Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team turns the corner on its Big Sky road schedule this week when the Thunderbirds take a two-game swing to Eastern Washington and Portland State. Following Thursday’s game at EWU the ‘Birds will have played half their conference road games, with just four remaining after Saturday’s game at PSU.
SUU (1-14/0-6 Big Sky), is coming a 65-59 loss at Weber State on Saturday night. The Thunderbirds had one of their best games of the season against their in-state rivals, who were the pre-season favorites to win the Big Sky championship, but the Wildcats came from behind in the final minutes to spoil SUU’s upset hopes.
Eastern Washington (7-10/2-4 Big Sky) is also coming off a loss, a 75-64 setback at Sacramento State last Saturday. The Eagles are 0-4 on the road in Big Sky play this season but are 2-0 at home, with the wins coming over Montana and Montana State two weeks ago.
The Game: Southern Utah (1-14/0-6) at Eastern Washington (7-10/2-4), Thursday at 7:05 p.m. (Pacific), Reese Court (6,000), Cheney, Wash.
Practice Schedule: While at home the Thunderbirds work out daily, beginning at 3:00 p.m. with occasional adjustments due to travel and class schedules. 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 4-2 edge in the series with the Eagles, including a 1-2 mark in Cheney. The two teams split the home-and-home series last year, with SUU taking a 69-55 win in the first meeting, in Cedar City, and the Eagles coming out on top of an 86-72 verdict in Cheney later in the year. The Thunderbirds won the first game in Cheney, an 87-67 triumph during the 1992-93 season, their last win on EWU’s home court.
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 12-34 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. Eastern Washington.
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.
Jim Hayford (Azusa Pacific, 1990) is 27-42 in his third season at Eastern Washington and 286-132 in his 15th season overall as a head coach. Prior to taking over at EWU, Coach Hayford spent two seasons at University of Sioux Falls and 10 at Whitworth, where he led his team to six NCAA Division III tournament appearances. Coach Hayford is 1-1 vs. SUU.
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 53.9 points per game on 36 percent shooting (.309 threes) while knocking down 73 percent of their free throws. SUU has allowed opponents an average of 75.4 points on .492 shooting (.388 threes) and has been out-rebounded by an average of 38.6-27.5 caroms per game. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy leads the team in scoring at 10.6 points per game, with sophomore wing A.J. Hess second at 8.5 ppg. Sophomore forward Casey Oliverson leads the team in rebounding with 4.9 per game while senior forward Jaren Jeffery is second on the squad with 3.5 boards per game. Freshman guard John Marshall leads the team in assists and steals, with 2.2 dimes and 0.9 theft per game. Senior Jayson Cheesman averages a team-best 1.2 blocks per outing.
Scouting Eastern Washington:
The Eagles are 5-1 at home this season, with the only setback coming at the hands of UC Irvine, which handled EWU 81-58 on Dec. 15. Eastern Washington is 2-0 in Big Sky home games, with a 69-62 win over Montana on Jan. 9 and a 77-72 triumph over Montana State two days later.
Sophomore wing Tyler Harvey (6-4, 180) is one of four Eagles carrying double-figure scoring averages. Harvey averages 20.3 points per game in all games and a Big Sky-leading 22.2 in conference games, while Venky Jois (F, 6-7, 230, So) adds 13.2 ppg, Drew Brandon (G, 6-4, 180, Jr) adds 10.9 ppg and Parker Kelly (G, 6-4, 195, Jr) chips in 10.5. Jois leads the team in rebounding with 8.5 per game (9.3 in BSC games, second in the league) and co-leads the team, along with junior center Martin Seiferth (6-10, 235) with 25 blocks. Drew leads the Big Sky with 5.2 assists per game.
As a team the Eagles, who knock down a BSC-leading 8.1 3-pointers per game, average 73.3 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting (.357 threes) while allowing opponents an average of 75 points per game on .443 shooting (.339 threes). Eastern Washington has been out-rebounded by a 37.6-to-36.6 margin and has connected on 65.7 percent of its free throws.
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. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy has started all but one game while guard John Marshall has started eight games and wing Juwan Major has started four. Wing McKay Anderson has had one start – alongside Kennedy, Major and Marshall – at Cal State Northridge. In addition to the freshmen, forward Casey Oliverson, a sophomore in his first season with the Thunderbirds, has started seven games.
• Senior forward Jaren Jeffery was red-hot in the first half at Weber State, knocking down 5-of-5 shots, including 2-of-2 3-point attempts. He finished the half with 13 points (he also hit his only free throw attempt, to convert a 4-point play), one better than his career high for an entire game. He added three more points in the second period to finish with 16 and give SUU three players in double figures. Freshman Trey Kennedy led the team with 17 points while sophomore A.J. Hess also had 16.
• Senior Jayson Cheesman blocked two shots at WSU, giving him four in the last two games and a team-high 18 this season. Cheesman, who ranks fourth on the team’s career blocks list with 78, needs just seven to move into a tie for third place with Kenyatta Clyde (1997-99) with 85.
• Junior forward Eric Rippetoe came off the bench to pull down a career-best four rebounds in just four minutes on the court at Weber State.
• The Thunderbirds had 13 assists and a season-low five turnovers at Weber State, their best assist-to-turnover ratio this season. Hess and Kennedy co-led the team with three dimes apiece. For Hess it was a season-high in assists.
• The Thunderbirds used 11 players at WSU, their fewest in a game this season.
• SUU hit 52 percent of its shots in the first half at Weber State (14-27), its second-best opening period of the year, and held the halftime lead, 32-29. It was the first time the Thunderbirds held the lead at half in a conference game this season.
• SUU shook up the starting lineup at Idaho State, going with the twin towers, Cal Hanks and Cheesman, in a double-post look. It was Cheesman’s first start since the Cal game. Guard Chris Nsenki got his first start since the Utah State game and point guard Drake Thomas got his first career start while Hess started on the wing. Hess had started the previous seven games while Hanks had been in the starting lineup in the previous five. Kennedy, who had started every game prior to ISU, replaced Thomas in the starting lineup at Weber State but the other four were on the court for the opening tip.