RTC Conference Primers: #27 – Big Sky Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 7th, 2011

Jonathan Reed of Big Sky Basketball  is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky conference. You can find him on Twitter at @bigskybball.

Readers’ Take

Top Storylines

  • The Return of Damian Lillard – Three years ago, Lillard was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year. Two years ago, he was the Big Sky Player of the Year. Last year, he was the Preseason Player of the Year and his team, Weber State, was the pick to win the Conference. Then, he broke his foot in the ninth game of the year, and the Wildcats finished third. Due to some smart scheduling tactics, Lillard was granted a medical redshirt and will be a junior this season. He says he is one hundred percent healthy, and if that is true, Weber State is the easy favorite to win the Big Sky.

Weber State's Damian Lillard Is The Toast of the Big Sky. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)

  • Beginning of the Jim Hayford Era For Eastern Washington – Out is Kirk Earlywine, who put together four bad seasons in Cheney, finishing with a 42-78 record. In is Jim Hayford, who had been extremely successful at Division III Whitworth University, where he had a 217-57 record. Earlywine did not leave the cupboard bare (even with would-be top returner Glen Dean transferring to Utah), and a top three finish is possible for the Eagles. Hayford has also showed early recruiting prowess, getting Collin Chiverton to keep his commitment to EWU.
  • How Does Northern Colorado Build on Momentum? – 2007 was Northern Colorado’s first season in the Big Sky, and they finished a sparkling 4-24 (with a 2-14 conference record). Last season, BJ Hill continued the impressive turnaround begun by previous head coach Tad Boyle (now with Colorado), leading the Bears to their first ever NCAA Tournament berth, where they lost to San Diego State. However, nobody in the conference was hit harder than UNC by graduation, most notably losing Player of the Year Devon Beitzel. Hill brought in a solid recruiting class, and he will need guys to step up early.  The Bears could be picked as low as seventh in the conference this year, but anything in the top five would keep the program’s momentum going strong.
  • Wide Open Race in the MiddleWeber State and Montana are the prohibitive favorites to win the Conference, but the race really opens up after those two. If you ask five different people who will finish third in the Big Sky, you will get five different answers. That will add up to a lot of competitive ballgames, as the balance in the conference is strong. Anyone is capable of beating anyone else on a given night.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Weber State (13-3)
  2. Montana (11-5)
  3. Portland State (10-6)
  4. Eastern Washington (9-7)
  5. Northern Arizona (8-8)
  6. Montana State (7-9)
  7. Northern Colorado (7-9)
  8. Sacramento State (4-12)
  9. Idaho State (3-13)

All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • G Damian Lillard (Weber State) – 17.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 SPG – Lillard is the most explosive player in the Big Sky when healthy, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take home some hardware. Plus, the Wildcats have a lot of options – opponents won’t be able to simply key in on Lillard, which should open things up for him.
  • G Will Cherry (Montana) – 14.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.6 SPG – Cherry is regarded in many circles to be the best defensive player in the Big Sky, as his steal rates are among the best in the country. If his jumper is more consistent, he will take the crown from Lillard as the best player in the Big Sky.
  • G Charles Odum (Portland State) – 14.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.8 APG – Odum had a nice debut in Portland last season, but more will be expected with a season now under his belt. If he becomes the leader, the Vikings turn into a dark horse in the Big Sky.
  • F Chehales Tapscott (Portland State) – 11.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.9 APG – Tapscott might be the best post man in the Big Sky, and he is certainly the most versatile. He is a bit undersized, but is an excellent mid-major rebounder, complemented by his skilled offensive game and defensive timing.
  • F Kyle Bullinger (Weber State) – 11.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG – Bullinger took up a lot of the load with Lillard’s injury last year, as he shot 42.9% from beyond the stripe. He also had a 21.2 defensive rebounding rate, one of the best in the Big Sky. It is not a one-man show in Ogden.

Sixth Man – Gabe Rogers (Northern Arizona) – 13.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 46.8% 3-point shooting  – Rogers is one of the best shooters in the country that you don’t know about (another is Scott Bamforth of Weber State), and his role will only expand with the graduation of Cameron Jones. Look for Rogers to take the next step in Mike Adras’ guard-friendly offense.

Impact NewcomerCollin Chiverton (Eastern Washington) – He is a 6’6’’ swingman who will immediately become one of the best athletes in the the conference. He also has an outside shot good enough to keep defenses honest, and he will be a terror on the break for the guard-heavy Eagles. If he can become an impact player quickly (and I believe he can), the Jim Hayford era will start with a bang, and not a whimper.

Predicted Champion

Weber State (NCAA seed: #13) – They are the most talented team, and they are definitely the favorite. Their star is Damian Lillard, who we have already talked about at length. They are deep in the backcourt, with Scott Bamforth (and his 55% three-point shooting in league play last season) as a perfect complement to Lillard. In the frontcourt, they have Kyle Bullinger, an All-Conference player to man the three. Most of the rest of the minutes will be mixed between Frank Otis (a transfer from SMU), Byron Fulton (Big Sky Freshman of the Year last season), and Darin Mahoney (one of the best defensive big men in the conference). It is good to be Randy Rahe.

Top Contenders:

  • Montana (NIT)Wayne Tinkle has built the Grizzlies into annual contenders, and that should continue even with the departure of Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Brian Qvale. Qvale will be replaced by a variety of guys, but chief among them is Derek Selvig. He is 7’0’’, but has the style of play of somebody a foot smaller. They need him to make penetrators think twice before shooting in the lane. The strength of the team will be in the backcourt, where Will Cherry is flanked by sophomore Kareem Jamar, along with some talented freshmen. The Grizzlies have been very strong defensively the past couple seasons, and that won’t change this year. I don’t think they have quite the frontcourt to match Weber State, however.
  • Portland State (CIT) – They are getting at least one vote to win the Big Sky, but I don’t think they are quite there yet. They will have a solid starting lineup (especially with Charles Odum and Chehales Tapscott), but they don’t have the depth to win the conference. In addition,  head coach Tyler Geving has not shown yet that his teams can play defense. They will surprise some people this year, but they are not good enough to bring home a conference title.
  • Eastern Washington (CIT) – They finished last season strong, with victories over Montana and Weber State to end the regular season. Last season they were a bit of curiosity, as they were a guard-oriented team that played a slow brand of hoops. They are still guard-oriented, with Cliff Colimon, Jeffrey Forbes, and Kevin Winford expected to play a lot of minutes, even though all are six feet and under. The keys will be how quickly juco Collin Chiverton can assimilate (he has the talent to be the best player on the team), and how quickly the team can adapt to Jim Hayford’s style. My guess on both: eventually, but not quickly enough for a conference title.

Making An Impression:

A few of the best opportunities for Big Sky teams to score victories over opponents that could resonate on a national level and get more respect for the conference.

  • November 11 – Montana @ Colorado State – CSU loses their top two inside scorers, so this could be a battle of backcourts. If that is the case, Will Cherry will be the best player on the court, and he could help lead them to a nice non-conference win to begin the year.
  • November 15 – Utah State @ Weber State – The Wildcats think they are the best team in the state of Utah, but to start they need to beat the Aggies at home. Utah State has some key personnel losses. Combined that with the fact that this is at the Dee Events Center, and Weber State should be the favorite.
  • November 30 – BYU vs. Northern Arizona – This is a “neutral court” game, though it will be played in Prescott, Arizona, an hour or so away from Flagstaff. BYU has a national following and will still be solid post-Jimmer, but this is a great chance for the Lumberjacks to announce that they will again be players in the Big Sky.
  • December 3 – Eastern Washington @ Washington State – Washington State lost some good talent, meaning this is a game that the Eagles could steal. If they do, we will know that Eastern Washington will be legitimate contenders in the Big Sky.
  • December 12 – Portland State @ Oregon – Oregon has a lot of momentum in Dana Altman’s second year, but they could be in for a tight game if they underestimate the Vikings. Don’t be surprised to see Portland State steal a game.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

  • Both Wayne Tinkle of Montana and Randy Rahe of Weber State’s names were rumored in coaching openings this offseason, and it seems like only a matter of time before one of them leaves the Big Sky. Tinkle has a 91-64 record in Missoula, and consistently puts out a solid defensive team. Randy Rahe has a 95-61 career record, but only one NCAA appearance despite five quality teams. He already has a couple athletic recruits for next year in Joel Bolomboy and Kyndahl Hill.
  • Jim O’Brien of Idaho State is on a seat that’s getting hotter by the minute. He has not been able to recruit locally, has the majority of fans squarely against him, and has seen abysmal results on the court. A few weeks ago, he finally signed the last of his recruits so he would have a full roster for this season (and no, the recruit wasn’t quite at the Andre Drummond level). Meanwhile, Brian Katz at Sacramento State could soon be facing the music as well. This is only his fourth year, but his teams have 18 wins in his first three seasons. Sacramento is a tough city for a college basketball team, but it still can’t be a good sign for him that the Hornets finished last in the Big Sky in attendance.
  • NBA Prospects –Rodney Stuckey is the last guy out of the Big Sky to be drafted by an NBA team, but there are a couple of guys that will have a chance. If you have been reading this article, it should be no surprise who has the best prospects of making the Association. The first is Damian Lillard, who has the athleticism to play guard in the NBA. He must continue to work on his ball-handling, as he would be a PG at the next level. The other guy is Will Cherry, who has the all-around game to impress NBA scouts. If he can add a jumpshot and continue to grow in his playmaking ability, teams will be interested, as he is a tenacious defender. It will be fun to watch those two battle it out this season, as their rivalry dates back to their high school days in Oakland.

Spotlight on…the Future of the Big Sky

The Big Sky welcomes two new members next season in North Dakota and Southern Utah, which will bring the basketball side of things to eleven teams. With all of the rumors on realignment, there was talk of the WAC poaching any number of teams, from Montana and Montana State to Sacramento State. So far, everyone has stayed put, and the Big Sky has some nice stability as a Division I basketball conference and FCS football conference. One recurring problem for the Big Sky is attendance. They were 20th out of 31 conferences in attendance last year, and three schools averaged fewer than 1,000 fans per game. Better product and better scheduling will draw more fans, but that is easier said than done (especially on the scheduling side of things). All in all, the Big Sky is one of the most stable conferences in America, but as we have seen, things can sometimes change in an instant.

NCAA Tournament History

For a traditional one-bid league, the Big Sky has produced a handful of Cinderellas over the years, most recently in 2006 when Larry Krystkowiak’s Montana Grizzlies knocked off #5 seed Nevada in the NCAA First Round.  Weber State did the Grizz one better, upsetting powerhouse programs Michigan State (1995) and North Carolina (1999) twice within a five-year span.   Before that, you have to go back to the early 80s to find an NCAA win, but with an overall record of 11-46 (.193), it becomes clear that the conference was a formidable entity during its heyday of the late 1960s and 1970s.   And even though the Big Sky entrant only occasionally breaks through with the upset, the teams in this league typically represent themselves well.  The seeds tend to top out at #12 and range down all the way to #16, but every second or third year a Big Sky team throws a major scare into its opening round opponent.  This league plays quality basketball and it shows up in March.

Final Thoughts

Forget for one second about recruiting scandals, teams ditching tradition for new conferences and more money, and guys using college as a brief stop along the way to the NBA. Fans of mid-major basketball love that purity still exists in college basketball, and this is true for the Big Sky. No team had an APR under 900, and the lowest belonged to Portland State, which faced sanctions under former coach Ken Bone but has cleaned up its act under Tyler Geving. Almost all Big Sky players will be going “pro in something other than basketball,” and guys are playing because they love the game and because they can use it to get ahead in life.

On the court, the Big Sky will be balanced and deep with seven quality teams. There is a ton of youth in the conference as well, and 2012-13 should be even better. If you are looking for a Cinderella bandwagon to jump on, there is still time for Weber State. With a legitimate star (Lillard), great shooters (Bamforth, Bullinger, etc) and a deep frontcourt, the Wildcats will become the first Big Sky team to win an NCAA Tournament game since Montana in 2006. Hopefully you will be watching.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

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

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One response to “RTC Conference Primers: #27 – Big Sky Conference”

  1. Kevin says:

    Is not having an APR under 900 supposed to be an accomplishment?

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