Mountain West Basketball: San Jose State vs. Northern Colorado–Preview, Odds, Prediction
The Spartans head out on the road for the first time this season, take on Bears
Game 5: San Jose State Spartans (3-1) @ Northern Colorado (1-2)
When: Saturday, November 19th – 2:00 MT 1:00 PT
Where: Bank of Colorado Arena; Greeley, CO
How to Watch: ESPN+
Odds: Northern Colorado -3 Over/Under 143
There’s a quick turnaround staring at the San Jose State hoops team. Following a hard-fought 85-76 defeat to Hofstra on Thursday night, the Spartans are off to the beautiful mountains outside of Denver to take on the Bears of Northern Colorado, in a Saturday afternoon matinee. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for practice, preparation, and scouting of a new opponent. Quite fine by the players, but not so much for Tim Miles and his staff.
The Spartans should be proud of the effort against the Pride, even if they ultimately fell short. A 10 point halftime lead slowly dissolved, and Hofstra finally grabbed their first lead with six minutes left, with SJSU in the middle of a scoring drought. The Pride tightened up their defense, and a few extra shots fell. They went from a 31 point first half, to a 54 point outburst in the second 20 minutes.
There was no drop in defensive intensity for the Spartans, it was more a matter of the opponent making shots, which happens sometimes. Especially when your coach allows you to just let it fly from all over the floor without restrictions. Hofstra was cold early, which allowed San Jose State to build a lead, but the Pride got hot late, when it mattered most.
As speculated in the Hofstra pregame preview, the man in the middle, Ibrahima Diallo, was unable to have the impact he did on Tuesday (when he blocked 8 shots), because of the style of play of the opposing team. The Pride have a very low usage rate in the post, and Miles couldn’t afford to have Diallo guarding on the perimeter. Northern Colorado starts a 7-footer, Theo Hughes, but he only averages 10 minutes per game. His backup also gets just 10 minutes. That means the Bears are playing smaller lineups for about half of the game. Steve Smiley, head man at UNC, is a young up-and-comer in the profession. Let’s see if he goes small for longer stretches, to minimize the impact of the Spartans big junior center.
Smiley is more of an offensive mind at this stage, and his Bears were extremely efficient on that end a year ago. It helps to have Daylen Kountz in your lineup for starters. The transfer from Colorado averaged 21 points a game last year, may go higher than that this season, and is the preseason player of the year in the Big Sky. The second banana is senior Matt Johnson, who has averaged 13 ppg in each of the last two years. That experienced backcourt will lead the way, and hope to get contributions from an unproven frontcourt. Dalton Knecht is the only other returner to average more than 10 minutes a game in 2021-22, at UNC or anywhere else, and he will play mostly on the wing in Smiley’s 3 or 4 guard lineups. Up front, while size has been added, it does not appear they have Smiley’s full confidence yet, as he has really only used a 7 man rotation through the Bears first three games.
Let’s talk about those first three Northern Colorado games. If we thought Hofstra had challenged themselves to open the season, the Bears would like to have a chat. Sandwiched around a home opener against Texas A&M Commerce, they decided to make two separate trips to the Lone Star state – to take on Houston and Baylor! That’s right, two of the top five teams in the country, on their home floors. Predictably the games were not competitive, 47 and 33 point drubbings respectively. But the experience of being on the same floor and battling with those titans of the sport, is invaluable. It’s why batters in the on-deck circle swing bats with weights around the barrel, to make it easier when it’s go time. Go time for UNC will be conference play, but there’s no way around it; those games will benefit the Bears from this point on.
It’s therefore difficult to make much of the stat lines for Northern Colorado because they are massively skewed. Instead, for the Spartans, they can continue trying to mold into the team that coach Miles wants to see on both ends of the floor. For the most part, the offense has been fairly fluid, and a lot of that is owed to point guard Alvaro Cardenas. The sophomore looks more comfortable each time out, and is coming off a 17 point effort on Thursday night. He added five assists, and as has been the norm, played a great floor game. SJSU also got productive minutes from Tibet Gorener off the bench. Gorener was pressed into starting duty much of last year due to injuries, but seems perfectly placed as a sixth man type of sniper off the bench. He nailed 5 threes and seemed to single handedly bring Speedy Claxton out of the zone defense he was employing to start the game. As efficient offensively as UNC was a year ago, they were almost equally as inefficient defensively. While Smiley has made it a point of emphasis to be more engaged on that end, that type of change doesn’t happen overnight. The Spartans will need to attack the soft spots of the Bears defense, and may have the personnel to do it.
The foul line was a problem area again on Thursday. Two nights after shooting 13-26 from the line, the Spartans only took 5 free throws the entire game. A couple of things stick out here; first Hofstra plays at a high pace, more possessions should equal more fouls. Also, San Jose State enjoyed a big size advantage, even without Diallo on the floor. To only attempt 5 foul shots shows a lack of aggressiveness, and too much settling for jump shots.
As for the situational breakdown of the game, let’s just say it does not favor the Spartans – in any regard. To begin with, this will be their third game in five days, not super common in college basketball, it’s usually 2 games per week. Yes, the popular multi-team events, like the one SJSU will travel to next weekend give you 3 games in a short span of time, but everyone there is in the same boat. Not the case here, as UNC last played on Monday, giving them four and a half days of rest. The Spartans have played 2 games since the Bears last took the floor. Also, this will be San Jose State’s first road game of the year. That is always a problem for any team, regardless of the quality of your program. There is the elevation factor too. Greeley may not be Laramie, Wyoming, with its 7,200 ft, but it is near 5,000, enough to have an impact on any visiting team. That will be more in focus for a SJSU team playing less than 48 from their prior game. Lastly, these two met a year ago in San Jose, a 75-74 Spartan win. There is no rivalry here, so revenge seems like too strong a word, but a little payback would do just fine for the Bears. Not that motivation is needed, UNC just wants to return to normal competition after lining up against Baylor and Houston. San Jose State could really make a statement about what type of team they are with a win. Not that the Bears are one of the better teams they will face this year, it’s simply the fact that there are too many intangibles working against them in this one. And that’s why it says here, the Spartans come up short in their first road trip of the year.
Prediction: Northern Colorado 82 San Jose State 72
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