By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
In a week when most of Montana is consumed with football, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team will face probably its toughest test of the season when it travels to Bozeman to take on NCAA Division I Montana State tonight at Worthington Arena in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Lights coach Shawn Huse, a football fan, isn't above dropping a football analogy to describe the challenge his team will face against the Bobcats.
"When you play a Division I team, it's kind of like playing a good defensive football team with all of your starting offensive linemen being injured."
Simply, it's going to be tough for the Lights.
"We've played a lot of very good players at different positions from different schools," Huse said. "But top to bottom, this probably has to be the best team we will face all season."
Don't let the Bobcats' 1-6 record fool you. The Cats came into this season with Big Sky Conference title hopes. However, the Cats dropped their first three games of the season before picking up a 61-45 win over Utah Valley State.
MSU then lost its next three games, most recently falling to Wisconsin-Green Bay 78-70 at home.
Playing an NCAA team in desperate need of a win of any sort isn't exactly what Huse had planned. But he doesn't think his team should be intimidated by its opponents, its surroundings or by playing an NCAA opponent.
"We really have nothing to lose and everything to gain," Huse said. "It's just the opposite for them. I know they are going to come out fired up and anxious to get a win. But every one of our guys have played against players from Division I schools, so I don't expect us to be intimidated one bit."
Huse's mindset has definitely rubbed off on his players this week in practice.
"We can't go in and be intimidated," said junior forward Reid Stovall. "My philosophy is that they need to worry about us. All we can do is go out and play our game, and play to the best of our ability. We expect to play that way no matter who we are facing."
Unlike years past, Northern's game is defense. The Lights rank second in the conference in scoring defense, limiting teams to just 66.1 points a game. The Lights are also forcing teams into shooting 44 percent from the field, while forcing 19 turnovers and 8.8 steals per game.
"That really is the identity of this team, is defense," Stovall said. "That is the big difference from this year and last. We're not scoring as many points per game, but if we can keep holding teams down, we are still in games."
But playing defense against Augustana University College and playing defense against the Bobcats aren't exactly the same thing.
The Bobcats have just a little bit more size, speed, strength and quickness than any opponent the Lights have faced this season.
"There are always things you can do to counter opponents' strengths, whether it is size, speed or quickness," Huse said. "We just have to execute those things."
Size is tough to counter considering that Northern's tallest player is 6-6 and the Cats play eight players 6-5 or taller.
"We have to rely on conditioning," Stovall said. "We need to push it up the floor and put pressure on them. We need to be in better condition because we aren't as big as they are."
Indeed, on paper the Cats are gigantic compared to Northern, with 7-0 Matt Towsley, 6-10 Al Beye and three 6-7 forwards and a bunch of 6-5 guards and forwards.
However, both Towsley and Beye have been battling injuries and are unlikely to play. That leaves 6-6 forward Marvin Moss starting at center for Towsley. While it may sound like a good thing, Huse isn't quite so sure. He recruited Moss to come to Northern and knows what type of player he is.
"Marvin is one of those very physical, aggressive undersized post players," Huse said. "He's very physical and very aggressive."
Moss is second on the Cats in scoring, at 10.7 points per game, and leads the team in rebounding at seven rebounds per game.
Shooting guard Branden Miller leads the Bobcats at 13.4 points per game. But as a whole, MSU is not an offensive juggernaut. After losing starting point guard Frank Brown, who has been charged with rape, the Cats went from a weak offensive team to an anemic one. The Bobcats are averaging only 60.1 points per game and shooting just 39 percent from the field.
Even though they aren't great offensively, the Bobcats do play good defense and are limiting teams to 66 points per game. They will try to bump and bang, harass and harangue Northern out of its offense.
"They are going to come right after us," Huse said. "They want to pressure and try to force us into turnovers and get some easy points that way."
To combat that, the Lights must play stronger, cleaner and more disciplined than they have this season.
"We really have to concentrate and dig down deep," Huse said. "Their size and strength are going to wear us down physically and mentally in the second half. We have to be mentally disciplined enough to overcome it."
The Cats and Lights tip off at 7:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the Montana State athletics Web site at www.msubobcats.com.