Conference Tourney Primers: Big Sky

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Big Sky Tournament

Dates: March 12-14

Site: Dahlberg Arena (Missoula, MT)


What to expect: Montana clinched the top seed and earned the right to play in its own building, which is bad news for everyone else; the tournament host has won this event five years running. But the Big Sky is also more competitive than it has been in years, with Eastern Washington (co-champions), Sacramento State and Northern Arizona all finishing tied or within a game of the Grizzlies. The Eagles, which snapped Indiana’s 43-game non-conference home winning streak in November, are an especially dangerous team – lethal from behind the arc and proven on the road. Jim Hayford’s bunch was the only Big Sky unit to win in Missoula this season. In reality, the conference race became so unpredictable towards the end of the year that it’s hard to give an advantage to any one contender outside of Montana’s obvious home-court edge.

Favorite: Montana. Montana won eight of its last nine games to end the regular season and now welcomes its Big Sky comrades to Dahlberg Area, where it was 8-1 in conference play. The Grizzlies parlayed home-court advantage into a pair NCAA Tournament appearances in both 2012 and 2013, and while this year’s group might not be as good as those teams, it’s hard to argue with history – especially in a league where home teams went 66-42 in 2014-15.

Darkhorse: Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks, which quietly came within a game of sharing the Big Sky title, were the second-best defensive team in the conference and managed to stay afloat offensively by rebounding and attacking the rim. The bulk of their scoring comes at the free throw line or the three-point line (35.9% 3FG) – they don’t mess around with mid-range stuff – which could spell trouble for Montana in the semifinals; the Grizzlies foul at a high rate and don’t do a good job of taking away three-pointers (36.3% 3FG).

Who wins: Eastern Washington. There’s a good chance Eastern Washington would be hosting this tournament if it weren’t for midseason injuries to its two best players, Tyler Harvey (22.9 PPG) and Venky Jois (17.1 PPG, 7,6 RPG). Both are now back and seemingly at the top of their games, combining for 46 points and 22 rebounds in the Eagles’ finale at Weber State last Saturday. In a Big Sky season devoid of a dominant team, look for Hayford’s offensive-minded club to become the first non-home team to win the event since Montana in 2010.

Player to watch: Mikh McKinney – Sacramento State. Harvey – the nation’s leading scorer – also demands attention, but since he’s already garnered some national publicity, let’s discuss McKinney. The senior point guard, who beat out Harvey for Big Sky MVP, possesses an incredibly well-rounded game, ranking either first or second in the conference in points (19.0 PPG), assists (5.0 APG) and steals (2.6 SPG) and shooting close to 43 percent from behind the arc. He is capable of taking over games with his scoring (33 points at Weber State in January) or playing the role of facilitator (14 points, 12 assists and six steals in a victory over Eastern Washington). The Hornets are a contender because of this guy.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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