HUNTSVILLE – The Northwestern State men’s basketball program took a collective breath this past week and is prepared to open Southland Conference play as the Demons head to Sam Houston State on Wednesday.
NSU (2-6) hasn’t played since a Dec. 8 loss at LSU, finishing the academic semester with finals this past week while evaluating the early season.
The 6:30 p.m. contest will be streamed on the Bearkat Sports Network via YouTube as well as radio (95.9 FM) and audio streaming (nsudemons.com) with Demons’ play-by-play voice Patrick Netherton on the call.
NSU coach Mike McConathy said his Demons took positive steps in its week as they prepare for the Bearkats (6-4), which includes a strong finish academically.
“We’re making progress, but we’re still a long way away,” said McConathy, who added that he’d prefer league play to start in January but will help guide his team through an expanded 20-game league slate this season. “There are areas where this group has made progress after taking a step back a week ago.
“These guys did an outstanding job academically, and I appreciate that because that’s why we’re here at Northwestern State University – to progress toward a degree. But I saw some improvement in other areas, and we’re getting pieces moving in the right direction.”
One of those pieces is junior guard Jairus Roberson. Roberson made 3-of-5 3-pointers at LSU in his last game, including two long-range makes as part of three consecutive three-pointers in the second half.
It was the Trinity Valley Community College transfer’s most efficient outing this season.
“It’s been a big adjustment to the Division I game,” said Roberson, who is second on the team with nine points per game. “Defenders close out harder, and people know you’re plays.
“In junior college, sometimes it felt like teams just rolled the ball out and played because they didn’t know your history. But right now, it’s a good feeling knowing that we’re 0-0 in conference play because that’s what matters. We’re refreshed after a hard (nonconference schedule). Our practices have been more competitive, and we’ve been able to focus on just basketball now that school and tests and homework are over.”
Roberson is one of three newcomers who are among NSU’s top four scorers.
Junior Chudier Bile leads NSU in points (12 per game), rebounds (7.8) and blocked shots (12).
Freshman Nikos Chougkaz flashed his potential with 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds to pair with a team-high seven steals.
Returner and sophomore point guard Brian White has played the majority of minutes at the position in the last six games, including scoring outputs of 26 and 15 points against Rice and ULM.
It’s all part of Mike McConathy’s chemistry formula as the Demons continue to meld eight newcomers with seven returners.
“We’ve turned the corner a little bit, and I think the holidays kind of help because you’re together more,” McConathy said. “We’re excited about league play opening up, and it’s a little shot in the arm when your record is 0-0 and you start to develop your (conference) season.
“You get to start a new season, and we’re starting a 20-game league schedule.”
SHSU (6-4) enters the SLC schedule with four wins in its past five games, including victories against CSU Bakersfield and Louisiana Tech.
Senior forward Kai Mitchell, an all-conference pick from a year ago and one of two starters returning from a regular-season champion squad that went 16-2 in league play, leads the Bearkats with more than 14 points and seven rebounds per game.
SHSU shoots 44 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range in an offense that averages nearly 81 points per contest.
“Sam Houston State is tough, and coach Jason Hooten does a great job,” McConathy said. “They compete with a little chip on their shoulder, and that’s the way he coaches.
“It’s remarkable how they bring it every day, and they are tough-nosed team. We’ll need to bring a fireball mentality that we come into a game to take it to our opponent, whomever we’re playing.”
After opening league play at Sam Houston State, the Demons will return to Prather Coliseum for the first time in more than a month to host Lamar in NSU’s first league home game.
PHOTO CUTLINE: Sophomore Dalin Williams stretches for a rebound over a Louisiana College defender during a Nov. 18 matchup with the Wildcats. NSU will need similar rebounding ferocity as the Demons open SLC play Wednesday at Sam Houston State.
CREDIT: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services