Checking In On… the Big Sky ConferencePosted by rtmsf on December 8th, 2011
The Week That Was:
- Weber State off with injury problems – Kyle Bullinger dislocated his elbow last weekend, and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. Frank Otis got injured in the loss to BYU, and it is not sure how long he will be out. That is two front court starters down, and I’m not sure Weber State has the horses up front to really absorb injuries that easily. The Wildcats will struggle scoring down low, and need Byron Fulton to give them some quality minutes. In the backcourt, the Weber State coaching staff decided to pull the redshirt on Gelaun Wheelwright to give them more depth. There is obviously a lot of season left, but December is not going as planned.
- Damian Lillard as a national player – After scoring 36 points in a road loss to St. Mary’s, Lillard (26.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG) became the nation’s leading scorer and national pundits began to take notice. In the next game, the Oakland native really broke out, scoring 41 points and hitting the game-winner against San Jose State, before facing a BYU defense on Wednesday that locked him up somewhat (15 points). Lillard became the Big Sky Player of the Week and received an article on ESPN, almost immediately becoming one of the more well-known players among the mid-majors. Lillard is lightning quick with a solid (though not spectacular) outside shot. Lillard’s play this season is proving more and more why some people say he is a legitimate NBA prospect.
- Will the real contenders please stand up? – It has been a bit of a wacky, up-and-down start for the Big Sky, with teams missing out on big chances to assert themselves. Thus far, it seems like the clear top-5 are as below in the power rankings, but the order is very fluid right now. On some nights, it seems like any of them can win the league, and on other nights, it looks like they will struggle to make the conference tournament. There is work to do up top.
- Weber State (5-2) – For the first time all season, their ranking in the top spot is not a foregone conclusion, not after an embarrassing 94-66 loss on the road to BYU. Right now, the only guys Weber State has been able to count on for consistent scoring are Damian Lillard and Kyle Tresnak (10 PPG, 2.8 RPG). Scott Bamforth was fantastic early on this year, but defenses have really keyed on him lately. Weber State needs more balance, and they need to regain their confidence a bit.
- Portland State (5-2) – OK, so they haven’t really beaten anybody yet, but they do stand at 5-2 and are winning the games that they should win. Charles Odum (17.4 PPG) and Chehales Tapscott (13.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG )have been the studs that everyone expected them to be and Nate Lozeau has really stepped up to become a solid third option. To take the next step, the Vikings need more production from Lateef McMullan and Michael Harthun, neither of which have played up to their preseason hype. From an individually talent standpoint, this team has the chance to compete for a Big Sky title.
- Eastern Washington (4-3) – The Eagles had a chance to make a statement against Washington State, but they went to Pullman and got smoked, effectively cooling the talk on them. Still, they appear to have staying power thanks to their balance and their ability to take care of the basketball. They have been excellent at avoiding turnovers, and pretty good at forcing them. Collin Chiverton (15.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG) has shown flashes of being the star that his talent suggests he could be, but he still has a ways to go.
- Montana State (5-3) – Nobody is really talking about them, but the Bobcats have slowly been turning out wins in the past couple of weeks, with victories over San Jose State, Cal State Bakersfield, and Williamette. Along the way, Xavier Johnson-Blount (11.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG) may be growing into his role as star, as he scored 26 against CSB. They have solid role players and good depth, and they seem to be flying under the radar a bit. We will learn a lot more about them in the next couple weeks as they take on UC Riverside before two tough road games against Pepperdine and New Mexico.
- Montana (5-4) – The Grizzles have been up and down all year, frustratingly so. They lost on the road to North Dakota, and then beat Long Beach State at home. They followed that with a home loss to San Francisco, got blown out at Oregon State, and won a too-close-for-comfort game against Montana Tech. They are still not getting consistent frontcourt production, and Will Cherry (14.8 PPG, 3.1 APG) is struggling on both sides of the ball compared to last season. I still believe they will finish in the top three, but the loss of talented big man Brian Qvale to graduation is hurting them more than expected.
- Sacramento State (3-5) – Dylan Garrity (4.9 PPG, 6.6 APG) started the year on a tear, but the college game is starting to catch up to him, as his assists-to-turnover ratio has reversed from some of his stellar games earlier in the year. But, Sacramento State has more problems. They don’t force many turnovers, and opponents have an eFG% of almost 55% against them. This has been a common theme for Brian Katz, and he needs to turn that stat around. The belief of a .500 season is slowly falling through their fingers.
- Idaho State (2-6) – The fact that they moved up from eighth seventh has less to do with them and more to do with the disappointment of Northern Colorado. Still, they got a nice home win over North Dakota, and showed they do have the talent and athletic ability to beat some teams this year. Point guard Melvin Morgan (13 PPG, 2.6 APG) has steadily improved and is showing a nice outside shot. However, make no mistake, Chase Grabau (10.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) has been their best player this year. Grabau is an efficient scorer, rebounds well, makes plays for others, and can come up with some turnovers on the defensive side of the ball. Every team needs a guy like him.
- Northern Colorado (3-5) – The low point of the season was a home loss to NAIA Westminster College, the worst loss of the year for any team in the Big Sky. They have the talent to be a solid Big Sky team, but they let their inexperience show in that game. Before the season, I picked the Bears seventh in the conference, to the chagrin of some of their fans. Now, that doesn’t look so bad, as UNC has not yet shown the ability to beat a decent team.
- Northern Arizona (2-7) – Here is everything you need to know about the Lumberjacks so far this year. On Wednesday night they lost 49-40 to Pepperdine, and that was only their second-lowest scoring game of the season. Their best player, Gabe Rogers, is injured, and they can’t get him back soon enough.
- 12/10 – Nevada @ Montana – As noted, the Grizzlies have been up and down, but this is a good chance to get a quality win against a good WAC opponent. Montana has the ability to win this game, but they will need some post scoring. I think as Billy Reader develops, that will have a big part in how Montana develops this season.
- 12/12 – Portland State @ Oregon – This will be the Vikings’ chance to show everyone that they are as good as their record. Going into Eugene and winning this game would be a big step for the program, which is still trying to earn respect after their APR problems of the past couple seasons. A win here and they will enter Big Sky play believing they are the best team in the conference.
- 12/14 – Eastern Washington @ UCLA – UCLA is down, but a win over them still resonates nationally, so this would be a huge momentum-builder for Jim Hayford. EWU may actually be the more athletic team than the Bruins, and they will need to take advantage of their potential edge in the backcourt. If they can render Joshua Smith a non-factor, this is a game the Eagles can win.
- 12/16 – Weber State @ California – Weber State knows they have missed out on some chances to get big non-conference wins (BYU, St. Mary’s), so this is their last chance to get one that people will talk about. The Bears may be the class of the Pac-12, so Weber will give them their best shot. It will be a bit of a homecoming for Lillard and Otis, as they are from the Oakland area.
Damian Lillard against San Jose State – I have talked a bit about Lillard so far in this post, but his game here deserves a rundown. He scored 41 points with eight rebounds, shooting 13-21 from the field. But even more than that, he hit a three to send the game into overtime, and then had the game-winning three-point play in double overtime. He scored 24 points in regulation, eight in the first overtime, and nine in the second overtime. Simply put, he was awesome, and showcased why he is the best and most talented player in the Big Sky. He is capable of putting the Wildcats on his back, and that is something he may have to do at various times this season. If you have a chance to watch him play, make sure you take that chance, you will be watching one of the best guards in college basketball.