Checking In On… the Big Sky ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 22nd, 2011
The Week That Was
- Weber State Starts Hot– Weber State was projected as the team to beat before the season, and they have done nothing to change that perception. The biggest win was a home victory over in-state rival Utah State, which is a start to get them on the map nationally (more on that later). Star player Damian Lillard has quelled any concerns that his injury last year might longer, as he has looked as explosive as ever. The Wildcats are getting great guard play, but they need some more contributions from the frontcourt.
- The League of Moral Victories – The Big Sky has played a lot of good teams well this year, but has come up short of any signature victories. Consider the following losses – Eastern Washington lost at Gonzaga and Oregon (and led in the second half in both games), Montana State lost by six at Arizona State (though they did beat Utah), Idaho State lost by four at Oklahoma, and Sacramento State lost by 11 at Washington State (but led much of the second half). Unfortunately, national respect is earned by real victories; moral victories need not apply.
- Northern Colorado Struggles On The Road: Perhaps no team in the Big Sky has had a tougher schedule to begin the year, and it has showed. The Bears started the year with a tight home loss to New Mexico State, got blown out on at Wyoming, and lost to Northern Iowa. (At the time of this being written, the game against Iowa State had not been played). They are clearly talented, but they are very young. Some Bears fans thought the momentum from last season would carry over to a top three finish, but that seems unlikely.
Power Rankings (records as of Tuesday, November 22)
- Weber State (3-0) – The Wildcats are more than just Damian Lillard. Scott Bamforth just might be the best shooter in America. He shot 55% from downtown during conference play last year, and has made 14-17 threes so far this year (not a misprint). As an added bonus, he just became a dad! Wing man Kyle Bullinger is averaging 10.0 points and 11.3 rebounds per game as a 6’6’’ wing man. Weber State can shoot the lights out, and that could give them a shot at an upset in March.
- Montana (3-1) – The Grizzlies have started slowly offensively without big man Derek Selvig, but he finally returned after missing the first three games. He adds a different dimension to the offense, as he is a seven footer with guard skills. In the backcourt, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar are developing into an excellent tandem, as they are both multidimensional players that can score on their own or distribute for others. Montana has flown a little under the radar after their opening loss to Colorado State, but they have a chance for a big week.
- Montana State (2-1) – The Bobcats had a tough opening loss to Arizona State, but pulled off the conference’s lone Red Line Upset with their victory over Utah. Coach Brad Huse said their offense would be more balanced and dynamic this season, and that has been the case so far. They have a lot of guys that can contribute, and it seems like a different guy has stepped up every time. Expect Huse to continue to tighten up his rotation as the non-conference season goes along.
- Eastern Washington (1-2) – The Eagles have a losing record, but it is hard not to be impressed with the program coach Jim Hayford is building. They have experienced tight road losses to Gonzaga and Oregon, but had leads in the second half of both games and were right in the middle of things. Off the court, they signed a five-man recruiting class that should complement their two Division I transfers coming in next season. Star JuCo wing Collin Chiverton scored 25 points in each of his first two games even though he is still battling a lingering foot injury.
- Portland State (2-1) – The Vikings have not looked overly impressive yet, but they have the talent. They used a furious rally to topple Seattle, getting a game-winning shot from post Chehales Tapscott. Their rotation is a bit thin, particularly because juco point guard Lateef McMullan has struggled out of the gate. He needs to make better decisions and take better care of the ball, because he will be an integral part of what they do this season. On the bright side, Tapscott continues to impress, and appears to be headed to an All-Conference season.
- Sacramento State (2-1) – The Hornets have been the most pleasant surprise this year in the Big Sky, as they are looking like a respectable team. They won two games they should have won, and then played very strong against Washington State. The biggest reason has been Dylan Garrity, their freshman point guard. After three games he had 25 assists versus just four turnovers. I had high expectations for him coming into the year, and he had surpassed those. If he keeps playing like that, Sac State will have a good chance to finish in the middle of the pack, which would be a very good accomplishment for Brian Katz.
- Northern Colorado (0-3) – The bright spot for the Bears has been the development of Paul Garnica, who looks like he will be their go-to guy. He has hit the outside shot with regularity this year, which he did not do in his freshman season. Another solid contributor is freshman Tate Unruh, who has the most pure stroke on the team. They have some talented big men, but again, they are young and not consistent. The Bears need a few wins just for confidence-builders.
- Idaho State (1-2) – They started the year with an encouraging effort against Oklahoma, but then followed it up by laying an egg against North Dakota. When they play well, they can compete against most everyone in the Big Sky, but if they are not playing well, they can get beat soundly by anyone. Melvin Morgan has been a bit of a disappointment. He was touted as being an excellent pure point, but he has struggled to live up to the hype and has not taken over the lead guard spot like they would have hoped. They need him to develop quickly.
- Northern Arizona (1-3) – NAU had a chance to make a statement early in the Hilltop Challenge, and they fell flat on their faces. After losing some key seniors and then the injury to Gabe Rogers, they are struggling to find an identity. Freshman James Douglas has been a bright spot for them, leading the team with 13 points per game. A quick peek at their schedule shows that they could easily be 2-7 in mid- December, which would be tough on the confidence of a young team. They have a lot of questions, but not many answers.
- 11/23 – Long Beach State @ Montana – LBSU is all the rage in the college basketball world thanks to their victory at Pittsburgh, but the Grizzlies will be ready to go and will know what a win would mean. They have the talent to match up with the 49ers, as Will Cherry is one of the best perimeter defenders in America and should do well against Casper Ware. Montana will get some national love if they can win this one.
- 11/28 – Weber State @ St. Mary’s* – This game is part of the St. Mary’s Classic, meaning both teams have to win opening round games for this to happen, but that should be a mere formality. The Wildcats have precious few opportunities to make statements out of conference, so they need to make this count. Weber State will know what’s at stake here, and they will be ready to play.
- 12/3 – Eastern Washington @ Washington State – As mentioned already, the Eagles have had some close calls on the road against “upper” competition, and they should have be competitive against Washington State. EWU is an athletic ball club, and they can light it up from the outside. Don’t be surprised to see another Big Sky over Pac-12 win result.
Weber State’s At-Large Chances – Jeff Goodman at CBS Sports posted that the Wildcats could have a chance at an at-large bid, but their margin for error is certainly quite slim. Two bids for the Big Sky would be unprecedented, and the only chance for it to happen would be if Weber ran the table (or close to it) out of conference before losing in the Big Sky title game. In their first opportunity to impress out of conference, they beat Utah State at home. So far, so good. Their next opportunity comes in the St. Mary’s Classic, where they could really use a road win at St. Mary’s. Beyond that, their big games are on the road at BYU and at California. They need three of those four to have any chance for an at-large bid this season.