Big Sky Tournament Preview

Posted by rtmsf on March 6th, 2010

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

A week of reckoning. The Big Sky post-season tourney tips off Saturday. Listed are the final standings with tourney seed and bracket beneath it. In parentheses is the Grizzly Journal pre-season pick, which appeared here before the season began.


  1. Weber State (pre-season pick: 1st) 13-3/19-9/L1 – Tourney host; 1st round bye
  2. Northern Colorado (pre-season pick:7th) 12-4/24-6/W4 – Second seed; 1st round bye
  3. Montana State (pre-season pick: 3rd) 10-6/15-13/W1 – Third seed; Hosts Portland State in round 1
  4. Montana (pre-season pick: 2nd) 10-6/19-9/L1 – Fourth seed; hosts Northern Arizona in round 1
  5. Northern Arizona (pre-season pick: 6th) 8-8/14-13/W3 – Fifth seed; at Montana in round 1
  6. Portland State (pre-season pick: 5th) 7-9/12-18/L1 – Sixth seed; at Montana State in round 1
  7. Eastern Washington (pre-season pick: 8th) 5-11/9-21/W1 – Did not qualify for post-season tourney
  8. Idaho State (pre-season pick: 4th) 4-12/7-22/L4 – Did not qualify for post-season tourney
  9. Sacramento State (pre-season pick: 9th) 3-13//9-21/L5 – Did not qualify for post-season tourney

LIVING UP TO EXPECTATIONS – Randy Rahe’s Weber State Wildcats followed the blueprint for yet another Big Sky regular season title, this time engineered by stellar underclass guards Damian Lilliard (sophomore and conference MVP) and junior JC transfer Franklin Session. The Wildcats are not really the “best” at any single thing. Instead, they’re a classic coach’s team that, game after game, executes Rahe’s pre-game plans to perfection, particularly on defense. Though the Wildcats are favored to win the tourney title, there’s no doubt the memories of last year’s semifinal loss by the Wildcats to Montana State (in Ogden) is lodged in the back of their minds.

OVERACHIEVERS — Preseason picks to finish as low as seventh in the Big Sky, the Northern Colorado Bears under coach Tadd Boyle, won their first eight non-conference games, established themselves as Big Sky contenders early, have been ranked in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 since December, and are the proud owners of the best overall record in the conference (24-6). A late season foot injury to shooting guard Devon Beitzel has limited UNC’s offensive attack, but Boyle’s Bears finished second in the Big Sky, earned a first-round postseason tourney bye, and are clearly in the hunt for their first NCAA appearance as members of the Big Sky.

MID-SEASON RETOOLING – After the departure of heralded Portland State coach Ken Bone to Washington State, first year Vikings’ coach Tyler Geving inherited a talented team that had won back-to-back postseason Big Sky titles. The Viks continued as the Big Sky’s most potent offensive team, but struggled mightily on defense. Things looked bleak when prolific shooting wing Phil Nelson went down with a broken foot and the Viks lost five in a row and eight of ten in conference action. Geving tweaked his Viks’ lineup to make up for the loss of Nelson, and his rebuilt, improved defensive unit rebounded, edging WSU and ISU in final conference games to earn a #6 seed in the postseason tourney. Along with the MSU Bobcats, the Vikings are considered a dark horse capable of advancing in the tourney. It all shakes down in first-round action Saturday, when the Vikings are at Bozeman against those very Bobcats (the tourney #3 seed), who had swept the Viks during conference play and capped their own late-season surge with an inspiring win at Missoula, where the Cats toyed with the Montana Grizzlies in a conference-ending 73-67 thumping before 7,000 glum Griz fans.

SOMETHING TO PROVE? – Two teams with something to prove clash Saturday in first-round Big Sky post-season tourney action when #5 seed Northern Arizona clashes with #4 seed Montana in Missoula. Northern Arizona’s rebuilding process has been arduous for NAU head coach Mike Adras, whose talented 2008-09 team imploded and several players departed. The Lumberjacks missed the postseason last year… an oddity, since Adras’ Jacks have qualified for postseason play in 9-of-11 years, which includes five tourney championship game appearances since 2000. Montana – whose three titles and NCAA appearances since 2000 leads the Big Sky – has been eliminated in first-round action since back-to-back championships in 2005-06. The teams are each led by All-Conference unanimous first-team guards. Talented junior guard Cameron Jones – ranked second in scoring in the Big Sky at 19.3 points per game – has led the Jacks back into contention almost singlehandedly. He’ll need some help down low for a Lumberjack win. Montana, picked as a title contender in each of Montana Coach Wayne Tinkle’s three previous seasons as head coach, has repeatedly suffered from late-season swoons and tourney elimination. And so, a home-court loss to Montana State before 7000 fans last week was not a good sign for Griz faithful. Montana, led by the Big Sky’s fourth leading scorer Anthony Johnson (18.8 points per game), ran off a mid-season hot streak that featured a potent offense from every corner of the floor… until losses in two of their final three conference games dropped them to fourth place. Johnson – arguably the Big Sky’s most talented guard – will need offensive support from his his wings and post players in order for the Grizzlies to advance. Montana, in particular, is the Big Sky team that matches up best with Weber State. But they’ll likely need two wins to put themselves in position of being able to prove it.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD – It’s a tale of two teams for the Sacramento State Hornets and the Eastern Washington Eagles… two of the three Big Sky teams that were eliminated from Big Sky postseason tourney. When Sacramento State Coach Brian Katz took the controls in 2008, he loaded his squad with junior college talent in hopes of a quick turnaround. After back-to-back last place finishes with little to show, seven of Katz’ players will graduate – including all-conference post Justin Eller – leaving the cupboards bare once again. Katz will presumably build around talented junior guard Sultan Toles Bey. But there’s a lot of building to do. After watching his team struggle through alternating stretches of inconsistent play, Eastern Washington coach Kirk Earlywine turned the reins of his team over to three promising freshman guards. One of those guards, Glen Dean, quickly proved himself capable of leading the Eagles… enough to be named the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year. The Eagles manufactured upsets of Montana and Montana State, but not much more, and failed to qualify for postseason tourney play. But the foundation has been set for the Eagles as early as next year, perhaps. If Dean and teammates Jefrey Forbes, Kevin Winford and Abebe Demissie can solidify the Eagles, Earlywine may have the makings of a contender.

MOST SURPRISING TEAM – But not in a good way, were the Idaho State Bengals, whose collapse was one of major proportions. This was the team that ISU Coach Joe O’Brien had built to contend for the Big Sky Crown. THIS YEAR. Loaded with eight very talented seniors and a potential MVP in senior Amorrow Morgan, the Bengals were picked to win it all by several preseason publications, and to be in the hunt by several others. But the Bengals never recovered from a brutal non-conference slate pummeling and – despite a last-second win over Montana and a thrilling 3OT loss to Weber State – looked more like a team endlessly in search of an identity. And a win. It’ll be interesting to see how O’Brien rebuilds his beaten Bengals.

ALL BIG SKY – The Big Sky All-Conference 2009-10 honorees were revealed earlier this week, and while Grizzly Journal supports the selections, there were several glaring omissions, based primarily on the concept that the Big Sky All-Conference squads appear to be built on the concept of the “15 Best Players,” rather than on the best players at a specific position. Rather than contest any conference picks, we’ve included those players and coaches we feel are deserving of recognition. See GRIZZLY JOURNAL KUDOS below.


  • Damian Lilliard, Sophomore, Weber State (MVP)
  • Anthony Johnson, Sr., UM
  • Will Figures, Sr., UNC
  • Cameron Jones, Jr., NAU
  • Bobby Howard, Jr., MSU
  • Jamie Jones, Sr., PSU


  • Amorrow Morgan, Sr., ISU
  • Steve Panos, Sr., WSU
  • Franklin Session, Jr., WSU
  • Devon Beitzel, Jr., UNC
  • Dominic Waters, Sr., PSU

HONORABLE MENTION — Broderick Gilchrist, Jr., ISU; Justin Eller, Sr., SAC; Will Cherry, Fr., UM; Ryan Staudacher, Sr.; UM; Marquis Navarre, Jr.; MSU; Glen Dean, Fr. EWU.

BIG SKY MVP — Lilliard, WSU; NEWCOMER: Session, WSU; TOP FROSH: Dean, EWU; TOP DEFENDER: Yahosh Bonner, Sr., UNC.


We can think of at least five players who should have received All-Big Sky recognition. Two players, in particular, merit our immediate inclusion: Montana State point guard Will Bynum – a classic (criminally underrated) coach’s floor general – deserves at least second-team mention; and, Montana’s 6’-11 junior center Brian Qvale, who logged a quiet blue-collar season of merit. Qvale would be an all-conference pick in virtually any other western Division 1 conference.

For the second straight year, the Big Sky’s best all-around player was Montana’s Anthony Johnson, though we can understand (and accept) why he was not named Big Sky MVP (an honor usually reserved for the most important player on the best team in the conference).

COACHRandy Rahe, Weber State, and Tad Boyle, University of Northern Colorado.

BIG SKY REFEREES –The level of officiating in the Big Sky has improved dramatically over the past three seasons and – except for a few glaring oddities for 2009-10 – has helped make the Big Sky a better, more competitive conference overall. Now let’s get some top level Division 1 teams to agree on home-and-home preseason games!

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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