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

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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.

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Checking in on… the Big Sky

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 29th, 2010

Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky. In addition to his tireless contributions for RTC, Jason is a screenwriter whose pursuits can be followed at the home of Blindly Driven Entertainment.  [ed. note: this post was written prior to the Nov. 26-28 games]

A Look Back

  • This just in, Damian Lillard is a “BEAST!”  Of course, if you follow the conference, you knew that already.  Lillard has shown thus far in this young season that the MVP award is his to lose.  In the first four games he is averaging 23 points per game.  We will just let that sink in for all upcoming Weber State opponents.
  • Are they for real?  Montana State has rattled off five straight wins, but the question remains, is it a fluke?  Well, they will get their chance to prove it right away.  They have upcoming games against Iowa State, Illinois State, UCLA, and they kick off the conference season vs. Weber State.  By Christmas we will know whether Bobcat fans are getting something nice or coal in their stockings.
  • Defense wins championships.  If that saying holds true, then Montana should feel good about their team.  On 11/22 the Grizzlies held Idaho to 12% shooting.  Yes that’s right; the Vandals shot 6-50 from the field.  Somewhere, coach Wayne Tinkle is smiling.

Power Rankings

1. Weber State: (2-2)

Recent Games:  77-65 Loss at Utah State 11/13, 97-72 Win vs. Colorado Christian 11/16, 90-75 Loss at Utah 11/20, 86-54 Win at Alaska Anchorage 11/25

Upcoming Games:  Great Alaska Shootout second and third rounds 11/26 and 11/27, vs. Seattle 12/4

The Wildcats debut at the top spot despite going 2-2 in their first four games.  It’s hard to argue with having the two-time defending regular season champs and a team returning the reigning league MVP as the top team here.  Last week they kept it respectable on the road against Utah and really should have beaten Utah State on the road.  But down the stretch the crazy Aggie fans got the best of their in-state rival.  Damian Lillard picked up where he left off last year averaging 23 points per game through the first four games.  NBA scouts have already started to salivate at the thought of Lillard in an NBA uniform.  NBADraft.net has him as a late first round pick in the 2012 Draft.  Look for Lillard and the Wildcats to make some noise in the Great Alaska Shootout on Thanksgiving weekend.

2. Northern Arizona: (3-2)

Recent Games:  78-64 Loss at Iowa State 11/12, 74-70 Loss at Creighton 11/14, 74-46 Win vs. Alabama State 11/16, 97-47 vs. Southwestern Arizona 11/19, 74-66 Win at Kennesaw State 11/22

Upcoming Games:  at Pepperdine 11/28, at Cal State Bakersfield 11/30, vs. Bethany 12/4, vs. Texas-Pan American 12/8

If there was a 1a and a 1b in the Power Rankings then the Lumberjacks would be that 1b.  This team is loaded with experience.  Head coach Mike Adras brings back four starters from last year’s 14-14 squad.  They nearly took down Creighton on the road, which is no easy feat by the way.  Then they took care of business their last three, topped off with a big road win at Kennesaw State.  With all the returning experience and the past coaching success of coach Adras, the Lumberjacks will be nipping at Weber State’s heels all year long.

3. Northern Colorado: (2-2)

Recent Games:  93-52 Wins vs. Tabor 11/12, 67-53 Win vs. Wyoming 11/16, 93-70 Loss at Arizona 11/21, 87-84 Loss at Santa Clara 11/23

Upcoming Games:  Las Vegas Invitational 11/26 and 11/27, vs. Black Hills State 12/4

With the best season in school history in the rearview mirror, the Bears are looking to capitalize on their program’s momentum.  First-year coach B.J. Hill takes over for the departed Tad Boyle who left for Colorado.  Don’t look for this team to miss a beat since Hill served for four years under Boyle before taking over this year.  However this team lives and dies by Devin Beitzel.  He had a solid 20 points in a close loss at Santa Clara but overall is shooting 20.8% from three point range.  For the Bears to challenge for a conference title, Beitzel has got to find his stroke.

4. Montana State: (5-1)

Recent Games:  77-59 Loss at Hawaii 11/13, 65-58 Win vs. Central Michigan 11/14, 80-76 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/15, 92-67 Win vs. Minot State 11/19, 73-57 Win vs. Cal Poly 11/21, 76-59 Win vs. San Francisco 11/24

Upcoming Games:  at Iowa State 11/27, at Seattle 11/29, at Illinois State 12/4, vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10

If coach Brad Huse is reading these Power Rankings, feel free to use it as bulletin board material.  The “no respect” card should be played after the Bobcats rattled off five wins in a row.  Yet this team is still ranked fourth.  For them to climb up the rankings they must show they are for real.  Beating Big 12 member Iowa State on 11/27 would be a start.  The one-two punch of Bobby Howard and Erik Rush is going to be something the rest of the league better take notice of come conference play.

5. Montana: (2-2)

Recent Games:  81-66 Loss at Nevada 11/13, 80-71 Loss at Utah 11/17, 78-51 Win vs. Montana Tech 11/19, 75-33 Win vs. Idaho 11/22

Upcoming Games:  vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/30, vs. Portland 12/3, at UCLA 12/5, vs. Great Falls 12/9

The Grizzlies are trying to capitalize on their amazing run through the Big Sky Conference Tournament last year.  They of course are also trying to replace Anthony Johnson, the catalyst of their past success.  So far, center Brian Qvale has been everything they thought he would be as a senior.  With Will Cherry showing his freshman campaign was no fluke, this team will once again have something to say come conference tournament time.

6. Portland State: (3-1)

Recent Games:  83-81 Win vs. Pepperdine 11/12, 69-53 Loss at SMU 11/19, 102-98 Win vs. Lamar 11/20, 69-58 Win vs. UC Riverside 11/21

Upcoming Games:  vs. Seattle 12/1, at Oregon 12/5, vs. George Fox 12/9

Don’t tell these guys that they got nothing to play for.  Head coach Tyler Geving has his team playing with a chip on their shoulder this year.  The Vikings are not eligible for the postseason, including the Big Sky Conference Tournament.  This year they will have to play the role as spoiler, and it’s beginning to look like that might happen more often than others want.  The Vikings have a balanced attack with four players averaging in double figures with a fifth close to ten points per game.  The trouble for upcoming opponents will be who do they guard?

7. Eastern Washington: (1-3)

Recent Games:  67-60 Loss vs. San Jose State 11/12, 98-72 Loss at Washington 11/16, 96-87 Win vs. Northwest Washington 11/18, 83-54 Loss at Boise State 11/24

Upcoming Games:  vs. Idaho 11/27, at Gonzaga 11/30, vs. New Hope Christian 12/4

Head coach Kirk Earlywine has the youngest team in the conference this year.  Not one senior is on this year’s roster.  This has not stopped the young Eagles from showing lots of promise.  The question is will this be the year that the youngsters grow up?  Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year Glen Dean has been sidelined thus far with a stress fracture and remains day-to-day.  Having Dean back in the lineup is most certainly the key to the Eagles season.

8. Idaho State: (1-3)

Recent Games:  88-80 Loss at Colorado 11/12, 90-42 Loss at Arizona 11/14, 78-68 Win vs. Great Falls 11/19, 79-47 Loss at South Dakota State 11/23

Upcoming Games:  vs. Montana Tech 11/29, at Iowa 12/4, at Cal State Bakersfield 12/7

The first question that comes to mind if you are an opposing coach of Idaho State would be where is Broderick Gilchrest?  The man went unconscious at Colorado for a career high 39 points.  The following game he was held to four points on one-of-nine shooting from the field at Arizona.  As the conference season gets underway, coach Joe O’Brien will have to find a way to get Gilchrest open looks.  As for the schedule, it doesn’t get any easier.  Six of their next eight games are on the road.

9. Sacramento State: (1-3)

Recent Games:  80-78 Loss vs. Cal State Bakersfield 11/14, 84-55 Win vs. Bethany 11/16, 64-60 Loss at North Dakota 11/19, 61-54 Loss vs. UC Davis 11/23

Upcoming Games:  vs. Cal Poly 11/27, at Washington State 11/30, at Utah Valley 12/4, at Loyola Marymount 12/7, vs. William Jessup 12/10

This has to be the most encouraging last place conference team in the nation.  Brian Katz knew what he was getting into when he took over the Hornets coaching job.  In the last three seasons this team has won a total of fifteen games, with last year contributing nine of those.  Katz has only three players returning from last year that contributed.  But as with any rebuilding project, to get over the hump, you’ve got to learn how to win close games.  In their three losses, they have lost by a total of thirteen points.  Once this team learns how to win the close ones, they could surprise some people.

A Look Ahead

  • Northern Colorado is going to Vegas, baby!  The Las Vegas Invitational to be exact.  The Bears will take on Valparaiso on 11/26 and either Bethune-Cookman or Texas A&M Corpus Christi on 11/27.  This tournament includes such national powers such as Kansas and Arizona.  It should be a great experience and atmosphere for B.J. Hill’s club.
  • Expansion talk!  The Big Sky is not waiting on the big boys to make a move.  Being proactive, earlier this month the league added North Dakota and Southern Utah as full members.  The move puts the league at eleven teams in basketball.  Who will be the twelfth?  Rumor has it South Dakota is interested.
  • BracketBusters will feature all nine members of the Big Sky Conference.  Fans can watch their favorite Big Sky team on one of the ESPN family of networks 2/18-2/20.  This is the first time that all members of the conference will participate in a given year.

The “Human Highlight Film” Award

Weber State’s Damian Lillard, (1) drives through the defense of Alaska Anchorage’s Casey Robinson (44) and Brandon Walker (22) during their Great Alaska Shootout NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov 25, 2010, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)

Is there anyone else in the league that we should give this to?  We didn’t think so either.  Damian Lillard, let the love fest begin!  A man among boys, this 6’2 junior guard from Oakland, California has started off the season with a flurry.  The reigning Big Sky Conference MVP is up to his old tricks again averaging 23 points per game through four.  If it pleases the court, I would like to enter into evidence “Exhibit A” (below). After a heavy helping of threes to the face, Damian decides to take it to the hoop “nasty style” at the 1:28 mark.  Is there any doubt why he wears number 1?

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