T-Bird Men Host Sacramento State, Northern Arizona

January 07, 2014
By SUU Strategic Communication
Jaren Jeffery dunks against UNLV
Jaren Jeffery dunks against UNLV
Courtesy: SUU Strategic Communications

Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team opens its 2014 home schedule and its Big Sky home slate over the next week when it hosts Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. The Thunderbirds host the Hornets Saturday night, then welcome the Lumberjacks on Monday.

SUU (1-10/0-2 Big Sky) will be playing just its fourth home game of the season Saturday and will be looking to notch its first Big Sky win after opening with losses at North Dakota and Northern Colorado last week. The Thunderbirds opened conference play last Thursday with a hard-fought 65-61 setback at North Dakota, then ran into a red-hot Northern Colorado team that shot 62 percent en-route to a 91-55 victory.

Sacramento State (4-7, 0-2 Big Sky), which plays at Northern Arizona on Thursday, opened Big Sky play in Montana last week, where the Hornets lost a 70-55 decision to Montana State and an 82-70 setback at Montana. Like the Thunderbirds, the Hornets have been road warriors this season, with eight road games so far against four home contests. They host Portland State next week in their Big Sky home-opener.

Northern Arizona (4-9, 1-1 Big Sky) also opened its conference schedule with a swing through Montana last week, taking a 73-65 win at Montana before losing a heart-breaker at Montana State, 68-66. The Lumberjacks’ win at Montana was the only road win on the opening weekend of conference play. NAU has also played the large majority of its games this season on the road, with just three of its non-conference games coming in Flagstaff.

The Games:Saturday – Sacramento State (4-7, 0-2 pending the outcome of Thursday’s game at Northern Arizona) at Southern Utah (1-9/0-1), 7:05 p.m. in the Centrum Arena (5,300). Monday – Northern Arizona (4-9, 1-1, pending the outcome of Thursday’s game) at Southern Utah, 7:05 p.m.

Practice Schedule:While at home the Thunderbirds work out daily, beginning at 3:00 p.m. Practices are held in the Centrum Arena. All practices are open to the public.

Media Availability:Players and coaches are made available for interviews on Tuesdays prior to practice at 2:30 p.m., with occasional adjustments because of travel and class schedules.

Radio:All SUU men’s basketball games are broadcast live by Power 91 KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at www.power91radio.com. Art Challis is in his 40th season as the Thunderbirds’ basketball play-by-play voice. Dr. Challis is joined on home and selected road broadcasts by former SUU standout Dean O’Driscoll.

On The Internet:All of Southern Utah’s home games and Big Sky road games will be available on Watch Big Sky, at www.bigskytv.org. Audio of SUU home and road games is available at the Thunderbirds’ website at www.suutbirds.com or at www.power91radio.com.

Live Stats:Live stats of all of SUU’s home games and selected road contests will be available at www.suutbirds.com.

Video Highlights:Video highlights of the Thunderbirds’ home games will be available to accredited media outlets via SUU’s FTP site. For information on obtaining those highlights contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner.

The Series:Southern Utah holds a 14-7 advantage in the series with Sacramento State, including a 79-67 win the last time the teams met, last year in Cedar City, where the Thunderbirds hold an 8-2 edge in the series. The two teams, which competed against each other in the American West Conference from 1994 to 1996, split two games last year, with the Hornets taking a 64-59 home victory.

NAU holds a 13-9 edge in the series with the Thunderbirds, but SUU swept the series last year, picking up a 90-77 win in Flagstaff, then defending the home court with a 78-67 victory. During the 2002-03 season, the last times the teams met prior to this year, the Lumberjacks took a 73-56 win in Cedar City, then completed a season sweep with an 85-68 win in Flagstaff. Southern Utah holds a 6-3 edge in the series in games played in Cedar City.

The Coaches:

SUU Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford ‘05), a 2013 finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award which honors the top first-year coach in the nation, has a record of 12-30 in his second season at SUU and his second season overall as a head coach. In his first year at SUU Coach Robinson led the Thunderbirds to a sixth-place finish in the Big Sky Conference, earning a BSC tournament berth in the school’s first season in the league. SUU posted an 11-20 overall record, including an 8-12 mark in Big Sky games last year, when two Thunderbirds, seniors Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, earned all-conference honors.  Coach Robinson came to Southern Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons on the staff. Prior to his time at LSU, Robinson spent a season at William Jewell College and two on the staff at his alma mater, Stanford. During his time as an assistant coach, Robinson helped guide his teams to a combined record of 87-47 and four post-season appearances, including two NCAA, one NIT and one NAIA Division I national tournaments. Coach Robinson is 1-1 vs. Sacramento State and 2-0 vs. Northern Arizona.

Robinson is assisted by Todd Okeson (Nevada ‘05), Chad Bell (Nevada ‘06), and Drew Allen (Southern Utah ‘10). Yahosh Bonner (Northern Colorado ‘10) serves as Director of Basketball Operations. Okeson and Allen were with the Thunderbirds last season while Bell and Bonner are in their first seasons with the program.

Sacramento State is coached by Brian Katz (Sacramento State, 1980). Coach Katz,  who is in his fifth season at Sac State and his fifth season overall as a head coach, takes an overall record of 46-112 into Thursday’s game at NAU. Katz is 1-1 vs. SUU.

Northern Arizona is coached by Jack Murphy (Arizona, 2005). Coach Murphy is 15-30 in his second season at NAU and his second season overall as a head coach. Murphy is 0-2 vs. SUU.

Captains:This year’s captains are seniors Jayson Cheesman and Jaren Jeffery and junior Chris Nsenki.

Pre-Conference Schedule:SUU played nine official non-conference games this year and will play Big Sky games exclusively throughout the remainder of the regular season. The Thunderbirds’ non-conference schedule was one of the toughest in the nation, as SUU’s strength of schedule to this point ranks 46th in Division I and second in the Big Sky. The Thunderbirds’ 2013-14 SOS has been as high as 34th. The non-conference schedule was heavy with road contests as the team scheduled just three official games in the Centrum before the conference opener. The Thunderbirds went 1-2, with a win over Arizona Christian and losses to UC Riverside and UNLV, at home in the pre-season and 0-6 on the road. The road slate included games at No. 23 San Diego State, California, Utah State, San Diego, Portland and Cal State Northridge.

SUU by the Numbers:Overall, the Thunderbirds are averaging 56.4 points per game on 36.7 percent shooting (.329 threes) while knocking down 73.3 percent of their free throws. SUU has allowed opponents an average of 78.1 points on .492 shooting (.378 threes) and has been out-rebounded by an average of 39.3-28.5. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy leads the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game, with sophomore wing A.J. Hess second at 8.1 ppg. Sophomore forward Casey Oliverson leads the team in rebounding with 5.0 per game while senior forward Jaren Jeffery is second on the squad with 3.5 caroms per game. Freshman guard John Marshall leads the team in assists and steals, with 2.6 dimes and 1.1 thefts per game. Senior Jayson Cheesman averages a team-best 1.2 blocks per outing.

Scouting Sacramento State:

The Hornets have prospered at home but struggled on the road, winning three of their four home contests but coming out on the wrong end of six of their seven road games. The road triumph was a 73-67 win at UC Davis, while the road losses came at CSU Bakersfield, UCLA, UTEP, CS Fullerton, Montana State and Montana.

Two Hornets carry double-figure scoring averages, junior guards Mikh McKinney (6-1, 175) and Dylan Garrity (6-2, 175), at 13.5 and 11.8 ppg, respectively. Wing Cody Demps (So, 6-0, 200) leads the team with 4.4 rebounds per game while F Nick Hornsby (6-7, 200, Fr) averages 3.7 boards per game. Garrity and McKinney are also 1-2 on the team in assists, with 3.1 and 3.0 per game.

As a team the Hornets average 63.3 ppg on .420 shooting (.341 threes) while giving up 68.2 ppg on .460 shooting (.369 threes). They have knocked down 69.8 percent of their free throws and have been out-rebounded 33.5-to-31.9 per game.

Scouting Northern Arizona:

The Lumberjacks come into the game with a 2-6 road mark. NAU won its season-opener at Texas-San Antonio, then lost at Texas Tech, USC, Loyola Marymount and top-ranked Arizona before defeating Montana and losing at Montana State last week.

Three ‘Jacks carry double-figure scoring averages, led by JC transfer Quinton Upshur (G, 6-5, 207, Jr) at 14.1 ppg. Senior forward Max Jacobsen is second on the team in both scoring and rebounding, at 13.7 ppg and 4.8 rpg, while guard Aaseem Dixon, another JC transfer, averages 12.8 ppg and a team-best 2.8 assists. Junior forward Gaellan Bewernick (6-6, 215) is the team’s top rebounder, with 7.1 per game.

As a team NAU averages 65.5 ppg on .429 shooting (.336 threes) while allowing an average of 70.9 points on .460 shooting (.369 threes). The Lumberjacks have knocked down 73.5 percent of their free throws and out-rebounded their opponents by an average of 33.8-to-32.4 caroms per game.

Young T-Birds:Southern Utah is one of the youngest teams in America, with just 10 combined seasons of collegiate experience heading into the 2013-14 campaign. SUU has five true freshmen (not including walk-ons) on the roster and three of the five have played in every game, with the other two appearing in all but one. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy has started every game while guard John Marshall has started six games and wing Juwan Major has started four. Wing McKay Anderson has had one start – alongside Kennedy, Major and Marshall – at Cal State Northridge.

Block Party:

• Senior Jayson Cheesman leads the team with 13 blocked shots. He had a string of at least one rejection in nine straight games broken when he went without one at Northern Colorado. The only other game this season in which he didn’t have a block was the season-opener vs. Arizona Christian. He now has 73 blocks in his SUU career, which ranks fourth on the SUU career list. He needs 12 to tie Kenyatta Clyde (1997-99) in third place with 85.

• Junior center Cal Hanks has five blocks this season. He blocked a shot at North Dakota to give him 41 in his career, the 10th-best total at SUU; he is four behind Richard Barton’s (1990-93) 45.

Casey Oliverson is second on the team with seven rejections. He blocked his first shot as a Thunderbird vs. UC Riverside and finished the game with three. He also had two at Portland and another at Northridge.

Northern Colorado Game Highlights:

Eric Rippetoe came off the bench to lead the team in scoring for the second time in three games. The junior forward hit 4-of-6 shots (2-of-3 threes) for 10 points and also picked off a steal in 11 minutes on the court.

Trey Kennedy had four assists, his second-highest total of the season and his most since dishing out five dimes in the season-opener.

Drake Thomas scored a career-high six points and dished out a season-high tying two assists.

• Senior forward Jaren Jeffery knocked down the first 3-pointer of his career.

• SUU bounced back from a sub-par first half, in which it hit 8-of-24 shots, to connect on 10-of-19 in the second period, a 52.6 percent success rate.