Checking in on… the Big Sky

Posted by rtmsf on November 27th, 2009


Glenn Junkert of Grizzly Journal is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.


  1. Northern Colorado 5-0 W5
  2. Montana 4-1 W1
  3. Sacramento State 3-3 L1
  4. Eastern Washington 2-3 L1
  5. Montana State 2-2 L1
  6. Northern Arizona 2-2 L2
  7. Portland State 1-3 W1
  8. Weber State 1-3 W1
  9. Idaho State 1-4 L1


  • Northern Colorado – Earned a Mid Major Poll rank of 25th with championships in both the Rainbow Classic and the Reggie Minton Air Force Classic and are currently ranked 69th in the USA Today Sagarin Ratings.
  • Sacramento State – Defeated Oregon State 65-63 in Corvallis.
  • Montana – Defeated Oregon 68-55 in Portland.


Early results in the Big Sky indicate a return to parity after several seasons of distinct “upper-lower division split.” PROOF: perennial bottom-feeder CSU Sacramento, under the reins of second-year coach (and Sac State alum) Brian Katz, is 3-3 with an impressive 65-63 win at Oregon State and a decent showing at Idaho. Katz’ rebuilding project of a decimated Hornet program appears decidedly ahead of schedule.


The early-season story in the Big Sky has been the play of Tad Boyle’s Northern Colorado (UNC) Bears, 5-0 so far and facing a solid opportunity to open Big Sky Conference play undefeated (Dec. 4 at Montana State), with a “should-win” game at North Dakota tonight and a home-court match against Colorado State (3-2) Dec. 1. Boyle’s Bears play an exciting, super-charged open-court game unique to the Big Sky and, with the right cogs in place, could further flip the upper-lower tier split of past years. The Bears – who lead the conference in steals, turnover margin, FG%, and scoring margin… and are 2nd in four other categories – are dropping not-so-subtle hints that this may be their year.


After repeated edicts by the Big Sky front office in 2004 to strengthen nonconference schedules, most programs responded, adding road contests against Top-50 Div. 1 schools, the most visible results being numerous losing records entering conference play of late. But can a tough schedule be too much? Last season Northern Arizona seemed to implode after playing one of the toughest Division 1 pre-conference slates. This year it could be Joe O’Brien’s Idaho State Bengals, who tipped-off the season with losses at Iowa State, Bradley, BYU and a blowout thumping at Utah State (road weary?). It doesn’t get any easier as the Bengals face a daunting FIVE of their next six non-conference tiffs in hostile Division 1 arenas.


Last Season Portland State stunned Gonzaga in Spokane and ALMOST picked another early season plum with a one-point 84-83 loss at Washington. No such luck his year, as the Big Sky’s defending NCAA qualifier was swept by Belmont, Wright State and those very same Huskies at the Athletes In Action Classic in Seattle. This year the Huskies left nothing to chance, humiliating the Vikes with a 111-55 setback. Northern Arizona lost out on an early opportunity to notch an early home-court win against the tough Pacific Tigers when a power outage halted play at the 8:01 mark with the Jacks leading, 45-43. The game was eventually suspended with no winner declared.


Montana senior point guard Anthony Johnson – who was widely considered the best player in the Big Sky last year, despite not being named MVP – has taken up where he left off last year. Johnson already leads the league in scoring average (22.0 ppg.), free throws (46 through 5 games), FT% (93%)… and minutes played. How do you stop him? Last year no team could. So… Johnson was punished with a lot of very hard fouls. This season, stats show the pattern repeating. Johnson has already shot 46 ‘throws’ in five games, and has been fouled extra hard in the late minutes of several games, which included a push that catapulted him across the scorers’ bench in Montana’s win over Boise State. How much is too much? Here’s hoping Big Sky referees (vastly improved over the past two seasons) recognize the pattern and react accordingly.


Eastern Washington senior center Brandon Moore has been a force in the blocks so far this season, posting an 11.2 pg rebounding average, well ahead of ISU’s Demitrius Moore (8.8) and Montana’s Brian Qvale (7.6). But the junior from Montana has shown his mettle elsewhere, posting a league-best field goal percentage (78%, 10 ppg) and blocked shots (10 in five games).


In an effort to juggle conference schedules to accommodate second semester schedule conflicts, Big Sky conference play tips off next week for eight schools, with the ninth, Idaho State, playing at Sac State on Dec. 19… all before league play resumes for good Dec. 31. Compared with last season’s skewed schedule mess, this year’s extra-early league tip-off reveals a semblance of fairness. Still: which ‘Sky teams would want to prep for a critical conference road trip the first week in December? And who wants to risk the prospects of a home-court league loss so early in the “pre” season?

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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