Checking in on… the Big Sky

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 12th, 2010

Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.

A Look Back

  • Don’t look now, Weber State, but the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona are on a roll!  Coach Mike Adras has his team firing on all cylinders.  They have won the last seven games in a row, with three of those wins coming on the road.  The Lumberjacks are the highest-scoring team in the Big Sky Conference at almost 79 points per game.  That offense will be tough to slow down as they get into conference play.
  • Down goes Frazier!  Montana did something that has not been done since 2000.  A Big Sky team walked into Pauley Pavilion and upset one of the great college basketball bluebloods, the UCLA Bruins.  Coach Wayne Tinkle once again is beaming this week as his team continues to gain confidence.  What can help a team’s confidence more than beating UCLA at home after they themselves nearly defeated the mighty Kansas Jayhawks at their house a few days prior?
  • Speaking of confidence, Eastern Washington got a little boost to its young team on December 4.  New Hope Christian came to town and gave up 112 points to the Eagles.  The Eagles were not as kind on defense as New Hope Christian was.  They only let them score 41!  How rude, huh?!  Maybe it was because the opposing team’s necks were hurting by watching all the long range bombs that were tossed in.  EWU attempted 43 three point shots during the game, Kevin Winford by himself attempted 23!  It is safe to say that Eastern Washington has found what they are good at.

Power Rankings

1. Northern Arizona: (7-2)

Recent Games:  88-74 Win at Pepperdine 11/28, 81-77 Win at Cal State Bakersfield 11/30, 91-50 Win vs. Bethany 12/4, 68-55 Win vs. Texas-Pan American 12/8

Upcoming Games:  at USC 12/11, at Arizona 12/16, vs. Air Force 12/22

To say the Lumberjacks are on a roll might be an understatement.  With seven wins in a row under their belt, Northern Arizona takes over the top spot in this edition of the power rankings.  Coach Adras has his team playing not only the best basketball in the conference, but it can be argued that they are playing some of the better basketball in the nation.  The Lumberjacks have the highest scoring offense in the Big Sky at just under 79 points per game.  But even more impressive is that they also have the 8th-most assists per game in the nation, all the while shooting 49.2% from the field, good for 23rd in the nation.  With Cameron Jones leading the way for this team, the “Sky” is the limit.

2. Weber State: (4-3)

Recent Games:  59-58 Loss vs. Arizona State 11/26, 82-81 Win vs. Drake 11/27, 65-61 Win vs. Seattle 12/4

Upcoming Games:  at Southern Utah 12/11, at Tulsa 12/16, vs. Southwest 12/18, vs. BYU 12/21

The Wildcats drop to #2 in our rankings this time around.  Not so much because they played badly, but because Northern Arizona has been playing so good.  Look for these two teams to flip flop more than once during conference play.  The Wildcats are coming home fresh off a trip to the Great Alaska Shootout.  They narrowly lost to a decent Arizona State team by one point after disposing of Alaska Anchorage.  They got right back on track with wins over Drake and Seattle.  Look for Damian Lillard to use Northern Arizona’s success to fuel him the rest of the year.

3. Montana: (5-3)

Recent Games:  75-67 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/30, 58-54 Loss vs. Portland 12/3, 66-57 Win at UCLA 12/5, 85-50 Win vs. Great Falls

Upcoming Games:  at San Francisco 12/12, vs. Oregon State 12/15, at Idaho 12/18, at Cal State Fullerton 12/22

The Grizzlies jump from #5 in the rankings to #3 with the help of an upset win at UCLA.  That one win can propel Montana into the conference season.  However, coach Wayne Tinkle must preach that every game matters.  Getting a big win like that can fog the minds of his Grizzlies.  They must forge ahead and keep that intensity that they showed in Pauley Pavilion if they want to go dancing for the second straight year.

4. Northern Colorado: (4-3)

Recent Games:  76-61 Loss vs. Valparaiso 11/26, 69-45 Win vs. Bethune-Cookman 11/27, 84-52 Win vs. Black Hills State 12/4

Upcoming Games:  at Illinois 12/12, at Denver 12/18, at Colorado State 12/20, at Louisiana-Monroe 12/22

Northern Colorado participated in the Las Vegas Invitational on Thanksgiving weekend.  First-year coach B.J. Hill has to wonder if the lights of Vegas got the best of them.  The Bears started out by losing to Valparaiso by 24 points in the first day of the event.  They turned around the experience with a solid win vs. Bethune-Cookman.  Devon Beitzel continues to lead the Bears this season but still has yet to find his stroke from long range.  He is still shooting an anemic 29.4%.  If they are going to compete for a conference title Beitzel has got find a rhythm out there.

5. Portland State: (5-2)

Recent Games:  83-76 Win vs. Seattle 12/1, 68-49 Loss at Oregon 12/5, 92-58 Win vs. George Fox 12/9

Upcoming Games:  vs. Cal State Fullerton 12/12, at Cal State Bakersfield 12/15, vs. Portland 12/18, at Nevada 12/20, vs. Utah Valley 12/23

Up one spot from #6 the surprising Vikings of Portland State.  These guys were given a tough draw at the beginning of the season.  Not being eligible for the postseason, not even the conference tournament can be a huge blow to a team’s ego.  But coach Tyler Gerving has these guys playing hard every game.  Their balanced attack will make you guard at all positions.  Chris Harriel, Melvin Jones, and all the rest have bought in and relish being the spoiler this year in the Big Sky Conference.

6. Montana State: (5-4)

Recent Games:  81-59 Loss at Iowa State 11/27, 72-70 Loss at Seattle 12/29, 62-56 Loss at Illinois State 12/4

Upcoming Games:  vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10, at UC Riverside 12/19, at UCLA 12/21

The question was posed the last time these rankings were put out are the Bobcats for real?  Well, since winning five straight games they have dropped the last three on the road, hence the dropping of two spots in the rankings.  Coach Brad Huse has to wonder about the consistency of his squad and their ability to win close games.  The rest of December looks brutal when the Bobcats will play non-conference games on the road against UC Riverside and UCLA.  Then they open the conference season against the two best teams in the Big Sky, Weber State and Northern Arizona.  At least those first two conference games are at home?

7. Eastern Washington: (2-5)

Recent Games:  70-60 Loss vs. Idaho 11/27, 86-57 Loss at Gonzaga 11/30, 112-41 Win vs. New Hope Christian 12/4

Upcoming Games:  at San Jose State 12/12, vs. Seattle 12/15, at Nebraska 12/18, at South Dakota 12/20

The Eagles have a talented team.  But it seems that it just has not come together this year.  The Eagles are unfortunately teetering on disaster as coach Kirk Earlywine’s seat starts to get a little warm.  Fans of the Eagles have been lighting up the message boards with frustration about the program.  In coach Earlywine’s defense, he has been without Big Sky Freshman of the Year Glen Dean.  Hanging 112 on somebody has to count for something right?

8. Idaho State: (2-5)

Recent Games:  69-57 Win vs. Montana Tech 12/29, 70-53 Loss at Iowa 12/4, 75-56 Loss at Cal State Bakersfield 12/7

Upcoming Games:  vs. UMKC 12/11, at Creighton 12/18, at Utah State 12/21, vs. Troy 12/22, vs. Western Michigan 12/23

The Bengals have lost some games this year.  But they are only returning one starter from last year’s team.  That player is Broderick Gilchrest.  Although he has tried to carry this team at times on his own, coach Joe O’Brien has got to find some other people to contribute.  Deividas Busma has been a pleasant addition since only appearing in six games last year because of an injury.  However, barely scoring 60 points per game as a team is simply not going to cut it when they start facing teams like Northern Arizona.

9. Sacramento State: (2-6)

Recent Games:  71-67 Win vs. Cal Poly 11/27, 84-36 Loss at Washington State 11/30, 77-52 Loss at Utah Valley 12/4, 69-49 Loss at Loyola Marymount 12/7

Upcoming Games:  vs. William Jessup 12/10, at McNeese State 12/19, at Oklahoma 12/21

This is the little team that could.  It is hard to not respect the job that coach Brian Katz is doing at Sacramento State.  He has gone from 2 wins, to 9 wins, and is now having to deal with coaching a team that has only three players from last year.  Katz has had a lot of success in the junior college ranks and there is hope for the future for Hornets fans.  With a couple of strong recruiting off seasons this team can be a force in the Big Sky Conference.  They just have to take their lumps this year.

A Look Ahead

We are all going to see what Northern Arizona is made of right away.  The Lumberjacks are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and now are really going to be tested.  They have road games against USC, then Arizona, and if they survive that then they play Air Force at home before conference play begins.  The big boys have shown that they are vulnerable this year, even at home, but don’t look for these teams to overlook the Lumberjacks.

The non-conference schedule is winding down and that means conference play is around the corner.  This year’s Big Sky Conference is wide open and up for grabs.  Look for four teams to battle it out for the conference crown, those teams being Northern Arizona, Weber State, Montana and Northern Colorado.  Don’t count out Portland State, though.  Winning a regular season conference title to them is like winning the national title.  Since they are not eligible for the postseason this is all they have to play for.  They would love to steal a conference title away from the “big four.”

The “Human Highlight Film” Award

Will Cherry.  He is the do-everything guard for the Montana Grizzlies.  All the guy has done is lead the Grizzlies to a 5-3 record and a huge win at UCLA.  He is only a sophomore and continues to play beyond his years.  Here is his stat line from last season to this season.

  • 2009-10: 22.8 MPG, 8.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.9 SPG
  • 2010-11: 31.6 MPG, 15.6 RPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 4.0 SPG

Will Cherry gave UCLA headaches in a monumental win for the Montana program. (AP/L. Shepler)

Cherry has been named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week two times already this year and projects to continue that trend.  Did we mention he is sixth in the NATION in steals?  It’s safe to say that we have a competition for Player of the Year.  Cherry will face Damian Lillard for the first time head-to-head on New Year’s Eve.  This could be one of the battles that people point to when they choose the POY.  To learn a little more about Will Cherry, check out this great interview with him from Kayla Anderson.

Brian Goodman (742 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.


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