Championship Fortnight continues with the last five conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Big Sky, Big West, Sun Belt and WAC.
Dates: March 13-15 Site: At regular-season champion (Weber State)
What to expect: About half the league could win the Big Sky’s automatic bid this year. Every team in the conference suffered at least six losses, led by regular season champion Weber State at 14-6. In an odd twist, only seven of the league’s 11 teams participate in the conference tournament. Montana, last year’s representative in the NCAA Tournament, along with Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado pose the biggest threats. But don’t expect too much from the Big Sky’s team in the Big Dance. The First Four in Dayton and an early exit seem in order.
Favorite:Weber State. Yes, I’m still making the Wildcats the favorite despite stumbling down the stretch. They lost two of their last three games, and four of their last seven. Yikes. But with the parity in this conference — every other team had at least eight league losses — the home court advantage here makes Weber State the favorite. The Wildcats lost just one home game in league play.
Rarely had it been as fun to be a Colorado State basketball fan as it was in 2013. The Rams won 26 games a season ago, including their first in the NCAA Tournament since 1989, and Moby Arena transformed into one of the most impenetrable – and unlikely — home fortresses in all of college basketball. With Fort Collins rallying behind them, CSU sold out three consecutive home games for the first time in program history, and despite a decisive loss in the round of 32 to eventual champion Louisville, the program may never have posted a finer season. Fun times, indeed. But for all the fanfare surrounding that team, my visit to peek in on this year’s team felt doomed to banality from the start. The state of Colorado has never exactly been a haven for college basketball, and with Larry Eustachy now guiding Colorado State through a rebuilding season after that banner 2012-13 campaign, things figured to be pretty quiet in Fort Collins.
The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night
And they were. Moby Arena was easily less than half-full for a visit from Boise State on Tuesday night, and a steady onslaught of Broncos’ three-pointers prevented the sparse crowd (and the Rams) from ever feeling a part of this game. While I could envision 9,000 fans fleeing the cold winter nights for the comfort of Moby’s Ram-green seats, the apathy of the scene stood in stark contrast to the home floor that we witnessed in Fort Collins a season ago. In all but the most basketball-crazed regions of the country, it’s an expected drop-off in support when 26-9 transforms into 14-13, which is where the Rams find themselves after Boise rolled to a 12-point victory. This doesn’t mean Colorado State – and its fan base – won’t be back in the near future (Larry Eustachy has proven more than capable of building a program), but here in 2014, Fort Collins has slipped off the college basketball radar.
The Injury to Will Cherry – Cherry was the runaway favorite for Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, and one of the best perimeter defensive players in the country. However, he will miss the start of the year with a broken foot. The most likely scenario is that he misses the non-conference portion of the schedule and returns for conference play. However, nobody is sure if he will be 100%, and there has even been a little talk that he could redshirt if he can’t come back fully healthy this year. With Cherry, Montana is the favorite. Without him, the conference race is wide open.
Change is Everywhere – There are two new teams in the Big Sky, as North Dakota and Southern Utah join the fray. This brings the total number of teams to 11, and with each team playing everyone else twice, everyone will be playing 20 conference games. There will also be an increase from six teams in the Big Sky Tournament to seven teams this season. Three new coaches enter the league. Changes are all around (and more on them later).
Kareem Jamar Will Have To Step In As Will Cherry Recovers From Injury. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf)
Life Without Damian Lillard – Lillard was the best player to come out of the conference in a long-time, as he was the sixth pick in the NBA Draft and arguably the best college point guard in America last season. Now, Weber State must move on. Either Jordan Richardson or Gelaun Wheelwright will step into the starting lineup, and they have big shoes to fill. They will need multiple people to step up and perform, and they will have the personnel to do it.
Weber State and Montana Reign Again – Heading into last year, these two teams were the media and coaches top two choices. Heading into this season, it will be more of the same. Simply put, they are the most talented and deepest teams in the conference, and they have continuity on the coaching staff. With the way they are recruiting, it won’t be a surprise if the two teams stay in the top two for a long while to come.
Everybody is assuming that Weber State and Montana will have a rematch in the conference championship game, but don’t be so sure about that. Portland State has the offensive talent to hang with the Wildcats on a neutral court, and Eastern Washington has given Montana some competitive games (those two teams are the favorites to advance past the quarterfinals).
That said, it would be a surprise if it is not Weber State and Montana in a rematch on Wednesday night. They have been the two best teams in the Big Sky all season, have the two best players in the conference, and have the best talent. It would be a great rematch, as each has won convincingly on their home court.
However, I think Weber State will reverse what happened last week, when Montana beat them to clinch the regular season championship. Nobody talked about this, but Weber State played their worst game of the season, and they were within five points late in the second half. They can’t shoot that poorly again, and I have to think that Damian Lillard will show why he has been the best player in the conference all year long. Look for a classic title game, with Weber State coming in and shocking the faithful at Dahlberg Arena to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Big Sky Awards
Player of the Year: Damian Lillard (Weber State) – There is some talk that Cherry should get the award, or that they should split it, but I still like Lillard as the best player in the conference all season. He carried them early on in the year and has been outstanding all year. He is the best PG in America, and has had the best all-around season.
Simply Put, Weber State's Damian Lillard Has Been One Of The Country's Best This Season (AP)
Defensive Player of the Year: Will Cherry (Montana) – This is an easy choice, as Cherry is sixth in the nation in steals and already fifth in Big Sky history in that category (he has one season of eligibility left). He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and the one guy in the conference as likely to change the game on the defensive end as he is on the offensive end.
Newcomer of the Year: Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State) – He has some work to do on his game (namely that he needs to shoot the ball better), but he has been everything Brian Katz could have hoped for and then some.
Freshman of the Year: Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State) – There are arguments to be made for James Douglas of Northern Arizona or Tevin Svihovec of UNC, but I think Garrity is the guy here. He has stepped in and been the primary ballhandler and facilitator from day one for the Hornets. He could lead the Big Sky in assists every year of his career.
Coach of the Year: Wayne Tinkle (Montana) – There could certainly be an argument made for Deane Martin, who changed the culture around at ISU this year, but I would give the award to Tinkle. This is a team that lost the best defensive player in the conference, and came back to be even better defensively. He had a relatively young team, and surpassed already high expectations.
Montana (23-6, 15-1) – They earned this spot, having won 12 straight games and 18 of 19. After playing second fiddle in people’s minds all season long, they enter the conference tournament as the favorite, by virtue of their win over Weber State on Tuesday night. They are one of Wayne Tinkle’s best offensive teams, and they have a multitude of guys that can step up and hurt you offensively. Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar looked like the best guard duo in the Big Sky to close the regular season.
Montana Point Guard Will Cherry and Coach Wayne Tinkle Has Been A Winning Combo This Season
Weber State (23-5, 14-2) – They spent almost the entire season at the top of everyone’s radar, but they came up short in the biggest game of the year. Damian Lillard is an excellent player, but he has struggled in some of their biggest games this season. Look for them to come out strong in the conference tournament, because they know they have some unfinished business. In most years, 14-2 would win you the Big Sky, but this was not most years.
Portland State (16-13, 10-6) – Quietly they are playing very good basketball, having won six straight conference games. Charles Odum is playing at a very high level, and is matched only by Lillard in his scoring prowess. He gets to the line often, and shoots a very high percentage. He forms a nice duo with Chehales Tapscott, the best rebounder in the conference and perhaps the most versatile player. They are going to be a tough out.
Eastern Washington (14-16, 8-8) – They have had an up and down season, but end the year about where everyone predicted, in fourth place in the conference. On paper, they have the talent to give someone an interesting game in the tournament, but it is just a matter of not making mental mistakes. Cliff Colimon has ended the year strong, and has shown himself to be one of the best PGs in the conference.
Idaho State (9-20, 7-9) – They are the surprise of the conference, as they are a team that everyone predicted to finish in the Big Sky cellar, yet they are in fifth place and almost hosted a conference tournament game. Deane Martin should get consideration for Coach of the Year, and should have already had his interim tag removed. It will be an upset if they win a conference tournament game, but they have already surpassed expectations.
Northern Colorado (9-19, 5-11) –They didn’t get as many wins as they would have liked, but they showed flashes of the potential that should make them a top 4 team next season. They lost one senior this year, and they will have no seniors next season. They are balanced and have a lot of different players that should make the leap. They will be fine.
If There Is One Team To Crash The Anticipated Rematch, Charles Odum and Portland State Might Be It (AP)
Sacramento State (10-18, 5-11) – They didn’t get to their goal of .500, but they made baby steps toward becoming a solid Big Sky team. They return almost everyone next year, and should have one of the best PGs in the league in Dylan Garrity. At the very least, next year should be Sac State’s best year in a while.
Montana State (12-16, 7-9) – It is hard to classify this year as anything but disappointing. They started the conference season at 6-2, and had the look of a top 3 tournament team. Next thing you know, they lose eight straight games and sneak into the tournament as the six seed. They dealt with a lot of off-the-court issues, including the off-court injury to Xavier Blount, which did a lot to derail their season.
Weber State and Montana tied again – These are the two teams that have been at the top of the conference from the beginning, so it is not surprise that they are both at the top of the conference now. As of this writing, they both stand at 8-1, and don’t appear to have any serious contenders. This will be one of the best conference races in the country.
Damian Lillard (1) and Weber State Are Still The Favorites, But Will Cherry (5) and Montana Are Closing In Fast (AP)
Idaho State becomes a conference tournament contender – All along this season, Idaho State was seen as a team that would probably finish last in the Big Sky, and nothing through the first two months of the year changed that perception. However, they have all of sudden won three straight games, including handing Weber State their only loss. They are brimming with confidence, and a team that nobody else wants to face, which would have been shocking to say one month ago.
Former NAU coach Mike Adras under fire – In December, long-time Northern Arizona head coach Mike Adras abruptly resigned, and there was not a lot said about it officially. There were rumors that he may not have treated his players the best, but I never expected what was put out in the AZ Daily Sun last week. He is accused of breaking multiple NCAA rules, including making his practices too long, and making his players lie about it. Suffice to say, the NAU program is reeling a bit right now.
Weber State (16-4, 8-1) – I gave a lot of thought to putting Montana first, but it was not long ago that Weber State soundly beat them. Damian Lillard is still leading the country in scoring, but his lead is growing more tenuous. They are still battling injury problems, as starting forward Frank Otis is out for the year. It is a bit easy to nitpick, but they are still 8-1 and the favorite. Read the rest of this entry »
Weber State gets some players back:Kyle Bullinger was a first-team all conference player last year, and Frank Otis was a starter after transferring from SMU. However, both players got hurt a few weeks ago, and missed significant time. For the most part, the Wildcats were still fine, mostly thanks to the play of “Fly Guy” Damian Lillard. However, these two returned to action last week, and that makes WSU even more dangerous.
Round One of Weber State/Montana goes to Wildcats: These are the two best teams in the Big Sky this year, which means there is a good chance they will meet three times. In the first matchup, Weber State took control of the game and control of the conference, beating Montana by 16. It was really a fantastic win, and clearly puts Weber State a head above everyone else in the conference right now.
The best comeback of the year: With 11:21 to play on 1/14, Idaho State trailed Sacramento State, 54-32. With two minutes to play, they were down by 10. With 12 seconds to play, they were down by three. But then, after a Kenny McGowen four-point play, they miraculously won the game on the road. For a team that has been struggling for a few years, this is a win for them to savor. For Sacramento State, I’m not sure they can recover from that and still have a realistic shot at the Big Sky tournament.
Who's The Best Team In The Big Sky? Damian Lillard (ball) and Weber State Answered That Question After Its Impressive Win Over Montana
Weber State (15-3, 7-0) – There are two good signs for the Wildcats and bad signs for the rest of the conference. One, WSU has been impossible to beat at home this year, as they possess an 11-0 home mark. Two, the winner of the Big Sky regular season hosts the conference tournament. As of now, it would be foolish to predict that that team will be anyone other than the Wildcats. They are the best team in the Big Sky right now without question. Read the rest of this entry »
Northern Arizona Head Coach Mike Adras Resigns – This was a bit of a shocker when it happened, as Adras seemed to be well regarded by the fans and has a long, solid track record for the Lumberjacks. But all of a sudden, in his 13th year as head coach, he was out. The school’s press release said he left to “pursue other opportunities,” while many rumblings said it was more of a forced resignation. As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it is not something we will likely know.
Idaho State Head Coach Joe O’Brien Resigns – This one you could see coming, though it was still a bit of a shock to have a second Big Sky coach resign in the middle of the year. O’Brien was in the final year of his contract, and it seemed clear that he needed to win or he might have been looking for other employment at the end of the year. With the Bengals sitting at 2-8, he decided to resign now, and give someone else (assistant coach Deane Martin) a chance to be the head man. From all accounts O’Brien was a very nice guy, he just was not able to get the job done in Pocatello. Here’s hoping he lands on his feet.
Weber State Misses Opportunities – Early in the season, especially after the Wildcats beat Utah State, there was talk that they might have a small chance at an at-large bid if they were not able to win the Big Sky. Unfortunately, that is no longer on the table, as losses to St. Mary’s, BYU, and Cal (the latter two being blowouts) have blown any chance of that. The last bracketology by Joe Lunardi projected Weber State as a No. 16 seed, as they were not able to secure the key non-conference victories they would have liked (in their defense, they are battling injury problems). So once again, the Big Sky will certainly be a one-bid league.
What Team Is The Top Challenger for Weber State? It Could Very Well Be Will Cherry and Montana. (AP)
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.
Weber State Starts Hot– Weber State was projected as the team to beat before the season, and they have done nothing to change that perception. The biggest win was a home victory over in-state rival Utah State, which is a start to get them on the map nationally (more on that later). Star player Damian Lillard has quelled any concerns that his injury last year might longer, as he has looked as explosive as ever. The Wildcats are getting great guard play, but they need some more contributions from the frontcourt.
Weber State and Lillard Might Have an Outside Shot at a Bid.
The League of Moral Victories – The Big Sky has played a lot of good teams well this year, but has come up short of any signature victories. Consider the following losses – Eastern Washington lost at Gonzaga and Oregon (and led in the second half in both games), Montana State lost by six at Arizona State (though they did beat Utah), Idaho State lost by four at Oklahoma, and Sacramento State lost by 11 at Washington State (but led much of the second half). Unfortunately, national respect is earned by real victories; moral victories need not apply.
Northern Colorado Struggles On The Road: Perhaps no team in the Big Sky has had a tougher schedule to begin the year, and it has showed. The Bears started the year with a tight home loss to New Mexico State, got blown out on at Wyoming, and lost to Northern Iowa. (At the time of this being written, the game against Iowa State had not been played). They are clearly talented, but they are very young. Some Bears fans thought the momentum from last season would carry over to a top three finish, but that seems unlikely.
Power Rankings (records as of Tuesday, November 22)
The Return of Damian Lillard – Three years ago, Lillard was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year. Two years ago, he was the Big Sky Player of the Year. Last year, he was the Preseason Player of the Year and his team, Weber State, was the pick to win the Conference. Then, he broke his foot in the ninth game of the year, and the Wildcats finished third. Due to some smart scheduling tactics, Lillard was granted a medical redshirt and will be a junior this season. He says he is one hundred percent healthy, and if that is true, Weber State is the easy favorite to win the Big Sky.
Weber State's Damian Lillard Is The Toast of the Big Sky. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Beginning of the Jim Hayford Era For Eastern Washington – Out is Kirk Earlywine, who put together four bad seasons in Cheney, finishing with a 42-78 record. In is Jim Hayford, who had been extremely successful at Division III Whitworth University, where he had a 217-57 record. Earlywine did not leave the cupboard bare (even with would-be top returner Glen Dean transferring to Utah), and a top three finish is possible for the Eagles. Hayford has also showed early recruiting prowess, getting Collin Chiverton to keep his commitment to EWU.
How Does Northern Colorado Build on Momentum? – 2007 was Northern Colorado’s first season in the Big Sky, and they finished a sparkling 4-24 (with a 2-14 conference record). Last season, BJ Hill continued the impressive turnaround begun by previous head coach Tad Boyle (now with Colorado), leading the Bears to their first ever NCAA Tournament berth, where they lost to San Diego State. However, nobody in the conference was hit harder than UNC by graduation, most notably losing Player of the Year DevonBeitzel. Hill brought in a solid recruiting class, and he will need guys to step up early. The Bears could be picked as low as seventh in the conference this year, but anything in the top five would keep the program’s momentum going strong.
Wide Open Race in the Middle – Weber State and Montana are the prohibitive favorites to win the Conference, but the race really opens up after those two. If you ask five different people who will finish third in the Big Sky, you will get five different answers. That will add up to a lot of competitive ballgames, as the balance in the conference is strong. Anyone is capable of beating anyone else on a given night.