Southern Utah’s men’s basketball team wraps up a four-game road stretch and turns the corner into the second half of its Big Sky road schedule Saturday when the Thunderbirds take on Portland State at 7:00 p.m.
SUU (1-15/0-7 Big Sky), which is still looking for its first conference victory of the season, has been constantly improving but coming up just short. The Thunderbirds had one of their best games of the season last Saturday against in-state rival Weber State – the pre-season Big Sky favorites – but the Wildcats came from behind in the final minutes to spoil SUU’s upset hopes, 65-59. Then on Thursday the Thunderbirds met Eastern Washington, where they again led much of the game before the Eagles pulled away at the end for a 90-83 win.
Portland State (7-8/2-4 Big Sky) has won two of its last three games, including an 81-78 home win over Montana and a 68-64 victory at Sacramento State that snapped a 20-game road skid. Both of those games went into overtime, with the Montana game going into three extra sessions. In their last game the Vikings lost a 77-56 decision at Northern Arizona. PSU opens a four-game home stretch against the Thunderbirds Saturday night.
The Game: Southern Utah (1-15/0-7) at Portland State (7-8/2-4), Saturday at 7:05 p.m. (Pacific), Stott Center (1,500) Portland, Ore.
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: PSU holds a 2-1 edge in the series between the two schools on the hardwood. Although the two teams were both members of the Western Football Conference in the late 1980s and early 1990s and met on the gridiron on a yearly basis, this will be just the fourth meeting between the two schools in men’s basketball, the third at the NCAA Division I level. The two teams split a pair of games last season, with the Thunderbirds taking a 76-63 win in Cedar City and the Vikings answering that with a 90-69 win in Portland later in the season. The first meeting between SUU and PSU came early in the 1969-70 season when the Vikings took a 107-93 win over the then-NAIA Thunderbirds in Portland.
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 12-35 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. Portland State.
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.
Portland State is coached by Tyler Geving (Central Washington, 1996), who is 59-78 in his fifth season at the helm of the Viking program and his fifth overall as a head coach. Coach Geving 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 55.8 points per game on 37.3 percent shooting (.321 threes) while knocking down 71.9 percent of their free throws. SUU has allowed opponents an average of 76.3 points on .492 shooting (.379 threes) and has been out-rebounded by an average of 38.2-28.7 caroms per game. Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy leads the team in scoring and assists with 11.3 points and 2.4 dimes per game, while sophomore wing A.J. Hess is second in scoring at 9.0 ppg. Sophomore forward Casey Oliverson leads the team in rebounding with 4.8 per game while senior forward Jaren Jeffery is second on the squad with 3.7 boards per game. Freshman guard John Marshall leads the team in steals with 0.9 theft per game while senior Jayson Cheesman averages a team-best 1.1 blocks per outing.
Scouting Portland State:
The Vikings – who have been starting four guards with three under 6-1 – are 6-3 at home this season, 1-1 in conference play after losing to Montana State (79-76) and edging Montana. In non-conference play the Viks posted wins over Pacific Lutheran, Loyola Chicago, SIU Edwardsville, UC Davis and Evergreen State with losses at the hands of Portland and Idaho.
Junior guard Tim Douglas (5-10, 160) leads the Vikings in scoring (14.5 ppg) and assists (3.7) while junior guard DaShaun Wiggins (6-2, 185) – who spent a season at Eastern Utah – comes off the bench to average 12.1 ppg. PSU’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, Aaron Moore (F, 6-8, 210, Sr) has appeared in and started nine games but is under a team suspension. Moore was averaging 11.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. The leading active rebounder is senior forward Kyle Richardson (6-7, 235) with 4.7 rpg and a team-best nine blocked shots as well. The Vikings have three players who have each attempted over 50 3-pointers and all are connecting at .338 or better: Douglas is 25-of-75 (.338) from long-distance, Wiggins is 18-of-52 (.346) and Marcus Hall has knocked down 25-of-59 threes (.424). In addition to those three Gary Winston (G, 6-0, 190, Jr) has been deadly from beyond the arc, hitting 18-of-35 attempts, for a Big Sky-best 51.4 percent.
As a team the Vikings have averaged 71.9 points on 45.2 percent shooting (.376 threes, third in the BSC), while allowing opponents an average of 72.2 points on .466 shooting (.383 threes). PSU has converted 70.8 percent of its free throw opportunities and has been out-rebounded by an average of 33.3-to-31.6 rebounds per game. Portland State also leads the Sky in assists, with 13.6 per game, and assists-to-turnover ratio at 1.2
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.
• Freshman guard Trey Kennedy finished with a career-best and team season-high 22 points at Eastern Washington. He has led or co-led the team in scoring in 11 of the 16 games.
• In addition to Kennedy’s point total, a handful of players posted various season- or career-bests at EWU, with freshmen McKay Anderson and Race Parsons each scoring a career-high eight points, Kennedy dishing out a career-best six assists, and A.J. Hess pulling down a career-high nine rebounds and tying his season-high with 17 points. Casey Oliverson also tied his career high with 10 points.
• Hess just missed his first double-double with 17 points and nine rebounds at EWU.
• SUU hit 16-of-30 shots at Eastern Washington for a season-high 54.2 percent shooting mark. The Thunderbirds also dished out a season-high 14 assists, while their points (83), 3-pointers and attempts (8-17) and steals (eight) were the second-highest totals this year and the 3-point percentage (.471) was its third-best.
• The -Birds got 32 points from its bench at EWU, with Parsons and Anderson’s eight apiece, seven from Jaren Jeffery (who also had seven rebounds), four each from Juwan Major and Eric Rippetoe, and one from Cal Hanks.
• The Thunderbirds have led at halftime in the last two games, which is perhaps not noteworthy until one considers they had led at the break in just one game prior to that.
• 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 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. He hit 2-of-3 shots for four points and had two more boards in just four minutes at EWU.
• 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 third-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. The 39-38 edge at EWU as the second.
• 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. That lineup didn’t last long, however, as Thomas was replaced by Kennedy at Weber State and Casey Oliverson replaced Hanks at Eastern Washington. SUU has used 11 different starting lineups this season.
• The Thunderbirds blocked a season-high eight shots at Idaho State. Hanks led the way with three rejections (tying the team’s individual high this season) while Cheesman and Casey Oliverson each swatted two shots and Jeffery blocked one.The team’s previous high for blocks this season was seven, at Portland.