Southern Utah's first season in the Big Sky Conference looked to be a success with a berth in the postseason tournament all but secured.
Thirteen games into the conference schedule, Nick Robinson, in his first season as a head coach, built a battling team that outrebounded opponents and relied on solid shooting percentages.
That all changed Feb. 17 with the arrest of Wade Collie on drug charges. Collie, a prominent player in Robinson's rotation, was averaging seven points and nearly four rebounds a game before his dismissal.
Although the Thunderbirds (11-19, 8-12 BSC) won their BracketBuster contest against Cal State Northridge, they spiraled downward in conference play, dropping their final seven games, including a home overtime loss to eventual BSC champion Montana.
All of that can be wiped away with a victory against North Dakota in the opening round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which begins Thursday at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont. The two teams split decisions during the regular season.
"First, we're thrilled to be in the Big Sky tournament," said Robinson, prior to the two-day bus trip to Montana. "Our attitude is one of optimism."
Southern Utah's offense is keyed by a pair of wing players Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, who combine for 33 points a game.
However, Robinson said the T-birds must recapture their toughness on the boards as well as a slumping offense. Also, because of Collie's dismissal, Robinson has had to create a new rotation.
"[Collie] averaged 23 minutes," he said. "The guys have had to make adjustments. Most of all, we have to start making winning plays."
By that, Robinson means his team must stop turning the ball over in crunch time. Late-season home losses to Montana State and Montana were caused by late turnovers.
Southern Utah vs. North Dakota
O Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • None
Radio • 91.1 FM
Records • SUU 11-19, 8-12 Big Sky; UND 15-15, 12-8
Series history • Tied 1-1
Last meeting • ND, 68-61 (March 9)