Even though they’re 4-0 through their first four Big Sky Conference games — with all of the wins coming comfortably and the latter three by double-digit margins — Seton Sobolewski is pretty confident that he hasn’t seen the ceiling of his Idaho State Bengals quite yet.
Postgame press conferences, while generally positive — as expected during a 6-1 start, the best of Sobolewski’s 13-year tenure — have recently featured small digressions as Sobolewski tries to diagnose exactly what it was that kept his team from playing to their considerable full potential that day.
In the Bengals’ first game against Weber State last week, it was turnovers and shot selection. In the rematch, it was giving up offensive boards and transition opportunities.
“We’re definitely not playing our best basketball yet,” Sobolewski said. “Even the Weber games, where we won by 17 in the first game and won by 19 in the second game ... there were a lot of lapses that we were making. We create a lead and then let them come back and get it to within four or five. There’s still some inconsistencies there where I feel like we still have some room to grow to be a better basketball team.”
Whatever the reason, the Bengals haven’t been close to their best since a win at Kansas State ended their non-conference schedule.
ISU hasn’t needed to be in sweeps against short-handed Northern Colorado and struggling Weber State, but that will change this week. Northern Arizona, which will visit Reed Gym for two games starting on Thursday, is the first Big Sky team that could bring the best out of the Bengals.
“We try to approach every game the same way, we try to respect every opponent we have, no matter where they’re fitting in the standings,” Sobolewski said. “But yeah, we better have our stuff together. NAU is really good. ... They’ve had a lot more success in the non-conference than those other two teams have, and their confidence level is different, their chemistry is different, their approach to basketball is more complex.”
Idaho State and Northern Arizona have been arguably the two best teams in the Big Sky so far this year. ISU was 99th and NAU 100th in the country in the the most recent NET rankings published by the NCAA, with the next Big Sky team, Montana State, all the way back at 141st.
While the Bengals have their win over Kansas State, the Lumberjacks’ 13-point loss against No. 7 Arizona — a game that was within single digits until the third quarter — might be just as impressive a non-conference performance.
And while ISU has cantered to a 4-0 start in conference, Northern Arizona is right behind at 3-1, including a 22-point obliteration of preseason favorite Idaho that was only slightly tempered by a seven-point loss to the Vandals in the rematch.
It’s not that Sobolewski is worried about what will happen if Idaho State continues making lapses against Northern Arizona. The Bengals have much less room for error than against Northern Colorado or Weber, but an early conference loss, although not optimal, isn’t the end of the world for a team that knows the important games are played at the end of the season.
Rather, Sobolewski is excited to see if the Lumberjacks can push ISU closer towards a ceiling that he guesses is pretty high.
“You want to see what happens,” Sobolewski said. “I’m the coach, but I’m also really curious to see, hey, can we step up, can we play better, are we progressing? I’m very interested to see how we’re going to do.”
Scouting the Lumberjacks
Northern Arizona senior Khiarica Rasheed was voted the Big Sky’s preseason MVP after finishing second to Montana State’s Fallyn Freije a year ago.
She missed the first five games of NAU’s season with an injury, but has returned in similarly spectacular form, with 13 and 18 points in the two games against Idaho — in just 16 and 18 minutes, respectively.
A 5-foot-11 post, Rasheed is a tough rebounder and interior scorer despite her height, and can also step out and hit the 3 — she’s 3 for 5 from distance in three games so far this season.
“I don’t know if she’s at the same level (as last year), but she still looks really hard to play against,” Sobolewski said. “In the two Idaho games, she shot the ball really well, she consistently knocked down the 3, she scored in the post, she’s moving well, she’s banging in the post. She looks good, and her perimeter, finesse game looks even better than it was last year.”
With Rasheed and Emily Rodabaugh (53.6% from 3 on just under four attempts a game) as their two main post players, the Lumberjacks’ five-out offense can be a pain to slow down.
”Statistically, sometimes, the 5 player is their best 3-point shooter,” Sobolewski said. “And their skill levels are so high, dribbling, passing, shooting, shooting pull-ups, creating their own shots. They’re just really difficult to play against, and their style, they’re being put in good positions to be difficult to play against.”
With Caitlin Malvar opting out of playing and Lauren Orndoff and Nina Radford out due to injury, NAU is down three starters from a year ago around Rasheed and sharpshooter Jacey Bailey.
But head coach Loree Payne, whose connection with Sobolewski goes back over 20 years to their days as young assistant coaches, hasn’t missed a beat with players like Regan Schenck, who’s taken over point guard duties for Malvar and is averaging 10.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
The Lumberjacks also have two new Nevada transfers in guards JJ Nakai and Miki’ala Maio. Nakai was averaging 18.5 points per game before missing the last two games with an undisclosed injury. It’s unknown if she’ll play this week.
Maio is at 10.9 points per game. Altogether, the Lumberjacks have six players averaging double-figure scoring (Nakai, Rodabaugh, Rasheed, Maio, Bailey and Schenck), although the timing of Rasheed and Nakai’s injuries has probably contributed to that.
ISU lost 70-59 to Northern Arizona at Reed Gym last year before bouncing back with a 79-76 win a month later in Flagstaff. The second game was a classic, as NAU led 23-8 after the first quarter and 65-53 heading to the fourth, but a 32-point performance by Diaba Konate brought the Bengals all the way back.
”The fun part about all that is, the players remember those games,” Sobolewski said. “The coaches definitely do, but the players do, and the different lessons you’ve learned from it, even though NAU is a little different than last year without Orndoff and Radford. I’m not saying it’s a rivalry or anything like that, but I think the players are familiar with each other, so that sometimes equals out to being a really good game.”