Like most coaches in the preseason, Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy looked at his 2005 non-conference schedule and saw possibilities, not pitfalls. Given the seventh-toughest non-conference slate in the country, the Demons of the Southland Conference turned those possibilities into reality.
In a nine-day period starting in late November and ending on Dec. 5, NSU (10-6, 3-1) defeated Mississippi State in Starkville and suffered a last-second two-point loss at Wichita State.
Then came the ultimate upset for a program in a Hurricane-ravaged state located in a town nobody outside the bayou can pronounce (Natchitoches): McConathy’s bunch went into Stillwater and beat Oklahoma State 68-64. To put the win in its historical context, when Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton retires at the end of the season, exactly half of the non-conference losses in his career at Oklahoma State will have come against Northwestern State.
“When you get an opportunity to play against great programs like that, you know you’re not going win them all. But you know that if you can push them for 40 minutes, just maybe,” McConathy said.
The Demons weren’t even allowed a breather during Christmas break. 16 days after the upset in Stillwater, they traveled to Oahu, where they were matched against the Pac-10′s Oregon State in first-round in the Rainbow Classic.
Before that trip, McConathy laid out his expectations of his players.
“I told them right then that they were going to be physically and mentally exhausted after this trip,” McConathy said. “I was asking them to do something that no other [Northwestern State] team had been asked to do. Doesn’t exactly sound reasonable but nobody said anything about fair.”
The Demons dominated Oregon State, winning the first round game 72-61. In the next two rounds, they lost to Iowa State and host Hawaii by a combined 8 points. Their coach couldn’t have been happier with the effort.
“What people don’t realize is we had a shot to win both those games, and I don’t mean 50-footers,” McConathy said. “We had open jumpers to win and when you play the big boys, that’s all you can ask for.”
Northwestern State is led by two seniors: forward Clifton Lee (14 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 53% FG) and guard Jermaine Wallace (10.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 43% 3PT). However, the Demons use what McConathy calls a “platoon system” that rotates 10 players (at a minimum) into a style of play that resembles a glorified track meet. (Mike Anderson’s UAB Blazers employ a similar style of play).
“We like to push it up and down the floor that’s for sure,” McConathy said. “We get a lot of our offense off steals and turnovers because we defend and press full court. For the big boys, it’s hard for them to prepare for us if they only have two or so days.”
Without a player taller than 6-foot-7, NSU uses a up-tempo style that he feels is a major selling point when it comes to recruiting.
“The problem with high school talent anymore is these kids are over-recruited,” McConathy said. “I really feel for that kid that goes to the bigger school and sits the bench when I think, ‘Man he could really produce for us.’ ”
The Demons’ nonconference run, that included wins over the SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10 along with an RPI rating of 55, makes the Demons a major favorite in the Southland Conference. (Bracketography.com currently has the Demons as a 13-seed in his latest bracket projection.)
“We felt like playing in those arenas would make our road games a little easier because they won’t see 10,000 in a gym for the rest of the year,” McConathy said.
NSU hasn’t punched its ticket to the Big Dance since 2001, when it won the first-ever play-in game and lost to top-seeded Illinois in the First Round. While many games remain before March, McConathy sees another trip to the NCAA’s as a strong possibility.
“We have to move this thing forward and we have great senior leadership. The (Southland) league is very misunderstood league with no major markets, but excellent coaching and great athletes. What we have to do is continue the belief that the someday we’ll belong is today.”
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