Dorm Report: Thunderbirds seek glimmer of hope

Philadelphia, PA ( - For every Syracuse and Wichita State - the last two undefeated programs in college basketball - there inevitably are a few squads that just can't seem to generate many positive outcomes.

At this point in the 2013-14 season, those have-nots are Cornell, Grambling State and Southern Utah, each of which has registered just one victory against a sub-Division I opponent now that we are into the first week of February.

Of the 345 Division I teams that have their statistics monitored religiously by the NCAA, the Thunderbirds of SUU seem to be having the most trouble as they sport a record of just 1-18 overall and remain winless in 10 attempts in Big Sky Conference play this year.

The Thunderbirds had perhaps their best chance at a conference victory just last weekend when they battled Montana State down to the wire, but again came up short with a 54-52 home loss. It was the third game this season that had been decided by four points or less, which in some ways is reason to be optimistic.

"We made some mistakes earlier when we could have capitalized and we had some calls that didn't go our way, but you have to play through that, and we did play through it," SUU coach Nick Robinson noted. "I'm proud of the way we played hard; continued improvement is always good to see, but we did have some breakdowns."

You have to wonder how Robinson motivates players who are so often overmatched from one night to the next, although maybe the team now sees a glimmer of hope after nearly stealing one away from the Bobcats in Cedar City.

The Thunderbirds, who returned six letter-winners and added six scholarship players and four walk-ons, had just four upperclassmen to begin the campaign. The team entered 2013-14 with just nine seasons of Division I experience on the roster, so it was understandable there would be some growing pains.

"With it being a new year, we expect our leadership from those returners to improve and we expect their play on the court to improve as well," Robinson explained early on. "We've got a lot of guys that need to step up to fill the gaps from last year, both defensively and offensively."

That hasn't happened.

The program dates back a half century to 1963-64 when it was competing against the likes of Colorado Mines, Northwest Nazarene and Magic Valley. The squad made its way up the ranks from the NAIA to present-day Division I status, but the progression has been anything but smooth.

Southern Utah has struggled for acceptance for more than a decade now, last posting a winning record in 2000-01 when it actually competed in the NCAA Tournament against Boston College and took the Eagles down to the wire in a 68-65 setback. However, back then the T'birds were battling in the Mid- Continent Conference and also took on non-league foes such as Southern Virginia and Western Oregon, as well as BYU and Arizona State, but that one season they were clearly playing over their heads.

Now in their second season in the Big Sky, after toiling in the Summit League for several campaigns. the Thunderbirds are finding out just how tough it is to field a young team and play against solid Division-I opponents night in and night out.

It certainly doesn't help matters that the Thunderbirds occupy the same D-I basketball landscape in the Beehive State as BYU (16-9), Utah (15-7), Utah State (13-9), Weber State (12-7) and even Utah Valley (14-8) - teams that are enjoying success on a more regular basis.

Granted, none of those aforementioned programs are setting the college basketball world on fire, but to provide some perspective on where Southern Utah lands on a national scale with just 56.3 points per game - the lowest average of any team in the country - that is just 3.3 points more than what BYU tallied in the first half against Santa Clara on Thursday night, en route to an 89-76 win at home.

There are, unfortunately, very few aspects of the game the Thunderbirds perform well these days, outside of ranking 99th nationally in free-throw shooting (.719) as of Sunday. For almost every other important measurable, Southern Utah is barely surviving whether it be a scoring margin (minus-18.0 ppg) that is second-to-worst in the country or a rebounding margin (minus-9.0 rpg) that is also 344th coming into this week.

You would like to think that, just by sheer effort, there are some areas that the T'birds are competent, perhaps that being their 3.3 blocked shots per game, which is 209th nationally, but still the majority of the cards are stacked against them.

And if you were hoping the team could take some pride in having at least one win on the season, it should be pointed out that lone victory to kick off the campaign, an 85-78 decision at home, came against an Arizona Christian squad that competes at the NAIA level. What that means is SUU has an overall losing streak of 18 in a row, but also has not defeated another D-I program since slipping by Cal State Northridge, 73-72, last Feb. 23.

As of Friday, it has been a full calendar year since the Thunderbirds celebrated a conference win, an 81-79 overtime affair versus Idaho State on the road, which means their Big Sky losing streak has reached 18 straight as well.

Almost all teams, in all sports, go through some tough times at one point or another in their history, but you really have to hand it to the Thunderbirds for giving it everything they have when they take the floor, knowing the odds are against them.