They say that all good things must come to an end, and so is the case for my 17-day journey through college basketball’s Western lands. Large cities and small towns alike took turns as temporary homes, while the miles of passing scenery morphed from desert to snowy mountains and back to desert again, with plenty of change in between. The whirlwind ride reinforced the breadth of variety in the towns, arenas, and fan bases that stand behind Divison I’s basketball programs — only further mythologizing the notion of a “typical college town.” They make you work out West (note to future college basketball road trippers: the Heartland will be far kinder to your car’s odometer), but the payoff was worth every exhausting mile. By the numbers and some personal favorites, here’s the story of my trip.
Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It’s Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops
#rushthetrip, By The Numbers
OT Games: 3
Miles Driven: 5,476
Distance from Tucson, AZ, to Spokane, WA: 1,494 miles
Tickets Received: 2
Biggest Arena: BYU (capacity of 20,900, sixth in D-I)
Smallest Arena: Sacramento State (capacity of 1,200, 348th in D-I)
Most Points (Individual): Stephen Madison, 42 (Idaho)
Smallest Margin Of Victory: 1, Boise State over New Mexico
Largest Margin Of Victory: 15, Gonzaga over Pepperdine
Best Team (by KenPom ranking): Arizona (#1)
Worst Team (by KenPom ranking): Southern Utah (#351)
Last Thursday night, I was able to see the second best team in the country play – on their famed, raucous home floor, no less. Monday night I had a date with the second worst team in all the land, and we met up in the fourth smallest gymnasium in Division-1. This Southern Utah-Sacramento State matchup did stand out from all others on my itinerary (and probably not in the most flattering of ways), but games like this one cut to the core of why this trip exists. On their own, small-conference programs rarely find the spotlight (although Sacramento State can tell you that when they do, it’s kind of fun…), but college basketball would not be the same without them. The Tournament wouldn’t be the Tournament without 1991 Richmond, 2001 Hampton, or 2013 Florida Gulf Coast; consider college hoops without its flagship event, and the sport would certainly need some redefining.
Welcome To The Hornet’s Nest, Home Of Sacramento State And, At Least For The First Night Of February, Full-Court Buzzer Beaters
My focus typically lies with the home team when I’m visiting a new venue, but the host Hornets had to share my attention with their visitors from Southern Utah last night. Yes, Rush the Court is fast becoming the Thunderbird Times, but don’t pretend that you could avert your eyes from a train-wreck in progress, either. Nick Robinson’s team entered Monday night with a Ken Pom ranking of 350 (out of 351), still seeking their first D-I victory of the season. When #351 Grambling snapped a 45-game D-I losing streak midway through the action in Sacramento, Southern Utah was suddenly facing a must-win if they sought to avoid the true basement of the rankings.
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.
Washington State returns four players who were part of the rotation last year, highlighted by Brock Motum – a preseason candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year – but also extending down to a guard that is back for his senior season after leading the team in minutes per game, a sophomore shooting guard primed to build off a solid freshman campaign, and yet another guard who will probably enjoy a similar role to what he saw last year. We’ll go through all of those guys below, in order of last year’s scoring totals.
Brock Motum Will Be The Key To Any Cougar Success In 2012-13
Brock Motum, Senior, Forward (18.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 0.4 BPG) – After a quiet first two seasons at Washington State, Motum exploded onto the scene in 2012-13. The junior forward took on the minutes left by departing senior DeAngelo Casto, and he showed the Cougar coaching staff immediately what he could do with them. From the very beginning of the year, he introduced a new style of game to the team’s offense. Motum led the team in scoring in the Cougars’ first two games, dropping 17 in a nationally televised contest at Gonzaga, and 23 in their second game against Sacramento State. He took on a “point-center” type role, one where the big man could handle the ball up top and act as a triple threat against opponents. His ability to drive and hit a pull-up jumper made him one of the toughest forwards to defend in the Pac-12, evident by his 18.0 PPG, the conference’s best. Not only a threat to score, but also a force on the glass, Motum pulled down a very respectable 6.4 RPG. Those two feats combined earned him the title of “Most Improved Player” in the Pac-12. Some of Motum’s critics will say he took a lot of defenses by surprise last season, but the truth is, the Cougars were just a tough team to defend. With Faisal Aden and Reggie Moore able to score the ball consistently, Motum was bound to get a few extra looks a game. And he took advantage, making him one of the deadliest players in the league.
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.
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.
Jason Spencer is the RTC correspondent for the Big Sky. In addition to his tireless contributions for RTC, Jason is a screenwriter whose pursuits can be followed at the home of Blindly Driven Entertainment. [ed. note: this post was written prior to the Nov. 26-28 games]
A Look Back
This just in, Damian Lillard is a “BEAST!” Of course, if you follow the conference, you knew that already. Lillard has shown thus far in this young season that the MVP award is his to lose. In the first four games he is averaging 23 points per game. We will just let that sink in for all upcoming Weber State opponents.
Are they for real? Montana State has rattled off five straight wins, but the question remains, is it a fluke? Well, they will get their chance to prove it right away. They have upcoming games against Iowa State, Illinois State, UCLA, and they kick off the conference season vs. Weber State. By Christmas we will know whether Bobcat fans are getting something nice or coal in their stockings.
Defense wins championships. If that saying holds true, then Montana should feel good about their team. On 11/22 the Grizzlies held Idaho to 12% shooting. Yes that’s right; theVandals shot 6-50 from the field. Somewhere, coach Wayne Tinkle is smiling.
1. Weber State: (2-2)
Recent Games: 77-65 Loss at Utah State 11/13, 97-72 Win vs. Colorado Christian 11/16, 90-75 Loss at Utah 11/20, 86-54 Win at Alaska Anchorage 11/25
Upcoming Games: Great Alaska Shootout second and third rounds 11/26 and 11/27, vs. Seattle 12/4
The Wildcats debut at the top spot despite going 2-2 in their first four games. It’s hard to argue with having the two-time defending regular season champs and a team returning the reigning league MVP as the top team here. Last week they kept it respectable on the road against Utah and really should have beaten Utah State on the road. But down the stretch the crazy Aggie fans got the best of their in-state rival. Damian Lillard picked up where he left off last year averaging 23 points per game through the first four games. NBA scouts have already started to salivate at the thought of Lillard in an NBA uniform. NBADraft.net has him as a late first round pick in the 2012 Draft. Look for Lillard and the Wildcats to make some noise in the Great Alaska Shootout on Thanksgiving weekend.
2. Northern Arizona: (3-2)
Recent Games: 78-64 Loss at Iowa State 11/12, 74-70 Loss at Creighton 11/14, 74-46 Win vs. Alabama State 11/16, 97-47 vs. Southwestern Arizona 11/19, 74-66 Win at Kennesaw State 11/22
Upcoming Games: at Pepperdine 11/28, at Cal State Bakersfield 11/30, vs. Bethany 12/4, vs. Texas-Pan American 12/8
If there was a 1a and a 1b in the Power Rankings then the Lumberjacks would be that 1b. This team is loaded with experience. Head coach Mike Adras brings back four starters from last year’s 14-14 squad. They nearly took down Creighton on the road, which is no easy feat by the way. Then they took care of business their last three, topped off with a big road win at Kennesaw State. With all the returning experience and the past coaching success of coach Adras, the Lumberjacks will be nipping at Weber State’s heels all year long.
3. Northern Colorado: (2-2)
Recent Games: 93-52 Wins vs. Tabor 11/12, 67-53 Win vs. Wyoming 11/16, 93-70 Loss at Arizona 11/21, 87-84 Loss at Santa Clara 11/23
Upcoming Games: Las Vegas Invitational 11/26 and 11/27, vs. Black Hills State 12/4
With the best season in school history in the rearview mirror, the Bears are looking to capitalize on their program’s momentum. First-year coach B.J. Hill takes over for the departed Tad Boyle who left for Colorado. Don’t look for this team to miss a beat since Hill served for four years under Boyle before taking over this year. However this team lives and dies by Devin Beitzel. He had a solid 20 points in a close loss at Santa Clara but overall is shooting 20.8% from three point range. For the Bears to challenge for a conference title, Beitzel has got to find his stroke.
4. Montana State: (5-1)
Recent Games: 77-59 Loss at Hawaii 11/13, 65-58 Win vs. Central Michigan 11/14, 80-76 Win vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/15, 92-67 Win vs. Minot State 11/19, 73-57 Win vs. Cal Poly 11/21, 76-59 Win vs. San Francisco 11/24
Upcoming Games: at Iowa State 11/27, at Seattle 11/29, at Illinois State 12/4, vs. Johnson and Wales 12/10
If coach Brad Huse is reading these Power Rankings, feel free to use it as bulletin board material. The “no respect” card should be played after the Bobcats rattled off five wins in a row. Yet this team is still ranked fourth. For them to climb up the rankings they must show they are for real. Beating Big 12 member Iowa State on 11/27 would be a start. The one-two punch of Bobby Howard and Erik Rush is going to be something the rest of the league better take notice of come conference play.
5. Montana: (2-2)
Recent Games: 81-66 Loss at Nevada 11/13, 80-71 Loss at Utah 11/17, 78-51 Win vs. Montana Tech 11/19, 75-33 Win vs. Idaho 11/22
Upcoming Games: vs. Cal State Fullerton 11/30, vs. Portland 12/3, at UCLA 12/5, vs. Great Falls 12/9
The Grizzlies are trying to capitalize on their amazing run through the Big Sky Conference Tournament last year. They of course are also trying to replace Anthony Johnson, the catalyst of their past success. So far, center Brian Qvale has been everything they thought he would be as a senior. With Will Cherry showing his freshman campaign was no fluke, this team will once again have something to say come conference tournament time.
6. Portland State: (3-1)
Recent Games: 83-81 Win vs. Pepperdine 11/12, 69-53 Loss at SMU 11/19, 102-98 Win vs. Lamar 11/20, 69-58 Win vs. UC Riverside 11/21
Upcoming Games: vs. Seattle 12/1, at Oregon 12/5, vs. George Fox 12/9
Don’t tell these guys that they got nothing to play for. Head coach Tyler Geving has his team playing with a chip on their shoulder this year. The Vikings are not eligible for the postseason, including the Big Sky Conference Tournament. This year they will have to play the role as spoiler, and it’s beginning to look like that might happen more often than others want. The Vikings have a balanced attack with four players averaging in double figures with a fifth close to ten points per game. The trouble for upcoming opponents will be who do they guard?
7. Eastern Washington: (1-3)
Recent Games: 67-60 Loss vs. San Jose State 11/12, 98-72 Loss at Washington 11/16, 96-87 Win vs. Northwest Washington 11/18, 83-54 Loss at Boise State 11/24
Upcoming Games: vs. Idaho 11/27, at Gonzaga 11/30, vs. New Hope Christian 12/4
Head coach Kirk Earlywine has the youngest team in the conference this year. Not one senior is on this year’s roster. This has not stopped the young Eagles from showing lots of promise. The question is will this be the year that the youngsters grow up? Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year Glen Dean has been sidelined thus far with a stress fracture and remains day-to-day. Having Dean back in the lineup is most certainly the key to the Eagles season.
8. Idaho State: (1-3)
Recent Games: 88-80 Loss at Colorado 11/12, 90-42 Loss at Arizona 11/14, 78-68 Win vs. Great Falls 11/19, 79-47 Loss at South Dakota State 11/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Montana Tech 11/29, at Iowa 12/4, at Cal State Bakersfield 12/7
The first question that comes to mind if you are an opposing coach of Idaho State would be where is Broderick Gilchrest? The man went unconscious at Colorado for a career high 39 points. The following game he was held to four points on one-of-nine shooting from the field at Arizona. As the conference season gets underway, coach Joe O’Brien will have to find a way to get Gilchrest open looks. As for the schedule, it doesn’t get any easier. Six of their next eight games are on the road.
9. Sacramento State: (1-3)
Recent Games: 80-78 Loss vs. Cal State Bakersfield 11/14, 84-55 Win vs. Bethany 11/16, 64-60 Loss at North Dakota 11/19, 61-54 Loss vs. UC Davis 11/23
Upcoming Games: vs. Cal Poly 11/27, at Washington State 11/30, at Utah Valley 12/4, at Loyola Marymount 12/7, vs. William Jessup 12/10
This has to be the most encouraging last place conference team in the nation. Brian Katz knew what he was getting into when he took over the Hornets coaching job. In the last three seasons this team has won a total of fifteen games, with last year contributing nine of those. Katz has only three players returning from last year that contributed. But as with any rebuilding project, to get over the hump, you’ve got to learn how to win close games. In their three losses, they have lost by a total of thirteen points. Once this team learns how to win the close ones, they could surprise some people.
A Look Ahead
Northern Colorado is going to Vegas, baby! The Las Vegas Invitational to be exact. The Bears will take on Valparaiso on 11/26 and either Bethune-Cookman or Texas A&M Corpus Christi on 11/27. This tournament includes such national powers such as Kansas and Arizona. It should be a great experience and atmosphere for B.J. Hill’s club.
Expansion talk! The Big Sky is not waiting on the big boys to make a move. Being proactive, earlier this month the league added North Dakota and Southern Utah as full members. The move puts the league at eleven teams in basketball. Who will be the twelfth? Rumor has it South Dakota is interested.
BracketBusters will feature all nine members of the Big Sky Conference. Fans can watch their favorite Big Sky team on one of the ESPN family of networks 2/18-2/20. This is the first time that all members of the conference will participate in a given year.
The “Human Highlight Film” Award
Weber State’s Damian Lillard, (1) drives through the defense of Alaska Anchorage’s Casey Robinson (44) and Brandon Walker (22) during their Great Alaska Shootout NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov 25, 2010, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Is there anyone else in the league that we should give this to? We didn’t think so either. Damian Lillard, let the love fest begin! A man among boys, this 6’2 junior guard from Oakland, California has started off the season with a flurry. The reigning Big Sky Conference MVP is up to his old tricks again averaging 23 points per game through four. If it pleases the court, I would like to enter into evidence “Exhibit A” (below). After a heavy helping of threes to the face, Damian decides to take it to the hoop “nasty style” at the 1:28 mark. Is there any doubt why he wears number 1?
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.
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.
Northern Colorado (10-3/1-1/W1) Bears are for real, and will head into conference play as odds-on favorites.
Montana (10-4/1-1/W4) Frosh guard Will Cherry giving Griz a quickness charge at both ends of court.
Montana State (7-5/2-0/L1) Balanced scoring from four starters gives senior point guard Will Bynum offensive options.
Weber State (7-6/1-0/L1) Super soph Damian Lillard (19.1 PPG) has led Wildcats in scoring in nine of 13 games.
Sacramento State (6-7/1-1/W2) Hornets equal ’09 conference win total in first conference match, a 64-63 victory over Idaho State.
Portland State (5-7/1-0/L3) High octane Vikings scoring at 79-point per game clip… but giving up 81.7 PPG.
Northern Arizona (4-7/0-2/L1) Forget the record. Coach Mike Adras appears to have Jacks ready for January conference play.
Eastern Washington (4-9/0-1/L4) In search starting-quint chemistry, coach Earlywine distributes ample playing time to 10 players.
Idaho State (2-10/0-1/L6) JC newcomer 6’0 Broderick Gilchrest providing Bengals much-needed scoring boost heading into conference play (14.8 PPG).
Northern Colorado and Montana remain the only Big Sky teams to earn Mid Major Poll recognition this season. The Bears slipped one notch from last week to 23rd (87 points), while Montana nearly tripled its vote total (22), still not enough for an actual top 25 ranking. Of more significance, perhaps, is the Big Sky Conference’s improved record against Division 1 opponents. Facing a tough composite pre-season schedule against D1 competition, the Big Sky has fared well, subsequently boosting its rating against comparable mid-major conferences, and recently stepping ahead of the Big West to 17th in the USA Today Sagarin conference ratings.
HOT & NOT
HOT — The Montana State Bobcats — a pre-season pick as one of the favorites in the Big Sky — turned a 2-3 November record topsy turvy with a workmanlike 5-2 December record that included two homecourt wins in early league play and a creditable last-second 58-56 loss to Boise State in Boise. The Cats are getting remarkable balance from starters Bobby Howard (13.3 PPG), Marquis Navarre (11.6 PPG), Erik Rush (13 PPG), and Branden Johnson (10.3 PPG), while limiting opponents to 66 PPG.
NOT — The Eastern Washington Eagles (4-9) — losers of four-straight games heading into conference play — are showing signs as potential dubious owners of the Big Sky’s cellar door key. Kirk Earlywine’s Eagles lost a last-shot nail-biter to a tough 8-5 Nevada Wolfpack squad (73-30) before absorbing a 91-34 lashing from BYU that apparently damaged morale, as the Eagles’ promptly lost games against two sub-.500 opponents, Chicago State (4-7) and previously winless Jackson State (1-10). After the demoralizing loss to BYU, Earlywine said, “For the life of me, I can’t figure out what happened to our team.”
We’ve mentioned Idaho State’s brutal non-conference schedule earlier in this report, but it bears repeating in light of the Bengals’ 2-10 record with one non-conference game left before conference play resumes. At what point does a challenging pre-season schedule become demoralizing for players? And how does the endless road schedule affect their fans? The Bengals spent most of December on the road (10 games), eking out a lone road win against UMKC (68-65). One of those losses was their only conference match, a 64-63 setback at Sacramento State, while their only home game against a major college foe resulted in a 79-67 loss to Boise State. But the Bengals played tough through most of those losses. It’ll be interesting to see if the schedule makes the Bengals improved enough to be the Big Sky contender several pre-season publications predicted.
Northern Colorado’s plus-3.23 TPG turnover margin is the best Big Sky mark by a significant margin, far better than second place Montana’s plus-1.29 margin.
Montana’s limiting all opponents to an impressive 57.6 PPG, an impressive 10 PPG better than second place Northern Colorado. The Grizzlies back up that mark with a league best defensive field goal percentage average of .401.
Weber State soph guard Damian Lilliard’s 19.1 PPG average is a Big Sky best, while ISU guard-forward Demetrius Moore’s 8.3 per game rebounding mark leads the league. Portland State’s Dominic Waters’ 5.0 per game assist average is a full assist per game better than second place.
The preseason magazines hit bookshelves across the country a few weeks ago. Each year some get progressively better, others get progressively worse and some continue to be excellent (I’m talking to you Blue Ribbon). First up is Athlon Sports, which didn’t score all that well two years ago, but I promise the magazine has taken a few strides forward.
I. Covers (5 pts) -are they cool? inclusive?
The 32 covers this year are down from 34 last year, but they include a cover for Canada (as seen above) so at least they are thinking of the Canucks up north.
Coolest Cover: Duke/North Carolina. Yes, this rivalry gets enough attention as is, but it is one of few covers that is posed. Ed Davis and Kyle Singler look like they are about to kill each plus Singler looks like he is using the men’s room.
Say what? The Memphis/Arkansas cover doesn’t feature the FedEx Forum imploding. I guess without the recruits coming in next year, the Tigers aren’t that bad off.
Total points = 4
II. Ease of Use (5 pts) – how hard is it to find confs/teams?
Table of contents in the beginning is very easy to use. Plus, you can pretty much just open up the magazine and figure out where you need to go quickly as the magazine is done alphabetically first by conference then by team.
Total points = 4.5
III. Roundup (10 pts) – every mag has one – tell us something new!
10 Things to Watch is a little better than last year’s version. This one is a little more original and contained a few nuggets that surprised me: #8 about LaceDarius Dunn and his incredible lack of assists stands out.
Hoops Madness is the same old. Nothing really jumps out at me this year. The Hoops Superlatives is full of debate — Scottie Reynolds is listed as the top scorer!?!
Total points = 4.5
IV. Features (15 pts) – give us some insightful and unique storylines.
There are three main features this year–one is above-average, the next is average, and the final one is a little below average. There’s an outstanding feature on whether mid-major coaches should make the jump to a larger conference. There’s also the standard “look at what John Calipari is doing” feature and finally one that seems like it is a year late. Athlon takes a look at the trend of players going overseas.
Athlon also has The Scoop which is a collection of interviews with some of the game’s top players. Nothing too noteworthy except Washington‘s Isaiah Thomas plans to stick around Seattle for awhile.
Overall, the section is better than last year, but there is still lots of room for improvement.
Total points = 8
V. Predictions (20 pts) – how safe are their picks? do they take any chances? are they biased toward the big boys?
Athlon projects the full field of 65 as well as a preseason top 25. A rematch of one of last year’s Elite Eight games is their projected national title game (doesn’t take long to figure out which two teams they are picking in the finals).
Big Conference Bias: Only one mid-major makes their Sweet 16, but then again, they make their bracket based on their rankings with the higher seed always advancing. Butler is the only mid-major Athlon has in its top 16.
Mid-Major Watch: Athlon seems pretty high on the three teams they’ve got in the top 25: BYU, Butler, and Dayton. Major diss on Siena though. The Saints are projected as a seven seed, but get barely a blurb in the magazine. That’s a big-time negative.
All-Americans: Putting Devan Downey, Patrick Patterson, and Kyle Singler on the first team is debatable. Downey is great, but first team? Patterson may not put the numbers up needed to be a first-teamer and Kyle Singler should have an outstanding year, but put him ahead of Sherron Collins, Evan Turner, or Willie Warren? Athlon also doesn’t include any freshmen on its top three teams which is unrealistic.
Boldest Prediction: The Pac-10 receiving only three bids to the dance. Athlon has California, Washington, and UCLA going dancing. It’s going to be a really down year for Pac-10 ball, but it’s tough fathom only three teams getting in. Someone else (Arizona? Oregon State?) has to step up.
What they got right: It’s hard to argue with most of Athlon’s conference standings predictions. The SEC, Big East, and ACC stand out the most as being the most realistic.