There are 314 NCAA Division II men’s college basketball programs across Canada, Puerto Rico and the United States. Only 20 remain unbeaten, and three reside in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Two will meet Friday night in Durango.
The conference opener couldn’t get any bigger for Fort Lewis College (6-0). The Skyhawks, rebuilt after a disappointing 2018-19 season in which FLC missed the eight-team conference tournament, will welcome defending RMAC tournament champion New Mexico Highlands (5-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday inside Whalen Gymnasium in Durango.
“The mountain to climb starts now,” said FLC junior forward Riley Farris, the second-leading scorer in the conference. “This team we’re about to face is the best team in the league right now. They are the RMAC champions last year – tournament champions. We are going to have to stress the focus and mentality of what it’s going to take to win that game.”
The 6-0 start paired with a 3-0 trip in August to Costa Rica has the confidence level for FLC running high.
“We’re ready to go to war with anyone,” Farris said.
FLC and Highlands have played nearly identical schedules and had similar results, as both have beat regional foes Eastern New Mexico and Western New Mexico out of the Lone Star Conference as well as NAIA institutions in Northern New Mexico and University of the Southwest.
FLC hadn’t won six consecutive games to open a season since 1977. A 7-0 start would be a new program record.
While some RMAC teams have faced more Division II regional opponents than the Cowboys and Skyhawks, FLC head coach Bob Pietrack was happy the schedule allowed his new team to stay at home for the first eight games of the season and give the roster a chance to come together without being thrown directly into massive games against Texas opponents.
“The six wins in November, our program has never had that many wins by the turn of the calendar to December,” Pietrack said. “As far as the scheduling goes, we knew we were gonna rebuild this team and didn’t know exactly what we were gonna have. We knew we’d be young.
“There’s two ways to look at it. The season is such wear and tear, long-term wear and tear on the guys. So, if we have the opportunity to play at home and not travel and save ourselves from getting gassed and exhausted on the road, we look to take advantage of that. We don’t want to go and put ourselves in a very difficult position on the road. We were able to really test our players and develop our roster over the last four NAIA games, and a lot of players have got some quality time and a lot of confidence. Now, we start the real season.”
Friday night’s showdown will throw the new-look Skyhawks directly into the RMAC fire. It’s a matchup of the top two scoring teams in the conference, as both have scored more than 90 points per game this year.
The Cowboys are led by 6-foot-3 junior guard Sammy Barnes-Thompkins of Phoenix. The Odessa Junior College transfer also has an RMAC-leading 3.2 steals per game. He’s backed up by the play of senior guard Raquan Mitchell out of Miami. The Colorado State transfer has averaged 18.2 points per game this season a year after he led the team into the regional tournament and finished with 20.6 points per game. Pietrack called them the two best guards in the conference and the best duo in the RMAC since Metro State boasted Brandon Jefferson and Mitch McCarron, who each won the National Player of the Year award in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
They will be a tough challenge for an FLC team down its top-two point guards in Logan Hokanson and Cesar Molina. A leg injury has Molina sidelined the rest of the season, and a wrist injury has Hokanson sidelined for an unknown period of time.
“We’re the youngest team in the league. We have one senior. Take away Cesar, we really become the youngest team in the league,” Pietrack said. “Which is good. We’ll embrace that because our young guys are good.”
True freshmen Akuel Kot and Junior Garbrah will get a chance to prove what they can do along with juniors Will Wittman and Corey Seng as well as senior Danny Garrick.
“I have a lot of confidence in the team,” Garbrah said. “It’s 0-0 now. This is where it gets serious. Just gonna work every day to be in the best shape possible.”
The Skyhawks will counter the scoring of the Highlands guards with a true three-headed scoring monster in Farris, Garrick and Kot. Farris has averaged 23.3 points per game and done it on 61.3% shooting, the third-best mark in the conference and by far the best among players who have attempted more than 75 shots this season.
Kot has scored 15.8 points per game this season and has led the Skyhawks in assists with 3.7 per game.
FLC has found its offensive success through ball movement, as the Skyhawks rank second in the conference in assists per game. Behind their two elite guards who can beat nearly any defender off the dribble, Highlands has half the assists this year as FLC and ranks 13th in the RMAC in assists per game.
A year after poor 3-point shooting haunted the Skyhawks, FLC will enter conference play as the top 3-point-shooting team in the conference at 44.2%. Garrick has led the way in that department. He has scored 14.5 points per game to go with six rebounds. He has made 21 3-pointers, the most in the conference, and has shot them at 44.7%.
“That is refreshing,” Pietrack said. “The game, in the end, is about the buckets. You gotta score to win games. Last year, I don’t really know the reason why, we just didn’t make enough, bottom line. We didn’t shoot a high enough percentage.”
FLC will try to keep up with Highlands, as both teams have made roughly 10 3-pointers per game. In last year’s gruesome 104-69 loss on the road at New Mexico Highlands, FLC saw the Cowboys make 19-of-33 from 3-point range. The Cowboys have only gotten better, as Barnes-Thompkins makes an RMAC-leading 3.8 3-pointers per game and shoots them at 50%.
Ball security will be a key for FLC against the press defense of the Cowboys, who have collected an RMAC-leading 9.3 steals per game. Highlands also leads the conference in offensive rebounding at a whopping 15.3 per game.
FLC will have the big men inside to collect rebounds. The question defensively will come on the perimeter.
What makes the RMAC such a tough conference is the travel, especially for geographically isolated schools such as Fort Lewis. After Friday night’s game, FLC will welcome CSU-Pueblo at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Then, the Skyhawks will go on the road for the first time this season next weekend on a South Dakota trip to see Black Hills State and South Dakota Mines.
“I’d say it would be like going into an ocean and you get the first wave, then another wave and another wave,” Pietrack said. “You just gotta keep sustaining the waves until you can get outta there.
“This team is very together. It has been from the start, and it comes naturally to them. We’re really just looking forward to seeing what we can do in our league. This league right now is as good as it’s ever been top to bottom, every game. That 22-game slate is very, very challenging, especially if you’re a satellite school. We look forward to the challenge, know how difficult it is and that it’s a week-to-week league. You gotta be bringing it every week, and there’s no time off.”