Chicago State came into Saturday's game against Utah Valley searching for a new beginning after a difficult non-conference schedule that saw the Cougars go 3-13 with just one win over an NCAA Division I squad. The start of Great West Conference play against the Wolverines at the Jacoby Dickens Center offered a chance to begin anew. Unfortunately for the Cougars, they ended up on the wrong side of a 93-82 defeat.
The loss was Chicago State's fifth in a row and all the previous four were blowouts against decent mid-majors and major conference teams. Head coach Tracy Dildy sees a team that is struggling with its confidence and defense.
"We have a group that's really fragile and we're still trying to find some confidence," Dildy said. "I think that non-conference schedule has really done a job on us. So we're just searching and searching for confidence. The only way you get over this is with a win. We need a win in the worst way."
The Cougars appeared on the way to a victory in the conference opener in the first half. In fact, Utah Valley didn't take the lead for the first time until 4:35 remained in the first half at 33-32. But it was a moment at the end of the first half that ultimately caused the problems that doomed the Cougars. Senior Carl Montgomery picked up his second and third fouls of the game on back-to-back plays late in the half. Dildy was trying to get Montgomery out of the game, but he was unable to get a substitution in time.
Montgomery then picked up his fourth foul at the under 16 timeout in the second half and the game tied at 48. The Cougars would go on scoring drought for almost three minutes after he went to the bench and Utah Valley built its advantage. Even playing just 22 minutes, Montgomery finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three blocks. Jonathon Montgomery led the Cougars with 20 points.
Still, it wasn't the offense that hurt the Cougars. The problem was Chicago State's defense. The Cougars scored 82 points in 79 possessions and shot 43.8 percent from the field and 20-27 from the free throw line. The two Montgomerys and Antonio Lofton, who scored 16 points, provided consistent offense. But Utah Valley scored 93 points in those 79 possessions, including 36-47 shooting from the line. The Cougars committed 35 personal fouls while by being reckless in the press. Utah Valley was led by Isiah Williams, who scored 22 points, and had five players in double-figures. Geddes Robinson had a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds.
"Our guys are just not sure on the defensive end yet," Dildy said. "They haven't just committed. Once we get the guys to really commit and sell out for the team we should be a pretty good defensive team. We just haven't committed to that yet."
The pressing style that Dildy is instituting, while exciting, can also have its problems. It seemed to speed up Utah Valley early, but as the game wore on the Cougars were unable to maintain the pressure that made it so effective and ended up fouling when they were late. That led to the foul problems as three Chicago State players fouled out. One of the players that has bought into the defensive system is walk-on Archie Seals. Seals scored seven points on 3-3 shooting and grabbed three boards, but it was his defense that Dildy praised afterwards.
"He comes and plays hard," Dildy said. "He defends. If you defend you have a soft spot in my heart. He's been really, really consistent doing what he does."
So while Chicago State didn't get the win, the competitive game bodes well for the future. The Cougars might be 0-1 in conference, but a whole new season is just getting started and Dildy thinks his team still has a shot in Great West.
"I think it's still wide open," Dildy said. "I think whoever wins this conference is going to have more than one loss. So this is definitely wide open. It's just the first week."