Southern Utah University's men's basketball team begins both the Nick Robinson and the Big Sky eras Friday night when the Thunderbirds take on No. 21 Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash.
Robinson takes over this season following the retirement of Roger Reid at the end of the 2011-12 campaign, while the University has moved to the Big Sky after 15 seasons as a member of the Summit League/Mid-Continent Conference.
Both teams will be playing their official season-openers Friday night. The Bulldogs rolled to a 93-45 exhibition win over Northwest Nazarene last Saturday in their only exhibition game. SUU opted not to play exhibitions this year.
The Thunderbirds will play eight non-conference games before opening Big Sky play at home against North Dakota on Dec. 17. Three of those games will be at home, three will be true road contests, and two will be neutral court match-ups.
Next week the Thunderbirds travel to Reno, Nev., to compete at Nevada's World Vision Classic. SUU will square off against Wisconsin Green Bay and Cal State Fullerton on Friday and Saturday nights, then will finish the tournament against the host Wolf Pack on Sunday afternoon.
The home season opens Nov. 21 when the Thunderbirds host Carroll College in the Centrum arena on Thanksgiving Eve. Following that game its back on the road for a game at TCU against one of Coach Robinson's mentors, Trent Johnson, who is in his first season at the helm of the Horned Frog program.
The T-Birds return home to host three straight in the Centrum following the TCU match-up. SUU opens December against San Diego Christian on Dec. 1, hosts San Diego on Dec. 4, then opens conference play against UND on Dec. 17 before hitting the road for its final pre-season non-conference game, at Denver on Dec. 21.
SUU has 10 letter-winners - including two starters - and one redshirt returning from last year's squad.
Forward Jackson Stevenett and guard Damon Heuir are the returning starters, while Wade Collie, Jaren Jeffery, Jordan Jonson, Tyson Koehler, Chris Nsenki, Julian Scott Cal Hanks and Matt Gardner also return. John Renfro is also back after spending last season as a redshirt.
Stevenett earned second-team all-Summit League recognition last year after leading the Thunderbirds in scoring and rebounding. He then went on to earn a spot on the Summit League's all-tournament team following a 26-point, nine-rebound effort in the team's first round win over Oakland. Stevenett averaged 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds last season while shooting at a 51.2 rate from the field and .758 from the free throw line.
Heuir also capped his season with a stellar performance at the Summit League tourney, scoring 23 points and dishing out a team-high five assists in the win over Oakland, then leading the team with 14 points and three assists against South Dakota State in the semi-finals after Stevenett suffered a sprained ankle early in that game. For the season Heuir averaged 10.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Collie played in all but one game with four starts and averaged 4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He also played a key role in the Thunderbirds' Summit League tourney win over Oakland, hitting all five of his shots and both of his free throw to finish with 14 points in the 84-82 win.
Johnson, along with Stevenett, is one of two returning players who played in all 31 of the team's games last year. The defensive specialist and the team's sixth man averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game and was second on the squad with 28 steals.
Jeffery, Koehler and Nsenki all contributed off the bench as well, with Jeffery and Nsenki appearing in 23 games and Koehler in 22. Jeffery averaged 1.2 ppg, while Nsenki, the team's primary back-up point guard, averaged 0.3 ppg and Koehler chipped in 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per game while leading the team in shooting percentage at .611.
Scott appeared in 15 games and averaged 2.5 points and 1.3 rebounds while Hanks, who played in five games, averaged 3.0 points and 0.8 rebounds, and Gardner appeared in two games and averaged 3.0 points and 1.0 rebounds in 2011-12.
The Thunderbirds have added four newcomers to the squad: center Jayson Cheesman, G/F A.J. Hess and guards Zach Ghormley and Drake Thomas.
Cheesman was an all-Scenic West Athletic Conference performer last season at Salt Lake Community College, while Hess was an all-Arizona selection as well as Arizona's small schools player of the year last year. Ghormley and Thomas were teammates on back-to-back Texas state championship squads at Grace Preparatory Academy. Ghormley was an all-district and second-team all-state selection while Thomas was an all-district honoree for the Lions last year.
This Week's Game: Southern Utah (0-0/0-0) at Gonzaga (0-0/0-0), 6 p.m. (PST), McCarthey Athletic Center.
The Series: SUU and Gonzaga have met twice in the past and each team has come away with a win on its home court. The Zags prevailed 77-60 in the first meeting, in Spokane during the 1995-96 season, then the Thunderbirds came out on top of a 71-47 decision in Cedar City in the 1996-97 season-opener.
TV: Friday's game will be televised live on ROOT SPORTS Northwest and on tape-delay by ROOT SPORTS Rocky Mountain at 11 p.m. (MST).
Radio: All of the SUU Men's Basketball games will be broadcast live by KSUU (91.1 FM) as well as on the internet at suu.edu/ksuu. Art Challis will be in his 40th season as the Thunderbirds' basketball play-by-play voice. Dr. Challis is joined on home and selected road broadcasts by former SUU standout Dean O'Driscoll.
On The Internet: Video web-streaming coverage of Friday's game will be available on Gonzaga's website at gozags.com. All of Southern Utah's home games and Big Sky road games will be available on Big Sky TV, at bigskytv.org. Audio of SUU games is available at the Thunderbirds' websites: suutbirds.com or suu.edu/ksuu.
Live Stats: Live stats of Saturday's game will be available on the Gonzaga website at gozags.com.
Practice Schedule: The practice schedule calls for the Thunderbirds to work out daily at 3:15 p.m. Practices will be held in the Centrum Arena, the Multi-Purpose Center and the Sorensen Physical Education Building until the end of volleyball season, depending upon each team's schedule. Following the conclusion of volleyball season practices will be held in the Centrum Arena.
Captains: This year's captains are seniors Jackson Stevenett and Tyson Koehler.
Coaches: Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005) is entering his first season at SUU and his first season as a head coach. Coach Robinson came to Southern Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons on the staff. Prior to his time at LSU Robinson spent a season at William Jewell College and two seasons on the staff at his alma mater, Stanford. During his time as an assistant coach, Robinson helped guide his teams to a combined record of 87-47 and four post-season appearances, including two NCAA, one NIT and one NAIA Division I national tournaments.
Robinson is assisted by Jared Barrett (Eastern Oregon, 1996), Todd Okeson (Nevada, 2005) and Drew Allen (Southern Utah, 2010).
Affiliations: Southern Utah is in its first season as a member of the Big Sky Conference. All of SUU's sports except gymnastics and men's golf compete in the Big Sky. Gymnastics is an affiliate member of the WAC while men's golf competes in the American Sky Conference. Gonzaga is a member of the West Coast Conference.