NATCHITOCHES – The Northwestern State men’s basketball team digested its opportunity to scare Texas A&M late this past Wednesday, trailing by seven points with 3:44 remaining in an eventual 14-point loss.
That late-game scenario came about despite the Demons (1-1) shooting just 34 percent from the field, and coach Mike McConathy expects better accuracy as NSU will get another chance against an opponent from a “higher conference” Tuesday when Rice visits Prather Coliseum.
The Demons and Owls (2-1) will meet for the fourth straight season in the 6:30 p.m. tipoff, including Rice’s second trip to Natchitoches.
“It’s great for Rice to be able to come in here and play us hard,” McConathy said. “We’ve played at each other’s places, and hopefully we’ll perform better than the last three games against them.
“We’ve had five sessions since that A&M game, and we’re working on solidifying groups in our wave system. We have enough shooters where I’m not worried about this team making shots. We’ll build on things like our rebounding and low number of turnovers, even though we had two turnovers that cost us late at A&M.”
Fans are encouraged to “Pack Prather” for the Conference USA opponent in an event sponsored by Atmos Energy. One fan will win a $100 VISA gift card courtesy of La Capitol Federal Credit Union.
Rice has won all seven meetings in the series history, including in each of the last three seasons. NSU pushed the Owls in 2016-17 (100-93 loss in Houston), but Rice has won the past two matchups by an average of 25 points.
After suffering a 91-43 loss at Arkansas to start the season, Rice rebounded to beat Penn (80-61) and Wayland Baptist (65-40). Penn’s hallmark win was knocking off Alabama on the road.
Junior Chudier Bile watched the Demons fall 102-74 in Houston, Texas, this past season as he redshirted, and he knows the challenge his team faces when the Owls roll back into Prather.
“It was tough watching all of last season, which is my first experience of not playing since I started basketball in middle school,” Bile said. “Rice is a really good team and will be a tough test, but we understand that if we want to have a successful season, we have to protect our home court.
“The first two games were a little rough just because I hadn’t played in so long, and I was really nervous and had to get the feel for the game back.”
Bile, one of eight newcomers on one of the younger teams in the Southland Conference this season, appeared more comfortable against Texas A&M, recording eight points, six rebounds and three assists.
He leads the team in rebounding (17, including 11 vs. Centenary), and McConathy is impressed by his athleticism and potential.
“Chudi is athletic and explosive, and he has to play within himself,” said McConathy of a player who decreased his turnovers from seven to two in the first two games. “These last five practices, he’s been a little better at playing at a perfect pace for him.
“He doesn’t need to do anything outside of his wheelhouse, and I think some of that has to do with playing with the right combination of guys.”
NSU’s top two scorers are newcomers this season as freshman Nikos Chougkaz (11 points per game) and junior transfer Jairus Roberson (10.5 per game) have each led the team in scoring.
Chougkaz scored seven of his team-high 12 points during the run that cut Texas A&M’s late lead to seven points, which was capped by one of Roberson’s five 3-pointers this season.
McConathy and staff focused on tweaking combinations in his wave system, which has produced an offense in which 59 percent of its points (43.5 per game) have come from the bench.
“We wanted to solidify groups and establish waves this week so we can get to the last eight minutes of the game and have the right guys that can perform on that given day,” McConathy said. “And it can be any given group on any night – whoever is making shots, playing defense and rebounding.
“Our transition defense has to get better than it was at Texas A&M, and that concerns me because Rice has hurt us in transition as well. They do a lot of good things in terms of shooting and putting the ball on the floor.”
The Owls return eight of their top 10 players from this past season, including four of the five Owls that scored in double figures against NSU in the previous meeting (Drew Peterson, Josh Parrish, Ako Adams and Chris Mullins).
PHOTO CUTLINE: Junior Chudier Bile is NSU’s leading rebounder in two games and is expected to be a key when Rice visits the Demons on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
CREDIT: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services