By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (November 23, 2016) — A year ago this week, Tarleton State moved up to No. 1 in the country.
But that Friday, in the opening game of their Thanksgiving Classic, the Texans weren’t even No. 1 in the friendly confines of Wisdom Gym.
This Friday, three days after Tarleton State climbed three spots to No. 7 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches poll, Colorado State-Pueblo comes knocking again.
CSU-Pueblo led virtually the whole way until a furious Tarleton rally over the final six minutes force overtime last season. Still, the Thunderwolves prevailed, 87-84, behind 20 points from Bronson Mouton and a healthy 48 percent shooting, a rare accomplishment against the Texans’ vaunted man-to-man defense.
Mouton and several other key faces were seniors last year, but Tarleton head coach Lonn Reisman warns that CSU-Pueblo, coached by his longtime friend Ralph Turner, is just as dangerous.
“Ralph does a great job recruiting and then getting kids into the right roles and committed to his program,” said Reisman. “He’s a great coach who runs a solid program that we respect a great deal.”
Reisman said the players seeing the bulk of the minutes early this season for the Thunderwolves are those who were seeing limited minutes while gaining experience last year.
“You see young kids moving up. They were role players learning the system, and now it’s their turn and they are stepping up and doing a good job for them,” Reisman said. “That’s another sign that they have a good program when you see kids make that progression through their careers.”
This CSU-Pueblo team has had a rocky start against strong competition, but their only win is a convincing 83-61 home rout of a Colorado-Colorado Springs team that Tarleton struggled with in a 73-64 win two weekends ago in the Whataburger Tipoff Classic.
The Thunderwolves, members of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, have also narrowly lost South Central Region contests to Heartland Conference powers Rogers State, 85-82, and No. 23 Arkansas-Fort Smith, 88-83.
“They have played a very competitive schedule, and it’s kind of like what I said last week about Concordia (Irvine), in that you can’t judge a team based just by its record after only three games,” said Reisman. “You have to see them on film and see how they execute on both ends of the floor to really grasp how high-quality of an opponent they are.”
Offense has been the strength early on for CSUP, which averages 82.7 points per game and shoots 52.3 percent from the field. The Thunderwolves are shooting 41 percent from the arc, making 8.3 3-pointers per game. They went 11-26, 42.3 percent, to outscore the Texans 33-15 from the arc in last season’s upset.
“What’s impressive is to see how they have so many different faces playing key minutes but are still such a similarly strong team in so many areas,” said Reisman. “I said it before we played Concordia last week, and I’m saying it again now – Pueblo, I believe, is the best team we’ve seen to this point of the season.”
It’s part of a tough early schedule for Tarleton that should see a brief reprieve with weaker Emmanuel College from Georgia on Saturday to conclude the classic. Both the Friday and Saturday games tip off at 7 p.m. for Tarleton and will follow 5 p.m. games that feature Texas A&M-Commerce and Emmanuel College on Friday and TAMUC against CSUP on Saturday.
“We’re playing a competitive schedule, and that’s by design. When you aspire to reach the goals we want to reach, you have to load up your schedule with as many Division II opponents, especially opponents from your region, as you can,” said Reisman. “These games, in some regards, are as big as conference games for us because they all count in the (regional rankings) formula.”
That’s why Tarleton is playing 26 Division II opponents in 28 games this season. And with Lone Star Conference play beginning with arch-rival Midwestern State visiting Wisdom Gym next Thursday, December 1, it’s also why Reisman wanted to see such a strong schedule in the early going.
“You notice we’re playing a very competitive schedule. When this weekend is over we will have started with five straight Division II opponents, three of them from our region,” he said. “We have to face quality teams to get ready for an early start to conference play. It’s something all the teams in our conference are adapting to.”
Reisman continues to call his own team a work in progress.
“The big thing right now is that we continue to mature. Last week I looked out there and we had two (redshirt) freshmen on the court at the same time and we could easily put three out there together,” he said. “We have to continue to build chemistry and learn to get the ball to the right people in the right spots on the floor at the right time.
“We’re just building block-by-block until we get to the point that we are firing on all five cylinders,” the veteran head coach continued. “We aren’t firing on all five cylinders right now, but it’s early still.”
Tarleton is averaging 76.3 points and allowing just 60.3. The Texans are shooting 42.5 percent tom the floor and limiting opponents to just 37.3 percent. Ridell Camidge leads the scoring effort at 16 points per game, followed by backcourt mate Chantz Chambers at 13.0, center Romond Jenkins at 9.7 and forward Anthony Davis at 9.0. Forward Josh Hawley is coming off the bench to average 8.0, and starting point guard Deshawn Riddick is scoring 7.3. Jenkins also averages 12.3 rebounds.
CSU-Pueblo is just as balanced with junior forward Mark Williams averaging 14 points per game and shooting 55.6 percent from the floor. Senior center Nelson Kahler scores 13.3, junior forward Josh Smith 11.7, junior guard Will Newman 11 and sophomore guard Gavin Liggett 10.3.
“They have a good philosophy offensively and are very balanced and dangerous on that end,” said Reisman. “Defensively, they like to mix up their looks and they play hard. Their kids know their roles and they appear to have a high basketball IQ.”
They showed all that this week last year, upsetting Tarleton just two days after also tripping up LSC power Midwestern State in Wichita Falls.
“They came to Texas and on one road trip they won at Midwestern and at Tarleton,” Reisman said. “And I’ll say it again, they are just as dangerous this year.
“We need to have a good crowd, we need to be focused on our game plan and we have to execute,” he added. “If we do those things, we’ll give ourselves a chance to get another quality win.”
But if they don’t, history could repeat itself. And that’s exactly what Tarleton hopes to avoid this time around.
“We’ve reminded our guys of last year and what happened, and we’ve reminded them that these lofty national rankings just make the bullseye on their back that much bigger,” Reisman said. “Everybody wants to knock off a highly-ranked opponent. It’s a status we’ve earned through the years, and now it’s something we have to deal with every time we take the court.”