Weber State off with injury problems – Kyle Bullingerdislocated 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.
Damian Lillard Has Broken Out In a Big Way This Year
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.
Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
First off Merry Christmas to all the Big Sky Conference fans out there! After we all get done opening presents, we get to open up the conference season. It should be one of the most competitive in years.
A Look Back
One of the most bizarre free throw shots ever captured on video was from Idaho State’s own Kamil Gawrzydek. The ball seemed to just sit down right on the rim after bouncing high into the air. What was it waiting for? Forget everything that you think you know about physics and take a look for yourself.
Northern Arizona is becoming a force not only within the Big Sky Conference, but is scaring the heck out of the big boys. In back to back games on the road against USC and Arizona, the Lumberjacks came within single digits of both of these behemoths. Northern Arizona is looking more and more the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference.
The term “Road Warriors” is usually a positive statement made about a team that racks up “Ws” on the road. Northern Colorado fans cringe when they hear that term. The Bears have only played one game at home since November 16! It is safe to say they will be looking forward to playing in their home gym. Only problem is that they still have to wait until January 6!
1. Northern Arizona: (8-4)
Recent Games: 60-52 Loss at USC 12/11, 63-58 Loss at Arizona 12/16, 74-63 Win vs. Air Force 12/22
Upcoming Games: at Montana 12/29, at Montana State 12/31, vs. Idaho State 1/6
2. Weber State: (6-5)
Recent Games: 77-71 Win at Southern Utah 12/11, 81-79 Loss at Tulsa 12/16, 94-54 Win vs. Southwest 12/18, 72-66 Loss vs. BYU 12/21
Upcoming Games: at Montana State 12/29, at Montana 12/31, at Northern Arizona 1/8
3. Montana: (8-4)
Recent Games: 50-48 Loss at San Francisco 12/12, 71-66 Win vs. Oregon State 12/15, 64-63 Win at Idaho 12/18, 71-57 Win at Cal State Fullerton 12/22
Upcoming Games: vs. Northern Arizona 12/29, vs. Weber State 12/31, at Northern Colorado 1/6, at Sacramento State 1/8
4. Portland State: (6-5)
Recent Games: 93-89 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 12/12, 92-77 Loss at Cal State Bakersfield 12/15, 78-67 Loss vs. Portland 12/18, 79-73 Loss at Nevada 12/20, 73-53 Win vs. Utah Valley 12/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Northern Colorado 12/29, at Idaho State 1/2, vs. Eastern Washington 1/8
5. Northern Colorado: (4-7)
Recent Games: 86-76 Loss at Illinois 12/12, 71-68 Loss at Denver 12/18, 75-61 Loss at Colorado State 12/20, 78-75 Loss at Louisiana-Monroe 12/22
Upcoming Games: at Portland State 12/29, at Eastern Washington 12/31, vs. Montana 1/6, vs. Montana State 1/8
6. Montana State: (6-6)
Recent Games: 94-60 Win vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10, 78-67 Loss at UC Riverside 12/19, 75-59 Loss at UCLA 12/21
Upcoming Games: vs. Weber State 12/29, vs. Northern Arizona 12/31, at Sacramento State 1/6, at Northern Colorado 1/8
7. Eastern Washington: (3-8)
Recent Games: 70-69 Loss at San Jose State 12/12, 95-91 Win vs. Seattle 12/15, 72-42 Loss at Nebraska 12/18, 78-72 Loss at South Dakota 12/20
Upcoming Games: vs. Sacramento State 12/29, vs. Northern Colorado 12/31, at Seattle 1/6, at Portland State 1/8
8. Idaho State: (4-8)
Recent Games: 78-57 Win vs. UMKC 12/11, 66-60 Loss at Creighton 12/18, 71-48 Loss at Utah State 12/21, 77-73 Win vs. Troy 12/22, 63-60 Loss vs. Western Michigan 12/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Sacramento State 12/31, vs. Portland State 1/2, at Northern Arizona 1/6
9. Sacramento State: (3-8)
Recent Games: 65-54 Win vs. William Jessup 12/10, 65-63 Win at McNeese State 12/19, 66-53 Loss at Oklahoma 12/21
Upcoming Games: at Eastern Washington 12/29, at Idaho State 12/31, vs. Montana State 1/6, vs. Montana 1/8
A Look Aheadto Conference Play
Predicted Conference Order of Finish
The conference season is going to be one of the most competitive in years. However the returning fire power of Northern Arizona is going to be too much for this conference to handle. However, as last year’s Big Sky Conference has shown, anybody can win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This year’s Big Sky Conference representative will be…
Weber State Wildcats
The Big Sky Conference tournament is going to be a showcase for NBA scouts as Damian Lillard will put his team on his back and into the NCAA tournament. The question for Weber State fans is can something like this happen? I wonder what size slipper Lillard wears? The most interesting development will be does the committee consider Northern Arizona as an at-large team? They have been very competitive against the big boys and will have quite a good resume come March.
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.
Weber State (11-2/17-8/W3) The balanced Wildcats will clinch the host role for the Big Sky postseason tourney with their next win. WSU hosts the eighth-place Idaho State Bengals Saturday before finishing Big Sky play at Portland State and Eastern Washington.
Northern Colorado (10-4/21-6/W1) Despite a major setback with the loss of shooting guard Devon Beitzel (broken foot), the Bears can claim a postseason tourney bye with wins over Portland State (Feb. 20) and at Sacramento State (Feb. 27).
Montana (9-5-/18-8/L1) One-point, last-second loss at hot-shooting Eastern Washington (63% on 12-19 treys) dealalt a body blow to the Grizzlies’ shot at one of two Big Sky postseason tourney byes.
Montana State (9-6/14-12/W2) The Bobcats’ 80-74 win Thursday over Sacramento State clinched a top-four seed – and a first-round host role – in the Big Sky postseason tourney. Saturday MSU hosts San Jose State of the WAC in a BracketBuster clash before prepping for the conference finale Feb. 27 at cross-state rival Montana.
Northern Arizona (5-6/11-11/L2) In a fight for tourney seeding, all-everything Lumberacks’ guard Cameron Jones led NAU in Thursday’s thrilling 2-OT win over Portland State. A Saturday win over Eastern Washington will put the Jacks one-up over the Eagles and Vikings in battle for one of two final tourney seeds.
Portland State (5-8/10-16/L4) Home court losses to Montana and Montana State, and a painful double-OT loss at Northern Arizona put Viks in sudden jeopardy of postseason tourney elimination.
Eastern Washington (4-9/8-19/L1) Resurgent Eagles – bouyed by THREE freshman starters of late – have become the team nobody wants to play. The Eagles face must-win contests at Northern Arizona and (vs. Portland State and Weber State) in a bid for one of two final postseason tourney seeds.
Idaho State (4-9/7-19/L1) Their backs against the wall, the Bengals face must-win road clashes (at Weber State, at Portland State and at Eastern Washington) to qualify for Big Sky postseason sixth seed. One loss ends what has been a disappointing season for this senior-laden team.
Sacramento State (3-10/9-18/L2) The best the Hornets can hope for is to play the role of spoiler. Sac States winds up Big Sky play against teams vying for tourney seeding so the only thing a win at Montana or against Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado can do is affect the seeding of the Hornets’ opponents.
RPI BOOSTERS — By most measures of season-long team strength, Weber State, Northern Colorado and Montana have emerged as the ‘Best of the Big Sky’ in both the standings and RPI ratings against other Division 1 conferences. The Wildcats, with a solid season-long lock on first, passed the Bears in the College Insider Mid Major Top 25 for the first time this year, jumping 10 places from last week’s 25th to 15th, while the Bears slid six spots to 16th. Montana received 11 points. The three teams remain closely bunched in the USA Today Sagarin Rankings at 101 (WSU), 106 (UM), and 107 (NCU), respectively.
MVPS – Montana’s senior guard Anthony Johnson and Weber State’s sophomore guard Damian Lilliard remain leading candidates for Big Sky MVP. Lilliard, twice recognized for POTW recognition, leads the conference in scoring (20.2 per game) 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) — is the league’s third-leading scorer at 18.4.
The two leading candidates for Freshman of the Year appear to be Eastern Washington point guard Glen Dean and Montana point guard Will Cherry, both of whom wrested their starting positions from upperclassmen as league play began.
HOT & NOT
HOT — WEBER STATE: At 11-2 in the Big Sky, Randy Rahe’s Wildcats’ three straight wins do not signify a hot streak. They’re simply doing what they’ve done since the opening tip in Big Sky Conference play: prove on-court that they’re simply the best team in the conference for the second straight year. Nothing’s in the bag yet, but the Cats appear as sure bets to host the postseason conference tourney, the third time in four years for WSU.
NOT — PORTLAND STATE: The Vikings – preseason picks by many to challenge for the Big Sky Conference title – have lost four straight (two at home) and are now in a scramble with Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington to qualify for the final (sixth seed) slot in Big Sky postseason tourney. The Vikings, under first-year coach Tyler Geving, are a talented, potent offensive group still playing like a team in search of its identity.
Scoring: Damian Lilliard (WSU) 20.2; Cameron Jones (NAU) 19.2; Anthony Johnson (UM) 18.4; Dominic Waters (PSU) 18.4.
Rebounding: Jamie Jones (PSU) 8.0; Brandon Moore (EWU) 7.2; Demetrius Monroe (ISU) 7.2; Brian Qvale (UM) 6.7.
Steals: Will Bynum (MSU) 2.1; Devon Beitzel (UNC) 2.0; Broderick Gilchrest (ISU) 2.0; Franklin Session (WSU) 1.9; Will Cherry (UM) 1.8.
Blocked shots: Jamie Jones (PSU) 2.1; Brian Qvale (UM) 2.0.
Glenn Junkert of Grizzly Journal is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
Standings(records are CONF/ALL/STREAK)
Weber State (5-1/11-7/W2). A quintessential coaches’ team, the Cats get it done with blue-collar attention to all the X’s and O’s.
Northern Colorado (5-2/16-4/W1). Bears rebound from a setback at Portland with a three-point come from behind win at Eastern Washington.
Montana State (5-2/10-8/L1). Well-coached, overachieving Bobcats get solid leadership from senior point guard Will Bynum.
Montana (4-3/13-6/W3). Grizzlies search for production from wings to counter opponents’ collapsing zone defense.
Portland State (3-3/8-10/W2). Vikings are the best on offense (78.4), but the worst on defense (81.3 allowed).
Northern Arizona (3-4/9-9/W2). Behind stellar play from guard Cameron Jones, Lumberjacks revive tourney hopes with road wins at PSU, EWU. Jacks are shaping into a late-season wild card.
Eastern Washington (2-4/6-13/L2). Eagles turn to freshmen Glen Dean and Jeffrey Forbes in hopes of reviving season.
Sacramento State (1-5/7-12/L2). Bridesmaid Hornets are looking more and more like… bridesmaids.
Idaho State (1-5/4-14/L4). Amorrow Morgan’s 23 points per game in conference play still not enough for scoring-challenged Bengals.
Despite a league setback at Portland State, the Northern Colorado Bears moved up to 12th in this week’s College Insider Mid Major top 25 poll with 386 votes. Fourth place Montana, winners of three straight, received seven votes.
NO, YOU TAKE IT! The game of the year so far in Big Sky action was last Sunday’s 95-93 triple overtime Weber State win at Idaho State, finally won when Wildcat guard Damian Lilliard hit a driving layup with a second remaining in the final OT. Despite the exciting finish, the game was characterized more by miscues than makes. Weber State — which led by as many as 13 points — blew several point-blank shots in the final 30 seconds of regulation. Worse: ISU guards Broderick Gilchrest and Amorrow Morgan missed free throws in the final SECOND of the first two overtimes, both of which would have won the game. Lilliard led the Wildcats with 28 points, Amorrow Morgan scored 32 for the Bengals.
KEEP AN EYE ON: the Eastern Washington Eagles. After the Eagles’ mostly-down preseason and a horrid start in Big Sky action, coach Kirk Earlywine turned the keys to the ignition over to true frosh 5-10 guards Glen Dean and Jeffrey Forbes, who have given the Eagles some scoring punch. Look for the Eagles to be spoilers.
HOT & NOT
For the third time in four seasons, Randy Rahe’s Weber State Wildcats – bouyed by road wins at Northern Arizona and Idaho State – have once again put themselves into the driver’s seat in the Big Sky. It’s early, but the Cats – led by super-soph Lilliard – are in control and they know it.
After consecutive last-second road losses to start conference play, the Montana Grizzlies rebounded quickly with three straight. If the Griz (4-3/13-6) expect to contend, they’ll need better perimeter shooting… and they’ll have to recoup one or two of those early setbacks in the next 10 days in a brutal stretch at Montana State (Saturday), Northern Arizona, and Northern Colorado.
The Idaho State Bengals (1-5/4-14) – a consensus preseason pick to contend in the Big Sky – have lost four straight, including two at Holt Arena. The Bengals must turn things around starting tonight with the first of three straight home-court tilts against teams also scrambling to get out of the cellar (EWU, PSU, SAC).
There was hope at Sacramento State this year that the Hornets, under second-year coach Brian Katz, might be good enough to at least qualify for one of six conference tournament seeds. But the Hornets (1-5/7-12) are winless on the road and have already lost three of four at home. Things get tougher from here.
Scoring:Damian Lilliard (WSU) 19.4; Dominic Waters (PSU) 18.9; Amorrow Morgan (ISU) 18.2; Cameron Jones (NAU) 17.7; Anthony Johnson (UM) 17.2.
Rebounding:Demetrius Monroe (ISU) 8.3; Brandon Moore (EWU) 7.6; Brian Qvale (UM) 7.2; Franklin Session (WSU) 6.9; Jamie Jones (PSU) 6.9
Steals:Will Bynum (MSU) 2.4
Blocked shots:Brian Qvale (UM) 2.1.
Assists:Dominic Waters (PSU) 4.7; Julian Olubuyi (NAU) 4.0; Glen Dean (EWU) 3.8; Damian Lilliard (WSU) 3.6; Mike Marcial (SAC) 3.5.
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).
Northern Colorado (8-1, 1-1) W1. Assuming role of conference favorite.
Montana (6-3 1-1) W1. Tough homecourt loss in conference play.
Montana State (4-4 2-0) L1. Leads conference standings with two home wins.
Portland State (4-4 1-0) W3. Leads conference in most offensive categories.
Weber State (4-4 1-0)W3. Soph point guard Damian Lillard assuming leadership role for Cats.
Sacramento State (4-6 0-1) L2. Lose last 4-of-5 after hot start.
Eastern Washington (3-5 0-1) L1. Eagles hit road on tough 2-week, five-game swing.
Northern Arizona (2-5 0-2) L3. Jacks face brutal 4-game road swing through hollidays.
Idaho State (2-7 0-0) L3. Injuries, suspensions affect Bengals front-court.
Northern Colorado – Earned a Mid Major Poll rank of 22nd (153 points) with a road breakthrough at 2nd place Montana, the only other Big Sky team with Mid-Major votes (8).
HOT & NOT
Portland State Vikings – after starting the season at 0-3 under first year head coach Tyler Geving – the Vikings have gone 4-1 since, a tear that includes an 86-82 win at Mid-Major 10th ranked Portland and a 23-point, 98-75 conference opener over Eastern Washington.
The road has been long and winding for the 2-7 Idaho State Bengals, who have played seven of nine pre-season games on the road. The Bengals notched one of their two wins on the road, edging UMKC 68-65, but dropped a 79-67 verdict to in-state rival Boise State in Pocatello.
Glenn Junkert of Grizzly Journal is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.
BIG SKY CONFERENCE REPORT
Northern Colorado 5-0 W5
Montana 4-1 W1
Sacramento State 3-3 L1
Eastern Washington 2-3 L1
Montana State 2-2 L1
Northern Arizona 2-2 L2
Portland State 1-3 W1
Weber State 1-3 W1
Idaho State 1-4 L1
Northern Colorado – Earned a Mid Major Poll rank of 25th with championships in both the Rainbow Classic and the Reggie Minton Air Force Classic and are currently ranked 69th in the USA Today Sagarin Ratings.
Sacramento State – Defeated Oregon State 65-63 in Corvallis.
Montana – Defeated Oregon 68-55 in Portland.
Early results in the Big Sky indicate a return to parity after several seasons of distinct “upper-lower division split.” PROOF: perennial bottom-feeder CSU Sacramento, under the reins of second-year coach (and Sac State alum) Brian Katz, is 3-3 with an impressive 65-63 win at Oregon State and a decent showing at Idaho. Katz’ rebuilding project of a decimated Hornet program appears decidedly ahead of schedule.
Glenn Junkert of GrizzlyJournal.com is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky Conference.Click here for all of our 2009-10 Season Preview materials.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Weber State (22-9, 12-4)
Montana (20-8, 11-5)
Montana State (16-12, 11-5)
Idaho State (13-16, 10-6)
Portland State (14-15, 9-7)
Northern Arizona (11-17, 8-8)
Northern Colorado (12-18, 5-11)
Eastern Washington (8-21, 3-13)
Sacramento State (7-22, 3-13)
All-Conference First Team:
Anthony Johnson, Montana
Damian Lilliard, Weber State
Steve Panos, Weber State
Phil Nelson, Portland State
Bobby Howard, Montana State
All-Conference Second Team:
Amorrow Morgan, Idaho State
Will Bynum, Montana State
Dominic Waters, Portland State
Brandon Moore, Eastern Washington
Shane Johannssen, Northern Arizona
MVP:Anthony Johnson, Montana
Franklin Session, Weber State
Eric Platt, Northern Arizona
Raason Young, Montana
What You Need to Know. Last year Weber State senior point guard Kellen McCoy earned his Big Sky MVP medal by shaping his young teammates into a cohesive unit early. The Wildcats shrugged off a home court loss to Montana State and promptly forged a commanding conference lead with a league-wide road sweep, a rare feat in the Big Sky, though three other stellar guards — Montana’s Anthony Johnson, Montana State’s Will Bynum, and McCoy’s teammate, frosh Damian Lilliard — had second-half performances equal to McCoy’s, the Wildcat senior was a shoo-in for directing his cats to a rare 15-1 record in league play.
Predicted Champion. Weber State (NCAA Seed: #14). Weber State basketball IS coach Randy Rahe, and what Rahe has done best in four years at WSU is: 1) Recruit a balanced combo of quality junior college and freshman talent; and, 2) Demand the utmost in ensemble discipline and teamwork from his players on the court. The result? Deuces wild: two league titles and two “coach of the year” awards in his four years at WSU. The Wildcats graduated seniors Kellen McCoy and Daivin Davis, but Rahe will rely on the leadership of sophomore guard Lilliard, who’s expected to get support from highly regarded JC transfer Franklin Session. Otherwise, Rahe’s stellar coaching should be enough to earn the Cats a second straight league title.
11:45pm ET — Greetings, fellow hoop lovers, and welcome to the ESPN 24-hour Marathon of Hoops Rush The Court live blog. John Stevens, here, ready to truly kick off the college hoops season in freakin’ insane style. I’ll be live-blogging the entire way — that’s right, baby, the WHOLE WAY! — so if you’re out there watching the games, by all means leave a comment.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply any connection between ESPN and RTC with the title of this post. But a while back it was posted here that ESPN really had a great idea when they came up with this, and I for one definitely appreciate that they’re kicking off their coverage in this way. So the title merely refers to the fact that…well, if they’re gonna broadcast it, I’m gonna watch it, and what the heck, I might as well live-blog it.
Why, you ask? Several reasons. First and foremost, my love for college basketball. This off-season has seemed especially long and I’m happy that my favorite sport is finally back. I’ve also got the next 6.5 days off from my real job, an occupation that sometimes has me up overnight anyway. So what better way to kick off my leisure time. I also assume that the more teams I familiarize myself with, the better served I’ll be when the annual mid-March (read: first-and-second rounds) Rush The Court field trip to Las Vegas happens. We go for the museums, but in case we happen to catch an early-round game on a gigantic TV (or six), well, I’ll know more about who I’m watching.
When RTMSF and I first talked about me live-blogging during this offering by ESPN, as usual he was worried about liability; he suggested I go have a quick physical to make sure I could make it through the next 24 hours intact. The address he gave me, though, turned out to be a guy working out of the trunk of his car behind the local movie theatre. I called RTMSF to verify that I had gone to the right place, and he said, “Yeah, the guy in the beret? Yep. That’s him. He’ll take care of you.” Naturally I fled, so let me just say that even though I haven’t been medically cleared for this, I’m doing it of my own accord.
So let’s do this thing. I’ve got 24 hours of college hoops ahead of me. I’ve retired to the cushy environs of the Rush The Court Eastern Compound and assumed a spot in one of our beautiful leather home theatre reclining chairs that would make Turtle from Entourage proud. I’ve got the three LCD HD’s going. I’ve got a fridge stocked with energy drinks. I’ve got a remote control the size of a law school textbook in my hands. I’ve got snow falling outside. And did I mention the 6.5 days off??? It’s time for some serious hoops. We’ll kick things off with UMass-Memphis in about 15 minutes.
12:09 am — We’re off. Two big pieces of news have already come down today, so let me mention them now. The biggest is the death of Pete Newell, a name that sounds strange to say without the words “Big Man Camp” coming directly after. His influence on the game of basketball is immeasurable. As you’ve seen already, not only did he achieve that rare (as in three people, ever) basketball trifecta of coaching an Olympic gold medal squad (1960), an NIT champion (1949), and an NCAA champion (1959)…he only worked with some of the biggest names in the history of the game via his Big Man Camp, like Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwan, Walton, O’Neal, and countless others. He might not be one of the names that immediately comes to mind if you were to sit down and come up with a “Mt. Rushmore” of American basketball, but he sure makes a strong case.
The other bit of far-less-important news is that Tyler Hansbrough is a no-go against Kentucky on Tuesday night. Not surprised at this. It wasn’t discussed much last year, but quite frankly Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson outplayed Hansbrough; hoops fans who wanted to see how Hansbrough would respond will have to wait a while, unless UNC and UK end up meeting in the tournament somehow. It’ll have to happen in the NBA — and Kentucky fans hope it won’t be next year.
12:20am — We’re through two TV timeouts and this has been a YMCA game. More turnovers than field goals. Lots of threes gettin’ jacked up. UMass has come out in the “sagging man-to-man” which is daring Memphis to bomb away from the outside. They’re more than happy to oblige, which is why they find themselves only up one point almost midway through the half. This will probably be the trend in a lot of these games in the next 24 hours — sloppy Y-ball for the first half, then guys relaxing into their roles in the second and things becoming a little more organized.
12:45am — Memphis’ athletes are starting to assume control with about 5 minutes left in the first half. Tyreke Evans is an absolute pest on defense and despite the strange anatomy of his jump shot, it’s kind of nice to watch. UMass is relying on the drive-and-kickout right now, and Ricky Harris is keeping them in it. Memphis’ turnovers are helping, too. UMass only down 6 right now…
12:58am — Memphis with a 33-25 lead at the half. UMass is still in this game for two reasons: 1) Memphis’ shot selection, or lack of desire to work inside the paint. Robert Dozier is indeed the Tigers’ leading scorer with 12, but he’s 0/3 from the 3-pt line, and he has zero attempts from the line. 2) As soon as Memphis expanded the lead to double-digits and looked like they were about to out-athleticize the Minutemen, UMass showed an ability to grab a loose ball or force a Memphis turnover and capitalize on it. If UMass can calm themselves (no small feat in this environment), they can stay close and may find themselves within striking distance late. If Memphis calms down and plays to their strengths (size and athleticism), they could put this one away rather easily.
1:01am — We have a Tom Brennan sighting! He is very subtly giving a nod to his past at the University of Vermont, with the dark green blazer and yellow tie. He agrees with me in his assessment of the game so far — “It’s a mess.” Amen, sir.
1:15am — Shooting stats for the first half: From 3pt range…UMass 3/13 (23.1%), Memphis 1/12 (8.3%!!!). Egad.
1:22am — The second half starts with not much new…hectic pace, lots of bad shots. UMass is actually outhustling Memphis to every loose ball but they’re giving up some easy points off of turnovers. Memphis has decided to exploit their athleticism by picking up full court, but UMass seems ready; props to Coach Kellogg for prepping his team for this. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, on their last four possessions, Memphis has gone inside (a couple of ill-advised threes led to offensive boards) and the lead is now 11.
1:31am — Tony Gaffney is playing his butt off for UMass with 9 points and 12 boards, but Memphis is starting to look a little too long and quick. Tyreke Evans got an earful from Coach Calipari after a terrible three-point attempt, has gone inside on his last two touches, and scored twice. He’s got 17 now. Still…UMass continues to frustrate Memphis on defense…it’s still only 11 at the under-12 TV timeout.
1:42am — RTMSF just called me to tell me he’s going to the St. Mary’s game. Jackass.
1:46am — Memphis is starting to wear down the Minutemen and are getting some easy layups, and the lead is 61-44. The UMass players are standing straight up on defense. Coach Kellogg calls a timeout 2 seconds before the under-8 TV timeout — definitely a testimonial to the fatigue of his squad.
Calipari is begging his team not to chuck threes. It’s hilarious. Every time one of his players goes up for a long-range jumper, Calipari assumes the expression of someone who has just had his face farted on. His players have gotten the message, though.
1:56am — I’m not sure I’m on board with the Memphis home uniforms. The front is a clean white, and the back is a slightly darker beige/grey. UMass is of course wearing their away maroons, so at times, on the hi-def, it looks like there are three different teams on the floor. Maybe I’m getting a little chippy because it’s a 21-pt bulge (70-49) with five minutes left. And because RTMSF is going to the freakin’ St. Mary’s-Fresno State game.
2:04am — 76-49. Tony Gaffney’s played his tail off for UMass (14p 20r) but Memphis’ seemingly interchangable parts have put a lid on this one.
Jordan Freemeyer is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Big Sky conferences.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Portland State (20-9, 13-3)
Northern Colorado (21-10, 11-5)
Idaho State (15-14, 10-6)
Montana (18-11, 10-6)
Weber State (13-16, 8-8)
Northern Arizona (12-15, 7-9)
Montana State (11-17, 6-10)
Eastern Washington (10-19, 5-11)
Sacramento State (6-23, 2-14)
What You Need to Know (WYN2K). The Big Sky is a nine-team conference stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the southern Rocky Mountains. The Big Sky has historically been an eight-team conference, but added Northern Colorado as its ninth member in 2006. Unlike most conferences that feature a balanced eight or twelve team tournament, only the top six Big Sky teams get the chance to go dancing. The conference is generally a power in FCS (formerly I-AA) football, but does not have a rich men’s basketball tradition. However, Weber State in particular has been noted for big upsets in the NCAA Tournament. In 1995, a #14 seed Weber State team beat #3 seed Michigan State 79-72, and in 1999 the Wildcats repeated the feat, taking down another #3 seed, North Carolina, 76-74. More recently, Montana made a run to the second round in 2006 with a wins over #5 Nevada.
Predicted Champion.Portland State (#14 NCAA). This is a relatively safe pick, as the Vikings won both the regular season and tournament championships last season. Portland State returns three starters, including 2007-08 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Player of the Year Jeremiah Dominguez (pictured below). The 5’6” Dominguez scored 14.4 points per game last season, while averaging 4 assists per game and leading the conference with 1.9 steals per game. Also returning for the Vikings is junior Kyle Coston. The 6’8” forward averaged 7.4 points per game last season and made over 40 percent of his three-point attempts. PSU lost leading rebounders Scott Morrison and Deonte Huff, but return enough firepower offensively to make them the favorites in the Big Sky.
Others Considered. Behind the Vikings is a pack of about four teams that can challenge them. Northern Colorado is my pick to finish second in the league. The Bears return nine letterwinners from last season, the most in the conference, and are led by all-conference center Jabril Banks. Banks led UNC last season with 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Idaho State should also contend for the conference title; the Bengals are led by guards Matt Stucki and Amorrow Morgan, who combined to average just under 22 points per game last season. Perrenial favorites Montana and Weber State should also be in the mix, led by forward Jordan Hasquet and guard Kellen McCoy, respectively.
Important Conference games.
Northern Arizona @ Montana State (1/10/09) – This game could go a long way toward determining the final berth in the Big Sky Tournament.
Portland State @ Northern Colorado (1/19/09) – This is just Northern Colorado’s third year in the conference, but Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion is already proving to be one of the toughest places to play. The Bears were 9-4 there last season.
Idaho State @ Weber State (1/31/09) – Dee Events Center should be rocking for this matchup between rivals that will have a big impact on what the top of the conference standings look like.
Montana at Montana State (2/7/09) – It’s Montana against Montana State, when is it ever not important?
Big Sky Championship Game (3/11/09)
Northern Colorado @ Colorado State (11/18/08) – This is perhaps the biggest college basketball rivalry in the state of Colorado. The Bears beat the Rams, 72-59, last year.
North Dakota State @ Northern Arizona (11/25/07) – This is the first of two meetings between the two teams this season, and catches the Bison in the midst of a very tough three-game road trip.
BYU @ Weber State (12/3/08) – This is yet another chance for the Big Sky to prove itself against an in-state rival. You can bet the biggest venue in the Big Sky will be nearly full for this one.
Portland State @ Washington (12/14/08) – This game presents a good chance for the Vikings to make a statement against a quality Pac-10 opponent.
Idaho @ Idaho State (12/29/08) – The Bengals host their former conference-mate and in-state rival at Holt Arena with a chance to prove basketball supremacy in the state of Idaho.
Neat-O Stat. Sacramento State hired a new head coach for the 2008-09 season, Brian Katz. This is Katz’s first NCAA head coaching job, but he is not the only coach in the league that is in a relatively new place. Only one coach in the Big Sky, Northern Arizona’s Mike Adras, has been at his school for more than four years. Portland State’s Ken Bone is entering his fourth season with the Vikings, and is the second-longest tenured coach in the conference. Idaho State’s Joe O’Brien, Montana’s Wayne Tinkle, Montana State’s Brian Huse, Northern Colorado’s Tad Boyle and Weber State’s Randy Rahe are all in their third season with their respective teams. Last year, Eastern Washington brought coach Kirk Earlywine into the mix.
65 Team Era. The Big Sky is only 3-24 (.111) over the era, but as stated above, it has some quality upsets on its resume, with #14 Weber St. in both 1995 and 1999, and #12 Montana breaking into the second round in 2006. Its champion typically receives a #14 or #15 seed in the NCAAs, but generally avoids the dreaded #16. Here’s an amusing YouTube clip of some of Portland State’s practice and media session before playing #1 Kansas in last year’s first round below.
Final Thoughts. The Big Sky should be a very interesting conference to watch this season. There are about five or six teams that could win the regular season title, and the conference tournament should amount to a crap shoot. Whoever wins the league, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see them upset a big conference team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.