Jordan Freemyer is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Big Sky Conferences.
(ed. note: this post was originally scheduled for publication on Friday 11/28, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to delay publication until today. Please accept our apologies.)
In the early going this season in the Big Sky, there are only four teams with less than three losses. Two of them are preseason favorites proving themselves and the others are teams picked near the bottom of the conference but have surprised.
Portland State was the preseason favorite in the Big Sky, and they are showing everyone why that is. The Vikings are 4-0 on the season, with wins over quality opponents including a 76-75 win over Cal State Fullerton. Senior guard Jeremiah Dominguez is scoring 14 points per game, an average helped by a 24 point effort in PSU’s opener at Rice.
WYN2K. The Big Sky is a league where what you see is typically what you get. It consistently rates in the lower teens in the computer rankings, and its record vs. OOC opponents the last three years is 109-173 (.387), but make no mistake, this is a one-bid conference every year. A typical Big Sky year goes something like this – its league champion is a team that didn’t win it the year prior (only one repeat champion in the last 13 yrs – Montana – 2005 & 2006), it usually gets an NCAA seed in the range of #13-#15, and its NCAA stay is typically short-lived (3-23 in the 64/65 team era, .115). Every 6-8 yrs, a Big Sky team will pull an upset and win one NCAA game. Stir, mix and repeat. This high-scoring league (#3 nationally at 74.5 ppg) is characterized by top-heaviness where several teams have mid-level D1 profiles, while the bottom teams are often very bad (ranking in the bottom fifty teams nationally).
Predicted Champion. Montana (#14 seed NCAA). We’re going with the media pick of Montana here. The Grizzlies return four starters from a 10-6 team, including quality big men Andrew Strait (#43 nationally in eFG%, 61.1%) and Jordan Hasquet, both of whom were all-conference performers last year. They also bring back last year’s Big Sky ROY, guard Cameron Rundles, who shot a ridiculous 47.8% from three last year. One area of concern is that the Grizzlies give up a whopping 42.1% against the three-ball (negating Rundles’ effectiveness!) last year. Nevertheless, with a solid inside/outside game, a little better three-point defense, and the experience garnered in Montana’s back-to-back NCAA appearances in 2005 and 2006, we feel that Montana is the team to beat.
Others Considered. This is not to say that we think Montana will run away with the title, because Weber St. is in good position to defend its tournament crown. They lost their best player and conference POY David Patten to graduation, but they return a solid complement of players, including seven of their top nine scorers and three starters from last season. All-conference guard Juan Pablo Silveira runs the show for a very good shooting team (#34 nationally in eFG%, 53.8%), both from two (52.1%) and three (38.7%). Our only concern with this squad is their apparent lack of experienced size, an area where Montana should have an advantage. Portland St. is another team that could make a run at the conference crown with a roster that returns three starters (including the superb backcourt of Dupree Lucas and Deonte Huff) from a 9-7 team that gave Weber St. all itwanted in the semis of last year’s conference tourney (losing by three). Last year’s regular season co-champ Northern Arizona is set to take a step back with the loss of its top three scorers, all of which were all-conference selections last year. Still, the Lumberjacks have an excellent coach in Mike Adras and they have made the last three conference tournament finals, so they can’t completely be counted out.
Games to Watch. The key games to watch will be the home-and-homes between the three primary contenders listed above – Montana, Weber St., and Portland St. Gotta love conferences with true round robins.
Weber St. @ Montana (01.20.08) ESPN FC & Montana @ Weber St. (02.21.08)
Montana @ Portland St. (01.31.08) & Portland St. @ Montana (03.01.08)
Portland St. @ Weber St. (01.10.08) & Weber St. @ Portland St. (02.16.07)
Big Sky Championship Game (03.12.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. The Big Sky plays a steady diet of Pac-10 and Big 10 teams in addition to several strong mid-majors, and this year is no different. Last year the league went 3-21 against BCS teams, with Northern Arizona (defeated Arizona St. 75-71), Montana (defeated Minnesota 72-65), and Portland St. (defeated Arizona St. 71-67) pulling the victories. Some of this year’s best opportunities:
Portland St. @ UCLA (11.09.07)
Sacramento St. @ Kansas St. (11.09.07)
Montana @ Gonzaga (11.11.07)
Northern Arizona @ Arizona (11.13.07)
Northern Arizona @ Kansas (11.21.07)
Montana @ Washington St. (11.23.07)
Weber St. @ Illinois (12.01.07)
Weber St. @ BYU (12.05.07)
Sacramento St. @ Marquette (12.15.07)
Montana St. @ Arizona St. (12.18.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. None. 23 years, 23 bids.
Neat-o Stat. Eastern Washington’sRodney Stuckey (the 15th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft) was probably the best player to have ever played in the Big Sky conference, despite only playing at EWU for two seasons. He won the conference ROY and POY in 2006, becoming the first player to ever do so in the same year. Yet, while his numbers were sick last year (24.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.4 spg, incl. nine 30+ pt games), there is some question about his leadership abilities, as his team was mediocre throughout his tenure there (26-29) and EWU didn’t even make the Big Sky conference tourney in 2007 (the top six conference teams make the tourney).
64/65-Team Era. As stated above, the Big Sky is 3-23 (.115) during this era, with each of the three wins spaced out somewhat evenly – 1995 (#14 Weber St. defeated #3 Michigan St. 79-72), 1999 (#14 Weber St. defeated #3 UNC 76-74), and 2006 (#12 Montana defeated #5 Nevada 87-79). Both Weber St. teams were close to reaching the Sweet 16 (losing by two to #6 Georgetown in 1995 and by eight in OT to #6 Florida in 1999), but no Big Sky team has reached that goal in the 64/65 team era. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Montana in 2006, the general rule has been that the Big Sky representative has gotten ripped by an average of 18.0 points in the last six appearances. But why focus on the negative? We couldn’t find any footage of probably the Big Sky’s greatest moment – Harold “The Show” Arceneaux carrying Weber St. to victory over UNC in 1999, but we instead found this clip of a Rex Chapman clone named Kral French who played for Montana St. back in the 80s throwing down some of the most disgusting dunks you’ll see from a white guy.
Final Thought. We have to admit we don’t know much about the Big Sky other than its location in the lonely expanse between the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains. But our mind’s eye suggests that places such as Dahlberg Arena (Montana), the Dee Events Center (Weber St.) and Worthington Arena (Montana St.) would be no fun for many visiting teams to play in. The word “pit” comes to mind. A quick review of 2007 records shows that those three teams were 32-13 at home last year. Yeah, just as we thought. Maybe that’s why no BCS teams visit those arenas.