OGDEN, Utah — "Stepping up," that well-circulated cliche coaches and athletes love to spew, was bouncing around like a basketball this week in the Cal State Northridge gym.
Northridge (7-6), picked to win the Big Sky Conference men's title, takes the first step toward attaining that goal with a game tonight at Weber State (5-5), the first of three consecutive road games.
The Matadors play at Cal State Sacramento on Saturday night and at Northern Arizona on Thursday.
No matter how you phrase it, the Matadors needn't be reminded the time has come to elevate their level of play--particularly the way it has been sinking.
Northridge was 0-3 at the Nike Festival in Hawaii last month and has weathered an arduous nonconference schedule that included games at UCLA, USC, Nevada Las Vegas and Marquette.
Of course, the Matadors made a splash with a 78-74 victory over the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion. But the grind has been difficult.
"There's no doubt about it," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "Look at all the teams we've played. It's been tough that way. You hope it prepares you to play against good teams in hostile environments. But all that's gone now."
Now, it's time to you-know-what for conference play.
"We're going in with the attitude that our preseason schedule helped us," Braswell said. "The games that we've played on the road, where we've played and against who."
The Big Sky race rarely is a runaway and no one expects Northridge to breeze. Still, the Big Sky landscape has shifted since last season, a big reason the Matadors, with virtually its entire roster returning, were an overwhelming pick to win the Big Sky and advance to their first NCAA tournament.
Among 11 players selected to last season's all-conference team, only Brian Heinle and Markus Carr of Northridge returned this season. Several top players are gone--three-point specialist Ross Land of Northern Arizona, the high-scoring duo of Harold Arceneaux and Eddie Gill of Weber State, and forward Matt Williams of Montana.
Enter Heinle, a 6-foot-9 senior center and the Matadors' leading scorer. Eighth in the conference in scoring last season, Heinle reigns as the Big Sky's premier big man. At least, he is putting his best foot forward at the right time.
Heinle was selected Big Sky player of the week for the second time this season after recording his sixth double-double and third in a row with 25 points and 12 rebounds against Vanguard. He is averaging 19.1 points and 8.2 rebounds, both team highs, and leads the team with 20 three-point baskets.
If Northridge is to prosper, production from Heinle is a must.
"The guys look to me to do a lot of things and I expect that," Heinle said. "I expect it out of myself, so it isn't anything different. I'm looking forward to it. If they expect me to do more, I'll do more."
Braswell has challenged Heinle during practice, trying to kindle his competitive fire.
"I've been on him the last couple of weeks about being consistent, about showing up every day and showing up every night and showing people what you're about," Braswell said. "He's got to understand he's down to his last 16 games as a senior in college and he's got to approach this with the idea that he wants to go out being the best player [in the conference] and he wants to show people he's the best player."
The same can be said for the Matadors in their final season in the Big Sky before joining the Big West next year.
Northridge unquestionably has played a more difficult nonconference schedule than any Big Sky team. The Matadors are stocked with experience. And all that road experience should help tonight at Dee Events Center, arguably the toughest place for any conference team to play.
Last season, the Wildcats scored a school-record 76 second-half points in a 113-92 victory and Braswell was ejected.
"They seem to be more energized at home," Carr said. "A lot of their shots fall and everything seems to go their way. But we've played a lot of games that have gone down to the wire and that will help us approach games, especially at the end."
Last season, Northridge (20-10) and Weber State (18-10) tied for fourth place with 10-6 conference records. They split two games, each winning at home, before Northridge defeated the Wildcats, 73-68, in a Big Sky tournament opener at Montana.
Northridge lost to Northern Arizona, 85-81, in overtime in the Big Sky championship game.
"I feel like we're underdogs," Braswell said.