By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Normally, playing a 1-13 team would hardly keep most basketball coaches up at night with worry.
Still, Montana State University-Northern head coach Shawn Huse knows his team isn't playing a typical 1-13 team when it hosts the Haskell Indian Nation University Fighting Indians today at 7 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gym.
Actually, Haskell brought an 0-13 record at the beginning of its four-game Montana road trip. However last night, with Huse watching, the Indians knocked off the University of Great Falls 77-75 on its home floor.
"Haskell played really confident and with a lot of energy," Huse said. "It was hard to tell that they were a 1-13 team by the way they played."
Huse is quick to point out that Haskell's record is somewhat misleading.
"They have played some very tough competition this season," he said. "They've played some very good teams like Southern Nazarene from Oklahoma. That is one of the top NAIA schools in the country."
Haskell has also squared off against nationally ranked NCAA Division II Northwest Missouri State and other solid NAIA programs. To be certain, the Indians are battle-tested and won't be intimidated playing against most teams.
"They are more than capable of making things interesting," Huse said. "They force you into playing sloppy and turn you over, and if they are making shots, they can be dangerous."
Which is precisely what happened to UGF. The Argos actually led Haskell 25-15 early in the first half and 34-31 at halftime. But the Indians battled back in the second half thanks to a combination of pressure defense and clutch shooting from the free-throw line and from three-point range.
The stifling, pressure defense is a matter of concern for Huse, who's team has battled turnover issues all season.
"We've had our problems with taking care of the ball all season," he admitted. "We have to be strong with the basketball and expect them to be reaching in and trying to make steals. We can't get caught up in that pressure. We have to play our style."
But it isn't just the pressure of Haskell's defense, it's the variety of the looks. The Indians play a myriad of full-court, half-court, man-to-man and zone defenses.
"They really do a good job of mixing up their defenses," Huse said. "We have recognize what defense they are in early and make the adjustment."
To help combat that defensive pressure, Huse has made a change to his starting lineup. Sophomore Leo Bullchild of Browning will replace Antonio Jordan as the starting point guard. The promotion is something that Bullchild has earned.
"He really has earned this opportunity with the way he has played lately," Huse said. "It isn't something that he got by default. He's put in his time the last three years and made himself into a solid point guard. He just has a knack for passing the basketball and getting the ball to the right people."
Huse doesn't view the change as demotion for Jordan, who has been solid for Northern this season.
"Tony is still going to play a lot of minutes for us," he said. "He is a tremendous defender and a great free-throw shooter. He will be on the floor plenty for us."
There are no other major changes to Northern's lineup as of yet. Huse did say that transfer Dan Brigham will be eligible once the second semester of school begins in the middle of January, giving the Lights another big man inside.
Fortunately for Huse and the Lights, their lack of size won't be as big of factor against Haskell. The Indians have just one player, John Lelonek, that stands over 6-6. However, the rest of the roster is filled with plenty of players in the 6-3 to 6-5 range that possess good athleticism and all-around basketball skills.
One of those players will be making a return trip home. It's been almost seven years since Raymond "Jazz" Parker took to the floor at the Northern gym in the District 9C tournament as a member of the Rocky Boy Stars.
After a four-year stop in the military and two years out of school, Parker returns to the Hi-Line as a sophomore for the Indians.
Parker, a 6-4 forward, had six points, six rebounds and two steals against UGF in front of a large group of fans from Rocky Boy who made the trip.
Huse expects even more fans from all of the local reservations to make the trip to Havre tonight.
"There should be a lot of people cheering for Haskell," he said. "It's good to have some more fans. It will make it more exciting."
Also on the Haskell roster is 6-1 senior Corey Ladson of the Crow Agency, who led Haskell in scoring last season at 16.3 points per game. Former Harlem standout Ben Carrywater, a player Huse recruited, is also in the Haskell program as a redshirt this season.
Haskell gets solid contributions from junior forward Topah Spoonhunter, point guard Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens and sophomore Jamison King.
"They play really well together," Huse said. "For as much as they push the ball, they don't take that many bad shots. Our transition defense has got to be there because they want to race the ball down the court and get a shot as fast as possible."
With the exception of Bullchild, the Northern starting lineup will remain the same with Landen Grant, Reid Stovall, Jordan Matthews and Marcus Wilson. Jordan, Cory Brothers, Cody Gillespie and Rodrick Carter will provide punch off the bench.
With only three games remaining till conference season kicks off against UM-Western, Huse expects his team to raise its level of play.
"We have to start getting in that conference mindset," he said. "There is no question we have to raise our level of play. We've told them that Haskell needs to be in the front of their minds and Western needs to be in the back."