Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tyler Harvey vs Mikh McKinney

Assuming that either Sacramento State or Eastern Washington win the Big Sky*, we can be pretty sure that the MVP of the league will be either Tyler Harvey (if EWU wins) or Mikh McKinney (if Sac State wins). That is just how these things go.

But, if the season ended today, regardless of whose team finishes slightly ahead of the other, who has been the better player? Or, if you had to start a team, who would you choose for this year? It's an interesting debate, because even though both are guards, they are very different players with different skillsets.

Harvey, as you likely know, is the leading scorer in the nation, at 24 points per game. It is not a fluke either... last year, he almost as good with similar usage. Since he first joined the lineup late in his freshman year, he has been a lethal shooter from downtown - he shot 43% from threes last year (on 8 attempts per game), and 49% this year (on 9 attempts per game). Those are borderline unbelievable numbers. Of course, this year he is also shooting well over 50% on twos (a big improvement from last year), and is almost automatic at the line while getting there often. Everything you want in a scorer, he has in his arsenal.

McKinney does more things well than Harvey, though he does not excel in any one area like Harvey does. It has been fun to watch him improve from year to year... he was an average guard as a sophomore, an all-conference candidate as a junior, and now, of course, one of the two best players in the conference as a senior. He is a good three-point shooter, though he doesn't necessarily inspire fear from the outside (though Weber State may agree to disagree). He is up to 41% from deep this year against all opponents. He is a good finisher at the rim, an area that has improved each of his three seasons. For the season, McKinney is shooting 54% from the floor, which is obviously fantastic for a guard. He is a better passer than Harvey, as his assist rate is fourth in the Big Sky. This year, his steal rate has also shot through the roof, and it's 11th in the country (he's averaging 2.7 steals per game).

Here's a quick and easy comparison of their numbers, weeded out to include only games against DI opponents (which is why some of the percentages may be slightly off from the paragraphs above - also, click to enlarge)):


What is the upshot of that graph? In short, Harvey is the better scorer - he is a better outside shooter with a ton more volume, and also does better at drawing fouls and getting freebies at the line. McKinney is certainly not a bad scorer in his own right, but more than anything he has a big edge in distributing the ball, and creating turnovers. Both guys take care of the ball extremely well, especially for how often they handle it (both have high usage rates).

The question on who is better, I think, comes down to personal opinion - it is easy to make a compelling case for either guy. Further each guy is suited well for his own team - the presence of Dylan Garrity as an elite shooter for Sac State allows McKinney to worry more about distributing, while the do-everything ability of Drew Brandon alongside Harvey allows him to be a great scorer.

Who would I take? If I had to choose, as of today, I think I'd take Tyler Harvey. His shooting ability just stretches defenses so much, which in a way helps his teammates offensively as much as McKinney's passing does (just in a different way). Also, I'm not sure Harvey doesn't have better distributing skills in him - he had a 26.3 Assist Rate as a freshman - only he doesn't need to do that as much because of the presence of Drew Brandon. Though McKinney's defensive chops make it tight too, I'd take Harvey and his elite scoring ability.

However, if you want to choose McKinney, I would certainly see the logic there, and I wouldn't argue strenuously. That he has made this a very legitimate debate is a testament to how good he has been.

I have put a poll on the left hand side of the page... would love to see what people think!

*There is a long way to go, obviously, but if I was a betting man and my options were either EWU/Sac State or the field, I'd take the former choice.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Billings Among Seven Bids For Big Sky Tournament

From the Billings Gazette this past weekend, Billings has reportedly made an "aggressive" offer to secure the rights to the Big Sky tournament.

As the Big Sky looks to potentially move its tournament to a neutral site which is fixed, the next question is the location. That is where Billings and other cities come in.

MetraPark marketing director Ray Massie said the city has made “an aggressive bid” to the Big Sky for hosting rights. The three-year proposal was submitted to the conference Wednesday by Visit Billings, the tourism arm of the city's Chamber of Commerce.
The cities are either bidding on the men's tournament, women's tournament, or both:

Billings is one of seven locations that have made binding proposals to host either the men’s tournament, the women’s tournament, or both. The city is competing for the men’s tournament with Missoula (in conjunction with the University of Montana), Ogden, Utah (Weber State), Flagstaff, Ariz. (Northern Arizona), Spokane/Cheney, Wash. (Eastern Washington), Greeley/Loveland, Colo. (Northern Colorado), and another neutral site, Reno, Nev.

The bids from Spokane/Cheney, Greeley/Loveland and Reno seek to host combined men’s and women’s tournaments. Spokane/Cheney and Greeley/Loveland have each put in a bid for only the women’s tournament, too.

Missoula has also bid on the women’s tournament, but does not have an interest in being a dual-tournament host.
Of the options, Billings and Reno certainly seem to make the most sense in the fact that they are neutral sites. Of the two, Reno would be "more neutral" given its location, which I would guess would be a big factor.

Another tidbit from the article is that a decision is expected in early March, and that future conference tournaments are expected to include all 12 teams, rather than the eight that will make it this year.

From a basketball standpoint, the current format makes a lot of sense. For conferences like the Big Sky, you want to do everything possible to make sure your best team makes the NCAA Tournament, because a win there will do more for exposure than anything else. That is why I like having a smaller tournament which includes a bye for the top seed, and having it at the location of the top seed.

From a practicality standpoint, a neutral site certainly makes a ton of sense. Not knowing where you are going until the final week can be a big logistical and financial challenge for schools, who likely have fairly limited athletic budgets. Having a predetermined site such as Reno would make that a lot easier.

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All Three One Loss Teams Keep Pace

Last week in the comments section of a post here, I said that Tyler Harvey was the best player in the Big Sky, but I could at least understand why people would think Mikh McKinney was the best. After Saturday, I'm not sure what I believe anymore!

Mikh McKinney was simply sensational on Saturday night, dragging Sacramento State to a road victory over a suddenly reeling Weber State, 78-71. McKinney had 27 points in the second half, going 8/9 during that session, including 5/5 from downtown. Down the stretch, he seemed to hit back breaking three after back breaking three, and even grabbed a key offensive rebound.

He was just not going to be denied. For the game he finished with 33 points and 7 assists, quite possibly the best performance we've seen in the Big Sky all year.

The Hornets struggled to stop Weber State (1.27 PPP for the Wildcats) and especially Joel Bolomboy, who had 21 points and 13 rebounds, but their offense was good enough all around that it didn't matter. Dylan Garrity was the spark in the first half, and he finished with 18 points. Eric Stuteville showed signs of life with 10 points. In all, the Hornets were 28/47 from the field, including a blistering 10/17 from behind the arc.

The Hornets are now 7-1 in the Big Sky, still technically in first place (the other one loss teams have just six wins), and are now coming off a roadtrip where they won both games by making plays down the stretch. Something good is brewing in Sacramento.

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In Cheney, it was North Dakota who held onto a 41-35 lead at the half, and it looked like they might be able to pull some magic for the second straight game. And then Eastern Washington came out and scored 67 points in the second half (not a misprint). The Eagles just overwhelmed UND in this game, dominating in all facets of offensive basketball.

Tyler Harvey led the way with 26 points, also chipping in five rebounds and five assists. Freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk continued his reign of terror, scoring 25 points himself while grabbing seven boards, and he has now reached double figures in six straight games. Four other Eagles were in double figures (one more stat line to note - Drew Brandon had 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists).

North Dakota played as well as they could reasonably expect, and still got run off the court in the second half by a team that I think has the highest ceiling in the Big Sky. To score 102 points in a game where their second best guy (Venky Jois) missed due to his ankle injury is quite a feat. The Eagles are now 6-1.

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Last, in Missoula, it was the Montana hanging on for dear life against Southern Utah, who actually had a shot to win, but AJ Hess' last second three banged off the rim, giving the Grizzlies the 58-56 win.

The Grizzlies got 54 of their 58 points coming from four players - Martin Breunig and Jordan Gregory had 15 each, Mario Dunn had 14, and Riley Bradshaw had 10) - everyone else was 2/9 from the floor with four points. That worked in this game, but obviously that is not sustainable. Once again, Montana won with defense, holding SUU to 0.88 PPP and forcing 19 turnovers.

Montana is first in the Big Sky during conference play, allowing just 0.905 PPP, well in front of second place Montana State (1.04 PPP... and yes, I'm sure that's a surprise for many that MSU is ranked that well, but more on that in a moment!). That gap is larger than the gap between second place MSU and the team who is last in defensive efficiency (Northern Colorado).

However, I'm not ready to declare Montana a defensive powerhouse yet... they've also had the benefit of a very nice schedule. To wit, MSU has the same exact schedule, with noting the fact that they've played each other. The fact that those two are 1-2 could be mere coincidence that they are the two best defensive teams in the Big Sky, but more likely is due to the fact that Montana has played five of seven conference games at home, and one of the road games was at Idaho State (10th in offense). They also haven't played Sac State or EWU yet.

Thus, there are three one loss teams... but I'm not on the Montana bandwagon yet. But they have put themselves in position, taking advantage of that weak schedule to get off to a hot start. It will be fun to see if they can continue to make it a race.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday Recap: Expect the Unexpected

My picks for the Big Sky games on Thursday night were not my finest. I got 3 out of 6 wrong, and almost picked another game wrong! The good thing is, that means there was a lot of unexpected things happening, which is always exciting! Let's take a look at some of the happenings.

What I expected:
- Montana grinded out a win over Northern Arizona - NAU had a halftime lead (and led by as many as 11 in the first half), but the Grizzlies were able to get the win, thanks in large part to seven threes (and 31 points) from guard Jordan Gregory. The biggest story might be that Montana continued their excellent defensive ways, allowing just 0.89 PPP as NAU was 19/55 from the floor and turned it over 14 times. The Grizzlies haven't played some of the more high octane offenses of the Big Sky yet, but they've been absolutely dominating defensively against who they have played. They now sit at 5-1 in Big Sky play.

- Eastern Washington had their way offensively with Northern Colorado - Don't let the final margin of 10 points deceive you... this was a blowout. EWU led by as many as 31 early in the second half, and seemingly got every shot they wanted, even without Venky Jois. Tyler Harvey had 35 points, including shooting 5/9 from downtown and 12/14 from the foul line, as four other Eagles joined him in double figures. UNC scored 41 points in the final ten minutes, which showcases their offensive firepower (even though the game was well out of hand), but this game was in hand for EWU by halftime.

What I didn't expect:
- Sacramento State just barely eeked by Idaho State - The Bengals led by 1 with 30 seconds left, but the Hornets were able to get fouled and hit free throws to go up 1, and ISU was unable to score on the next possession. It's just a reminder that every road game in the Big Sky is a grind and potential trap, even as the Hornets were in first and ISU was badly struggling. The Bengals were able to slow the game way down, and not allow Sac State many good looks from downtown (3/11). Winning formula for the Bengals to pull the upset, but they just couldn't finish the job. Tough loss for them, nice road win for the Hornets in a game where they didn't play their best.

- Portland State went on the road to beat Weber State - The lesson, as always, it's tough to know what to expect from PSU. Their frontcourt keeps looking better and better, as Tiegbe Bamba and Braxton Tucker are emerging as one of the better front lines in the conference. Last night, it was Tucker who had 21 and 6, while Bamba had 10 and 11, all the while making Joel Bolomboy a relative non-factor. Jeremy Senglin was excellent for the Wildcats, but everybody else struggled. Now, PSU is sitting well at 4-3, while Weber State is 3-4 and still trying to find their identity.

- North Dakota went on the road to beat Idaho - I thought the Vandals were going to run away with this game at home. They led by as many as 15 in the first half, and appeared to be in control. Then, at the end of the first half and into the second half, North Dakota went on a 27-5 run to give them a lead they wouldn't relinquish, though Idaho never went away. UND won this game with great defensive effort, holding the Vandals to just 0.85 PPP - an impressive mark against any team, let alone one as explosive as the Vandals. Idaho also did themselves in by shooting just 15/28 from the charity stripe. There's a lot of season to go, but Idaho could be really kicking themselves later on for losing what should have been a winnable home game.

- Montana State used a great second half to get their first Big Sky win - I liked SUU's chances to get a road win and move to .500 in Big Sky play, and for a while, it looked like that was going to happen. The TBirds led 47-40 early in the second half, but then two MSU runs put the game away. First, a 16-2 run put the Bobcats up 60-51, and then a 13-2 run later put the game away. It is Brian Fish's first Big Sky win, and you get the feeling there will be many more in the years to come. MSU was 12/23 from behind the arc (and if you count everyone other than Eric Norman, they were 11/16), and were led by 19 from Stephen Holm. It's good to see everyone has at least one Big Sky win well before February.

Anything else that I missed from last night?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Big Sky Thursday Night Preview

After having just four Big Sky games on Thursday night the past couple of weeks, we are back to six this Thursday night! Let's take a quick look at all the games, with a little prediction for each.

Sacramento State @ Idaho State
This one will be closer than you'd think for the first place team playing the 11th place team, though I still like the Hornets to win. Sac State doesn't play at too fast of a pace, and ISU's zone causes the pace of the game to slow down (though they do look to push it offensively), which could lead to a relatively low scoring game. The difference will be the Hornets ability to hit from outside, as opponents get off tons of three-point looks against the Bengals. Look for a bounce-back day from Dylan Garrity who has had a couple slow games. Sacramento State 68, Idaho State 62

Northern Colorado @ Eastern Washington
This should be the most "fun" game of the night, as both teams have explosive offenses and struggling defenses. Tyler Harvey leads the nation at 23.2 PPG, and it's hard to see how the Bears will slow him down. If Venky Jois doesn't play (I haven't heard one way or the other, though my guess is that he will play), that would give the Bears a much better shot, but I just think the Eagles are going to score too much for the Bears to keep up, especially in Cheney. Eastern Washington 85, Northern Colorado 77

Northern Arizona @ Montana
Unlike the previous matchup, this one will be a defensive battle, as Montana is first in the Big Sky in defensive during conference play, while NAU is third. The Jacks have the bodies down low to slow down Martin Breunig, which helps their chances. NAU is one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the Big Sky, but Montana is the best at defensive rebounding. In Missoula, I like the Grizzlies to find a way to win. Montana 68, Northern Arizona 64

Portland State @ Weber State
The Wildcats are reeling a bit after losing to Southern Utah, but get to come back to the Dee for a date against PSU. While the Wildcats defense hasn't been up to his past couple years level, it is still better than PSU's - a defense that can be a bit of a slump buster. Opponents have been able to score in the lane or outside against the Vikings, and I like Jeremy Senglin to have a nice day in this game. Look for Weber State to get back on track. Weber State 75, Portland State 66

Southern Utah @ Montana State
After winning two straight, SUU is suddenly full of confidence as they try and get to .500 in conference play. Meanwhile, MSU had to have figured a week ago that this game could be their best chance for a conference victory. While momentum may or may not exist, I think a certain level of confidence has come over the Thunderbirds, which will help them here. They have been playing well offensively, and I'm not sure the Bobcats have the offense weaponry to take advantage of SUU's deficiences on that end. Southern Utah 74, Montana State 69

North Dakota @ Idaho
The Vandals dropped two straight road games last weekend, but return home to take on a UND team that has lost four straight. The Vandals should light up UND's defense - they have been great from behind the arc, and Sekou Wiggs should live in the lane. If any game is going to be a blowout on Thursday night, this looks like the one to me. Idaho 85, North Dakota 69

Thoughts?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Big Sky Power Rankings

Now that we are three weeks into the Big Sky season, let's take a look at some power rankings to see if we can get a general feel for how teams are sitting right now. As always, this is very unscientific, and I won't be going just based on the records. So again, take no offense if "_____" team is behind "_____" team... I promise you it is nothing personal!

1. Eastern Washington (4-1) - Yes, they just lost to Sac State, but that was on the road without Venky Jois - at full strength and on a neutral court, I'd still take EWU right now over anyone else. However, a big worry could be cropping up in that during conference play, opponents are scoring 1.16 PPP against them... worst in the Big Sky (of course, Sac State is second to worst). Offensively, they are explosive and can hurt you in many ways, but they need to find a way to get stops when they need. So far, that's a legitimate worry.

2. Sacramento State (5-1) - Similar to EWU, their offense is excellent but they've struggled badly defensively. In Big Sky play, they are averaging 1.21 PPP... to put that into perspective, if they averaged that all year it would rank #2 in the country. One of the most promising things for them has been the development of Cody Demps, who has been excellent since conference play began. He is an efficient scorer (54% on twos, and 48/55 FT) who helps on the glass as well, and has flashed some playmaking skills. His emergence helps take some of the pressure off McKinney and Garrity.

3. Montana (4-1) - This has been partially aided by schedule (they have played UND, ISU, and MSU already), but so far during conference play they've been the best defensive team in the Big Sky by a country mile. It's not enough to say they've been winning the game they're supposed to... they've been dominating those games. Martin Breunig has been everything expected and then some, which has helped Jordan Gregory and Mario Dunn. The Grizzlies are flying under the radar, but they have the impact talent to make some noise throughout the Big Sky season.

4. Idaho (2-3) - This might seem high for them, and I get that... but it's been a tough schedule for them that has contributed to the 2-3 start. They beat Weber State at home... then lost tight road games against EWU and Sac State before struggling on the road at PSU. I'm inclined to think most of the teams in this conference would be 2-3 with their schedule. Their offense is better than I expected it would be, and even as Mike Scott has slowed a bit from his hot start, Sekou Wiggs and Connor Hill have been there to pick up any slack. I like this team, and I wouldn't be shocked if they were the second best team in the Big Sky by the end of the year.

5. Northern Colorado (4-1) - Like Montana, they have been buoyed by a relatively light schedule, but overall they have looked impressive. They are a balanced and experienced team, which helps avoid offensive slumps because so many guys can score. They are going to struggle with interior defense at times this year, but they should have the offense to stay in the hunt. Senior forward Tim Huskisson is shooting an other-worldy 35/48 on two-pointers against DI teams this year, along with rebounding 9.6 percent of his team's misses. And he comes off the bench. They have a high ceiling, potentially.

6. Weber State (3-3) - The game against SUU on Saturday perhaps tempers some expectations for the year - they aren't as good defensively as past year, and they don't have the offensive weapons that other top teams have. In a way, they seem to go as guard Jeremy Senglin goes, and he is experiencing some ups and downs of running a team. Against NAU on Thursday, he had 25 points, and 5 assists against 1 turnover in a win. He followed that with 14 points to go with 2 assists against 5 turnovers in a loss. A couple of their JUCO guys - Chris Golden and Jaelyn Johnson-Coston - have mostly struggled to make an impact in their debut seasons. Weber is still going to make the Big Sky tournament, but it appears more likely they will blend in with the middle tier than pose any serious challenge to win their second straight regular season conference title.

7. Northern Arizona (3-2) - They are effectively playing a seven man rotation right now, which you have to figure will come back to hurt them eventually as they wear down. The biggest issue is that they have struggled at times to score the ball, with Qunton Upshur still looking to really find his groove from the field. He can't seem to convert from inside the arc, shooting just 41% on those shots after being at 52% last year. They need his dynamic scoring. The Jacks rebound well, and they can still play as well defensively as anyone in the Big Sky, but they need to find a way to create easy baskets. Kris Yanku is a playmaker for them, but nobody else is really adept at getting easy shots for others.

8. Portland State (3-3) - It's hard to know what to expect from the Vikings on any given night. Two weeks ago they fell to NAU by 13 at home... and then Saturday they beat Idaho by 12. There just doesn't always seem to be any rhyme or reason to whether or not they are going to play well. One thing is for sure - Braxton Tucker and Tiegbe Bamba have provided nice upgrades up front, as both guys are playing well in their first years for PSU. With almost every team, you can say they are capable of beating anyone or losing to anyone on a given night, but I feel like that is more true with the Vikings than anyone else.

9. Southern Utah (2-3) - Before last Thursday, SUU had gone 1-27 in their previous 28 Big Sky games, so to turn around and win two straight is big. We've said all year that their offense has looked much improved, but they were also solid defensively the past couple games, especially against Weber. We will have to see if that continues. They have been getting good production out of junior forward Casey Oliverson, who was 8/9 from the field in each of the last two games. With their fast pace, deep bench (their bench plays a higher percentage of minutes than anyone in the country), and balanced approach, they can at least dream of a trip back to the Big Sky tournament quicker than anybody expected.

10. North Dakota (1-4) - UND has lost four straight, including three at home (all to good opponents), which could put their chances at making the Big Sky tournament pretty low. They hoped Jaron Nash's extra year of eligibility would be big, but he has most struggled offensively (though he's been excellent on the glass). Newcomers Estan Tyler and Terrel de Rouen have provided occasional spurts of excellent offense, but not consistently. Added all up, and I don't think UND can score enough to win too many games they won't be favored in. It was expected to be a rebuilding year, and that seems to be exactly what is happening.

11. Idaho State (1-5) - After losing by 4 points and 3 points last week, they now sit at 1-5 with little to no margin for error if they want to be playing meaningful basketball by the middle of February on. The problem, still, is that they can't score. Chris Hansen has been playing good basketball, and Jeffrey Solarin can always be counted on for some putbacks and easy buckets, but beyond that, there are just question marks. Nominal PG Ben Wilson is shooting 37%, Nnamdi Ezenwa has cooled off a bit, and Ajak Magot is more of a defensive specialist. There aren't many answers.

12. Montana State (0-5) - Marcus Colbert is a good player, and Michael Dison has improved a bit, but overall, it's not exactly a pretty picture in Bozeman for now. The Bobcats will get a couple Big Sky wins, but they will have to scratch and claw (no pun intended) for everything they do get. One positive is that they have shown some good things on the defensive side of the floor - rebounding well and showing some resistance at the rim. I know they want to play fast eventually under Brian Fish, but their best hope this year is just to try and grind things out.

Your thoughts?

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Big Sky Saturday Roundup

It was a fascinating day in the Big Sky on Saturday, with six games and more than one surprise. Let's take a quick look with some news and notes from around the league.

- Sacramento State took back first place in the Big Sky with a 90-77 win over Eastern Washington, as they are now the lone 5-1 team in the Big Sky (EWU, Montana, and Northern Colorado are all 4-1).

Eagles star forward Venky Jois missed this game after suffering an ankle injury on Thursday night, and the Hornets took advantage of it. Jois is the best interior defender and rim protector, and so the Hornets were able to get almost anything they wanted in the paint. Sac State shot a blistering 24/36 from two-point range, and got to the free throw line 26 times. Mikh McKinney was great again, with 14 points to go with 12 assists and 6 steals (he's 7th in the country in steal percentage), but the Hornets have to be even more encouraged by some role players stepping up. Cody Demps was stellar with 22 efficient points along with 4 rebounds and 5 assists, and reserve guard Dreon Bartlett his four threes. The Eagles slowed down Dylan Garrity (just 7 points on 5 shots), and Sac State still scored 1.29 PPP.

- For the Eagles, obviously they aren't going to panic at their first loss, on the road against a top team, without one of their top two guys. They still scored the ball well enough to win (and Bogdan Bliznyuk is slowly turning into a star), but this showcased Jois' importance for them defensively. They will be fine, as long as Jois is fine.

- The surprise of the night belonged to Southern Utah, who held home court and upset Weber State 70-60, a thought that would have been shocking before the year began. We probably shouldn't be too stunned that SUU won, but it's a surprise that win expectancy shows it was their game for the last 12 minutes, thanks to a big run that put them up 60-46.

The real surprise might be that they won it with defense, which has been a much maligned unit of the team! Weber scored just 0.94 PPP, and had six assists versus ten turnovers. Richaud Gittens had 18 points on seven FG attempts, and Kyndahl Hill did some nice things, but the TBirds were able to completely stifle Jeremy Senglin and Joel Bolomboy.

As usually happens with them, SUU spread the wealth in terms of playing time and scoring, as 12 guys saw action in this game, with ten of them scoring. Casey Oliverson had 16 (his second straight good day), and freshman Tyler Rawson scored 16 as well. Rawson was great early in the year, but had seen his minutes get reduced a bit lately... that is likely to turn around, as he was fantastic in this one. Overall, it's the best weekend for SUU basketball in a while.

- One takeaway highlight of the SUU game was this dunk by sophomore Juwan Major. The TBirds are growing up before our eyes.

- Montana is 4-1 and has looked great, but it's been hard to get much of a read because they've had probably the easiest schedule in the conference so far. On Saturday, they beat Montana State at home, 63-48, as Martin Breunig had 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Mario Dunn had an all-around great line of 17 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. All that said, Montana only scored 0.91 PPP, which is not very good, though they did have the game in hand much of the way.

Also, it was another dominating defensive performance from the Grizzlies, as Montana State shot 8/30 inside the arc, and 7/28 behind it, mustering just 0.70 PPP. In short, the Grizzlies' sloppiness on offense (14 turnovers) was the only thing that kept this game to a 15 point margin.

- Northern Colorado is in a similar spot in that they are 4-1, but that is partially aided by a schedule that hasn't been all that tough. On Saturday, they did go on the road and take down North Dakota in OT, 88-78. UND almost got the win in regulation thanks to a truly awful final 10 seconds for UNC (including a strange foul on Tim Huskisson), but it was all Bears in OT, as they outscored UND 19-9 in the extra session.

Cameron Michael continues to strengthen his case as possible Newcomer of the Year (though Martin Breunig may have him beat) with another excellent day with 24 points, and he is an offensive weapon. Tevin Svihovec was even better, with 24 points of his own rounded out with 9 rebounds and 7 assists. The Bears can score with anyone, but they can also let anyone score with them. One thing is for sure, their games will be a lot of fun.

- Northern Arizona got a badly needed home win, holding on for a 72-69 win over Idaho State. ISU led this game by 7 at the half, but NAU slowly chipped away, outscoring the Bengals 22-14 in the final ten minutes. Still, the Jacks have to be a little worried about their ceiling, as they just don't seem capable of mustering very good offense consistently, especially when they are shooting 5/22 from downtown like they did in this game. They are 3-2, but lack of depth is going to hurt them.

- Finally, Portland State played well to get a home win over Idaho, 85-73. Four PSU players were in double figures, led by 19 from Braxton Tucker and DaShaun Wiggins. Also, the 73 points that Idaho scored kind of mask the fact that the Vikings did well defensively, allowing just 0.96 PPP to an excellent Idaho team in what was a fast paced game.

The Vikings are now 3-3. Idaho is 2-3, but it's been a tough schedule for them early on... a homestand against North Dakota and Northern Colorado should treat them better, but it's tough to not get a split on a roadtrip.

Anything else I missed from Saturday?

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Perrion Callandret Posterizes Eric Stuteville

Last night, Idaho's Perrion Callandret had one of the better dunks you'll see all season, as he went over and through Sac State's Eric Stuteville for the powerful slam! Here is the video, courtesy of the Big Sky:



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Southern Utah Gets a Win, and Other Big Sky Action

There were four Big Sky games going on last night, each with varying levels of importance and intrigue. Let's dive in and take a quick look at all of the games.

Southern Utah 71, Idaho State 67
A season ago, it took SUU until their second to last game to get their first Big Sky win. This year, it comes in game four, as they held on to beat ISU on Thursday. Casey Oliverson was steady all game, with an efficient 19 points and 8 rebounds, while AJ Hess also hit some big shots, finishing with 14 points. The fact that the Bengals could only muster 1.00 PPP against an SUU defense giving up over 1.12 PPP is not exactly a good sign. If you wanted to put the Bengals at the bottom of the Big Sky as of right now, I wouldn't argue much.

Sacramento State 79, Idaho 76
This was the game of the night, with the Vandals leading for much of the way, but being unable to hold on down the stretch (they also got the short end of a couple of tough calls). The Hornets were led by Mikh McKinney, as the senior guard scored 27 in the second half en route to 32 points for the day. Cody Demps had 17, including some important points down the stretch, and he has come on lately.

Sekou Wiggs led Idaho with 22 points, and though I thought he took a couple of ill-advised threes down stretch, he was excellent. He could be the best player in the Big Sky at attacking the hoop. In the long run, a tough road loss to a good team shows that Idaho is a legitimate contender to be the second best team in the Big Sky. Even though they lost, they really impressed.

One final note... near the end of the game, Perrion Callandret absolutely threw down a vicious dunk over Eric Stuteville, but the broadcast didn't show the replay! If you have video of that, please send it my way!

Eastern Washington 92, Portland State 85
EWU was in control for most of the game, and I'm not sure things were as close as the score indicates. The Eagles got another nice day from freshman big man Bogdan Bliznyuk, who had 18 very efficient points. Three others were in double figures, led by 23 from Tyler Harvey. The big news for EWU out of this game is that Venky Jois was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury after nine minutes. Jim Hayford said after the game it's too early to tell much... and that Jois thinks he'll be fine, but they'll just have to see how he feels over the next couple of days.

For PSU, it's another disappointing defensive effort, albeit against a great offensive team. That overshawdowed their own excellent offensive showing, especially from guard Gary Winston, who is out of whatever early season slump he was in. The Vikings are now 2-3, and need to hold home court against Idaho, which is no sure thing.

Weber State 74, Northern Arizona 65
It was an impressive game from Weber State, who seemed to be able to answer all of the Lumberjacks runs in this game. It was a battle of PGs in this game, as Jeremy Senglin had 25 points and five assists, while NAU guard Kris Yanku had 27 points and eight rebounds. The difference in this game was that NAU's other perimeter scorers were completely held in check. Aaseem Dixon was scoreless on eight shots, while it took Quinton Upshur 14 shots to score 14 points. Needless to say, NAU can't beat the best Big Sky teams when those two guys play like that.

Weber is now 3-2, and looking at the schedule, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them reel off a few straight wins. They seem to be getting better each game, especially the young guards, and they have as much talent as anyone in the Big Sky, including EWU. Keep your eye on the Wildcats.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thursday Night Preview

Another week of Big Sky action is upon us, so let's take a look at the four games to be played Thursday night, some of the keys to the games, and some predictions.

Eastern Washington at Portland State
The Vikings will have a chance since this is in Portland, but it will take a defensive effort they haven't really shown capable of yet so far. Teams have been gashing the Vikings in the paint (teams shoot over 54% on twos against the Viks), which could position Venky Jois to have a big game. Jois shoots 58% inside the arc, and he does it on a lot of attempts. PSU has good athletes up front, but I'm not sure they have the size to slow Jois down. When PSU has the ball, a lot of their offense is predicated on getting to the line, with guard DaShaun Wiggins leading the way as being one of the best in the country at drawing fouls. However, EWU does a fairly good job of staying out of foul trouble, with Jois again being excellent at blocking and contesting shots without fouling. This doesn't set up great for PSU to me. Eastern Washington 84, Portland State 78

Idaho at Sacramento State
The only thing keeping this one a little lower scoring than last week's EWU/Idaho tilt is the fact that Sac State doesn't play at that fast of a pace. They average over 19 seconds per offensive possessions, which is in the bottom half of the NCAA in terms of speed (on the other hand, Idaho using just over 16 seconds per possession, a top 30 mark in fast pace). Still, both offense bookend sometimes devastating offenses with sometimes crippling defenses. It's hard to pinpoint where the offenses may attack, because there should be no shortage of options. The difference in the game (other than the location), may be that Idaho has been giving opponents tons of looks from three-point range, which could mean big things for Dylan Garrity. This one will be entertaining, and could certainly go either way, but I think the Hornets make one more play down the stretch. Sacramento State 78, Idaho 76

Weber State at Northern Arizona
Over the course of the season, these two teams have been the best defensively in the Big Sky, though neither really qualifies as a shutdown defense. I am a little worried about Quinton Upshur, who hasn't been the scoring threat that the Jacks need him to be, as all of his shooting percentages are down this year compared to last season. NAU has been missing Max Jacobsen insofar as they don't have a lot of threats inside, and the strength of most of their perimeter players is that they shoot the ball well. They plays right into the hands of Weber's defense, which funnels you away from the foul line. Weber State 68, Northern Arizona 62

Idaho State at Southern Utah
Could this be SUU's first conference win of the year and second in two seasons? It will be an interesting contest, as ISU plays a slow pace (though Bill Evans did say before the year they wanted to play faster) and zone defense, while SUU plays a fast pace (buoyed by a bench that plays more minutes than any other bench in the country) and very physical man to man defense, which results in a ton of fouls and foul shots for the other team.  For teams that can aggressively attack, that can be a big boost, but the Bengals don't have that type of team. This could be an ugly slugfest at times, but I like the TBirds to come away with a win. Southern Utah 64, Idaho State 59

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Marcus Colbert's Development

Marcus Colbert is in year three of what is shaping up to be an interesting career at Montana State. He has started most of the games in his career, and was very good for the first two years.

He established himself as an excellent shooter (he shot 40% on threes as a freshman, and a still good 37% as a sophomore with more attempts. Last season, he turned the corner on his efficiency closer to the rim, shooting 50% inside the arc. He also increased his Assist Rate to 23.2, while keeping his turnover rate steady. In short, he was an average distributor who was extremely efficient when he did shoot the ball.

This year, some things have changed, both for good and bad.

One positive is that his Assist Rate has skyrocketed! It is up to 41.8, which is good for sixth in the nation. In per game numbers, he is averaging 5.5 assists per game, up from 3.0 per game last season. This has come with a slight uptick in his Turnover Rate, but you'll take that for such a big increase in getting baskets for his teammates.

He is also looking to take the ball to the rim a lot more this season, as his rate of drawing fouls is up significantly as well. Already he has taken more two-point shots than he did all of last season, another sign of his increased aggressiveness. In general, this is a good thing.

However, this extra aggression and distributing seems to have come at the expense of his efficiency scoring the basketball. His three-point percentage is way down... He is 13/48 on the year, or 27%. This could be just a random small sample blip (certainly a couple hot games could turn that percentage around), or it could be that he is seeing increased attention from defenses. Inside the arc, that aggression going to the hoop and drawing fouls isn't also giving him easy baskets... his two-point shooting percentage is 40%, down from his big sophomore year jump.

The upshot is this... If Colbert can combine his junior year playmaking and aggression with his sophomore year shooting efficiency, then all of a sudden the Bobcats have an all-conference guy on their hands. It might not happen this year, but obviously the talent is there for him, and he will be a good building block for Brian Fish as a senior next season. There aren't a ton of reasons to watch MSU this year, but Colbert is one of them.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Big Sky Saturday Night

Each night in the Big Sky season, we seem to learn a lot about the teams and the makeup of the Big Sky race, and Saturday night was no different. Let's take a quick peek at all six of the games on Saturday night to see what happens, and what it might mean in the bigger picture.

Eastern Washington 89, Idaho 86
We knew this would be an entertaining game, and it didn't disappoint. The Vandals led by four near the end of the first half, but it was a 42-41 EWU lead at the break. The Eagles led by nine late, but the Vandals came right back and had a chance to tie at the buzzer. Though Idaho did a good job containing Tyler Harvey (23 poiunts, but he was just 4/11 from downtown), Venky Jois had an efficient 18 and 8, Drew Brandon nearly put up a triple-double, and Bogdan Bliznyuk had another nice day off the bench. EWU took care of the ball, hit 11 threes, and was efficient inside the arc for a nice offensive performance on the road.

Idaho was in the game until the end thanks to their own explosive offense, as they shot just under 50%, but rebounded 14 of their own misses. They didn't have one standout, but got key contributions from several guys. These two meet again on January 31 in Cheney, and that should be a good one again. The Vandals still have many defensive issues, but it is clear that with their offensive firepower, they have as good of a chance as anyone to be in the top three in the Big Sky.

Northern Colorado 84, Sacramento State 73
UNC had been having their share of struggles for about a month before conference play, but a two game homestand where you average 87 PPG is a good way to cure any struggles. Tevin Svihovec was the best player on the floor, with 26 points on 14 FG attempts, adding on five rebounds and four assists. When he plays like that, he is great at getting to the line and getting good looks in the lane. Behind him was the depth that is the Bears strength, as eight other guys scored at least four points, with six of them scoring at least seven. The Bears hurt you in a lot of ways, and they were all on display in this game.

The Hornets struggled to keep up in the second half (they led 39-36 at the break) because they struggled to hit from the outside, making just 8/25 threes. They rebounded well which is a good sign for them (another good sign: Cody Demps played a stellar game offensively), but Mikh McKinney struggled to take care of the ball with 5 turnovers. Still, both teams are now 3-1 and have to be feeling good about the first couple of weeks. Like many others, they are in good shape.

Northern Arizona 70, Southern Utah 67
The TBirds continue to get close to wins, but their furious rally in the final five minutes wasn't enough. This was a three-point game at the end, but NAU led by as many as 19, including by 15 at the five minute mark. The final score is a little deceiving. NAU's struggles offensive do continue a bit though, as they were just 12/39 from inside the arc, but were saved by SUU's continuing gifts of trips to the foul line for the opponents. The Jacks were 28/36 from the stripe. Quinton Upshur continues to struggle, and that has to be a big concern for NAU. SUU is 0-3, but really, they give you the feeling that they might not finish in the cellar for the second straight year.

Weber State 65, Montana State 62
After a nice win Thursday, Weber State may have coasted a bit in beating Montana State by just three at home. MSU jumped on them early, getting an eight point lead, but it was dangerously close the rest of the way. The Wildcats shot 36% and only had nine assists compared to 12 turnovers, but they shot 31 free throws and held MSU to just 1.00 PPP. Joel Bolomboy had eight offensive rebounds by himself, as he finished with 17 points, 11 boards, and 3 blocked shots. As I have said about MSU, they don't necessarily have a ton of talent right now, but they will be in games unexpectedly and win some of them thanks to good coaching and full out effort. This was one of those games, but they just weren't able to get over the hump.

Montana 90, Idaho State 64
The Grizzlies jumped out to a huge lead in this game and never looked back. They were on fire from deep, hitting 15/27 threes, (including seven by Brandon Gfeller himself). They did whatever they wanted offensively, taking care of the ball, and getting contributions from many. On the other end, ISU was an effiicent 24/43 inside the arc, but once again couldn't hit from the outside, and finished a miserable 7/17 from the foul line. The Grizzlies continue to play well defensively, while the Bengals have the look of a bottom three team without the talent necessary to crawl into the top eight. This was a beatdown. NAU is 2-1, and has a big home game Thursday against Weber State followed by Idaho State. It's not inconceivable at all that they could be 4-1 by this time next week.

Portland State 82, North Dakota 75
This game was not really as close as the final score indicated, as PSU jumped out to an early 17-6 lead after the first ten minutes, and led by as many as 17 midway through the second half. Two days after I said the Hornets had to be happy just to escape Grand Forks with a win, the Vikings went in and dominated the game. It was a very fast paced game, so UND's 75 points are also a bit deceiving, as PSU played solid on the defensive end. UND had just 22 at the half, and 43 at the 10 minute mark of the second half, so there was a lot of garbage time points. They had some nice individual performances (Braxton Tucker had 20 points, Tiegbe Bamba with 14 rebounds, DaShaun Wiggins with 18 points), but it was the D that was the best sign for them.

For North Dakota, being swept at home is the type of thing that diminishes their chances of competing for the Big Sky tournament. For the teams at the bottom, there is no large margin of error, and an early season sweep at home hurts. They now sit at 1-3, and their host UNC followed by a roadtrip to play EWU and Idaho. With the poor start, there is no margin of error in a tough three game stretch.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Eastern Washington @ Idaho on Saturday Will Be Fun

In case you aren't aware, what could be the most entertaining game of the Big Sky season will be going down on Saturday night in Moscow, as Eastern Washington will travel to take on Idaho. Both teams are 2-0, but it will be a fun game even more so because both teams have been great offensively, and both play at a fast, fun to watch pace.

Eastern Washington has scored 1.11 PPP against DI opponents this year, which is 22nd in the nation, and first in the Big Sky. Idaho has scored 1.07 PPP against DI opponents this year, which is 55th in the country and second in the Big Sky.

Idaho games average 69.8 possessions per game, the 27th fastest pace in the country. EWU is not far behind at 68.3 possessions per game, 59th in the nation.

In short, this game's over/under would probably have to be at around the 170 mark before you would think about taking the under. KenPom projects an 86-83 EWU win, which, as you might guess, is a lot of points.

One key to the game could be the health of Drew Brandon, who played only seven minutes last week and has been battling back spasms all year. Idaho has their own excellent PG in senior Mike Scott, so the Eagles really need Brandon's distribution and rebounding ability.

The other key will be how they should the ball from outside... both teams can fill it up from deep, with EWU especially relying on the long ball. The Vandals will need to guard Tyler Harvey closely basically as soon as he crosses midcourt. On the other side, Connor Hill has been on fire the last few weeks for Idaho.

The game is at 8:05 on Saturday, and should be a great one. Besides, what else is there to do on a Saturday night?

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Sacramento State Alone In First For Now

When everyone wakes up on Friday morning and checks the Big Sky standings (I assume this is something that people do), they will see Sacramento State alone atop the Big Sky at 3-0 after their 63-61 win over North Dakota. Eastern Washington and Idaho are currently 2-0, but the Hornets are the lone team with three wins.

It took a tough battle on the road to get the win, but the Hornets ended the game on a 9-3 run, and got a Mikh McKinney floater with 2.6 seconds left to give them the win. Among the notables, Sac State's 9-5 overall mark and 3-0 Big Sky mark is their best start since 2005-06, and they are 3-0 in the Big Sky for the second time since they joined the conference in the 90s.

There is nothing terribly impressive about North Dakota right now, though Grand Forks is always a tough place to go win, but I thought the way they won was encouraging. Their offense was bogged down a bit, and UND was able to do an excellent job on McKinney and Dylan Garrity, who combined for 23 points on 8/20 FG, which is a slow night for them.

However, the Hornets got others guys to step up. Senior forward Zach Mills played 35 minutes, and scored 17 points, including hitting 3/4 from downtown. Alex Tiffin had 12 points and 5 rebounds off the bench. Defensively, UND was 2/10 from the floor, and even though they shot the ball well overall, the Hornets didn't allow them second chance opportunities.

It was a full team win, and for a team that at times can be overly reliant on their two man backcourt, that is an even better sign than the fact that it happened to bring them to 3-0.

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Thursday Night Preview and Predictions

We have four games on tap for Thursday night, so let's take a look at each of them, and then I'll give my prediction (likely so we can laugh at how horribly wrong it is...)

Montana @ Weber State
While not quite generating the excitement that this game has had in years past, this should be a great game, and important one for Weber State, who is 0-2. Not many guys in the Big Sky can match up with Martin Breunig, but the Wildcats have one that can in Joel Bolomboy. Two things point to a Weber State win for me. First, the game is in Ogden, where Weber State is very tough to beat. Two, both teams rely on the three-point shot (42.9% of Montana FG attempts have been threes, which is 24th in the country, while Weber State is at 41.9%, 30th), but Weber State, as always, predicates the defense on limiting opponent chances from deep. I think that's enough for Weber State to win. Weber State 74, Montana 67

Sacramento State @ North Dakota
Grand Forks is always a tough place to play, and that will probably especially be true today when the high is 10, and the low is -6 (and don't even look at Saturday's temps...) Other than the venue, North Dakota's best reason for optimism comes because where they struggle defensively is to stop guys in the paint, where DI opponents are shooitng over 55% on twos against them. However, the Hornets are a perimeter oriented team, with the best duo of backcourt teammates in the conference. However, UND is at its best when it is able to force turnovers, but the Hornets take care of the ball well. I just don't see UND scoring enough to win this game. Sacramento State 71. North Dakota 65

Portland State @ Northern Colorado
Both teams could really use a win after uninspiring opening weeks, but I think the Bears are the better team right now. While both defenses have been abysmal this year, the Bears have shown a higher ceiling offensively, with the ability to hit shots, and multiple ball-handlers to take care of the ball. This will be a fun game because of the scoring potential, and because both teams are filled with great athletes in the frontcourt rather than a ton of size. But based on what I have seen so far, I trust that UNC is the team that can hit shots and get good looks when they need. Northern Colorado 79, Portland State 72

Montana State @ Idaho State
If ISU wants to compete for a Big Sky tournament spot, a home game like this against an opponent near the bottom is an almost must-win game. However, the Bobcats will stay in this game because ISU will give you looks from downtown, and the Bobcats have guys that can hit those shots. MSU can't score inside, which makes ISU their ideal opponent in a way. At times, the Bengals best offense is letting Jeffrey Solarin and Ajak Magot clean up the offensive glass, but the Bobcats have done a good job limiting second chance opportunities. ISU is probably the better team, but I'm going to take the Bobcats to get an upset road win. Montana State 64, Idaho State 61

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Notes From Saturday's Big Sky Action

I was out of town at a wedding on Saturday, so I didn't get to watch the games firsthand. However, after reading about the games and checking out the box scores, here are some observations or things you might have missed:

- It wasn't pretty again, but Eastern Washington survived for the 65-57 win over Idaho State, as the Eagles had one of their worst offensive games of the year. Tyler Harvey is human (16 points), but the frontcourt picked up the slack, with Venky Jois (16 and 8), Bogdan Bliznyuk (17 and 7), and Felix Van Hofe (9 points and 4 assists) plating well. The freshman Bliznyuk has made important contributions in two straight games for the Eagles. ISU did a nice job of slowing down the pace, as it was played well under EWU's season average number of possessions per game. However, they just weren't able to hit enough shots.

- EWU's PG Drew Brandon played just seven minutes, leaving early due to back spasms. He's been battling the back issues all year, which has possibly contributed to a poor start shooting the ball, and this is something to watch. EWU needs him as healthy as possible, or else the Big Sky race could look completely different.

- Idaho moved to 2-0 with an 86-84 home win over Weber State, as they got a bucket from Mike Scott with less than five seconds to play to win it. He also hit a 3/4 shot to end the first half, and he finished with 14 points and 5 assists. The other star for the Vandals was sophomore Sekou Wiggs, who turned in his best game of the year. He had 22 points, but he did it by shooting 7/9 from the floor and 8/10 from the stripe (he is fantastic at getting to the line). Idaho is second in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency, and the over/under for their battle with EWU on Saturday could be about 180 points. That should be fun.

- Weber State, meanwhile, is 0-2, but that could be the toughest roadtrip in the conference, and they were in both games. Jeremy Senglin had 22 points to go with 6 assists and just one turnover, which is big for them. The last two games they have had good scoring efforts, which is important for them after the struggled a bit to create shots early in the year. They will be fine.

- Montana took care of business at home, beating North Dakota 74-63. Not really too many surprises in this game, as UND didn't have the interior presence to slow down Martin Breunig, who had 23 points. Though holding UND to 0.97 PPP is not as impressive as what they did in the opener against Northern Colorado, it is the second straight solid defensive performance for the Grizzlies.

- As noted yesterday, Northern Arizona only played seven guys, but they still went on the road and beat Portland State, 73-60. All five Lumberjacks starters were in double figures, led by 18 from Ako Kaluna. Kris Yanku also was big, with 13 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds, a good sign for someone that may be their most important player.

- There was a lot of optimism for PSU this year, especially after their opening win at USC, but they have looked like a mess lately. They allowed 1.24 PPP to NAU, which is a concern because the Jacks had struggled to score at many times this year. According to KenPom numbers, they aren't just the eighth best team in the Big Sky so far, they're closer to the bottom than they are even to seventh. Collectively, they have enough talent to be a top six team, but I wouldn't be shocked to see a bit of a freefall from them over the next three weeks.

- Sacramento State followed up their opening offensive explosion against NAU by just getting whatever they wanted against Southern Utah. They scored 1.48 PPP, and if you're not familiar with how that rates, just know that it is spectacular. They had 25 assists versus three turnovers, which is impressive no matter how you slice it. Last week I said Dylan Garrity had become more of a shooting specialist than he had been in past years - so he followed that statement up by dishing out nine assists. This is the Hornets team we expected to see.

- SUU was offensively abysmal defensively (and they have been very bad on that end), but positive offensive signs continued to emerge. They shot the ball well from the field, and took good care of the ball. Four guys were in double figures for them. They are 0-2, but they will be a tough out more often than not.

- Lastly, Northern Colorado went on the road and took care of business with a 62-54 road win over Montana State. It's way too early to call anything a must win or anything along those lines, but you have to feel like there would have been some panic in Greeley if they had lost that game. MSU wasn't able to hit from the outside, making just 6/22 from downtown, and only going 6/13 from the stripe.

The Bears were terrors on the offense glass, led by six offensive rebounds from Tim Huskisson. Their offense has slowed down from the potential it showed early in the year, but every team in the conference will take a road win however they get it. With two home games followed by a trip to North Dakota on the docket, the Bears have a real chance to be 4-1 by the time we hit late January.

- Now that we have 12 teams in the Big Sky, I have to say I love the nights where there are six games going, and all of the teams are in action. It doesn't get much better than that!

Anything else you have noticed so far this year?

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jaleni Neely Declared Ineligible

From the Arizona Daily Sun, Northern Arizona junior guard Jaleni Neely has been declared academically ineligible and will miss the remainder of the season.

The junior college transfer from Eastern Utah last played on Dec. 21 at Hampton, scoring 17 points, five rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes. Neely started nine of the 12 games he played this season, averaging 7.9 points, 2.8 assists and 2.8 rebounds in his first year for the Lumberjacks.
Neely was a shooting threat, having hit 35% of his threes, though really struggling inside the arc. He was not necessarily a natural PG, with a 19.1 Assist Rate vs a 24.2 TO Rate. Still, the Jacks were excited about him before the year, and this really hurts depth.

As the article notes, sophomore guard Chris Miller transferred a couple weeks ago, and NAU is slowly running out of bodies.They only played seven guys against Portland State yesterday, and eight against Sac State on Thursday.

One guy they will need to step up is freshman Tate de Laveaga, who had hardly played (save for a game against San Diego Christian) before Saturday. Against PSU, he played 21 minutes and did well, scoring five points, grabbing two rebounds, and not turning the ball over. He is a 6'3'' guard that in time will be a good shooter and also be able to create his own shot. Jack Murphy and NAU will need him to contribute sooner than they probably expected.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Looking at Thursday's Big Sky Winners

Big Sky conference season has finally arrived! After two months of interesting basketball, we have finally gotten to the really good stuff - conference play, which, of course, means everything in a conference like the Big Sky. For the opening night of games, let's just take a look at the six winners, and see how they won.

- Eastern Washington - In the marquee game of opening day, Eastern Washington used a 2nd half comeback to erase a late eight point deficit to beat Weber State at home (if I was talking about the teams that lost, I'd say Weber had a very impressive showing). Two days after I declared Tyler Harvey was the POY favorite (which is obvious, not a case of me going out on a limb), he was sensational. He scored 39 points, including hitting seven threes. With EWU trailing 75-71 late, he hit a big three (with an inch of space), and then Parker Kelly hit one on the next possessions, giving the Eagles a lead they didn't relinquish. They would have liked a more comfortable home win, but to battle back and beat the defending champions is a good start, especially considering if required contributions from guys like freshman Bodgan Bliznyuk, who had eight rebounds in 18 minutes.

But the star was Harvey, who is at times unguardable with his range and quick release.

- North Dakota - If North Dakota is going to compete for a conference tournament spot, this is the type of game they have to win - road games against the lower part of the conference. They did that here, surprisingly by not allowing MSU to get any easy baskets, as the Bobcats were just 7/27 on two-point shots. UND has struggled with interior defense and plays very guard-heavy lineups, so the way they won is a surprise in that respect. They also got a nice opener from transfer Carson Shanks, who is eligible now that we have reached the second semester. He scored an efficient 12 points, and could provide some frontcourt scoring that they have lacked.

- Idaho - ISU's zone defense has left them susceptible the past couple years to good outside shooting teams, and the Vandals were just that on Thursday. Idaho shot 12/23 from downtown, getting 32 points from Connor Hill. Another way that ISU can hurt you is on the offensive glass with rebounding machine Jeffrey Solarin, but big men Bira Seck and Ty Egbert made sure that wasn't an issue - Seck had 9 defensive rebounds in 21 minutes, while Egbert had 7 in 20. Idaho is playing good basketball right now.

- Portland State - It wasn't easy, but the Vikings held on for a 71-68 home win over Southern Utah, which shows two things - PSU might be falling closer to the third tier in the Big Sky than solidifying themselves in the second tier, and that the Thunderbirds relative non-conference success is carrying over to Big Sky play. The Vikings did not shoot the ball well, but their ability to get to the line coupled with SUU's generosity in sending teams there gave PSU 39 FT attempts, of which they made 28. Braxton Tucker did have a nice day for the Viks, scoring 16 points and snagging 6 rebounds,

- Montana - Martin Breunig and Jordan Gregory were excellent in his first conference game, but the real story was the defense for Montana, which had struggled in non-conference play. Northern Colorado is a good offensive team, but the Bears scored just 0.81 PPP on Thursday, and scored 33 points in the final 30 minutes of the game. Tevin Svihovec a nightmare game, scoring three points on 0/5 FG, and the Bears shot 37% for the game. It's only one game, but Montana has to be just as happy about how they won, finally getting a great defensive performance which has eluded them lately.

- Sacramento State - The Hornets got a very nice 78-73 win over Northern Arizona, made especially impressive because they scored 1.24 PPP against a solid NAU defense. They only took 13 threes, but made nine of them. Dylan Garrity was a driving force, as he had 26 points on just nine field goal attempts. They struggled keeping NAU off the offensive glass, and that is an issue, but they can score with anyone. Cody Demps (13), Eric Stuteville (16), and Zach Mills (12) all got in on the scoring action, which is important for them behind Garrity and Mikh McKinney.

Anything else you noticed?

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 2

After taking a look at the teams on Monday, let's take a closer look at the players that could make up awards teams and award winners, as we head into conference play. These are my predictions for the first two all-conference teams.

First Team:
- Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington - As we enter Big Sky play, Harvey looks like the favorite for the POY. He plays for the best team, and he has continued right where he left off last year as a dynamic scorer. He is averaging 22.8 PPG, but that only tells a little bit of the story. He is shooting a touch under 50% from three point range on the year, and doing it in nine attempts per game, which is almost ridiculous. He takes great care of the ball, and scores efficiently inside the arc as well. He is a star.
- Mikh McKinney, Sacramento State - I give him the slight nod over Garrity because he does more things well. He is a good distributor, and he is third in the league in Assist Rate. He has shot over 60% on two-pointers, and is a good enough outside shooter to keep you honest. He has also been a menace defensively, with the second best steal rate in the nation, swiping the ball 3.3 times per game.
- Venky Jois, Eastern Washington - Jois has cooled down a little after a scorching start, but he has shown a lot of improvement this year, averaging 19 and 8 per game. He is shooting over 60% from the floor, and has gotten better from the stripe. Though the total rebound number is a little inflated due to the fast pace of EWU, he is a good rebounder, and one of the best shot blockers in the conference. Jois does it all for the Eagles.
- Martin Breunig, Montana - Before the year, an insider told me that Breunig would be the best big man in the conference, and so far you could make the argument that is the case. His raw numbers of 16.7 PPG/6.4 RPG aren't as high as Jois, but he has been very good. He is shooting 64% from the floor, and 74% from the line. He's helped to turn around a lot of the rebounding troubles the Grizzlies have had the past couple years, and can block some shots as well. Foul trouble has limited his minutes quite a bit, but when he is on the floor, he's as good as any big man in the conference.
- Joel Bolomboy, Weber State - He hasn't been the offensive player we wanted him to be yet, shooting 44% on two-pointers against DI competition (he has feasted in two games against non-DI opponents), and hasn't rebounded it quite as well as his otherworldy rate from last year. But he still has the talent level to do that, and it should come together as the year goes on. No big man can match his athletic prowess.

Second Team:
- Dylan Garrity, Sacramento State - Garrity has really evolved in his career, but a playmaking freshman who led the conference in assists, into a senior who has to be one of the most feared shooters in the nation. He is a lethal weapon from the outside. He falls to the second team here because he has become more of simply a shooting specialist then he was in the past, but he could climb up to the first team.
- Mike Scott, Idaho - I have talked a lot about Scott this year, and he is a guy that has been efficient scoring 15.5 PPG (shooting 44% from three), while being one of the best distributors in the conference. He is second in the Big Sky in Assist Rate, which he has done while maintaining a minuscule turnover rate. He has been the most improved player in the conference.
- Drew Brandon, Eastern Washington - Brandon is the often forgotten third cog for EWU, a PG who does it all. Though not a great scorer (though he has been very efficient when he hasn't been shooting threes), he also averages 7 RPG from the PG position. Jim Hayford's offense needs a good PG, and Brandon has been that guy this year.
- Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona - It's reasonable to wonder if we saw Upshur's peak last year, but he is a very productive guy that is capable of carrying their offense in some situations. Though not shooting the ball quite as well as last year, he gets a lot of respect from deep. One thing that could help him is if he can get a little better at the line, where is shooting just 59% this year, baffling for a guy with his shooting ability.
- Dominique Lee, Northern Colorado - Lee was excellent in a reserve role last year, but has been even better with increased minutes so far this year. He is super efficient, and has put up better rebounding numbers than anyone in the conference. He is a guy that brings a lot to the table, but doesn't take much off. He has to play the five spot more than you would like, but that doesn't diminish how good he has been.

Let's hear any snubs or your thoughts...

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 1

On Thursday, Big Sky conference play begins. What that means is this - everything that has happened so far this year is useful only insofar as it adequately got teams prepared for what is to come. Other than that, it doesn't matter. There will be no at-large teams from the Big Sky, so as always, it will come down to conference play.

I wrote up a long-winded preview at the start of the year, but thought it might be useful to type up some new predictions for order of finish and taking a look at some of the best players in the Big Sky so far. In part one, I will give a new predicted order of finish.

Two notes. First, is that I will certainly be wrong. With so little separation, things are going to come down to tiebreakers, and there will be a ton of bunching. Second, I think teams two through eight are largely interchangable - If you feel like those teams should be slotted differently, you may well be right. I would love to hear the other thoughts and opinions from league followers, but with as little separation as we have seen from team's play, it would be hard to say that anyone is definitely right, and that includes my opinion.

All that said, let's begin!

1. Eastern Washington (14-4) - Their stellar start dulled a little at the end of non-conference play, where they followed a close loss to Washington (a great performance) with losses to Sam Houston State and California, ending with a too-close win over Lewis & Clark State.  However, those losses were the end of a very long roadtrip, and completely understandable. Their defenese, while not great, is improved over last year, and they look like they are one of the best offensive teams in the country. If non-conference play has taught us anything, it is that the Big Sky should be going through Cheney.

2. Weber State (11-7) - To clarify, for teams with identical records (such as the three 11-7 teams), I have put them in order of who I think is most likely to be higher. The Wildcats have had an up and down start, and they have arguably not beaten anyone better than them. But I still have them second because I still believe in their talent level. Joel Bolomboy hasn't quite made huge offensive strides, but he's still an elite rebounder and defender. They have the athletes and talent which gives them a high ceiling, it will just be mixed in with confounding losses due to all their youth.

3. Northern Arizona (11-7) - If you want to argue this is too high for them, I understand. They haven't looked great offensively, and other than an impressive win over St. Mary's, they haven't played well away from home. But, I think the fact that they can stake a claim to being the best defensive team in the Big Sky will keep them in most games. Scoring will be an issue all year, but only Weber State can defend at their level.

4. Sacramento State (11-7) - I have been down on them so far this year, but the same reason for optimism that was there at the start of the year is still there now. Namely, Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney. The seniors are both killing it, with ORtg of 118.0 (McKinney) and 117.8 (Garrity). McKinney has become the primary distributor, with Garrity's assist rate plunging down to 14.4 (it was 39.1 as a freshman). Nobody has a backcourt like that, which is the biggest reason they will win a lot of games.

5. Montana (10-8) - They are still finding their way, as they have battled injury issues and a new system from Travis DeCuire. Jordan Gregory has struggled a bit being "the man," though he has by no means been anything but solid. As I've mentioned, the biggest reason for hope is big man Martin Breunig, who has been a force inside, and figures to get even better in a Big Sky conference not known for imposing front lines. The key for the Griz, as with most, will be figuring out how to get stops when needed.

6. Idaho (10-8) - The Vandals have quietly been very good, with a good road win over Wazzu and a home victory over UC Davis (which later beat UNC by 10). Connor Hill has been crushing it lately, and Mike Scott continues to be perhaps the most impressive PG in the Big Sky. It's hard to say if Idaho will be helped by other BSC teams not knowing them well, or hurt by not knowing the other teams as well, but one thing is for sure - they are an offensive force that will win a lot of games.

7. Northern Colorado (9-9) - They are very deep, which is nice. They are also athletic. However, I wonder if their lack of size (Dominique Lee and Tim Huskisson are both very good, but play a lot of the four spot at 6'5'') could hurt, though it might be less of an issue during conference play than it was in non-conference play. The Bears are always tough at home, and they can always score, and those two things should get them to .500. One of their strengths the past couple years was rebounding, but that has struggled after losing Derrick Barden, Somebody besides Lee needs to rebound the basketball, and that hasn't happened enough so far.

8. Portland State (9-9) - I never know what to make of the Vikings, but overall they have had some disconcerting losses. They are cobbling together a solid offense, but they haven't really been able to get any easy baskets, shooting 39.4% inside the arc against D1 opponents - which, as you can guess, is not good. They have also dealt with some injury issues to their key frontcourt newcomers, and they need those guys healthy and productive. All in all, a .500 season with wild positive and negative swings seems to be about right.

9. Idaho State (7-11) - They are the poor man's NAU in that they can stop people (but not as well as NAU), but struggle scoring (even more than NAU). As I've mentioned in the past, they don't seem to have any outside shooters other than Chris Hansen, who defenses can key on. On the plus side, Jeff Solarin continues to gobble up rebounds, and get them some easy baskets on putbacks, which is big for them. I think Bill Evans can make the most of the roster, but it won't be enough to make the conference tournament.

10. North Dakota (6-12) - It hasn't been an inspiring start, but guys like Estan Tyler, Terrel de Rouen, and Josiah Coleman should be better than they have shown so far, which will help the offense and perhaps take some pressure off of Jaron Nash. With so many new faces, growing pains were to be expected, but Jones has done a good job of bringing talent in (and hopefully figuring out the rest later). This is a team that should get better as the year goes along.

11. Montana State (6-12) - They have been better than I expected, but they are still a young team that will struggle in Big Sky play. One trait that has carried over from last year is that they are a solid rebounding team, with big men like Danny Robison and Eric Norman showing themselves to be solid on the glass.

12. Southern Utah (4-14) - On December 23, SUU surpassed last year's win total, using a big run at the start of the second half to beat South Carolina State. Similarly, they should surpass last year's conference wins total within the first half of the Big Sky season. If AJ Hess keeps up his play, he will be at least an all-conference honorable mention player, as he has been excellent from outside while taking care of the ball. His development has helped open things for everyone else.

Let's hear everyone else's thoughts on how things look heading into Big Sky play...

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