Road warriors: New-look Mavs ready to tackle latest road trip
The first conference road trip didn’t go as planned for the Mesa State College men’s basketball team.
For the majority of the Mavericks, it was their first experience at the long bus rides and back-to-back games in hostile gyms that come with the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Losses at Chadron State and Nebraska-Kearney, though, were followed by home wins over Western New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands — the first loss of the season for the Cowboys.
Last week’s homestand featured a new lineup, new roles and better continuity as the Mavericks (6-2, 2-2 RMAC) return to the road, playing rival Fort Lewis (6-1, 2-1) at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday and Adams State (5-1, 2-1) at 8 p.m. on Monday.
“It’s just going to be a learning process,” Mesa State coach Jim Heaps said. “It’s me as much as them. I’m figuring out what roles the kids need to play and getting them comfortable in those roles and rotations.
“Our rotations have been kind of weird through the first six, eight games. Until we get into a rhythm that way, I think we’re going to have times where we play really good basketball and times we don’t play very good basketball.”
That’s the price of having a half-dozen players new to the program and two redshirt freshmen on the active roster.
However, Heaps is seeing signs of those players starting to understand not only their roles, but the entire system.
“They’ve all gone through it,” Heaps said. “Nate (Nelson) is going through that period right now, Kalonji (Paschal) went through it a little bit. They have to get comfortable with what we’re talking about and our concept of the game. As they do, they play better and better basketball.”
Of the new players, sophomore Colton Burgon has been the most consistent. He moved into the starting lineup last weekend and came up with solid back-to-back games, scoring 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds against Western New Mexico and going for 12 and six against Highlands.
“Colton has probably been our most consistent player,” Heaps said. “Somebody will have a good weekend, somebody a bad weekend, then they’ll flip-flop. We’ve kind of been up and down with the rest of the lineup. Again, it’s more them feeling comfortable.”
It’s taken Heaps a little longer than usual to figure out a rotation, but he likes the latest lineup, starting Colton and Chandler Burgon inside, Blake Francom and Russell Gregory on the wings and Paschal at point guard.
Lance Fite has given him more than instant offense off the bench inside — Fite had the two highest scoring games of his Mesa State career last weekend, 24 and 23 points.
“Usually we get to games starting and our staring lineup is pretty set,” Heaps said. “Our kids off the bench are pretty set and we know who’s going to give us what. This year it’s just taking us a little bit longer.
“Hopefully by the middle of January we’ll be settled in and we’ll know what we’re doing and start to play a more consistent level of basketball.”
Francom has struggled from the outset to score, but one more rotation late in the game Friday got him an open 3, and he responded with 10 points against Highlands.
“His percentages are really low now (27 percent from the field, 2.8 points per game) but we’ll see him here, he’ll be at 50 percent,” Heaps said. “He’s just kind of struggled getting comfortable on the court.”
It won’t be easy to get comfortable in the next two games — Fort Lewis is a tough place to play, and games against the Skyhawks almost always go right down to the wire.
“We’ve won a couple down there and they’ve won a couple up here, but they’re usually really close basketball games,” Heaps said. “Both teams compete and it’s close and it’s a rivalry. There are very few blowouts, almost every one of them comes down to the last possession and that’s the way it should be.”
The Skyhawks feature the preseason offensive and defensive player of the year, DeAndre Lansdowne, a 6-foot-2 senior guard who can change the momentum of a game in an instant.
“I think he’s obviously the best player in the conference and one of those you can’t hope to shut down,” Heaps said.
“You hope to try to contain him a little bit and not let him get going and go nuts on you. If you can do that, that’s probably the best you can hope for.”