We’re #351! Southern Utah Keeps Hope High in Trying SeasonPosted by Kenny Ocker on January 24th, 2014
Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He filed this article Thursday night after Southern Utah and Eastern Washington played at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Jumpers snap through the net. Thunderous dunks shake the basket and stanchion. Crisp passes fly around the court, sometimes two or three at a time. Laughter accompanies the occasional goofy or errant shot. The Southern Utah Thunderbirds are loose, just in time for tip-off. You’d never know the team was riding a 14-game losing streak, or that they were the worst team in Division I in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
“Yesterday is history,” that’s what Thunderbirds coach Nick Robinson said Thursday morning as an evening tip-off against the Eastern Washington Eagles in Cheney, Washington, awaited his team. “There’s nothing you can do about it, whether it’s practice or a game, and you have to focus on what’s going on right now. We try to send that message to our team constantly.” That’s a tall order when your team struggles to hit 35 percent of the shots it takes, when opposing teams hit 50 percent of the shots they take against you, when you turn the ball over one out of each five possessions. But Robinson has his team’s attention, regardless of their 0-14 record against Division I schools. Keeping his players engaged is paramount; there might not be a Division I team with less experience than the Thunderbirds’ 10 combined seasons among their 13 players.
Southern Utah kept its cool demeanor for the first minute of the game. A quick layup from sophomore Casey Oliverson gave the Thunderbirds a 2-0 lead on the first possession. A dead-ball technical foul on senior Jayson Cheesman a minute and a half into the game led Robinson’s posture and demeanor to grow more stern, and his team tightened up at the same time. Seven minutes later, they’re staring at a 19-4 deficit. Instead of folding, they made five layups and a jump shot in eight possessions, then added back-to-back three-pointers from sophomore A.J. Hess and freshman Race Parsons, whittling a 15-point deficit to down to 25-23 in just five minutes. The Thunderbirds added four more possessions that ended with points out of seven, and took just their third lead into halftime this season. The worst-shooting team in the country went 16-of-30 in the first half. The country’s least-esteemed program held a 39-38 lead at the halfway point. One of the country’s 10 worst defenses had 13 stops in the final 22 possessions of the first half. That last performance was what stuck out most to Robinson, a two-time captain and three-time team defender of the year at Stanford from 2001-05 under coach Mike Montgomery.
Southern Utah is Robinson’s first stop in his head coaching career, and it was obvious going in that the team would need rebuilding. He inherited a program with two stud senior guards, Damon Heuir and Jackson Stevenett, but little else in the cupboard. The 2012-13 team made the seven-team Big Sky Conference tournament in its first year in the conference, but Robinson knew going in that he would have to replace more than half the team’s shot attempts from the year prior. His sales pitch to leading scorer Trey Kennedy and the four other freshmen on scholarship was simple: “We play in a great league in the Big Sky, where one team gets an opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament, and that’s our goal. Plus, you’re going to play NCAA teams in non-conference and get exposure to the highest level of basketball. If you want to accept that challenge, let’s go.”
The Thunderbirds lost their lead 10 seconds into the second half, as Ognjen Miljkovic hit a three-pointer off an out-of-bounds set. But again, they proved resilient. The Eagles could never put them away, as the scoring margin stayed between four and nine points. Stops proved elusive for Southern Utah, however. Despite its best offensive performance of the season, shooting 52 percent from the field and 47 percent from three-point range, containing Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey proved to be too much in the second half. The Eagles’ point guard went 14-of-14 from the free-throw line in the half, 20-of-20 in the game, setting a conference record. And he hit tough shots on his way to 36 points, while also grabbing eight rebounds. The Thunderbirds fell, 90-83, their second-single digit loss in a row after having just one all season prior.
Robinson’s voice was cracking and hoarse after the game, the product of imploring his team through another close game and talking with officials about the 33 fouls called against his team. “Defensively, we had breakdowns. Offensively, we turned the ball over way too much,” Robinson said. “But for this basketball team and where we are in this season, for the improvement in tonight’s game… I’m extremely proud of our guys.” The improvement Robinson saw Thursday is a microcosm of what he’s seen all season. The team that scored 83 points tonight has the same players that only topped 60 points once this season, with 61. One year’s woefully inexperienced team becomes the next’s veteran core: The five freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors on scholarship return to Cedar City next year. For a coach who preaches learning from one day to the next, Robinson calls this season one of “constant improvement,” regardless of wins, losses or statistics. For his current team, Robinson’s goal is to focus on the present. But for his rebuilding program, he has something bigger in mind.
“Our goal every single year is to put ourselves in a situation where we can compete in the Big Sky Tournament,” Robinson said before the game. “We are a one-bid league, as you know, and anything can happen in March.”