Bengals' season-ending loss a microcosm of underachieving this season

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POCATELLO — If you only watched one Idaho State men’s basketball game this season, there’s a good chance you didn’t need to see many more.

And if that one game was Wednesday’s season-ending Big Sky Conference tournament loss to Southern Utah, you essentially watched all 30 games in a condensed two-hour summation.

At a time when a few wins in March can uplift and alter the fortunes and futures of the most insignificant college basketball programs, the Bengals (11-19) were instead squarely on brand. There was no appearance in the ‘One Shining Moment’ montage, no Cinderella slippers, no busted brackets. Just the same untapped potential losing the last of its fizz.

ISU lost Wednesday’s game 94-80, keeping its conference tournament losing streak alive a year longer. The Bengals started off strong, lost steam toward halftime, cut a double-digit, second-half deficit to a catchable margin and ultimately wilted in a one-sided loss. Who’s seen that episode of these Bengals before?

We all have, 19 times over.

“We made some runs, but we just couldn’t get over the top,” ISU coach Bill Evans said postgame. “I’m proud of my guys. They made great effort. We just didn’t play quite as well as our opponent.”

Evans’ run-of-the-mill postgame press conference quote encapsulated the season. The self-proclaimed ‘Old Coach’ was an eternal optimist through the inscrutable ups and downs of the season, as his talented team hung its hat on passion and effort when the wins remained out of reach.

The passion and effort and final-whistle mentality were all things to root for. They helped ISU beat Weber State and led second-half comebacks in wins against Boise State and the Idaho Vandals.

But they were no substitute for ISU’s flailing defense. It was historically bad, to be blunt, and it doesn’t matter if you prefer old-school scorebook statistics or the most advanced metrics: they all say the same things. The Bengals got torched from the arc, had limited post depth and didn’t create many turnovers. ISU’s adjusted defensive efficiency, a metric that measures a defense’s points allowed per 100 possessions, was 118.1 this season — worse than all but three Division I teams, and ISU’s worst defensive efficiency in the 19-year history of acclaimed college basketball advanced stats site kenpom.com.

Idaho State’s offense was adequate, but fell into lengthy slumps that couldn’t survive the defense’s incompetence. Take Wednesday’s loss, for example. ISU shot 49.1 percent from the field — a mark that should win most games — but Southern Utah lit up the nets by making 11 of 15 3-pointers for a ghastly 73.3 percent clip.

When faced with questions regarding his team’s defense, or subsequent offensive lulls, Evans never had answers. If he did, he kept them secret from the media asking the questions.

Wednesday was no different. “I’m coaching the defense. That’s the problem,” Evans playfully quipped. “Next question.”

Evans may have coached his final game Wednesday. This season was his last under contract, and his seven-season win-loss record at ISU is 70-141. His one winning season and no conference tournament victories are hardly inspiring.

Evans has a tough job at Idaho State. He’s tasked with selling southeast Idaho and its cold winters to recruits in Los Angeles. He has to convince prep-school standouts that splitting home games between Holt Arena and Reed Gym isn’t an obstacle.

To a man, he’s kind. His sarcasm is infectious once you catch on. He boasts coaching Division I college basketball “the right way,” ignoring the temptations so many other college coaches fall for and ultimately get caught in.

But for whatever reason, he didn’t have it this season. His roster was loaded with D1 experience and all-conference-caliber talent. The result was a lost season in which the Bengals badly underachieved.

The window for success closes after next season, when ISU expects to carry eight seniors. If Evans isn’t brought back, some of his loyal players — for some of whom ISU was the only Division I option — may seek other options. Novak Topalovic did so after last season, and how can you blame him? Most college basketball pastures are greener than Idaho State’s.

Whoever the coach is next season, whether it be Evans or a new hire, will still have a tough job. The fans will still expect wins and a competitive team. Holt Arena will still be cold and cavernous. ISU will still be irrelevant.

A few wins in March can change that.

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