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.