Kellen Carpenter is an ACC microsite staffer and an RTC columnist. Each week, BTN will take an in-depth look at some interesting aspect of college basketball’s statistical arcana.
The phrase “pure point guard” is loaded. It implies that there is a Platonic notion of point guard which all mortal players can only aspire to. We are just fools in a cave looking at a shadow on the wall, but that is all we have when the purest conception of the point guard is beyond our field of vision. I can only assume that this unknowable figure looks something like Bob Cousy. It also implies that outside of “pure point” play, there exists a realm of impure play where the division of basketball labor isn’t as orthodox as it is inside Plato’s basketball cave.
This is What a Pure Point Looks Like
In a point guard, “purity” is code for being a pass-first lead guard. To the traditional school of thought, the roles on a basketball team are strictly regimented: The point guard passes, the shooting guard shoots, but not as much as either forward. The center, near-immobile but Mikan-like in his hunger for loose balls has a single task: rebound the basketball and get it to the point guard. Of course, this idea of the traditional division of labor in basketball hasn’t really held since the days of Mikan himself. Modern basketball, by which I mean basketball since the mid-sixties, has embraced the hybridization of positions. Basketball has for years acknowledged the idea that team roles are mutable and that positions are flexible. While few have embraced the full-on positional revolution explicated by Bethlehem Shoals and the NBA-heads of the dearly-departed Free Darko, most of us have made peace with the idea that it’s okay for point guards to score occasionally. Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette were the break-out stars of the past college basketball season and both undoubtedly play point guard in a thoroughly impure way. If those guys aren’t pure then shouldn’t we all hope to be dirty?
In all seriousness, the concept of the purity of the lead guard is a silly concept to dwell on. Still, like all sports cliches, the idea persists because it’s a convenient way to sum up the play of pass-first point guards, who somehow pay homage to a golden era of basketball which is more than ancient history. Still the idea of the pass-first point guard is an intriguing one in this era of high-scoring combo guards. Like the crocodile, the pass-first guard is a relic of a by-gone epoch, a living fossil and a reminder of the dinosaurs who ruled the earth during that time. Is the crocodile a better predator than the tiger? This isn’t a debate that I’m interested in. The pass-first point guard, by mere value of their odd, antiquarian style is a unique species worth studying.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.
The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.
Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.
Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.
Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.
First-Round Upset: Eastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.
How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.
Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:
The Player of the Year race in college basketball is an interesting and bizarre thing. The most talented player is rarely selected, and the winner is seldom a National Champion. I don’t want to go so far as to say the race is a popularity contest, but it’s something akin to one. Instead of picking the best player, the voters like to pick the most emblematic player, or failing that, the most interesting. Oh, and that player has to almost inevitably be a bit of a ball hog. Evan Turner was not the best basketball player in the country last year, as fans of the Philadelphia 76ers know all too well, but he was a skilled-enough, multi-talented player on a pedigreed team that won a lot of games. With that logic in mind, it’s pretty safe to pencil in Jimmer Freddete, Jared Sullinger, Derrick Williams, Kemba Walker or Nolan Smith as the front-runners of that race. This was true in December, as well. I don’t want to say that the national Player of the Year race is dead, just that it’s perpetually unsurprising, even if the final result does have that extra spice of arbitrariness thrown in for good measure.
Walker Headlines a Strong NPOY Group of Candidates
So instead of breaking down the Player of the Year race and debating just how good, on the scale of really good to incredibly good all those familiar faces are, I thought we could take some time to show some love to some mostly unfamiliar faces who are having extraordinary and superlative seasons of their own. Maybe they don’t play a great all-around game, maybe their teams don’t win, and maybe some of them aren’t good so much as weird, but let’s celebrate them all anyway. We need a name for this party, though, so let’s call it the Other Guys of the Year Awards, dig into the depths of Ken Pomeroy’s stats tables, and hand out some imaginary statuettes.
The first awards go to a pair of players who play for the same team in the Big South. The Iron Man Award goes to Khalid Mutakabbir of Presbyterian who has played 96.1% of all available minutes, a greater percentage than any other player in Division I. Mutakabbir has used those minutes well, shooting a high percentage from the field, and a very impressive 51.7% from beyond the three-point line. The Ultimate Ball-Hog Award goes to Mutakabbir’s teammate, Al’Lonzo Coleman, who somehow comes off the bench, yet uses 36.3% of all possessions, more than The Jimmer himself. While Coleman is undoubtedly president of the Ball-Hog Club, let’s give some special recognition to the other players who, despite living outside the national limelight, have managed to dominate the ball more than Mr. Fredette: Special thanks to Keion Bell of Pepperdine, Anatoly Bose of Nicholls State, Brandon Bowdry of Eastern Michigan, Adrian Oliver of San Jose State, and Will Pratt from Northwestern State. You have all out-Jimmered the Jimmer, except for, you know, the winning games thing.
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
A third upset in two nights occurred late last night in Las Vegas as UC Santa Barbara went to Sin City and shocked UNLV at home. What are the chances of another upset tonight? All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.
Oral Roberts @ #13 Missouri – 8 pm on FS Midwest, ESPN3.com and ESPN FullCourt (**)
Pressey Will Lead Mizzou Attack Tonight (AP/LG Patterson)
With Michael Dixonsuspended for a violation of team rules, Phil Pressey will take the point guard reigns for Mike Anderson, at least for one night. The highly-touted freshman hasn’t scored much but did dish out nine assists in Mizzou’s last game, a win over Presbyterian. Mizzou will be fine as long as Pressey understands his role as a distributor and not a scorer. Missouri will obviously look to push the pace and create turnovers against a guard-oriented Oral Roberts squad. The Golden Eagles are just 4-5 on the year but should be able to score against a Missouri defense that ranks in the 200’s against both the three and the two point shot. That’s good news for head coach Scott Sutton, son of legendary coaching figure Eddie Sutton. Oral Roberts shoots 40% from three, #29 in the nation, behind a duo of guards and a point-forward type player. Warren Niles and Hunter McClintock each shoot 40% from deep while 6’6 Dominique Morrison checks in at 36%. Morrison is listed as a forward but averages 17/5/3, the leading scorer and assist man on the team. He broke out against Western Illinois on December 2, scoring a career-high 35 points on 14-18 shooting. It is essential that Oral Roberts shoots the trey well or else they’ll get run out of the gym by the Tigers. On Missouri’s side, Marcus Denmon (51% from deep) can easily match Oral Roberts’ production from three but he’ll need help inside with Ricardo Ratliffe. Oral Roberts is a poor defensive team, putting opponents on the line often and failing to stop the three pointer. Playing at home, Denmon and Missouri should be able to weather whatever storm Oral Roberts brings from deep with shooting of their own and turnover margin. Additionally, Missouri will actually be the favorite on the boards, something Mizzou fans are not accustomed to seeing. The addition of Ratliffe really helps in this department and he’ll be on full display tonight. The Golden Eagles may hang tough early but Missouri’s talent and pressure defense will win out resulting in the Tigers pulling away towards victory.
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.
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 23rdin 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 SacramentoState. 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.
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.
Welcome to our RTC Impact Players series. The braintrust has gone back and forth on this and we’ve finally settled on a group of sixty players throughout ten geographic regions of the country (five starters plus a sixth man) to represent the who and where of players you should be watching this season. Seriously, if you haven’t seen every one of these players ball at least once by the end of February, then you need to figure out a way to get a better television package. As always in a subjective analysis such as this, some of our decisions were difficult; many others were quite easy. What we can say without reservation is that there is great talent in every corner of this nation of ours, and we’ll do our best to excavate it over the next five weeks in this series that will publish on Mondays and Thursdays. Each time, we’ll also provide a list of some of the near-misses as well as the players we considered in each region, but as always, we welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments.
Jio Fontan – Soph, G – USC. Last year, USC was the talk of the college basketball world for a stretch, when senior point guard Mike Gerrity, a transfer from Charlotte, took over the team in December and promptly led the Trojans to an upset blowout victory over then #8 Tennessee in his first game of the season. The Trojans went on to win their next five games, including the inaugural Diamond Head Classic, with Gerrity serving as a big spark. In 2010-11, head coach Kevin O’Neill and his team will welcome another Division I transfer to the active roster over the winter break, and they hope to sustain the bump in talent they’ll get when Fontan joins the team as a midseason transfer from Fordham. In fact, Fontan was in the midst of an on-campus visit last December 19 when Gerrity was leading the Trojans to their win over the Volunteers and he committed to the school just days later, perhaps seeing the blueprint for his own success in Gerrity’s. Luckily enough for O’Neill and the Trojans, Fontan will have more than just the one semester of eligibility that Gerrity had. But while their paths to the USC roster may seem similar, their games are different. Fontan is more of a combo-guard, capable of running an offense, but more adept at creating for himself than being a pure distributor. Not that he isn’t capable of handing out assists – he averaged more than four assists per night during his one season plus five games at Fordham – but Fontan is at his best with the ball in his hands, able to both blow by defenders and hit from long range, scoring the ball to the tune of 15.3 points per game in his freshman season on his way to Atlantic 10 rookie of the year honors. Paired with established frontcourt returners Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson and a talented group of newcomers, including 5’7 point guard Maurice Jones who will handle the lead guard duties until Fontan is eligible, Fontan will be surrounded by far more talent than he ever was in his time at Fordham. And if things go as well as could be hoped for, Fontan will have a chance to reprise Gerrity’s Trojan debut, as Southern Cal will travel to Kansas (and then, three days later, they’ll play the return game in the Tennessee series) for Fontan’s first game, giving USC a chance to make another big mid-season splash on the national stage.
Tre’Von Willis* – Sr, G – UNLV. For a good part of last summer, Tre’Von Willis, the star shooting guard for the Runnin’ Rebels, may have thought that his collegiate career was over thanks to his June 29 arrest for felony battery involving an ugly incident with a woman in nearby Henderson, Nevada. Willis ultimately copped to a plea agreement of a lesser charge of misdemeanor domestic battery, and in interviews since the incident he has shown considerable sincerity and self-awareness in suggesting that he placed himself in a bad situation. After he serves a mandated three-game suspension meted by coach Lon Kruger, Willis will likely be back in action for UNLV’s second regular season game against Southeastern Louisiana. And it’s a good thing that he will be, as the Rebel program has eyes on putting together its best season since the understated head coach rolled into town several years ago. Considering that the Rebs have been to a Sweet Sixteen and won 30 games in a season under his tutelage (both in 2006-07), those are lofty goals. But they are also realistic ones so long as some of the injury problems that Willis and several others have recently endured are controlled. Willis in particular continues to experience knee pain as a result of arthroscopic surgery in August to repair cartilage, a recurring problem which caused the capable scorer to lose some of his lift at the end of last season and definitely impacted his effectiveness. As an example, after scoring twenty or more points ten times through mid-February, Willis only hit the figure one more time during the last eight games of the year, a sure indication that he was not at 100%. The hope is that his summer surgery, a new outlook on opportunity as a result of his legal troubles, a sprinkling of maturity (he also had a daughter) and much-needed rest will encourage Willis to come back with an all-America caliber season. He was chosen as a first-team all-MWC guard in 2009-10 when he contributed an all-around game of 17.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 3.5 APG while increasing his previously-sketchy shot selection to the point where he added nearly 10% (from 38% to 48%) on his field goal percentage. If he can truly put everything from last summer behind him and remain healthy for an entire season, the new Aria Hotel may not be the only must-see on The Strip this winter.
Tre'Von Willis Has to Sit Three Games (LV Sun/S. Morris)
Lillard, Now Only A Junior, Is Your Reigning Big Sky MVP
What You Need To Know
In the mood to watch some Big Sky hoops? You’re in luck. The only thing standing between you and it is either a road trip to a game, or a visit to www.bigskytv.org, where the conference will live-stream every game played at any Big Sky gym — and it’s free!
The Big Sky Tournament is one seriously exclusive gathering, probably second only to that in the Garden of Eden. Only six teams get into the conference’s post-season bash — the bottom three regular season finishers can start studying for finals early.
It might be a small conference, but they don’t exactly grow ’em small in Big Sky country. Montana will boast nice length along their front line, starting 6’11 Brian Qvale and 7’0 Derek Selvig (6.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG last year in 20.8 MPG). They’ll get their shots at the big time when they travel to Nevada, Utah, and UCLA early in the season and host Oregon State on December 15.
A week of reckoning. The Big Sky post-season tourney tips off Saturday. Listed are the final standings with tourney seed and bracket beneath it. In parentheses is the Grizzly Journal pre-season pick, which appeared here before the season began.
Glenn Junkert of Grizzly Journal is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
BIG SKY CONFERENCE (Records are CONF/ALL/STREAK):
Weber State (9-2/15-8/W1) Wildcats have clinched a playoff berth and — with three of their last five games at home — are in the catbird’s seat.
Northern Colorado (8-3/19-5/W2) Bears match up well with Weber State, and, with Saturday’s clash against the Cats at Ogden, can move into a tie for first.
Montana (8-4/17-7/W4) Led by senior MVP candidate Anthony Johnson, Montana is getting balanced scoring AND solid play from five underclass subs on the deepest bench in the conference.
Montana State (7-5/12-11/L1) Home-court loss to Weber State last week hurt Bobcats’ hopes of earning post-season tourney bye.
Portland State (5-5/10-13/L1) The Vikings lost Phil Nelson — the fourth-best three-point shooter in the Big Sky — to a broken foot at the end of a three-game slide. Expect the Vikes, who play four of their final six at home, to move up in the standings…and to play the spoiler in the fight for tourney seeding.
Northern Arizona (5-6/11-11/L2) Lumberjacks look to avenge season-worst 25-point home-court loss to Weber State Friday. Junior Cameron Jones is Jacks’ all-everything MVP-contender.
Idaho State (3-8/6-17/L3) Home court loss to Sacramento State and ankle injury to scoring leader Amorrow Morgan deals Bengals’ post-conference hopes a blow.
Sacramento State (3-9/9-16/W1) Hornets snap four-year, 27-game Big Sky losing streak with 72-55 win at ISU.
Eastern Washington (2-8/6-18/L7) Eagles play four of final six games at home in battle to qualify for conference playoffs.
RPI BOOSTERS — Despite a home-court loss to Montana, Northern Colorado maintained its lock on second place in the Big Sky with the league’s best overall record (19-5), good enough for a 10th place rank (441 points) in the College Insider’s Mid Major Poll. League leader Weber State broke into the top 25 (at 25th) with 120 points, while Montana’s 11 points equals a rank of 34th. USA Today’s Sagarin Rankings have the three teams bunched at 98 (Montana), 99 (Northern Colorado), and 100 (Weber State).
MVPs — Montana’s senior guard Anthony Johnson and Weber State’s sophomore guard Damian Lilliard have emerged as leading candidates for Big Sky MVP. Lilliard, twice recognized for POTW recognition, leads the conference in scoring (20.2 PPG) as league leader Weber State’s anchor. Johnson — who has been named POTW eight times in two years (four this season, most recently on Feb. 7), has been the keystone of Montana’s resurgence after freshman Will Cherry stepped up as Griz point guard…freeing Johnson to play the open-court, ball-possession offense he does best.
HOT & NOT
HOT — After starting Big Sky play at 0-3, Montana has won 7-of-8 games, including a sweep at the two Northerns (Arizona & Colorado). Included in the run were convincing victories over league leader Weber State (75-61) and Idaho State (91-68), good enough for third place. The deep Grizzlies — shooting 60% from the field and 58% from three point range over the past four games — can brand themselves as legit contenders with road wins at Portland State and Eastern Washington this weekend.
NOT — After a clutch win at Montana State — and being touted here as a potential Big Sky Spoiler — the Eastern Washington Eagles lost seven straight games. EWU finishes its season with 4-of-6 in Cheney. They’ll probably have to win all four if they hope to qualify for post-season Big Sky tourney seeding.
Scoring: Damian Lilliard (WSU) 20.2 PPG; Cameron Jones (NAU) 18.5; Dominic Waters (PSU) 18.1; Anthony Johnson (UM) 17.9; Amorrow Morgan (ISU) 17.5.
Rebounding: Jamie Jones (PSU) 7.5 RPG; Brandon Moore (EWU) 7.4; Demetrius Monroe (ISU) 7.0; Brian Qvale (UM) 6.7.
Glenn Junkert of Grizzly Journal is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
Standings (records are CONF/ALL/STREAK)
Portland State (2-0/7-7/W2) Vikings lead the Big Sky in scoring offense at 79.4. Can any team in this defense-oriented league slow them down?
Northern Colorado (3-1/14-3/W4) Senior guard Yahosh Bonner leading the Bears with iron-trap defense… usually against each opponent’s top scoring guard.
Montana State (3-1/8-6/W1) The Cats are taking care of the ball on offense… and just winning.
Weber State (3-1/9-7/W2) Sophomore point guard Damian Lillard best in the Big Sky so far.
Eastern Washington (1-1/5-10/W-1) Speedy frosh guard Glen Dean stepping up as scorer and playmaker for Eagles.
Montana (1-3/10-6/L2) Junior 6’11 post Brian Qvale starting to dominate key on both ends of floor (6.1 rebounds per game and 2.0 blocks per game average)
Northern Arizona (1-3/7-8/L1) Junior guard Cameron Jones scores 26 in Jacks’ first Big Sky win.
Sacramento State (1-3/6-10/L3) Sac State junior guard Sultan Toles-Bey making strides at point for Hornets.
Idaho State (1-3/4-12/L1) Amorrow Morgan leads conference in minutes played (35.1), carrying Bengals on offense (17.0 per game).
Northern Colorado Bears jumped to 16th in this week’s College Insider Mid Major top 25 poll with 249 votes, up from 23rd last week. The Bears are the lone Big Sky team to receive votes.
HOT & NOT
HOT — The Montana State Bobcats and the Northern Colorado Bears – at 3-1 and tied for second going into the third week of conference play – can move into a tie for first with home floor sweeps this weekend. The Bears and Bobcats have already notched important road wins and both are poised to build some early separation in the standings.
NOT — Already at 1-3 in conference play, the Idaho State Bengals and Montana Grizzlies – both pre-season picks to contend – have each suffered home-court losses and are mired in a four-team bottom-tier throng with Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. What’s worse for Montana: the Bengals’ lone win was a last-second stunner over the Grizzlies in Pocatello. Montana then traveled to Ogden and – after leading through much of the second half – lost in the final minute at Weber State.
The Big Sky’s top scorers are all guards: Damian Lillard (WSU) 19.1; Dominic Waters (PSU) 18.7; Amorrow Morgan (ISU) 17.0; Cameron Jones (NAU) 16.7; Anthony Johnson (UM) 16.4; Will Figures (MSU) 15.9; Devon Beitzel (UNC) 15.4; and Broderick Gilchrest (ISU) 13.9.
Northern Colorado’s 136-341 three point field goals is the Big Sky’s best, slightly ahead of Portland State’s 128-309. The Viks shoot a better percentage though (.414 to .399).
Not only are the Portland State Vikings the most potent offensive team in the Big Sky, they’re the best shooting team. The Viks, who score at a per-game clip of 79.4, lead the league in three point field goal percentage (see above), field goal percentage (.490) and free throw percentage (.755).