CEDAR CITY — When the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball preseason poll was released last week, SUU was picked to finish fourth in the conference by the coaches, and fifth by the media.
This comes as no surprise as the Thunderbirds finished seventh in the Big Sky last season and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament where they lost to Eastern Washington.
Despite losing in the Big Sky tournament semifinals, SUU accepted a bid for the CIT, where the Thunderbirds won their first postseason game in school history against Drake. They advanced to the second round where they lost to California State University, Bakersfield by three points.
“I’ve used that game as motivation since the season ended just because I knew how close we were to advancing in that tournament,” junior Dre Marin said of the Bakersfield game. “Got a taste of that postseason play and now we want to play on an even bigger postseason stage.”
The goal for the team is a conference championship, and it’s certainly not out of reach. The next step would be some wins in the NCAA national tournament, as the winner of the Big Sky tournament receives an automatic bid to the national tournament. Without an automatic bid, it is difficult for mid-major schools to make the tournament although some of the biggest upsets year in and year out are normally mid-majors against power five conference teams.
“We’re here every day chasing championship level standards,” fourth-year head coach Todd Simon said. “There aren’t going to be any shirts printed when we get fourth place. We want to win.”
With four starters returning, and five players coming off of redshirt seasons, the Thunderbirds will not only have an experienced starting core but also a deep bench. Four of the team’s top six scorers and leaders in minutes played are back for this season, and the SUU roster is filled with length and athleticism.
Simon is looking to build a program, but it also helps to have high character players within it. That is where programs begin to see continued success.
“We have such phenomenal kids that it matters to them too,” Simon said. “They want to win for the community, they want to build this program, they want to put it on the map. They really believe that we can be someone that breaks through and finds consistency where Southern Utah is a consistent winner and championship contender every year. There’s no reason why we can’t be that.”
The Thunderbirds will be challenged this season, as they are taking on Nebraska, BYU and UCLA to start off their Division I schedule. They’ll also be playing UC Santa Barbara, who finished second in the Big West last season, in Cedar City. These games will give the team some national exposure and the chance to compete against some big-name schools in college basketball.
“It’s good experience for us. We just compete because I feel like we can compete with anybody on any level,” redshirt junior Jakolby Long said. “It doesn’t matter what program you’re at, what conference you’re in, as long as you can hoop that’s all that matters.”
After battling through a tough non-conference schedule, the Thunderbirds will have to play in a Big Sky Conference that had a lot of parity last season.
Simon mentioned that the league has a difficult travel schedule, varying styles of play and good coaching. Every possession in conference play is important, and with a fair amount of experienced players on the roster, the Thunderbirds should hold their own.
“We’ve been playing these teams twice a year for the past two years that I have been here, so I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the teams and programs in our league,” Marin said.
As for the preseason ranking, the team will use it as motivation going into the season.
“That’s white noise,” Marin said. “We can’t control that. We try to worry about stuff we can control but it can definitely be used as motivation. Seeing your name next to the number five, we know where we want to be but at the end of the day, that stuff doesn’t matter.”
SUU tips off their season at home against NAIA Bethesda University on Nov. 5 with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.
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