January 21, 1998 in Sports

Cards Need Revival Underachieving Nic Men Hope To Get Back On Track

By The Spokesman-Review

North Idaho College men’s basketball has gone from fourth in the nation last year to being tied for last in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.

NIC has fallen, and it’s having trouble getting up.

“Totally flustrating,” said coach Hugh Watson, inadvertently combining fluster and frustrate.

Watson is searching for answers. He’s picking the brains of coaching cronies, he’s studying videotape until his eyes are bloodshot and he’s hollering at players and officials until he’s hoarse.

He’s changed defenses, opting for zone at times. Last year’s club never played a minute of zone. He’s switched offenses.

Nothing’s worked.

NIC (10-7 overall, 1-6 SWAC) has lost six straight conference games entering a homestand with Colorado Northwestern (4-11, 1-6) on Thursday and Eastern Utah (12-7, 2-5) on Saturday. Both are at 7:30.

NIC’s goals were to win the SWAC and challenge for a national title. Now, NIC is locked up with perennial cellar-dwellers Colorado Northwestern and Treasure Valley in last place.

The Cardinals’ attention is on qualifying for the Region 18 tournament. To do so, NIC must finish in the top eight of the 10-team league.

Returning sophomores, who were part of a 30-6 team that finished fourth at last year’s nationals, are particularly devastated.

“We played harder last year; we were more aggressive,” forward Travis Houston said. “Last year, we worked together. The Chicago Bulls could have come in here, and we would have said, ‘So what.”’

NIC swaggered a year ago, but backed it up on the court. The Cardinals were short, but relentless defenders and they were rarely outworked.

Beyond that, they had two things this year’s club seems to lack: Leadership and chemistry.

“Our coaches are doing a fine job,” center Steven Ryan said. “The blame is with the players.

“The leadership is not as good as it could be. I’m a captain, but it’s hard for me because I’m a post player and I’m not in a position to control the game because you don’t have the ball as much as a guard.”

Players and coaches insist NIC has quality talent. Point guard Nathaniel Bailey is being recruited by national powers Iowa State and New Mexico. Ryan has committed to Colorado.

Before the season started, Watson said freshman forward Johnny Goodman had pro potential.

“Our talent is better (than last year),” Houston said, “but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a team sport.”

To be sure, the Cards have numerous built-in excuses. Last year was a magical season and duplicating it would have been virtually impossible.

This year, in the third game, leading scorer Jovann Johnson injured his knee and missed two months. He recently returned, but he’s still regaining his timing and endurance.

NIC lost second-leading scorer Brad Fields and Nick Irvin’s 13 points per game last month for academic reasons.

“The bottom line is we’re not getting it done,” assistant coach Mark White said. “To do what we did last year and have what we feel is more God-given ability. … (NIC women’s coach) Greg Crimp looked at us in preseason and said if we were fourth with that team, we’re going to win it all this year. Everybody was saying the same thing.”

But saying and doing are not the same thing.

When NIC’s offense functions, its defense falls apart. Or vice versa. Last year’s trademark pressure defense created loads of points off turnovers. This year’s defense cannot apply the same pressure.

Offensively, NIC’s perimeter shooting has been erratic and turnovers outnumber assists. Rebounding has been a season-long sore spot.

The conference season hasn’t yet reached the midpoint, so there is time to recover.

Watson thought NIC made headway when it battled No. 9-ranked Southern Idaho before falling last Friday. The next night, NIC suffered a rare loss to Treasure Valley, a game in which Watson was assessed a technical foul.

“I said something to that official I wouldn’t ever say,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Why did I call that guy that?’ You do things you don’t normally do.”

Watson has had only one losing record in his career and that was as a high school coach. That team finished 9-16, but meshed late and advanced to the Tennessee state tournament.

He’s hoping for a similar turnaround.

“They’re coming in and working real hard and listening,” he said. “You can’t wallow around. I’m sure their confidence is struggling because most of them are used to winning.”

Wins would stop the bleeding.

“It’s still fun,” Houston said, “but it isn’t fun to lose.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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