UND opens Big Sky play Friday against league favorite Idaho

GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota wrapped up its most demanding nonconference schedule in program history with an overtime loss at No. 19 Gonzaga on Dec. 16. The Fighting Hawks nearly pulled off the upset of the college basketball season — leading much of the game against the Zags, who were a 30-point favorite.
But the gauntlet of tough games did not end for the Hawks.
UND opens Big Sky Conference play Friday night, Dec. 29, at The Betty against preseason league favorite Idaho.
The question for UND is whether the Hawks can build off their spirited effort against Gonzaga, last year’s national runner-up.
UND’s league opener, however, won’t be easy by any means.
The Vandals are 8-4, with notable wins over Santa Clara, Washington State and Western Michigan — a game in which they connected on 17-of-30 three-point attempts.
“They’re built to win this season,” said UND coach Brian Jones of the Vandals. “They have six seniors and are a very tough team; very physical. Their glue guys are very tough.”
Idaho isn’t the only Big Sky team that had a successful nonconference season.
Big Sky teams won 74 games in the nonconference season, matching its most in the 55-year history of the league. And the Big Sky posted its first winning season since the 2005-06 with seven teams finishing above the.500 mark entering league play.
UND is 4-7 but has had success in the Big Sky since joining the league in 2012. The Hawks won the league title last season and have appeared in either the championship game or semifinal round of the conference tournament in four of the past five years.
“A lot of times we play such a difficult nonconference schedule,” said Jones. “But once we get into conference play, we can use our natural lineups. We can play big and small and have success with both styles.”
Jones said he’s been pleased with his team’s progress, even with the nonconference schedule that included games at Gonzaga, Nebraska and No. 25 Creighton.
“The progress has been slower than what I would have liked but there have been strides,” said Jones. “We’ve been exposed to a lot of things, which is good because that forces us to grow.
“With our game at Gonzaga, hopefully it shows that when our guys are dialed in and stay within the process, they give themselves an opportunity to win.”
The Hawks resumed practice on Tuesday in preparation for Friday’s league opener. Geno Crandall leads UND, averaging 17.5 points. Marlon Stewart (13.8), Cortez Seales (12.1) and Conner Avants (11.4) also are in double figures for UND.
Idaho is led by Victor Sanders, who is averaging 19.8 points while shooting 42.7 percent beyond the arc. The Vandals average 41 percent on 3-point attempts and also rank No. 1 in Big Sky scoring defense (63.7)
“It doesn’t get any easier for us,” said Jones. “We’re going to have to play extremely well.”