HELENA -- The Carroll College Saints men’s basketball team begins the defense of its conference title this weekend.
Carroll, the defending Frontier Conference regular season and tournament champions, travel to Havre and Great Falls this weekend to open up league play.
“Fellas are looking sharp, rearing to go,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said. “It’s exciting to know we’ve got Frontier action ahead.”
The Saints tested themselves in their nonconference schedule. Carroll played tough road games at Warner Pacific, Purdue, Saint Francis and Montana. The games against NCAA Division I opponents were exhibitions. Carroll lost each of those contests, but the challenge was nonetheless rewarding for the Saints.
“We’ve been tested,” Cunningham said. “We’ve faced different styles -- presses, seven-footers, sharp-shooters. We’ve seen the country. We’ve pondered Van Goghs and Monets. Time to get after it.”
In that games that count in the standings the Saints are a perfect 6-0, showing no drop off after graduating the school’s second all-time leading scorer and lone senior from last year’s 29-6 team, Zach Taylor. It helps that the Saints returned All-American Ryan Imhoff and a host of experienced players.
Imhoff continues his high-caliber play, averaging 18.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, and has played well when it’s mattered most against the Saints’ D-I competition.
Matt Wyman and Ife Kalejaiye, who each started 30 games a season ago, are back. Kalejaiye’s defense appears to have taken another step forward early on, and Wyman’s boosted his scoring to 16.2 points per game while remaining a highly efficient player.
And so far, the Saints are getting another double-digit scoring average from sharpshooter Match Burnham, who averages 12.7 points and five rebounds per game. Through four games Dane Warp has scored 11.3 points per game in just 17.8 minutes of court time. Oliver Carr has remained steady in the post for Carroll, scoring 10.8 points per game in just 13.8 minutes of play.
Cunningham said his full roster will be available this weekend.
The beginning of conference play doubles as a homecoming for Warp. The sophomore guard from Havre returns home for a chance to entertain family and friends this weekend. After working through an ankle injury, Cunningham said Warp will be a full go this weekend.
Carroll first visits MSU-Northern, a team that finished .500 in conference play last season. The Lights played around their pesky defense, often time funneling ball handlers into their 6-foot-10 shot blocker, and conference defensive player of the year, Ryan Reeves.
Reeves is shouldering the scoring load for the Lights this season, too, averaging 17.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.25 blocks per game. The big man is producing despite his limited playing time in nonconference play, averaging just 17.6 minutes per game.
That’s partially because of MSU-Northern’s schedule. Northern enters conference play 6-2, and in its wins has not had a margin closer than 15. Northern fell to Oregon Tech (71-67) and Southern Oregon (89-83).
Carroll and MSU-N share an opponent in Salish Kootenai College, but it’s hard to know how much that means as both schools won handily over the school in Pablo. The Saints won 125-53, and the Lights downed Salish Kootenai 99-57.
While Reeves is the mainstay of Northern, other players have scored well early. Justin Dunsmore is averaging 15.3 points per game. Gabe Porter adds 15 a night. Adam Huse, the nephew of coach Shawn Huse, puts up 13.4 per night. Caulin Bakalarski is scoring 10.9 points per game.
“They're dangerous and capable and will present us with challenges,” Cunningham said.
A season ago, the Saints won all three matchups with the Lights.
It’s a two-game foray into the Frontier. Next week the Saints will jump back into nonconference play and won’t face another Frontier team until Jan. 4. Still, it’s important for Carroll to get off to a strong start in this two-game opening.
“The Frontier seems to have fared quite well thus far in nonconference games,” Cunningham said.
After the Lights, Carroll gets the renamed University of Providence, an affair that moved to Sunday to coordinate with other events happening in Great Falls.
Providence received visits from a pair of foes that came through the PE Center. While the Saints defeated Southwestern Christian University (85-63) and Our Lady of the Lake (78-71), the Argonauts lost to both schools in Great Falls.
Providence (6-3) is led by newcomer Steven Daho-Clark, who is averaging 14.1 points per game. Returner Jared Schultz is the only other Argonaut scoring in double figures at 11.6 points per game.
The Saints also swept the Argonauts a season ago.
The Saints tip off against Northern at 8 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s contest against Providence is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.