The Frontier is spoiling basketball fans this season.
When Western and Carroll meet, it’s a battle of national powers, at least according to the Top 25 Coaches’ Poll voters, who submit new rankings every two weeks.
Yet when they’ve squared off, the No. 8 Saints and No. 13 Bulldogs have taken turns pummeling each other -- each side winning once on the opposition’s turf.
When the Saints hosted the Bulldogs in December, they took a monstrous lead, only to collapse and see the Bulldogs outscore the Saints 65-36 in the second half. The momentous half has been Carroll’s lone loss this season, and one the Saints mended.
Carroll went into Dillon and thrived, beating back the Bulldogs in the second half and rolling to its own commanding statement, outscoring the Dillon 57-29.
This game could be different, however. The Saints were relatively healthy when they played Jan. 19. Now the Saints could be without their top and third-best scorers Tuesday evening, as junior Ryan Imhoff, who averages 17.73 points a game, and sophomore forward Match Burnham deal with injuries. Imhoff missed two games last week as he dealt with a right ankle injury sustained in practice.
Burnham last appeared Jan. 21 as the Saints faced Rocky Mountain. Burnham injured his wrist, a setback that renders him out indefinitely, Carroll is saying. His 52 percent clip from three-point range sits at No. 3 in the nation.
The Saints proved they could eek out a win without their top producers as they squeezed by a talented Lewis-Clark State in Helena on Friday. The Saints’ floor general, Zach Taylor, fouled out in regulation, and the Saints fought to an overtime win without 56 percent of their nightly scoring in the game.
It was perhaps the Saints’ greatest masterpiece this season, earning a win with its depth and showing a sophisticated chemistry, one that empowers each Saint to feed off the others and synchronize.
Though as the Saints have surged, winning their past 10 games, the Bulldogs have faltered. Western has gone 3-3 in its last six, starting with a loss to Carroll. The next week the Bulldogs fell to Lewis-Clark State and then lost to Montana State University-Northern in Dillon. The two losses to LSCS and MSU-N came by a combined four points.
Western’s setbacks have given the Saints a bit of breathing room atop the Frontier, as the Bulldogs trail by two games.
Whether that smudge defines the Bulldogs schedule will largely defend with how it fairs against Carroll.
Western is ranked No. 3 in the nation in total scoring offense, and ranked No. 6 in total steals and scoring margin. The Bulldogs are led by Shyke Smalls’ 15.4 points and Dom Robinson’s 15.1 points per game -- at times, and at its apex, displaying guard-play that is uncontainable.
Robinson leads the conference in assists at 4.38 per game, while Smalls is the Frontier’s best turnover-creator, grabbing 2.5 steals every night.
The Bulldogs two other scorers averaging over 10 a game are Kooper Kidgell and Marcus Payne, who average 11.5 and 10.3 points, respectively.
Carroll’s lone senior Taylor continues to be the center of the Saints’ universe. Taylor averages 16.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, laboring however the Saints need on any particular night. Imhoff leads the Saints in scoring at 17.7 points per game, while also grabbing the top rebound mark at 6.7 boards.
Beyond the top statistical leaders, the Saints are perhaps the most balanced team in the nation, and they have national marks to prove it. Carroll is No. 1 in the nation in field-goal (55 percent) and free-throw (81 percent) percentage and rank No. 3 in 3-point percentage at 42 percent.
Carroll is also No. 4 in the nation in total rebound defense, grabbing 29 defensive rebounds a game.
Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m. in the PE Center.