After going 1-6 against Division I opponents in a top 100 non conference schedule, the Idaho State Bengals have started 2-0 in Big Sky play, and neither wins was easy. Along with that, the Bengals have done this with 10 new players and a new coaching staff.
As of Jan. 3, Idaho State has an average of only 1.93 years of experience, per KenPom. The Bengals lost seven players from last year’s team, but are already on pace to eclipse last years win total. The Bengals have played seven top 200 KenPom teams as of early January, winning two of those games. The only problem is Ken Pomeroy has them only winning two more games.
But if they continue playing like they did last weekend, they’ll be just fine.
It began on Saturday night, as the Bengals began conference play at home against archrival University of Idaho. The Vandals dominated the first 35 minutes, then the Bengals suddenly hit a switch. At the 5:26 mark Idaho hit a layup to make it an eight point lead. Chances for an ISU win looked bleak. Ken Pomeroy had them at a 16% chance to win. Then Tarik Cool and Austin Smellie took off. The Bengals ended the game on a 18-8 run and moved to 1-0 in Big Sky play.
Two days later ISU hosted Eastern Washington, the team picked to win the conference in the Big Sky Coaches’ Poll. The Bengals dominated the Eagles. They shot 58.7% from the field and nearly 53% from behind the arc. ISU led for all twenty minutes of the second half and never looked back. Eastern Washington also came into this game as the number one scoring team in the country. The Bengals held them to only 69 points — nearly 20 points below their scoring average — thanks to their 14th ranked three-point defense holding the Eagles to shooting 25% from three-point range.
ISU is led by a big three (of sorts) that starts with guard Tarik Cool. Cool is a transfer from Dixie State, which is transitioning to Division I next year. In his first season in Pocatello, he has started every game and is averaging 20 PPG. Cool also ranks in the top 25 of the country in percentage of possessions used and percentage of shots taken.
Two of Idaho State’s other main contributors have taken completely different paths to Pocatello.
Chier Maker has transferred from three schools, but has suddenly found lighting in a bottle for Idaho State this year. The Aussie is averaging 14.5 PPG and picking up 5.5 RPG as well. He spends the most time on the court of any Bengal at 82.2% of minutes played. The other Big Three member hasn’t started much this year. Austin Smellie, is a native Idahoan from Napoleon Dynamite’s hometown, Preston. Smellie is sixth in the nation in two-point shooting percentage, shooting 76% albeit on a 16-21 sample size.
Combined together, the players score an average of 67% of the Bengals points. Not only that, they are one of the nation’s best shooting teams, ranking just outside the top 100 in both two-point and three-point percentage. On defense, they have the 14th best three point defense in the nation. In conference play so far, they have held their opponents to 11-37 (29%) mark from three.
But the real leader of Idaho State is its head coach Ryan Looney. Looney was hired as the 22nd head coach of Idaho State over the summer. Before reaching Pocatello, he never coached at a Division I school. He spent 15 seasons coaching at the Division II and NAIA levels. In 2018-19, he took Point Loma Nazarene to the D-II National Championship.
Over the offseason, Looney was working non stop on filling the empty holes in the Bengals roster. Those who know Idaho State know that it’s hard to recruit to Pocatello. He brought in five JUCO transfers — most from College of Southern Idaho, located two hours away in Twin Falls — due to the late start and a completely new staff. Even after all that turnover, ISU is still unbeaten in conference play.
If ISU continues playing like this, they have a legitimate chance to make the Big Dance in the one-bid Big Sky.
ISU will face Sacramento State on Saturday to try and build on its lead ahead the rest of the Big Sky. The Bengals are only second behind Montana’s 3-0 record, but with a win in the on Saturday, the Bengals could have their best start to conference play since 2017-18.