POCATELLO – With knees bent and arms extended, Idaho State guards A.J. Burgin and Emmit Taylor stood 90 feet apart and waited for the queue.

Shirtless at the scorer’s table, ISU junior Robert Ford III sat near midcourt of Reed Gym, set the scoreboard clock to 27 minutes and bellowed across the gym.

“Ready, set, go.”

The next 24-odd minutes was like watching the balls of Newton’s cradle clang off each other. Basketballs were consistently launched at Burgin and Taylor, a shooting machine rocketing the orange leather to the Bengals’ shooters every three seconds. Launch, catch, shoot. Rinse, repeat.

Burgin, the Bengals’ highly-touted freshman, was shooting on the south end of the court, never even so much as glancing over to the north end, where ISU’s junior sharp-shooter was perpetually stepping into picture-perfect shots that arched over the netting like a rainbow over a mountain range.

In a gray shirt, Idaho State coach Ryan Looney looked like a child at a carnival, a beaming smile plastered across his face as he paced from one end of the court to the other, checking each guy’s stats and reporting back to interested onlookers.

This exercise is not supposed to be something caked in excitement. Don’t tell that to Looney.

When he arrived in Pocatello in 2019, the basketball program was antiquated when it came to new-age technology. Case-in-point were the shooting machines, the $5,000 mechanical marvels that not only fire out balls like a pitching machine, but can be programmed to shoot them to different locations at different intervals.

The Bengals had zero of them three years ago. They now have a quartet, each of which was in use on the night Burgin and Taylor dueled it out.

“That’s been a huge part of our recruiting and our player development. It’s why we’ve invested so much time and money into what we’re doing right now,” Looney said. “We’re simply trying to challenge our guys with their shooting at the same pace they would have to play at on game day.”

From the machine, there’s a net that juts upwards and creates a rectangle around the backboard, catching most shots – makes or misses – and funneling them into the launcher.

The drill Burgin and Taylor were running through was one Looney started doing at Seattle Pacific years back, with the idea being to have players get up as many shots as possible in an efficient way.

Standing on the sideline as Burgin and Taylor hurled make after make into the netting, Looney pulled out his phone, opened up his calculator app and began punching in numbers like an accountant.

The machine spits out a ball every three seconds, he noted, and with only 27 minutes on the clock, a guy can realistically only get up about 450 shots before the buzzer sounds. The program, though, is all about the makes. The goal is to connect 300 shots out of, at the worst, 450 attempts , which means a guy has to shoot over 66% from deep to complete it.

With the number memorized, Looney put down his calculator and explained he wanted his team make 22,500 3-pointers a week. Fifteen guys in town times five days a week times 300 makes a day.

Yep, the math checks out.

****

Burgin and Taylor are shooting and shooting and shooting … and shooting. It’s as nauseating as it is exhilarating. They knock down their 60 shots from the corner rather efficiently and move a few feet over to the wing. Sweat is already beading down their face and back.

From those who have attempted it, this drill is as much about stamina as it is about shooting form – with shoulders and calves often aching afterwards. As of late July, Looney said about 11 out of his 15 players meet the 66% mark each night. When they first got going, fatigue was crippling the stats.

“Our better shooters were getting it done, but it was an accomplishment to get to 66%,” Looney said. Now, we have a bunch of guys who are disappointed if they’re not shooting at 70%.”

Both Burgin and Taylor are in that camp. They’ve been at this for weeks now, and it shows. The sweat and exhaustion builds up, yet their form hardly deviates.

Burgin catches each pass simultaneously as his left foot plants behind the 3-point line. He swings his right foot around and positions it at a 45-degree angle, allowing his right shoulder to almost line up with the rim. His shot is less of a flick and more of a full-body movement, which allowed him to take 30-foot 3s in high school. Behind the line, he springs up with a little forward hop and fires up a high-arching shot from in front of his face.

Taylor’s shot, on the other hand, is like a protractor. As the 6-foot-4 guard lifts straight up, his right elbow almost looks like it doesn’t move. His dad always preached form shooting, to work on the technique in hopes of creating the same shot. Taylor’s body points to the left each time he rises up, which allows him to line up his right eye and right elbow on a parallel plane to the rim, staying straight as he cocks the ball back to the top of his head.

Watch Burgin and Taylor take a few shots and it’s no wonder they’re so rock solid at Looney’s drill.

****

This workout is not usually a head-to-head competition. On this night, it was. And for spectators, it’s an easy race to follow: Whoever moves to the next spot first is ahead.

Early on, Burgin had a clear lead, moving to the top of the key with 13:25 on the clock – more than 40 seconds before Taylor. But this thing is a marathon and they keep on shooting. Down to the last few makes, it’s clear this isn’t going to be a record-breaking performance. Burgin completes his 300 makes in 23 minutes, 29 seconds, taking the cake with a 76% clip, only a percentage point higher than Taylor.

“Just an average day, I guess,” Taylor said afterwards.

Indeed, it was. The first time Taylor ever did the drill, he knocked down 72% of his tries. He’s never been below that mark. Meanwhile, Burgin was at just 60% on initial attempt, then 64% the next day and 67% the day after that – a constant ascension.

Then on July 14, Burgin went 300 for 376 – an 80% clip that broke the team record. The ensuing weeks have turned into the 1998 home run race with Burgin and Taylor acting like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire ping-ponging over each other for the record.

Just after Burgin jumped ahead, guard Tommy Ball threw himself into the mix with a record-breaking 81%-performance. Then Taylor knocked down 85%. Two weeks ago, Burgin regained the lead at 86%, a mark Taylor tied last Wednesday.

Looney is sure to commemorate the record-breaking number with a picture he posts to Twitter, a fun and innocent way to encourage competition in his locker room.

“Everything we do, whether it’s in the weight room or conditioning, an individual workout or our shooting, we’re trying to challenge them to compete with each other,” Looney said.

“That’s one of our main things – we try and make each other better. We’ve had multiple team meetings about it,” Burgin added. Any time someone breaks a record, it’s like “Alright, time (to break it).”