ISU MBB: Bengals look to reverse tournament fortunes against Southern Utah
RENO, Nev. – Idaho State holds rare company in Reno: one of four teams without a win in two years at the Big Sky Conference tournament.
The Bengals (14-15) have lost their two postseason games in Reno by a combined 49 points. Their breakout 2015-16 campaign was cut short by an 83-49 drubbing at the hands of North Dakota, and last year’s five-win season ended mercifully with a 91-76 loss to Sacramento State.
For the first time at the neutral-site postseason tournament, the Bengals have a favorable matchup. Seventh-seeded ISU opens the tournament Tuesday against No. 10 Southern Utah (11-18) – a team the Bengals have beaten in four of the last five meetings.
But Idaho State hasn’t won a postseason tournament game since 2009. Bengals coach Bill Evans hasn’t led a team to a postseason victory since 2003, when he guided Southern Utah to a win over Oakland in the Mid-Continent Conference – now The Summit League – tournament.
Bengals guard Brandon Boyd said the team’s attention is on the present. No dwelling on the past. Not in March.
“We’re just focused on the game tomorrow and the game plan,” Boyd said Monday.
“That’s on my mind. That should be on everybody else’s minds, not the past.”
The Thunderbirds are perennial Big Sky bottom-dwellers, but pulled off a thrilling upset in the first round of last year’s conference tournament, upending No. 6 Montana State in triple overtime as the No. 11 seed. SUU also rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit to beat ISU 84-80 on Feb. 3 in Cedar City.
While the stats say otherwise, a postseason upset on Southern Utah’s resume and no tournament wins on ISU’s give Tuesday’s matchup a recipe for more Bengals heartbreak.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” Evans said of Southern Utah on Monday. “I think they can score points in bunches.”
The squads’ two regular-season matchups featured plenty of points. Before SUU’s home win in February, Idaho State earned a 93-78 victory Jan. 4 at Holt Arena. Both teams lean on offense, specifically 3-point shooting.
ISU scores 35.2 percent of its points from beyond the arc, while SUU is right behind at 31.9 percent. The Bengals boast Division I’s top 3-point shooter in sophomore Jared Stutzman (53.7 percent), who earned third-team all-Big Sky honors Monday.
SUU has James McGee (41.3 percent), who is the fourth-leading scorer in program history, a 43.4 percent career 3-point shooter and ranks fourth in league history with 288 career 3-pointers made.
But the Thunderbirds don’t defend the arc well. Opponents shoot 38.6 percent from 3 – tied for 11th in the 12-team Big Sky – and ISU shot a combined 44.4 percent in two meetings this season.
“They’ve really improved defensively from the first time we played them,” Evans said. “They have very good players. They’re very, very explosive from the offensive end. That really concerns me.”
If Idaho State can’t find its rhythm from deep, SUU doesn’t pose a threat to the Bengals’ biggest weakness – rebounding. The Thunderbirds and Bengals are tied for ninth in the league with an average rebounding margin of minus-2.6, and SUU does not have a rebounder ranked in the top 20 of the Big Sky.
“Everybody’s 0-0,” Evans said. “Everybody thinks they have a chance to win three or four games, and that’s our mentality. We’re certainly not overconfident, but we like our team.”
BENGALS POST BEST FG% IN 21 SEASONS
Idaho State’s field-goal percentage of 47.6 is the program’s highest since the 1996-97 season. Aside from Stutzman (57.5 percent), ISU has center Novak Topalovic (53.1 percent) and guard Geno Luzcando (48.1 percent) are eclipsing the team average.
Saturday’s 75-64 loss at Montana ended a streak of three consecutive games in which ISU shot 50 percent or better from the field and 3-point range. The Bengals have eclipsed 50 percent from the floor in 13 games this season, the most during Evans’ six-year tenure. The previous high was eight times in 2015-16.
“It’s just not all because we shoot 3s,” Evans said. “We’re able to get to the basket.”
CHIVICHYAN, KIMBERLEY NOT ON TRIP
Idaho State will be without redshirt sophomore guard Gary Chivichyan (illness) and redshirt freshman post Callum Kimberley (injury) for the entire Big Sky tournament. Neither player traveled to Reno.
Chivichyan last played Feb. 17 at Portland State. Two days earlier on Feb. 15, he scored a career-high 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting from deep in a win at Sacramento State.
For the season, Chivichyan is averaging 7 points per game while shooting 44.3 percent from behind the arc. His absence limits ISU’s depth and eliminates a perimeter weapon.
Kimberley’s playing time was sporadic, but he was a viable fill-in for a handful of minutes per game to bolster Idaho State’s post depth that took a hit with the loss of Kyle Ingram.
Chivichyan and Ingram are two of eight ISU players averaging over 10 minutes per game.
“Less than three weeks ago, Gary had 25 points in a game. Now, he’s not able to participate,” Evans said. “That hurts you a little bit. Callum was the first big off the bench, and he’s injured as well.”
Lately, Evans has been extending minutes to rarely used players like Hayes Garrity and Jacob McCord. The team may have to bank on a breakout performance from an unexpected source in order to outlast the four games necessary to win the tournament.
“I don’t play very many guys,” Evans said. “I keep saying I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to, but I haven’t. I need to. And I trust them, I just think our (starters) are a little farther advanced in one area or another, and so I tend not to substitute like I probably need to.”
GAME INFO AND SERIES HISTORY
Tuesday’s game tips off at 6:35 p.m. MST from the Reno Events Center. Video will be streamed live at watchbigsky.com, with live stats available at statbroadcast.com. Jerry Miller will call the action on 102.5 FM.
Southern Utah owns a 16-13 edge in the all-time series, but the Bengals are 7-4 against the T-birds under Evans. The teams have never played at a neutral site.