On a warm New York City evening in June 2009, Mike Lacey lounged in the Green Room at Madison Square Garden with good buddy Jordan Hill during the NBA draft, the dream spot for just about every college basketball player.
Last Thursday, not long after snow had begun falling in Pocatello, Idaho, Lacey boarded a bus and rode for nearly three hours with his Idaho State teammates to the Salt Lake City airport.
Then the Atlanta native boarded an airplane to Denver for a game with Colorado. On Saturday, he made the trip to Tucson.
All that traveling, and Lacey didn't come close to New York or Atlanta. In fact, Lacey and the Bengals will get no farther east all season than Omaha and Brookings, S.D., instead spinning huge circles around the Mountain Time Zone.
Such is life in the Big Sky Conference, where distance is a constant reality, not only for far-flung conference games but also for the inevitable one-time road games its teams often must play in the name of supporting their athletic departments.
Idaho State, finishing with an RPI of 309 last season, typically plays three or four of what are often called "buy" or "guarantee" games every year. Saturday at Colorado, an 88-80 loss, was one. Today, at Arizona, is another.
"There's an expectation of football and men's basketball to bring in a certain amount of dollars each year," Idaho State coach Joe O'Brien said. "So we have to do some of this. But it's helpful to play a few high major teams for recruiting purposes."
Here's how O'Brien attracted three Bengals all the way to Pocatello:
Andre Hatchett, 6-4 freshman guard from Tucson:
The former Santa Rita wing was a teammate of Terrell Stoglin starting in fourth grade, but he didn't quite receive the same recruiting attention that the now-Maryland guard did.
But things changed after a good summer of 2009 travel ball, forcing Hatchett to decide whether to choose a mid- to low-major school that offered in the fall or wait until the spring. After talking it over with Santa Rita coach Jim Ferguson, Hatchett decided not to wait.
"I said, 'Do you like the school? Do you like the coaches? Could you play there?' " Ferguson said. "I said, 'If you got a Pac-10 offer, what would you do? Would you go and maybe not play as a freshman or be a minor role player, or go to Idaho State and contribute early in your career?'"
Hatchett had a strong enough senior season, helping lead Santa Rita to the Arizona 4A-11 title, that he might have been able to attract even higher-level offers in the spring. But Hatchett expresses no regrets.
"From Day 1, coach Ferguson told me how it was going to be. He was a realist," Hatchett said. "And I felt like my career would take off" at Idaho State.
Hatchett didn't play in the Bengals' season opener on Friday at Colorado, but O'Brien said he has good athleticism and rebounding, and will get on the floor early in his career.
Hatchett said he does miss the Tucson weather a bit, but he's getting a break this weekend because the Wildcats invited the Bengals for a one-time appearance - and O'Brien couldn't resist.
"We wanted to take Andre back home," he said.
Mike Lacey, 6-5 senior guard from Atlanta:
After teaming with Hill at North Springs High School in Atlanta, Lacey earned his Division I scholarship the hard way.
He first traveled to Powell, Wyo., to play at Northwest College, then transferred to Idaho State with only a promise from assistant coach Geoff Alexander that he would be given a chance to walk on to the team.
Lacey played just two games in his first year before breaking a finger and missing the rest of the season, because he couldn't handle the ball. But now he's a key contributor on a full scholarship as a senior, being counted on to help the Bengals rebound from a 7-22 season.
"If I was to go back, I don't think I would change anything," Lacey said. "The team and the community are really good. Coach O'Brien gave me a shot and it's a blessing. A lot of people can't say they got to this level."
Broderick Gilchrest, 6-0 senior guard from Memphis:
Like Lacey, Gilchrest also followed a winding trail out of the Southeast.
After leading Hamilton High School to the 2007 Tennessee Class AAA title, Gilchrest played a season for Middle Tennessee State, averaging 1.8 points over 32 games. He spent his sophomore year in the Texas Panhandle at Frank Phillips College, averaging 12.8 points, and headed to Pocatello for his junior year.
Gilchrest became an honorable mention All-Big Sky pick last season and is the Bengals' only returning starter this season. He made an immediate splash Friday, scoring 39 points in Colorado's 88-80 victory.
UA assistant coach James Whitford, who scouted the Bengals, said Gilchrest somewhat reminds him of Washington's Isaiah Thomas.
"He's got great speed like Thomas," Whitford said. "He doesn't play as controlled as Thomas, who can stop on a dime and change directions. But he can score from three areas - he can get to the rim, score from midrange and hit three-point shots."
• Who: Idaho State at Arizona
• When: 3 p.m.
• TV: FSAZ, Channel 58
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)