By Ryan Divish
Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse isn't above referring to old basketball coaches' sayings.
No matter how corny or clich some of them may be, there is still an ounce of truth in some. However, Huse isn't completely sold on the old saying, "the hardest thing to do is beat a team three times in a season."
Huse and his Lights will be looking to do exactly that as they open the Frontier Conference tournament Thursday against the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears at the Butte Civic Center.
Northern defeated Rocky twice during the regular season, however those two games pale in comparison of importance. It's pretty simple really - win and keep playing. Lose and it's time to start preparing for next year.
As for that old saying about beating a team three times, Huse remains diplomatic.
"I guess there may be some validity to it," Huse said. "But I just hope our kids don't believe there's any validity to it. It still is the same two teams squaring off at a neutral site. We've beat them at their site and we've beat them at our site, so there is really no reason not to believe we can't win this game."
If we're sticking to those old coaching sayings, you might as well throw out another one, "everyone's record is the same in a tournament, 0-0."
Nobody knows this better than Rocky. A year ago, the Bears came into last season's Frontier Conference Tournament with a 9-19 record and the sixth seed. But Rocky put everything together at the right time and won three consecutive games, knocking off the top three seeds - Westminster, Lewis-Clark State, Carroll College - in succession, to win the championship and advance to the NAIA national tournament.
Rocky is in a different position this year. With four of its five starters returning from last year's team, the Bears, who sport a 9-5 conference record and 21-9 overall record, certainly aren't going to surprise anyone.
If anything, Northern is in the position that the Bears were in last season. The Lights weren't expected to do much this season, but they certainly have raised a few eyebrows on their way to 6-8 conference record and 19-13 overall record. Huse hopes to raise a few more in the tournament.
"We really have nothing to lose," Huse said. "We finished two spots ahead of where we were picked and exceeded most people's expectations. We've had a great year and built a solid foundation for what we want to accomplish here. Anything that happens in the tournament is gravy."
The best gravy would be winning the tournament and getting the automatic bid to nationals. However, Huse and his team are focusing on a very talented Rocky team that played them down to the wire in both games.
"They'll be very hungry to get that first win against us," Huse said. "Most importantly, they'll be very hungry to get that first win in the tournament."
With both teams needing to win the conference tournament to have any chance at playing in the national tournament, emotions, intensity and motivation will be running on overload.
But while the incentive may be higher, the keys for the game will still remain the same. At this point in the season, there aren't too many new things that can be added before the tournament.
"The keys for us to win are still the same," Huse said. "We still have to get rebounds and not allow them second and third chances, defend their big guys inside, and we have to focus on Jake Stuart because he's had two really good games against us."
Indeed, the former KG star has torched the Lights this season. In Rocky's loss at home, Stuart scored 24 points and led his team back from a 12-point deficit with under two minutes to play. In Rocky's loss in Havre, Stuart was simply dominant scoring 29 points including six three-pointers.
"We really have to make an effort to slow him down," Huse said. "But that doesn't mean we won't pay attention to Marshaun (Jordan) and Spencer (Allred)."
Both Jordan and Allred are fierce competitiors on the inside and will give Northern all it can handle in terms of rebounding.
"We have to defend their interior while still defending Stuart on the perimeter," Huse said.
Northern will be aided by the return of senior Charlie Ereaux, who missed the Lights' last two games to be there for the birth of his son, Brenden.
Ereaux, who hasn't played in a game in almost three weeks, should be well rested and healed up from the rough-and-tumble conference play.
Huse believes Ereaux's return should bolster the play of leading scorer Larry Morinia and the entire Northern offense.
"It really affected us not having Charlie in those last two games," Huse said. "That trip is hard enough in terms of travel and opponents with your full squad. To go down there without him really hurt us in terms of confidence."
With the teams in the conference having nearly two weeks break from their last game, the first round games could be somewhat sloppy as teams try to get back in game form. It's something that could work to Northern's advantage.
"We have done best when the games have turned ugly," Huse said. "That's how we have to play. Some of our best games have been when we forced 26, 27 or even 30 turnovers. If things get ugly, I think that's good."
Ugly is good? If the Lights can pick up its third win over Rocky this season, Huse may have come up with his own coaching saying.
Northern and Rocky tip off at 2 p.m. on Thursday and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.