Saturday’s flurry of bid snatching wound down out West and left us with a near-complete picture of the puzzle. Just four automatic bids remain to be earned on Selection Sunday. As we have for each of the 31 automatic qualifiers to play their way into the Dance, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets this week.
Zeke Marshall And Akron Overcame Late-Season Drama To Reach The NCAA Tournament
MAC Champion (26-6, 16-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #49/#54/#62
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +10.7
Likely NCAA Seed: #12-#13
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
Last year’s Tournament darlings, the Ohio Bobcats, saw their shot at a return bid die on Saturday night, but don’t be surprised if their conquerors put some of that MAC mojo to use again this year. The Akron Zips turned in one of the most impressive performances of the day, comprehensively picking apart a good Ohio team en route to the MAC Tournament title. A pair of late regular season losses had recently killed the bubble talk surrounding the Zips, but let’s not forget how they entered the conversation in the first place. Keith Dambrot’s club ripped off 19 straight wins between December 15th and March 2nd in what still measures up as the longest winning streak in all of college basketball this season.
Akron is as well-rounded a mid-major as you will find, but the Zips truest strength lies in a tougher-than-nails frontcourt. Demetrius Treadwell is the team’s second leading scorer at 11.4 PPG and leading rebounder at 7.9 RPG. His crafty, below-the-rim game may not be the sexiest, but it’s a great complement to the other important Zip on the interior, 7’0” Zeke Marshall. Marshall is the team’s leading scorer (13 PPG) and one of the nation’s leaders in FG percentage at 66%, but the big senior truly excels on the defensive side of the ball. He boasts the 4th best block percentage in the country (14.1%), and is, quite literally, a huge reason why Akron is one of the 20 best teams in the country in effective field goal percentage defense.
The March suspension of point guard Alex Abreu (for drug charges) momentarily shook the team, but back-to-back good wins provide Keith Dambrot with some hope that his team has moved on, however much the loss of Abreu (10.3 PPG, 6.0 APG) hurts on the floor. Freshman Carmelo Betancourt has seen his minutes rise from 10 to 26 a game since the Abreu suspension, but the youngster will certainly not be asked to replicate Abreu’s production. The Zips have won with a balanced, team approach all season long, and the “next man up” attitude should come naturally for Betancourt and others. Dont overlook that even before that 19-game surge, the Zips beat Middle Tennessee State, pounded Penn State (by 25) and took OK State to overtime. Could a MAC team crash the Big Dance for the second straight season?
A Decisive Second Half Surge Made The Cardinals Big East Tournament Champions For The Second Straight Season
Looking back at Thursday’s games in the Albuquerque regional from a Friday night perspective, my thoughts turn more to Montana, Harvard, South Dakota State, and UNLV than the teams that advanced from those first round games. We will have plenty of time to enjoy Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Baylor, and Colorado on Saturday afternoon and evening, but for right now, let’s talk about the good things that these four teams, whose seasons ended on Friday, did on Thursday and throughout the year.
After struggling through a non-conference schedule, everything came together for Montana in conference play, where they ripped off 15 wins in 16 games and then swept to the Big Sky’s automatic bid in relatively easy fashion. And on Thursday, for roughly 18 minutes, they gave Wisconsin a battle. They came out hot early, scored 18 points on the first 13 possession against a stingy Badger defense and had the numerous Grizzly fans who made the trip down to support their team dreaming of big things. There were forced turnovers, acrobatic finishes and lots of excitement created early for an undermanned team. However, once the Wisconsin defense locked down, the Grizzlies went cold and headed home early. Still, this is a program that has made three straight postseasons (including two NCAA bids) under head coach Wayne Tinkle and returns 66.3% of its scoring from this year, including talented backcourt combo Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. And clearly, Tinkle’s got the community buying into the team and is well on the way to making Montana as much a basketball school as it is a football power.
What can you say about this Harvard team? First NCAA Tournament appearance in more than 60 years, a sparkling 26-4 record and at least a piece of the regular season Ivy League title for two years running. Better still, this is a program that shows all the signs of being in it for the long haul. Head coach Tommy Amaker is building for the future here, not just taking advantage of a flash in the pan. And, perhaps best of all, this has been a truly entertaining team to watch. I saw them in person twice this season and came away feeling good about the Crimson on both occasions. Amaker loses big man Keith Wright and hyper-efficient guard Oliver McNally, but they return plenty of experienced players for a team that should be the favorite in the Ivy again next year. Sophomore Laurent Rivard is an absurdly entertaining and confident shot-maker who earned the respect of Vandy’s players and fans by knocking down three after ridiculous three in the face of excellent defense. Junior forward Kyle Casey may be a bit undersized, but he cleans the glass for Amaker and just seems to be around the ball to make plays on a regular basis. Junior point guard Brandyn Curry is one of the best assist men in the nation and a scrappy defensive playmaker, while freshman Wesley Saunders is an athletic ball of energy with loads of upside. Add in the fact that Amaker has made Harvard a legitimate destination for recruits and it appears that the Crimson are on the verge of being an every-year type of team.
South Dakota State may have been the darling of the Albuquerque Thursday. Not only did the scrappy Jackrabbits battle a clearly athletically superior Baylor team tooth and nail for 40 minutes, but their fans, supporting a team from the state of South Dakota in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, were an asset to the entire atmosphere in The Pit. Just as Baylor’s team showed up expecting to advance to the next round on the basis of their talent alone, the Bear fans strolled in from the parking lot at a leisurely rate, not even filling up their section until SDSU had run out to an early 12 point lead. Meanwhile, Jackrabbit fans made their way into the arena as early as the possibly could (the doors weren’t opened for the second session until 30 minutes before tip-off), loaded up their section and then some, and were loud and supportive throughout the game. They had plenty to cheer for as junior guard Nate Wolters led an inspired effort against one of the biggest, most athletic squads in Division I. Even after they booted away that 12-point first-half lead in a flurry of first half turnovers and seemed destined for a blowout, the Jackrabbits, fans and team alike, responded strong in the second half and at least put a good scare into the Bears. While Wolters gets most of the press, guys like sophomore reserve wing Chad White (15 points, five threes in 30 minutes), senior forward Griffan Callahan (seven points, two steals in a full 40 minutes of action), sophomore forward Jordan Dykstra (five points, three boards), junior forward Tony Fiegen (two points, five boards, five assists) and sophomore guard Brayden Carlson (nine points, five assists) deserve at least a mention, with Callahan, Fiegen and Dykstra all deserving extra props for contending with, and generally containing, the imposing Baylor frontline. In the end, it was a 27-8 record on the year for the Jackrabbits, the best in the history of the school. And with everyone but Callahan expected to return next year, South Dakota State could again claim a spot on the national stage.
Lastly, there’s UNLV, the most celebrated of the four losers on Thursday night. While Montana, Harvard and South Dakota State can all come away from their NCAA Tournament experience feeling okay about their seasons, for the Runnin’ Rebels, this is a disappointment, not solely because they were upended by a lower seed. This marks the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament loss for the proud program and sends seniors Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, and Brice Massamba off to graduation without a tournament win on their resume (fellow senior Kendall Wallace redshirted last season and was a small part of the 2008 team that beat Kent State in the first round). And, for the third consecutive year, this was a Rebel team that played its best basketball of the season in November and December and never improved as much as the other teams around them. And, perhaps most galling of all for a proud fanbase, the UNLV supporters were out-traveled and out-voiced throughout the game by Colorado fans, relative upstarts. Things need to change in Vegas next season. And the good news is, all the parts are there for the change to be made. Head coach Dave Rice will be heading into his second season as a head coach and should be able to build upon his experience this year. Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall, the first and third leading scorers on this team should return (provided Moser doesn’t do anything stupid and declare for the NBA Draft), along with plenty of other strong parts, including Division I transfers Bryce Jones and Khem Birch. Marshall will take over the leadership role for this team once and for all (a role he battled with Bellfield and Stanback over this year), and the team should be better for that. And, there is a buzz about the program that has been largely missing since the days of Jerry Tarkanian. In short, the future is bright in Las Vegas, even if the present is full of regrets over missed opportunities on Thursday.
The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.
IowaState‘s risky decision to hire Fred Hoiberghas really paid off for the Cyclones. Many programs tend to shy away from hiring beloved former players out of PR concerns in case things go south, but just one season in, Hoiberg has the full confidence of his administration as well as his fanbase.
The Creighton Bluejays aren’t bothered by Alabama‘s defensive prowess going into their opening round matchup. Creighton has pulled off wins against athletic teams in Long Beach State, Wichita State and San Diego State, but in an elimination setting, the margin of error becomes thinner.
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (9 AM), South (11 AM), Midwest (2 PM), West (4 PM). Here, Brian Otskey (@botskey) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCeastregion).
Favorite: #1 Syracuse(31-2, 17-1 Big East). Despite losing to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals, the Orange are the clear favorites and will have plenty of fans in Beantown to cheer them on, assuming they advance. SU features a transition attack that’s arguably the best in the nation, usually sparked by Dion Waiters off the bench.
Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Are The Favorites, But The Path to New Orleans Is Loaded With Tough Opponents (AP)
Should They Falter: #2 Ohio State (27-7, 13-5 Big Ten). I was tempted to slot #3 Florida State in this space but the Seminoles are too inconsistent for my liking to be a legitimate Final Four threat. Ohio State is a terrific team but not nearly as good as last year’s outfit which had Jon Diebler to bury a perimeter jumper. Even so, the Buckeyes are still capable of reaching New Orleans.
Grossly Overseeded: #11 Texas (20-13, 9-9 Big 12). This is an exaggeration because I thought the Selection Committee did a very nice job with the seeding across all regions. But I have to pick someone, right? I’ll go with the Longhorns, a team I didn’t have in my projected field of 68. Texas has four RPI top 50 wins but three of those came against teams seeded on the eighth line in this tournament. The Longhorns are 4-11 against top 100 competition, a fact that I felt should have kept them out of the Big Dance.
Grossly Underseeded: #5 Vanderbilt (24-10, 10-6 SEC). Again, this is a very minor quibble. As I said before, I thought the Committee did an admirable job seeding the teams. I had Vanderbilt pegged for a #4 seed after beating the best team in the country (Kentucky) in the SEC championship on Sunday. The Commodores won 16 games against the RPI top 100, with two of those coming against top 10 opponents either on the road (Marquette) or a neutral site (Kentucky). In fact, only one of Vandy’s five RPI top 25 wins has come at home. That’s impressive and an indicator of a team that can do some damage in this event despite its recent history of early flameouts.
As we move through Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. In this post, we have your SoCon, Ivy, NEC, Patriot, and Big Sky conference champions. Here’s what you need to know about these recent bid winners.
Southern Conference Champion (25-7, 19-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #66/#67/#69
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +8.8
Likely NCAA Seed: #13-#14
Davidson Is Back in the Dance Looking For More McKillop Magic (AP/B. Leverone)
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
First of all, let’s put this to rest immediately. Although Davidson’s record of 25-7 is nearly the same as it was in 2008 when the Wildcats came within a long three-pointer of the Final Four, this year’s team is not nearly as good as that one, led by a young Stephen Curry. But it wouldn’t be a Bob McKillop-coached team if it wasn’t dangerous, and the Wildcats are certainly that, as their mid-December upset win over likely #1 seed Kansas attests. Led by a group of sophomores and juniors who can score inside and out, Davidson likes to get out in transition and spread the floor in the halfcourt. All five starters are capable of hitting the three-ball (34% to 37%), and although the Wildcats won’t beat you that way, they use the threat of it to find easy looks inside. Whoever draws this team in its first game will have its hands full with the Davidson offense.
McKillop’s defense, however, is a bit of a different story. The Wildcats don’t turn teams over and, at least against good opponents, have a lot of trouble stopping dribble penetration. Duke dropped 82 on the Wildcats as Austin Rivers and Seth Curry had 17 points each; Vanderbilt went for 87 as Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins combined for 52 points; Wichita State had 91 in a win where Joe Ragland dropped 30 and his backcourt mate Toure’ Murray added 16 more. You get the point. Athletic scoring guards are a big problem for the Wildcats.
Given those conditions, Davidson is projected to play a #3 or #4 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Among the teams in that group, there are a few that they absolutely do not want to see under any circumstances. For example, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., would be disastrous. On the other hand, Georgetown’s Jason Clark and Martel Starks would be much more manageable. As the Wildcats have already shown against the Jayhawks once this year, they are a dangerous squad if the conditions are right. We wouldn’t bet on them pulling another first game upset this year, but keep an eye on teams built like them (high offense, no defense) for possible victims.
Ivy League Champion (26-4, 12-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #36/#38/#43
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +8.4
Likely NCAA Seed: #10-#11
Tommy Amaker Has His Harvard Team Focused on the NCAAs (US Presswire/G. Cooper)
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
Harvard basketball has been in the news a lot lately, mostly due to former player Jeremy Lin’s emergence as an NBA star point guard. But when Tommy Amaker and his team watched Penn lose to Princeton on Tuesday night, the Crimson sealed their first NCAA Tournament berth in 66 years. Not once did this team make it during Lin’s tenure, and Harvard is finally back in the Big Dance this year thanks to a terrific defense and overall efficient team. This squad challenged itself in the non-conference and won the Battle for Atlantis Tournament that included a field of Connecticut and Florida State. They also defeated St. Joseph’s and finished with a strong 12-2 record in the Ivy League with only two close losses to top competitors Princeton and Penn. Read the rest of this entry »
Montana traveled to Colorado State on Friday night in a game that did not garner much national intrigue (the Rams beat the Grizzlies, 64-58). Neither team made the NCAA Tournament last season and they will be fighting tooth and nail to make it this season. Montana is predicted second in the Big Sky heading into the season, and Colorado State is projected as the fourth best team in the Mountain West. However, the game did feature of the best young mid-major coaches in all of college basketball.
Tim Miles Has CSU Moving in the Right Direction (AP/L. Boomerang)
Colorado State is coached by Tim Miles, who at age 45 is beginning his fifth season in Fort Collins. He began his Division I coaching career at North Dakota State, where as head coach of the transitional team (they are now Division I), he took NDSU into then #12 Wisconsin and won (2006), and then into #8 Marquette and won (in 2007). He left after a 20-win season, and two years later the players he recruited went to the NCAA Tournament.
His CSU career started somewhat rocky, as the Rams went winless in his initial Mountain West campaign. They have improved every year, however, and they were a bubble team last year after going 19-13 in a Mountain West Conference that included powerhouse teams at BYU and San Diego State. He is an energetic and charismatic guy (example: I talked to him after the game and told him I went to North Dakota, a rival of NDSU. He responded with, “Did you lose a bet?”). His players enjoy playing for him, and he has a player’s style. Wes Eikmeier, CSU’s leading scorer, took a couple of questionable shots late in the game, and Miles responded by saying he was comfortable with those shots because if Eikmeier felt like he could make them, then he should take them. That’s what players love to hear. He will get Colorado State to the Tournament either this year or next year, and then larger schools could come calling.
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?
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.