piling up at an alarming rate.
With his orange Idaho State mask fastened, Looney sat in the stands of Santa Clara's Leavy Center and simply shook his head, unable to fully comprehend what his team did this week or how to explain it.
In three games, the Bengals turned the ball over 69 times — 20 against Santa Clara, 28 against Nicholls State and 21 in Saturday's defeat to UC Davis.
“We turned it over way too many times to win a college basketball game," Looney said. “Especially in the first half of the game, the majority of UC Davis’ points came off our turnovers and not necessarily scoring in the half-court.”
He’s right. This week, ISU’s 69 turnovers led to 83 points for its opponents.
Granted, the rate probably won’t last, but ISU’s 23 turnovers-per-game average would be more than five-per-game worse than any team in the country last year. Speaking of last year, ISU committed an average of 13.7 turnovers, which still wasn’t great — ninth in the Big Sky and 218th in the nation — but at least it wasn’t 23!
For really skilled teams, 20 turnovers would probably be too much to overcome. For teams like Idaho State — which lacks the talent and experience of even fellow Big Sky teams — it's self-sabotage akin to eating a Big Mac at every mile of a marathon.
And the turnovers come on such rudimentary things, which only adds kerosene to the steam blowing out of the ears of every Idaho State fan. Traveling calls on inbounds plays. Throwing passes to no one. Getting the ball stolen on what feels like every dribble — the Bengals got pickpocketed 36 times in their first preseason tournament. For a comparison, Idaho State’s defense racked up a total of six steals this week — 30 less than its opponents.
How does that happen?
“I think there’s a lot of different things. I think when you’re used to playing in high school or junior college, sometimes you can get away with those things,” Looney said. “When you’re playing Division I, every possession matters, and our program is learning that in a hard way right now.”
2. ISU’s big men are making a difference but struggling to get the ball.
Idaho State had no real chance of success last season. Most teams don’t when they're forced to start a 6-foot-5 forward at center.
This go-round alleviated the burden of Malik Porter — the aforementioned 6-foot-5 forward — who can now shift back to his normal power forward spot while 6-foot-8 Brayden Parker and 6-foot-9 Zach Visentin post up in the paint.
That’s made a difference, especially in ISU’s 70-61 loss to UC Davis on Saturday. Though Parker and Visentin only combined for 11 points, their presence freed up space for Idaho State to succeed down low. For the first time all week, the Bengals had more points in the paint than their opponent (34-32) and out-rebounded them (38-27).
“We established the post,” Looney said. “We scored some baskets in there, ones we didn’t necessarily get the first two nights.”
Saturday’s numbers were encouraging, especially after ISU was mauled in the paint on Wednesday and Friday. The problem wasn’t necessarily the play of its big men, however. Rather, it turned into a situation where the Bengals’ guards could not funnel the ball down low. No fakes, no bounce passes, no cuts. Nothing worked — which led to more turnovers.
“We’ve talked a lot about what our identity is going to be,” Looney said. “I think any team I coach I want (our identity) to be defense and rebounding … Because of all our turnover issues, we’re getting nowhere close to where we want to be.”
The Bengals finally have size. But’s it’s no good if they can’t get the ball.
3. It’s tough to pick out consistent scoring threats.
On Friday, following ISU’s 19-point loss to Nicholls State, Looney was asked if he was concerned that seniors Tarik Cool and Malik Porter — the Bengals top two scorers last season — only had 11 points on 1 of 11 shooting.
Rather than saying those figures were reason for some concern, he noted that he’s concerned about every single player’s offensive output. As he should have been. The Bengals scored 51 points on Friday. They shot 19% from the field in the first half and shot just over 25% from deep on the night.
“We have a long way to go,” Looney said. “I’ll be the first to admit that.”
That night, junior guard Robert Ford III, a 6-foot community college transfer, knocked down three triples and led the Bengals with 13 points. On Saturday, Cool flashed the offensive prowess coaches touted all through the preseason. He had 18 points on 7 of 16 shooting while Porter had 13 and Ford recorded a dozen.
That production is all fine, but it raises two questions? How much can Cool, Porter and Ford improve? Who is going to help them carry the offensive load? Parker? Austin Smellie? Daxton Carr?
There’s another thing, too. ISU is still searching for who can excel in crunch time, who can take over a game single-handedly and get the hoop when the Bengals need a bucket.
With five minutes to play against UC Davis, ISU was down just one. Then, the Bengals imploded. This is what transpired on ISU’s next five possessions: Cool turned the ball over, then missed a jumper. Porter, who was hesitant to pull the trigger all game, misfired on a mid-range jumper. A 3-point attempt from Cool was off. And Porter couldn’t finish a layup.
By that point, three minutes had passed and the Aggies were up a half-dozen. Game over.
“We should be trying to get the ball to the post," Looney said. "We should be giving ourselves a chance, worst-case scenario, to get to the free-throw line.
“We didn’t do that. We took floaters, step-back 3s, shots that, when you’re getting to winning time, aren’t going to help you.”