For the last three years, former Saginaw High coach Charlie Coles has welcomed coach Frankie Smith and the Cardinals to Ohio for an early season exhibition game.
This year, Smith and the Cardinals will return the favor.
SVSU will host Coles’ Miami Redhawks, a division one team that competes in the Mid-American Conference, for the first time Monday, Nov. 21.
“When we played the last year at Miami, he told me right after the game, right at half court, ‘Hey, we’re coming back to Saginaw Valley to play at your place next year,’” said Smith, who worked under Coles for eight years as an assistant at Miami.
Monday’s matchup will be a homecoming for Coles, who started his coaching career at Saginaw High, guiding the team to two state final appearances between 1972-82.
His son, Chris Coles, is also an assistant under Smith at SVSU.
But it will also be a historical milestone for SVSU, as the Redhawks are the first division one opponent the Cardinals have ever hosted at O’Neill Arena.
“It’s huge,” Smith said. “I would say it’s the biggest game in our program’s history to have a division one opponent come to us, and especially somebody of the caliber of Miami University.”
Miami has played Dayton and Xavier this year already, and has a matchup with Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State scheduled for later in the year. The Redhawks finished with a conference record of 10-5 in 2010/2011, and Coles has the most career MAC wins in league history.
SVSU players said that while they are treating the game just like any other, the matchup offers a bit of a different challenge than what they are accustomed to.
“It gets you to a different speed playing against DI talent,” said junior guard Michael Fugate. “The preparation before is the same, but it’s tough coming out and knowing that you’re probably going to be outmatched at every position as far as size.
“You have to come out and fight that much harder.”
Senior forward Eli Redman agreed, saying that he expects the game to be much more physically demanding.
“We know coming in that they’re always going to be big and physical with us,” he said. “It’ll be a good test.”
The matchup with Miami ends a season-opening road trip that has been full of tests for SVSU. The Cardinals opened their season with a trip to face defending national champions Bellarmine (an 85-71 loss) and then followed up with another road trip to Wisconsin this weekend, where the team played in two tough games: an 83-68 loss Wisconsin-Parkside and an 85-75 win over Minnesota-Duluth.
Although the Cardinals sit at 1-3 going into tonight’s matchup, Smith and his players said that the experience these games offered will pay dividends later in the season.
“A tough schedule opening up gets us ready to play a tough schedule down the round,” said junior guard Chris Webb, who is leading the team with an average of 18.7 points per game. “I feel like these games right now are giving us a better mindset of what to do in tougher situations.”
Smith said that he learned the value of a tough early-season schedule during his time under Coles at Miami.
“When I was at Miami, we’d always play those power division one programs, and when it came to conference play we were ready,” he said. “I want to have about as tough of a schedule as we can possibly have.”
But the Cardinals aren’t just treating these games as a learning experience; Smith said that if the team plays consistent defense against Miami for 40 minutes, he expects to have a chance to win.
“We’ll have to be good defensively all around to have a chance,” Smith said. “If we can do that, I think we’ll have the opportunity to transition the ball against them and get some baskets.”
The play of SVSU’s post players would be essential to take the pressure off the highly touted backcourt of Fugate, Webb and senior guard Greg Foster.
“Teams are going to have a game plan for Greg, Chris and Mike,” Smith said. “It’s really going to depend on the post guys stepping up daily offensively and defensively.”
Redman said that he was confident that he and his fellow big men would be ready to contribute to a balanced attack.
“Both Jay (Thames, junior forward) and I are great passers,” Redman said. “Once we get our whole system working together, we’ll be hard to stop.”
But the post players aren’t the only ones whom the pressure falls on; Foster said that the backcourt players also worked on taking their game to the next level during the offseason.
“We definitely worked on the little things,” he said. “Last year we drove the ball a lot; this year we’ve created the pull-up jump shot on our game.
“We just try to take what we have and make it the best it can be.”
The Cardinals will host the Redhawks at 7 p.m. in the O’Neill arena.
“If we can get a decent amount of people to fill this place up, it definitely brings an advantage,” Fugate said. “Hopefully we can pack it.”