Glenn Junkert of GrizzlyJournal.com is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
BIG SKY CONFERENCE
(Records are ALL/CONF/STREAK)
- Northern Colorado (10-3/1-1/W1) Bears are for real, and will head into conference play as odds-on favorites.
- Montana (10-4/1-1/W4) Frosh guard Will Cherry giving Griz a quickness charge at both ends of court.
- Montana State (7-5/2-0/L1) Balanced scoring from four starters gives senior point guard Will Bynum offensive options.
- Weber State (7-6/1-0/L1) Super soph Damian Lillard (19.1 PPG) has led Wildcats in scoring in nine of 13 games.
- Sacramento State (6-7/1-1/W2) Hornets equal ’09 conference win total in first conference match, a 64-63 victory over Idaho State.
- Portland State (5-7/1-0/L3) High octane Vikings scoring at 79-point per game clip… but giving up 81.7 PPG.
- Northern Arizona (4-7/0-2/L1) Forget the record. Coach Mike Adras appears to have Jacks ready for January conference play.
- Eastern Washington (4-9/0-1/L4) In search starting-quint chemistry, coach Earlywine distributes ample playing time to 10 players.
- Idaho State (2-10/0-1/L6) JC newcomer 6’0 Broderick Gilchrest providing Bengals much-needed scoring boost heading into conference play (14.8 PPG).
Northern Colorado and Montana remain the only Big Sky teams to earn Mid Major Poll recognition this season. The Bears slipped one notch from last week to 23rd (87 points), while Montana nearly tripled its vote total (22), still not enough for an actual top 25 ranking. Of more significance, perhaps, is the Big Sky Conference’s improved record against Division 1 opponents. Facing a tough composite pre-season schedule against D1 competition, the Big Sky has fared well, subsequently boosting its rating against comparable mid-major conferences, and recently stepping ahead of the Big West to 17th in the USA Today Sagarin conference ratings.
HOT & NOT
HOT — The Montana State Bobcats — a pre-season pick as one of the favorites in the Big Sky — turned a 2-3 November record topsy turvy with a workmanlike 5-2 December record that included two homecourt wins in early league play and a creditable last-second 58-56 loss to Boise State in Boise. The Cats are getting remarkable balance from starters Bobby Howard (13.3 PPG), Marquis Navarre (11.6 PPG), Erik Rush (13 PPG), and Branden Johnson (10.3 PPG), while limiting opponents to 66 PPG.
NOT — The Eastern Washington Eagles (4-9) — losers of four-straight games heading into conference play — are showing signs as potential dubious owners of the Big Sky’s cellar door key. Kirk Earlywine’s Eagles lost a last-shot nail-biter to a tough 8-5 Nevada Wolfpack squad (73-30) before absorbing a 91-34 lashing from BYU that apparently damaged morale, as the Eagles’ promptly lost games against two sub-.500 opponents, Chicago State (4-7) and previously winless Jackson State (1-10). After the demoralizing loss to BYU, Earlywine said, “For the life of me, I can’t figure out what happened to our team.”
We’ve mentioned Idaho State’s brutal non-conference schedule earlier in this report, but it bears repeating in light of the Bengals’ 2-10 record with one non-conference game left before conference play resumes. At what point does a challenging pre-season schedule become demoralizing for players? And how does the endless road schedule affect their fans? The Bengals spent most of December on the road (10 games), eking out a lone road win against UMKC (68-65). One of those losses was their only conference match, a 64-63 setback at Sacramento State, while their only home game against a major college foe resulted in a 79-67 loss to Boise State. But the Bengals played tough through most of those losses. It’ll be interesting to see if the schedule makes the Bengals improved enough to be the Big Sky contender several pre-season publications predicted.
- Northern Colorado’s plus-3.23 TPG turnover margin is the best Big Sky mark by a significant margin, far better than second place Montana’s plus-1.29 margin.
- Montana’s limiting all opponents to an impressive 57.6 PPG, an impressive 10 PPG better than second place Northern Colorado. The Grizzlies back up that mark with a league best defensive field goal percentage average of .401.
- Weber State soph guard Damian Lilliard’s 19.1 PPG average is a Big Sky best, while ISU guard-forward Demetrius Moore’s 8.3 per game rebounding mark leads the league. Portland State’s Dominic Waters’ 5.0 per game assist average is a full assist per game better than second place.