2009-10 Conference Primers: #22 – Big Sky

Posted by rtmsf on October 14th, 2009


Glenn Junkert of GrizzlyJournal.com is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference. Click here for all of our 2009-10 Season Preview materials.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Weber State (22-9, 12-4)
  2. Montana (20-8, 11-5)
  3. Montana State (16-12, 11-5)
  4. Idaho State (13-16, 10-6)
  5. Portland State (14-15, 9-7)
  6. Northern Arizona (11-17, 8-8)
  7. Northern Colorado (12-18, 5-11)
  8. Eastern Washington (8-21, 3-13)
  9. Sacramento State (7-22, 3-13)

All-Conference First Team:

  • Anthony Johnson, Montana
  • Damian Lilliard, Weber State
  • Steve Panos, Weber State
  • Phil Nelson, Portland State
  • Bobby Howard, Montana State

All-Conference Second Team:

  • Amorrow Morgan, Idaho State
  • Will Bynum, Montana State
  • Dominic Waters, Portland State
  • Brandon Moore, Eastern Washington
  • Shane Johannssen, Northern Arizona

MVP: Anthony Johnson, Montana

Impact Newcomers:

  • Franklin Session, Weber State
  • Eric Platt, Northern Arizona
  • Raason Young, Montana

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What You Need to Know.  Last year Weber State senior point guard Kellen McCoy earned his Big Sky MVP medal by shaping his young teammates into a cohesive unit early. The Wildcats shrugged off a home court loss to Montana State and promptly forged a commanding conference lead with a league-wide road sweep, a rare feat in the Big Sky, though three other stellar guards — Montana’s Anthony Johnson, Montana State’s Will Bynum, and McCoy’s teammate, frosh Damian Lilliard — had second-half performances equal to McCoy’s, the Wildcat senior was a shoo-in for directing his cats to a rare 15-1 record in league play.

Predicted ChampionWeber State (NCAA Seed: #14). Weber State basketball IS coach Randy Rahe, and what Rahe has done best in four years at WSU is: 1) Recruit a balanced combo of quality junior college and freshman talent; and, 2) Demand the utmost in ensemble discipline and teamwork from his players on the court. The result? Deuces wild: two league titles and two “coach of the year” awards in his four years at WSU. The Wildcats graduated seniors Kellen McCoy and Daivin Davis, but Rahe will rely on the leadership of sophomore guard Lilliard, who’s expected to get support from highly regarded JC transfer Franklin Session. Otherwise, Rahe’s stellar coaching should be enough to earn the Cats a second straight league title.

Top Contenders:

  • Montana. After Montana coach Wayne Tinkle benched senior point guard Ceylon Elgin Taylor 11 games into the 08-09 season, the Griz’ season nearly unraveled. That’s when sixth-man shooting guard Anthony Johnson stepped into the point, stepped up large, and led the Griz to a third-place Big Sky finish. In the process, Johnson paced the league in scoring and became the only Big Sky player named to the NCAA All-District VIII team. With Johnson’s year of experience at point, Montana has its best front-court/back-court balance in years. Forwards Jordan Hasquet and Kyle Sharp have departed but the Griz expect talented young 7’-0” big men Brian Qvale and Derek Selvig to fill their shoes. For the first time in years, the Griz return depth at both guard positions and, despite losing promising freshman recruit Thurman Woods, are two-deep at every position.
  • Montana State.  When Weber State avenged its only league loss with a 20-point 84-64 thumping of the Bobcats in the final conference game in Bozeman, things looked bleak for the sixth place Cats and their coach, Brad Huse. But MSU rebounded in the playoffs with a last-second 56-54 stunner over Montana before eliminating those same Wildcats, 71-60 in tourney semis. The Cats folded against Portland State in the title game, but built expectations for this year in the process. The architect of the Bobcats’ late season surge, senior 6’-4” point guard Will Bynum — and heady junior 6’-7 forward Bobby Howard — lead a cohesive group of four returning starters. If Huse can groom one of three promising underclassmen to fill the shoes of departed all-league post Divaldo Mbunga (and that’s a big IF) the Cats will contend.
  • Idaho State. Despite losing starters Lucas Steijn and Matt Stucki, the Bengals return four regular and two part-time starters on a senior-laden team with the talent to contend. All-conference point guard Amorrow Morgan has the task of directing six other seniors and two juniors — all with extensive game experience — into a functioning unit by conference play. If forward Chron Tatum, center Deividas Busma, and guards Austin Kilpatrick and Donnie Carson survive a brutal non-conference road slate that features 10 quality division 1 opponents, the Bengals can win it all in the Big Sky.

RPI Boosters:

  • Nov. 13, 2009 & Dec. 23, 2009 – Weber State vs. Utah State — Nov. 13 in Ogden and Dec. 23 in Logan. A win in either game with their instate rivals immediately boosts the Wildcats’ RPI.
  • Nov. 13, 15, & 17, 2009 – Idaho State @ Iowa State, @ Bradley, @ BYU — The Bengals start a brutal preseason against overwhelming odds in this five-day road trip. Close losses don’t really count. But the Bengals have the opportunity to make an early statement with a breakthrough road win.
  • Nov. 15, 2009 – Portland State @ Washington. Can the Vikings do it again? They won’t sneak up on the Huskies this year, but a win can define the season for first year coach Tyler Geving.
  • Nov. 17 & 19, 2009 – Northern Arizona vs. Fresno State, vs. Pacific — After a disastrous 2008-09, there’s nothing veteran coach Mike Adras would crave more than an early home court win or two against “beatable” Division I competition.
  • Dec. 12, 2009.  Montana @ Colorado State — A road win over the Rams probably won’t boost Montana’s RPI rating much. But this is the rubber match of a three-game series which each team notching 30 point home court wins. A win by Montana at Colorado State would go a long way toward building confidence heading into conference play.

Key Conference Games:

  • Dec. 5, 2009 – Eastern Washington @ Portland State – The Big Sky’s bizarre conference schedule tips off the first week in December for half of the league’s squads. None is more important than this match between two teams under scrutiny (for different reasons) to prove themselves as early contenders.
  • Dec. 31, 2009 – Montana State @ Weber State – Weber State’s only losses to a conference foe last year were dealt — on their home court — by the Bobcats. There’ll be more than mere grudges decided in this early season match between title contenders.
  • Dec. 31, 2009 – Montana @ Idaho State – The Bengals and Grizzlies have waged several late-season battles in recent years that affected post-season aspirations for both squads. The result? An explosive, and often heated, annual rivalry between two of the Big Sky’s best defensive teams. Flip the schedule. This early season game (with students still on vacation) probably won’t have much impact on conference standings. But it may likely cast the winner as a serious contender.
  • Jan. 2, 7, & 9, 2010 – Northern Arizona vs. Northern Colorado, Idaho State and Weber State. The homestand stage is set: After last season’s disastrous collapse by his NAU Lumberjacks, coach Mike Adras would probably love to see his young Jacks open conference play with a winning hoops home-stand trifecta.
  • Feb. 27, 2010 – Montana State @ Montana – Basketball fans in Montana don’t need much of an excuse to get fired up for the next Griz-Cat game in what is one of the oldest rivalries in college basketball. But last year’s final game was costly for the host Griz, who — after sweeping the Cats in conference play — lost a last-second stunner to the Cats on their home court in the first game of the Big Sky Tourney. This year’s final conference game may once again determine which team goes dancing and which team stays home.
  • Feb. 28, 2010 – Weber State @ Portland State – This final tilt of the Big Sky conference 09-10 season will likely determine which of several front runners will host the Big Sky post-season tournament.
  • Mar. 10, 2010 – Big Sky Championship Game

Digging Deeper. Know where the Big Sky Conference is? Somewhere between Bozeman, Montana to the north, Flagstaff, Arizona to the south and Sacramento, California to the west. Nine isolated and mostly small university towns are scattered somewhere under a very BIG sky, with a lot of space, and long connecting flights, in between.  In recent years football has been the keyword in the conference. The Big Sky has gained notoriety as one of the three elite conferences in the NCAA football FCS Division over the past 15 years. This fall, five of the nine conference schools are (or have been) ranked among the top 25 in the division.  But basketball? That’s another story. Hoops have been a tough sell for this far-flung conference. With destinations like Bozeman, Cheney, Flagstaff, Greeley, Ogden, Missoula or Pocatello, the prospect of luring most quality NCAA Division I opponents for home & home matchups might require one edgy advertising campaign.  Of course, with FCS post-season football games often played on frozen Rocky Mountain fields, there’s a natural theme. “Welcome to football playoff game in Hell… after Hell has frozen over.” The fans, decked in stormy kromers and sorrels, love it, and show up by the thousands.

But roundball is another story. Most of these towns are tough to fly into in midwinter. So, instead of home and home schedules, Big Sky schools often agree to two road games for every hosted meeting. That’s tough on the travel budget. To complicate matters, the league has struggled in its attempts to prod conference members to strengthen preseason schedules. After all, how does a conference with a league average of 2200 fans attract major competition? So, most Big Sky teams hit the road in the preseason. And hope for the best.

Despite the barriers, Big Sky teams have notched some recent success against common Big West, Western Athletic Conference and West Coast Conference opponents. Regardless, the Big Sky remains mired as a ”Low Major” conference, a long notch below the mid-major ranking of the other three western conferences.  But here’s the good part: after emerging from preseason schedules that rarely boost their RPI rankings, the league’s teams proceed to thrash the living daylights out of each other during conference play. And that’s made for some mighty hot basketball under the Big Sky over the past decade and more. A team’s record means little. And winning any regular season title means even less. Over the past 10 years, the Big Sky’s NCAA representative has seldom also been the regular season champ. And any of five teams: Eastern Washington, Montana, Northern Arizona, Weber State and Portland State has had a brief spell as the “Big Sky’s Best.”

What we know is this: Weber State won last year’s conference title but Portland State went to the NCAAs. As for this season? My prediction is as reliable as the next throw of dice.

Fun With KenPom.  The Big Sky plays ball at a higher level than you probably think.  Last year, Sacramento St. was the only truly horrible team (2-27, 1-15), but the top four teams finished in the top 200 of the KenPom ratings.  This may not sound like much, but in the majority of conferences ranked below here, those leagues are lucky to have two such teams.  For what it’s worth, Northern Arizona had the sixth toughest nonconference schedule in America last season.

NCAA Tournament History.  The league has fared ok in its history given its size and remoteness, going 11-44 (.200) over the course of four decades.  Most of those wins came in the rough-and-tumble 1970s, when the NCAA still placed its tournament participants in regions based on geography.  Still, you can count on a Big Sky team to win a first-round game every few years, as Montana did over Nevada in 2006, and Weber St. did over UNC in 1999.  The last three trips haven’t been kind to the league champion, but there’s no reason to believe that with a little luck and the right matchup, a Big Sky team couldn’t pull off another big upset.

Final Thoughts.   The Big Sky has long been a coaches conference, in which brilliant young assistants from major programs arrive, win, and then depart for a major school. Last year it was Portland State’s Ken Bone, who built the Vikings into a contender and a champ before departing last spring for Washington State. Longtime Vikings assistant Tyler Geving assumes the reins, but must meld nine newcomers into his inaugural program.  Ironically, the league has also been an accidental graveyard of sorts. No fewer that five quality coaches have been victimized by player injuries, poor team chemistry, or player misconduct… and lost their jobs in the process. Last year, the dean of Big Sky coaches, Mike Adras, saw his perennial contender Lumberjacks suffer from internal conflict and plunge to the cellar. Adras is back, but faces the daunting task of kneading eight newcomers into his usually stable senior-laden program.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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3 responses to “2009-10 Conference Primers: #22 – Big Sky”

  1. mslacat says:

    I will agree with most of what you said except about Montana’s depth at the 4 and 5. The Griz have only 4 big men on their roster one of them is a true freshman, who could use a redshirt year, and another is a freshman coming off a red shirt year. Selvig has been injury prone and has put on 25 pound while recovering from a foot injury. He just has been cleared to play a few weeks ago. Qvale is primed for a good season, but there are a lot of questions about the Griz front line. can Selvig stay healthy, are the freshman ready to contribute significant time, will Tinkle have to play small ball this season.

  2. quartzglen says:

    Mslacat: You’re right about Selvig. Add the factor of a 12-man roster with the unfortunate departure of Woods means the Griz season could implode with a couple of injuries. But I think the Griz have a future blue chip in their own M War… a versatile big who stands to be tested by fire early and, I believe, could bolster Montana’s frontcourt by conference. That’s no more of a risk than picking any of several Bobcat underclass players (and several are promising) to step up big in Divaldo’s absence.

  3. mslacat says:

    Ward is going to be a great player for the Griz, and I have heard he would have played a lot of minutes last year for the Griz if they had not chosen to redshirt him. I am always a little leery of freshman. For every Damon Lillard (Weber State) there are 5 other freshman that struggle to adjust. Inconsistency and wearing down on long road games or at the end of the season. I think the way Tinkle will get his best players on the court is to go small ball at times.

    The big question for the cats is who will replace Divaldo, but he is the only loss which should help. The Cats will need to chose from 7-0 JC Swita, 6-10 sophomore Anderson, or 6-9 Senior Johnson (who is the leading candidate), but who ever it is none will have the total package of Divaldo. The center spot was a strength for the Cats last year, this year it will be a work in progress.

    Both teams should finish in the top of the league, but to challenge for the top spot the Griz need to stay away from injuries (btw 6-9 freshman Hutchison is out for a week or so with an ankle injury right now) and get their best players on the court. For the Cats they need the 1-4 positions to step up their game play with some consistence and up to their potential.

    I love this time of year.

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