The marathon road trips that dot the Heartland Conference basketball schedule — treks across the Plains all the way down to the Mexican border — are an easy excuse when losses come home to roost, whether the result of poor play or fatigue.
“They’re rough and you really have to stay focused,” Newman men’s coach Mark Potter said. “You have to almost tell yourself you’re going to figure it out, mentally, because the trips do wear you out. I don’t care if you’re a player or a coach … you have to completely have yourself ready.”
The Jets dropped seven spots to No. 21 in this week’s NCAA Division II poll after their first conference defeat last Saturday at Texas-Permian Basin, losing 74-67 and dropping Newman to 14-2 overall and 5-1 in Heartland games headed into Saturday’s game at first-place Arkansas-Fort Smith (10-6, 6-0).
Newman started off last week’s road trip with a Thursday win at Oklahoma Panhandle State on Thursday at Goodwell, Okla. — a 4 1/2-hour bus ride — then went six more hours south to Odessa, Texas, where they stayed Friday night.
“It wasn’t like our first loss where we didn’t show up that night,” Potter said. “We came to play, there just wasn’t that extra passion you need when teams are trying to upset a ranked team in the nation. I don’t think I’ve done a good-enough job of selling that teams are really gonna bring it against you because of this rankings thing.”
The Jets feel like they’ve already learned their lesson.
“It was a tough trip, but we’ll continue to get better,” Newman senior point guard Bobby Wesley said. “I’m not too worried about it having a longer effect on us because I know we’re excited for the opportunity we have Saturday.... We get to go against an old coach, which is always one of those things that gets everybody pumped up.
“In my opinion, I don’t think we’ll lose another game.”
Arkansas-Fort Smith assistant coach Chris Popp spent six seasons at Newman before joining the Lions last season. Six-foot-three junior guard Jake Toupal is Arkansas-Fort Smith’s leading scorer at 12.6 points and the Lions are on a four-game winning streak.
“We’re a good team, don’t get me wrong,” Potter said. “But we’re not a team that can walk out and go through the motions and beat people. (Arkansas-Fort Smith) can really bring it at a high level.”