Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 Big Sky Transfers

Jeff Goodman has his list of transfers in college basketball, including a lot that have to do with the Big Sky. So, let's take a quick peek at who is transferring in and out of the conference.

- Clint Thomas - Idaho State (walk-on)
- Travis Meeker - Northern Arizona
- DeWayne Russell - Northern Arizona (to Grand Canyon - he transferred before the year, obviously)
- Andre Winston - Portland State
- Lamont Prosser - Portland State (midseason transfer)
- Ryan Okwudibonye - Sacramento State
- Case Rada - Sacramento State
- Drake Thomas - Southern Utah
- Chris Nsenki - Southern Utah
- Royce Williams - Weber State
- Josh Fuller - Weber State

- Carson Shanks - North Dakota (from Utah State)
- Keonta Vernon - Northern Arizona (from Wyoming)
- KJ Bluford - Northern Arizona (from Iowa State)

In all, the transfers coming in should have big impacts, as is typically the case at this level. Of the transfers leaving, DeWayne Russell obviously was talented, but NAU is just fine without him. Andre Winston was a very good player for the Vikings, but they have enough backcourt depth to withstand that. Royce Williams could have contributed in a bigger role, and I had heard good things about Josh Fuller as well for the Wildcats.

Beyond that, the transfers out shouldn't really have a big impact on the teams. It's a lot of guys that weren't getting a ton of minutes, so hopefully they can find better situations for themselves elsewhere.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Portland State and Sacramento State Sign Some Recruits

Recruits are starting to sign with schools now, and Sacramento State and Portland State both announced their recruiting classes.

In total, Sac State has five recruits signed (four in the current signing period, one early), and really, it looks like a very strong class.

The signees, and a quick blurb about them:

- Guard Marcus Graves - “Marcus is a highly skilled player who is a very good shooter and play maker,” Katz said. “He has a similar game to (current Hornet guard) Dylan Garrity in that he is a shooter that can drive. Marcus’ eyes are always up in the open court and in the on-ball, and he has a very good feel and understanding for the game of basketball.”

- Center James Herrick - “James is a big, strong and powerful post player,” Katz said. “He has very good hands, and is a big man that can shoot and pass the ball. He has a tremendous amount of upside, and gives us a solid player at the 5 spot that will develop and get better.”

- Forward Mason Stuteville (brother of current Hornet Eric Stuteville) - “Mason is a skilled big man with a powerful body who can pass, shoot and has good hands,” Katz said. “When we signed his brother, we said Eric’s best days were ahead of him, and I truly believe that with Mason as well. He can post, he can drive the lane, and he can shoot it. We like his versatility, and he will provide matchup problems for our opponents.”

- Guard Jiday Ugbaja - “Jiday is an athletic guard with power and explosiveness,” Katz said. “He’s 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, and with a year or two of weight training, he will look like an NFL running back. He is a driver that can shoot, and he fits the mould of what we look for in our perimeter players as guys that can dribble, pass and shoot.”

- Forward Justin Strings - "Justin has big shoulders, big hands, long arms, a big chest and he will eventually develop a very powerful body," Katz said. "He is one of those players that flew under the radar, but is extremely skilled and has the potential to become a very good player at the collegiate level. He is versatile in that he can play in the post and on the perimeter, and its not a stretch to say his ball-handling skills are the equivalent to most shooting guards."

Just as impressive, all five guys are freshmen, which is typically a good sign for a program, in my opinion.

With Portland State's roster construction, they figured to go after big men, and that is indeed what they did, signing two froncourt players, both from the junior college ranks.

- Forward Collin Spickerman - "With the loss of Kyle Richardson we needed to find someone who could replace him inside and Collin is that man," said Geving. "He brings something we are trying to add to our team, which is rebounding and defending the glass. We think Collin can step right in as a rebounder and be an offensive threat for us. His best attribute is his ability to block shots. He has great timing for a 6-foot-8 guy, he moves his feet well and can protect the rim for us.

- Forward Braxton Tucker - "Braxton is another guy that is a great athlete. The biggest thing he adds for us is his ability to rebound and defend bigger guys inside. He fills a need of adding more size and depth to our front line."

The Vikings have a deep and talented backcourt, so it makes sense that they would go for JUCO big men in this class.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Marcus Hall of Portland State Given Another Year of Eligibility

Portland State received some good news last week, as wing man Marcus Hall was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Hall and Portland State were appealing the NCAA to get a year back after Hall was able to compete in only eight games in 2012-13 due to a calf injury.

The news of Hall's additional year is significant for the Viking program. The 6-4 guard started 31 of 32 games for PSU this past season. He averaged 7.6 points and 3.5 rebounds. Hall made a team-high 51 three-point field goals, hitting .395 from distance.

Hall will be one of four starters and 10 letterwinners returning next season from a Viking team that was 17-15 in 2013-14.hat was 17-15 in 2013-14.
Last season, Hall played the second most minutes on the team, almost 75% of them. Offensively, he was mostly a three-point specialist - he shot 39% from outside and shot over twice as many threes as twos. His return certainly is good news for a PSU team could be very dangerous next season, as they'll have one of the deepest backcourts in the conference.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Idaho Primer

As you are most likely aware, Idaho will be joining the Big Sky next season. If you are like me, you don't really know all that much about Idaho. They made it to the WAC title game, we know that much, but what else should we know about their team next season?

(Note: I'm just going through their roster. I will be the first to admit I may have something wrong, or there may be something I don't know. This is just meant to be a quick look at what they might look like next season.)

Last season, they finished 16-18, 7-9 in the WAC. Their strength was offense (so they will fit right into the Big Sky!), as they scored 1.05 PPP (154th in the country(, while allowing 1.12 PPP (312th in the country). The previous year, they scored 1.08 PPP (57th), and allowed 1.12 PPP (337th). They play at a relatively high pace - their tempo would have been the third fastest in the Big Sky after Eastern Washington and North Dakota.

Based on minutes played, they lose two of their top six players, including former Big Sky member Glen Dean, and Stephen Madison. Dean averaged 9.0 points and 2.4 assists, while Madison led the team at 20.1 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. So those are big losses, but there still should be some good returning talent on hand.

The leading scorer will likely be guard Connor Hill, who averaged 14.2 PPG this past season. He shot 41% on threes last season, while taking over seven of them per game. He shot 234 threes vs 127 twos, though that ratio is a good thing when you are shooting such a solid percentage. He doesn't grab many rebounds or create shots for others, but he doesn't turn the ball over either.

Getting him the ball will be the job of Mike Scott, who will also be a senior. He is an average scorer, but he had a nice 22.4 Assist Rate vs just a 13.7 TO Rate. He has the chance to be a good lead guard for the Vandals. Another guy that shows promise is guard Sekou Wiggs. As a freshman last season, he was third on the team in scoring, and third in rebounding. He doesn't have much of an outside shot yet, but he is relentless attacking the rim, and was 26th in the country in the rate of fouls that he drew. He shot 66% from the stripe, and if he can boost that up a little bit, he can be a big-time scorer for the Vandals this season.

A couple others guys to touch on is big man Ty Egbert, who was also solid as a freshman. He played 12 minutes a game, but showed flashes of being a good contributor. He shot 59% on his limited attempts (though he was awful at the FT line). Joining him up front could be Bira Seck, an excellent rebounder that snagged 11.1% of offensive rebounds and 19.2% of defensive rebounds.

As I look into the recruiting class for the teams, I will research more on them, but this was a quick look at their roster. Would appreciate any insight from those that are a bit more knowledgeable about the Vandals.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Brian Fish Named Montana State Coach

This happened last week, but I was out of town so wasn't able to write about it. Montana State moved quickly to hire a new head coach, hiring Oregon assistant coach Brian Fish.

Fish comes to MSU after four seasons on Dana Altman's staff at the University of Oregon, a period in which the Ducks compiled 96 wins, including three in the NCAA Tournament, and advanced to the post-season each year. He spent the previous six seasons (2004-10 as assistant coach), and eight years overall (including 1994-96 as video coordinator), on Altman's staff at Creighton, and was also assistant coach (2003-04) and associate head coach (2004-05) at San Diego, and assistant coach (1996-2002) on Billy Tubbs' staff at TCU.
He has never been a head coach, but was an assistant under Dana Altman for a long time. Altman's excellent track record suggests that he is an excellent to learn from in terms of how to have success and build a program.

The most interesting thing to me always is what style of play a new coach has, and Fish answered that in an FAQ on Montana State's site.

What style will the Bobcats play? My simple answer to that has been whatever style will win us a game. Each team is different, and the great thing is that as a program we can evolve each year. Ideally I'd like to play up tempo, but we'll see what this team's strengths are and go from there.
A common complaint about former coach Brad Huse was that he was stuck in his system, and did not do a good job of adapting to the personnel he had. To that end, Fish's response about using whatever style will win has to be music to the ears of the program.

It's always tough to predict how a new coach will do, but Fish has the pedigree to be a very solid coach, including recruiting ties to the Pacific Northwest and California, from his time at Oregon, and at San Diego earlier in his career. That is essential for success in the Big Sky. If he can turn some things around, MSU has a very solid recruiting base, and I think the program would respond very well to a winner. Time will tell if Fish is the guy to provide that.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

My Big Sky Awards, Part 2

Before leaving for vacation, I posted part 1 of my Big Sky awards, so it's time for part 2 - the award teams. While my part one did not differ much from what actually happened, I suspect I will have some differences to the actual selections made for the teams.

I will use the same amount of players as the Conference has for these awards, for consistency sake.

- Davion Berry (Weber State) - Berry was a deserving POY, an all-around play without many weaknesses. It was a great two-year Weber State career for him.
- Kareem Jamar (Montana) - For Jamar, it was a great four-year career that included a POY award and three first-team selections. He was a great player for the Grizzlies, and I will miss watching him.
- Troy Huff (North Dakota) - Perhaps the most dynamic player in the Big Sky with his above the rim ability, people forget he led the Big Sky in steals too.
- Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington) - Harvey's story is a great one. Last year, he was a freshman not on a scholarship. He got his chance late in the year and thrived. This year, all he did was lead the Big Sky in scoring at almost 22 a game.
- Joel Bolomboy (Weber State) - He got snubbed from the first team, but he could be the POY next season. His offensive game is still developing, but it's a good sign that he shot 72% on FTs this year. It's also a good sign that he is perhaps the best rebounder in the entire country, and was the defensive POY in the Big Sky. He is a star.
- Derrick Barden (Northern Colorado) - Early on, he looked like a contender for Big Sky POY, but that fizzled a bit when UNC struggled in the second half of conference play. Still, he was a great player for the Bears that improved even on an excellent debut season. He shot 60% from the field, was a tenacious rebounder, and versatile defender. He was a star in his two year career for the Bears.

- Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State) - He got overshadowed a bit by McKinney, but Garrity hums along as a great offensive player. This year, he shot 48% from three on about five attempts per game. That is ridiculously good.
- Mikh McKinney (Sacramento State) - McKinney was one of the most improved players in the conference. His two-point percentage jumped from 41% to 53%, and he draws a ton of fouls. This year, he also became a great assist man, while cutting down turnovers. The Hornets could have two first-teamers next year, as they will continue to have the Big Sky's best backcourt.
- Aaron Anderson (North Dakota) - Throughout his career, I thought Anderson was very underrated, as shown by his honorable mention status (rather than first or second team). He did it all offensively, shooting from outside, getting to the rack, drawing fouls, and keeping his turnovers down. Troy Huff got the pub, but I'm not so sure that Anderson wasn't UND's best offensive player.
- Tate Unruh (Northern Colorado) - Unruh developed nicely in his career, as a guy who started as just a shooter, and ended as a complete offensive player. Of course, he retained his elite shooting skills... in his career, he missed nine free throws out of 149 attempts.
- Quinton Upshur (Northern Arizona) - Upshur had a great debut season, and was rightly named Newcomer of the Year. He has unlimited range, but was efficient inside the arc as well. If he can take the next step in his development, NAU will be a Big Sky title contender.

- Kyle Tresnak (Weber State) - Tresnak always showed flashes, such as his great effort in the Big Sky title game, but never quite became the dominant force we thought he might be. That is OK, because he was still very good - a capable scorer and solid rebounder and defender.
- Jordan Gregory (Montana) - He was the toughest omission from the top two teams, as he grew as expected to be a reliable contributor. He is a good outside shooter, but has a nice ability to get inside and make baskets.
- Kyle Richardson (Portland State) - Richardson was quietly one of the best big men in the conference during conference play, even though he was at times the Vikings only reliable big man. He had a big impact in his one season in Portland.
- Tomas Sanchez (Idaho State) - I wanted to find a way to get him in one of the top two teams, but couldn't quite make the leap. Still, he was an iron man for the Bengals, as basically their only PG. He took and made big shots, and was a solid distributor. Without him, it would have been an ugly year in Pocatello.
- Chris Hansen (Idaho State) - Hansen is an excellent shooter, making 40% on a ton of three-point attempts. He will need to work a bit on creating his own shot, because they are going to rely on him a lot next season.
- Max Jacobsen (Northern Arizona) - All Jacobsen did as a senior was shoot 61% from the field, as perhaps the best low post scorer in the Big Sky. He was not above average in any other skill, but in a league without a lot of great frontcourt scorers, Jacobsen stood out.
- Keron DeShields (Montana) - He was greatly improved this season, becoming a better distributor and better offensive scorer. His two-point shooting jumped from  40% to 56%, which turned him from a liability to a reliable contributor for the Grizzlies.
- Gary Winston (Portland State) - Winston is a solid all-around offensive player, with the ability to hit threes and get to the rim. He is part of a deep backcourt for PSU which should be a strength next season.
- Tevin Svihovec (Northern Colorado) - Svihovec played off the ball a lot more this year, and I think that suited his game well. He still forces too many shots, but he is a solid outside shooter that can get to the rim and draw fouls. They need him to be an offensive centerpiece next season.
- Paul Egwuonwu (Montana State) - He was one of the best defensive rebounders in the country last season, and that was huge for the Bobcats. He wasn't a great offensive player but he wasn't a negative either. Combined with his rebounding, and he will be sorely missed.


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Friday, March 28, 2014

Postseason Stuff

My wife and I are on vacation this upcoming week, and then I have a few posts planned for when I get back. Here is what I am still planning to post before the offseason:

- My Big Sky Awards (Pt 2)
- Idaho primer
- Early rankings for next year
- Update recruiting roundup

Anything else you want to see before the blog goes into hibernation mode?

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Big Sky Awards, Part 1

The Big Sky awards were revealed a couple of weeks ago, and for the most part, I think they were good choices. However, I still wanted to go through and give my thoughts on the awards, who I'd choose, and the other top candidates.

Player of the Year
Actual Choice: Davion Berry, Weber State
My Choice: Davion Berry
Other Candidates: Kareem Jamar, Troy Huff, Derrick Barden
Comments: It was almost a foregone conclusion that Berry would win the award, as it usually goes to the best player on the best team, but should he have? Berry and Jamar are basically neck and neck, so neither would be a bad choice, but I pick Berry for a couple reasons:

- Statistically, a big edge for Jamar is that he grabs 17.9% of defensive rebounds, while Berry is at 12.8%, a big difference. However, Berry plays alongside an elite rebounder in Joel Bolomboy, while Jamar does not, which makes it easier for him to grab rebounds.
- They are about equally good shooters and passers. However, Berry is a little better from downtown, shooting 40% on threes compared to 34% for Jamar.
- Berry is better at getting to the free throw line which gives him more opportunities for freebies. Also, he is an 82% foul shooter compared to 71% for Jamar.

Either way, both guys would be good choices, but I would choose Berry. Derrick Barden would be another solid option for his efficient offense and rebounding, but I think Berry does more things at a high level. Similarly, Troy Huff is not a bad pick as he is a better rebounder than Berry/Jamar and led the conference in steals, but he loses some points for his offensive efficiency and the fact that he is a far worse passer than the other two guys.

Newcomer of the Year
Actual Choice: Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona
My Choice: Quinton Upshur
Other Candidates: Kyle Richardson of Portland State
Comments: Upshur had an excellent debut season for the Jacks, and got better and better as the season went on. He has deep range, and shoots efficiently inside the arc as well. He pokes away some steals as well, with a 3.4 steal percentage. He is not a great passer or rebounder, but he is a very good scorer for them. Certainly a case could be made for Kyle Richardson of Portland State, who was really one of the best big men in the conference by the end of the year, but I think Upshur was the right choice.

Freshman of the Year
Actual Choice: Jeremy Senglin, Weber State
My Choice: Jeremy Senglin
Other Candidates: Jordan Wilson of Northern Colorado, Kris Yanku of Northern Arizona, Mario Dunn of Montana
Comments: Senglin had a steady debut season, showcasing some offensive skills (including 40% shooting on threes). He needs to become a better passer, but he showed he is capable of running the offense and should be slotted in for the Wildcats. He played almost 75% of the team's minutes and started from day one on the conference champ, which tells you what the coaches think of him. You could make a case for the other PGs as well. Dunn is the best defensive player of the group and will be an all-conference guy eventually. Yanku got better as the season went along and is perhaps the most important guy in NAU's program right now. Wilson was great for UNC as a freshman, showing some signs of good offense, as well as excellent on-ball defense. All four guys are worthy, and the fact that four PGs like this enter the Big Sky as freshmen is a great sign, but I would give Senglin the nod.

Sixth Man of the Year
Actual Choice: Jamal Webb of North Dakota and DaShaun Wiggins of Portland State
My Choice: Tim Huskisson, Northern Colorado
Other Candidates: Wiggins
Comments: Neither of the choices were bad at all. Webb was a steady guard off the bench, after starting the previous three seasons. Wiggins was even better... he was one of the best in the country at drawing fouls, and was a super efficient offensive players. He was a fine choice. However, my selection would be Huskisson, who started 12 of 32 games for the Bears. He was an efficient scorer and versatile defender. He still struggles at times with consistency, but he still has the ceiling of being a star.

Defensive Player of the Year
Actual Choice: Joel Bolomboy, Weber State
My Choice: Joel Bolomboy
Other Candidates: Jamal Webb, Derrick Barden
Comments: Bolomboy is an excellent anchor of the defense, with his size, quickness, and leaping ability. He gobbles up every rebound (28.2% DR%). His blocks were down, but he still impacted many shots. Bolomboy could be a POY as soon as next season in the Big Sky.

Coach of the Year
Actual Choice: Randy Rahe, Weber State
My Choice: Jack Murphy, Northern Arizona
Other Candidates: Rahe, Brian Katz
Comments: I can't argue with Rahe too much, as he is a great coach, but Murphy would have been my choice. It is simply about expectations vs actual results. Weber State was predicted first, and that is where they finished. However, NAU was predicted near the bottom of the conference, lost their best returner right before the season... and still finished third with a ton of newcomers. He did a great coaching job this season.

What are your thoughts? In the next week or two I should have time to go through and give my all-conference teams, and I suspect I will have a lot more differences compared to what the actual selections were than I do here.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Weber State Battles, But Falls to Arizona

In the end, Weber State was not to be the first 16 seed to topple a one seed, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Wildcats of Weber State battled down to the final buzzer, losing to Arizona 68-59 to end the Big Sky season. We talked about how Arizona is possibly the best defensive team in the country - and that was shown in this game - but Weber State was not intimidated, and even managed to make things interesting down the stretch.

Weber State shot 30% from the floor, and still found a way to make Arizona sweat. They should be proud of their efforts.

Weber State got off to an early 7-0 run, but Arizona moved quickly to take back the lead, going on a 32-13 run the rest of the first half. For long stretches, Weber State was just not able to get enough buckets to stay in the game. However, they just kept attacking. Davion Berry was just 5/20 FG, but he made shots down the stretch, and stayed aggressive going to the hoop, finishing with 10 free throw attempts. It was a nice end to a great two year career in purple for him, as he was clearly not afraid of the big stage.

Another guy that showcased himself was big man Joel Bolomboy, who finished with 16 rebounds, seven of them offensive. As we have said really since he got to Weber State - his offensive game is not polished, but he is an NBA level rebounder and athlete in the frontcourt. Arizona coach Sean Miller said after the game he thought Bolomboy would be an NBA player, and it's hard to disagree.

It was an up and down year for the Big Sky, as evidenced by the 16 seed that Weber State received. However, the Wildcats represented themselves and the Big Sky well, playing a great team very tough, never backing down, and never letting up, even when the Arizona lead grew in the second half. It was a great learning experience for the young guys (Jeremy Senglin was the freshman of the year in the conference, but fellow freshman Richaud Gittens could be an all-conference player very soon), and a great showcase for the program, especially after they came up just short the last couple of seasons.

In the end, perhaps the highest praise came from Miller, who said this after the game:

"Weber is one of the best teams we've played all season," Miller said. "We've played some of the great teams in college basketball and I don't care what the name of their conference is or what they say on their shirt."
Great game, and an excellent season for a great program.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

What Can Weber State Do To Have a Chance?

Obviously, you know that a 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed. The odds are not just stacked against Weber State, they would have to make history to advance and beat Arizona. On paper, certainly, Arizona is the heavy favorite, but that's why they play the games. Here are some keys for the game that would help give Weber State a puncher's chance:

- Make outside shots - This is key for anyone trying to pull off a big upset - you have to be able to hit shots. Arizona is perhaps the best defensive team in the country - you are not going to break them down and get to the rim. Weber State is a very athletic team, but Arizona is even more athletic. Teams shoot 40.5% on twos against Arizona, second lowest rate in the country. To have a shot, Weber needs to make some threes, and they do have the shooters to be able to do that.

-  Force Arizona bigs into foul trouble - Without Brandon Ashley, Arizona is perhaps most susceptible if you can get their big men into foul trouble (especially Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon). Weber is a good team at drawing fouls, especially Davion Berry. I know I said they need to make a lot of threes, but they could also benefit from Berry trying to get to the rim, and ideally forcing some fouls.

- Don't let Arizona get second chance shots - Weber State is not a team that forces turnovers, and that will not change today.But, they are a good defensive rebounding team, and that trait needs to hold today. Once they force a miss, they HAVE to get the defensive rebound - you can't give up free baskets to teams as good as Arizona. Joel Bolomboy is one of the best rebounders in the nation, and he'll have to show it today.

- Survive the first ten minutes - I know that Weber State is confident they can go in there and shock the world - you simply wouldn't be a competitor if you didn't believe that no matter the odds. But if Arizona gets off to a big start right away, some of that belief could fade a little bit. They have to start out strong, and be at least even or close to it after the first ten minutes. Build up a little momentum, and the crowd will be on your side, at least the neutral fans that are in the house.

That is the anatomy of a Weber State upset. Ken Pomeroy's odds give them a 4% chance to win the game. If they are going to shock the world, these four keys will likely be a big part of it.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Brad Huse Resigns as Montana State Head Coach

In a surprising turn of events, Montana State head coach Brad Huse has resigned. He signed a two year contract extension after last season, but the Bobcats missed the conference tournament after a 9-11 Big Sky mark.

From the Montana Standard:

Brad Huse has resigned his position as head coach of the men’s basketball team at Montana State University, the school announced today.

Huse made the move after meeting with athletic director Peter Fields earlier in the day.

“Brad offered his resignation during a meeting this morning and I have accepted it,” Fields said in a statement. “I want to thank him for his effort, dedication and integrity. I wish Brad and his family nothing but the best.”

Huse recently completed his eighth year as the Bobcats’ head basketball coach, amassing a 107-133 overall record. The Bobcats finished with 14-17 record this season.

Fields said that a search for Huse’s replacement will begin immediately. He hopes that the process will not take long but said that, “hiring the right person is the most important factor.”
No matter your thoughts on Huse as a coach (and Montana State fans have plenty of things to say), from all accounts Huse is a stand-up guy, and we wish him well.

I thought there would be a good chance we would have no coaching openings in the Big Sky (unless Wayne Tinkle or Randy Rahe leave for greener pastures), but suddenly, the Montana State job is open.

If I had to speculate, it was more of a firing than a straight-up resignation, but I have no inside information there - just guessing. Not many young coaches resign one year into a two year deal.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Big Sky Teams Postseason Tournaments

We know about Weber State in the NCAA Tournament, but they are not the only team that will be playing postseason basketball.

Big Sky runner-up North Dakota will be playing in the CIT for the fourth straight season. In the opening round Wednesday, they will take on Nebraska-Omaha.

Northern Colorado also got a berth in the CIT, and they will get to host a game to boot. Texas A&M Corpus-Christi will come to Greeley on Wednesday night.

Last, Portland State also got the invite to the CIT, and they will travel to take on San Diego on Tuesday night. The berth is great validation for Tyler Geving and his club, who has such a strong finish to the season.

The focus this time of year is on the NCAA Tournament, but it is a good sign for the Big Sky that three other teams are playing in postseason tournaments. We'll be following along with everyone here!

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A Brief Look at Arizona

By now, you know that Weber State drew the 16 seed in the West, and will take on Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Let's take a brief look at Arizona, and what we know of them.

For a lot of the year, Arizona was ranked #1 in the country, as they started things off by winning 21 straight games. They finished 30-4, losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament final.

Star forward Brandon Ashley (sidenote: Arizona has a lot of stars) got hurt in the 22nd game against California. It might be worth noting that Arizona was 21-0 with him, and 9-4 without him.

Arizona is led by Nick Johnson, a first team All-American and a guy that is really an excellent player. This year, he averaged 16.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, and 2.8 APG. He can score from the outside (36%), inside (49% on twos), and is good at getting to the free throw line (169 attempts this year, shooting 77%). Other guys to watch for include Aaron Gordon (a super athletic freshman who will be a high draft pick this year), and TJ McConnell (a transfer from Duquesne who is an excellent passer). As you would expect from a number one seed, Arizona has no shortage of talent, athletes, or depth in a game like this.

In terms of defensive efficiency, Arizona is the best defensiv team in the country, allowing 0.87 PPP (by comparison, Weber State allows 1.06 PPP). Teams shoot just 40.5% on twos against them, second best rate in the country. Also, the Wildcats are great on the defensive glass, and opponents have the sixth worst offensive rebounding percentage against them of any team in the country. Baskets will be tough to come by.

Offensively, Arizona is 35th in the country at 1.13 PPP (again for comparison, Weber State is at 1.06 PPP). Their best weapon as been scoring inside the paint... they aren't a great three-point shooting team, and they get 57% of their points with two-pointers. They will look to go inside.

Obviously, Weber State will have their work cut out for them. No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 seed. The Wildcats are 30-4 for a reason! As the week goes on, though, we'll look at what Weber State has to do to have a puncher's chance in this game.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Where Will Weber State Get Seeded?

Now that we know Weber State is going dancing, the next intrigue comes from wondering if they can stay off the 16 seed line. According to a lot of the bracket experts I am seeing, that will be tough.

I asked a couple bracket experts right after the game, and at that time, they had Weber State slotted as the highest rated 16 seed, and potentially looking at being out in the West bracket against Arizona.

As of the time of this writing (Saturday night), Jerry Palm at CBS has Weber State on the 16 seed line also taking on Arizona.

Joe Lunardi of ESPN has them as a 15 seed against Wisconsin in the West bracket.

We will find out on Sunday.

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Weber State Is Going Dancing

In their third straight Big Sky Championship game, Weber State was just not going to be denied. After their overtime win over Northern Colorado in the semifinals, there was some thought that they might be a little tired after having to go an extra frame in a physical game. However, they put any notions of that to rest very quickly.

Weber State beat North Dakota 88-67, and they are your Big Sky champions.

The Wildcats came out firing in this game, hitting their first six shots and 10 of their first 11. Before UND knew what hit them, the score was 18-6 and the crowd was very much in the game. North Dakota did a really good job of hanging around, but they could just never full recover, and were forced to play from behind the whole game.

Weber State got things going by hitting their outside shot, and that stayed with them the whole way. They finished 10/21 from behind the arc, and always seemed to have a big shot in them whenever one was needed. The defining moment of the game may have been at the end of the first half... UND scratched and clawed to get the game back to 41-34, only to see Davion Berry drain the three at the buzzer, and turn around to have Damian Lillard, sitting in the front row, there to high-five. It was that kind of night for Berry (19 points) and the Wildcats.

In the second half, with UND forced to respect the outside shot, it became the Kyle Tresnak show. He was unstoppable in the second half, playing perhaps the best game of his career. He scored a career high 27 points on 11/15 FG, and 5/5 from the charity stripe. He was great.

For North Dakota, it's a tough end for a great group of seniors who accomplished so much, but won't get a taste of the NCAA Tournament. Guys like Troy Huff, Aaron Anderson, Jamal Webb, Josh Schuler, and Brandon Brekke (though he battled injury problems) really lifted the program to another level. They have a lot to be proud of. In this one, Josh Schuler and Jamal Webb didn't play (well, Webb very sparingly) and that hurt them, but I'm not sure it would have made a difference with the way Weber State was playing.

Weber State had 55 wins the past two seasons but couldn't get over the hump in the championship game. This year, they did it emphatically. At 19-11, Weber State is going to the NCAA Tournament. They are a great program, and you have to be happy for those guys and the coaching staff! Now let's go win an NCAA Tournament game!

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Weber State Outlasts Northern Colorado

At times in the second half, it looked like Weber State was in control of the game. At the final media timeout, an and-1 by Richaud Gittens put Weber State up 55-48, and the light seemed to be closing on Northern Colorado. However, they scored the next seven points of regulation, and had the chance to win on a last second shot, but Tate Unruh's jumper rimmed out.

Overtime basically followed the same pattern. Davion Berry led with five straight points, and the Bears were playing from behind again. Just when things started to look bleak, down seven with a little over a minute left, they clawed back. Derrick Barden hit a three. After Jordan Richardson hit one of two, Barden scored again. Tevin Svihovec forced a turnover, and then hit a bucket. Just like that, it was 64-63.

But then Berry showed why he is the Big Sky Player of the Year... he hit an acrobatic driving shot, giving the Wildcats the 66-63 lead with 10 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, the Wildcats did a great job at denying Unruh the ball, and Jordan Wilson's prayer at the buzzer went unanswered. 66-63, Weber State headed to the Big Sky championship.

There are many stars for UNC (Cody McDavis playing the best game of his career), but a quick word on Tate Unruh and Derrick Barden. Since I live a little over an hour from Greeley, I've seen them in person 20 times over the last three years. Each of these guys had great UNC careers. Barden's athletic ability was almost unreal at times, and Unruh had the purest shooting stroke I've seen. I'll miss watching those guys.

For Weber State, I'm sure they'll be the first to tell you it wasn't their best game. They couldn't get buckets inside in the second half (Kyle Tresnak was scoreless after halftime), but it's all about surviving and advancing. Freshmen like Richaud Gittens and Kyndahl Hill made big plays, and they'll be great players sooner rather than later. Berry made the plays when it counted. In the end, all that matters and all they care about is they are playing in the title game on their home court, with a trip to the Big Dance on the line.

It is games like this where you are reminded that sports is a zero sum game. Northern Colorado deserves better than a loss and a heartbreaking end to their season, but that is unfortunately what they get, because somebody always has to lose. There are no moral victories in March, but eventually they will be proud of the effort they gave in this game.

That was a heck of basketball game.

Saturday night - North Dakota vs Weber State. Everything the teams have been working for, all comes down to that game. Can't wait to get it started!

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North Dakota Advances to Big Sky Title Game

In their second year in the Big Sky, and second year of full DI eligibility, North Dakota will be playing for a spot in the Big Dance. In the first semifinal, they beat Portland State 79-63, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back.

UND jumped out of the gates by pounding the ball inside with great efficiency, and hitting the glass whenever they missed. They couldn't hit outside shots all game (1/9 from three), but they still scored 79 by getting it down low, and grabbing 18 offensive rebounds. Early, it was Jaron Nash (13 points, 6 rebounds and Alonzo Traylor (8 points - all early) that led the way, getting UND a big start.

As the game wore on, PSU had a tough time containing Aaron Anderson, who was brilliant once again. He had 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, constantly getting to the bucket with his quick acceleration. Troy Huff struggled from the floor again (3/14 FG), but his aggressive attacking at the basket led to a 12/15 night from the charity stripe.

All night, North Dakota never let up offensively. Though their field goal percentage doesn't look great, their offensive rebounding and free throw totals tell the story. They were constantly attacking the basket and getting it inside, and PSU just couldn't find ways to slow them down with their four-guard lineups.

It's a tough end to the season for Portland State, thought there are still many reasons to be proud. When they were sitting at 6-8 in the conference with a tough schedule down the stretch, I'm not sure anyone expected that their season would end in the Big Sky semifinals. Though they need to find some frontcourt players, they will still return a lot of talent next season.

But this was North Dakota's day. They played without key reserve Josh Schuler (out after McKinney's foul last night), but it didn't matter. On Saturday night, they play for their first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

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Big Sky Semifinals Preview

And then there were four. Let's take a quick preview of each game.

(1) Weber State vs (6) Northern Colorado
In their first meeting, UNC ran the Wildcats out of the gym, using pressure defense and great offense to blow them out in the second half. In the second meeting, it was Weber State who won comfortably, making 12/20 threes. As I said last night, this game will come down to which Northern Colorado team shows up - the one that dominated NAU on both ends for 30 minutes, or the one that nearly blew a 20 point lead in 9 minutes. We have seen both iterations this year.

Things start for the Bears on the defensive end, where they have allowed 1.13 PPP in conference play, second to last. They simply haven't been able to get stops over the second half of the conference season, which is bad because Weber's offense has been getting better. On the other side, UNC is an excellent offensive team, and they shoot 54.9% on twos in Big Sky play. However, Weber State has solid interior defense, led by the Defensive POY in the conference in Joel Bolomboy.

For UNC, the key is to take at least one of Weber's big men out of the game, either by foul trouble or by wearing them down. The second key is to force the young backcourt into making some mistakes. That is what happened in the first meeting between the teams. However, I think the Wildcats have outgrown some of those issues. The Bears can hang in this for awhile because of their offense, but I don't think they can get enough stops, especially on the road. Weber State 77, Northern Colorado 67.

(2) North Dakota vs (5) Portland State
UND probably did not expect that Portland State would be their opponent, but it sets up an interesting match and what should be a great game. KenPom pegs it as almost even, and it's hard to argue. They split their season meetings, and both looked impressive yesterday.

The key to this game could be turnovers. Both defenses are at their best when they are pressuring teams and forcing turnovers, as they have the two highest turnovers forced rates in the Big Sky during conference play. Both teams defenses break down after the initial line of defense (if you get in the lane against UND, two points can basically be put on the board), so it's important to force turnovers.

To me, North Dakota has the slight edge in this game because they are a little better offensively. Troy Huff struggled yesterday, but he will be the best player on the court. Additionally, a lot of UND role players are really stepping up - I can't say enough about Aaron Anderson (who is always underrated), and guys like Josh Schuler and Cole Stefan are playing well. Both teams have their defensive struggles at times, but when one team needs a few buckets during the doldrums of the second half, I trust UND a little bit more to get those baskets. North Dakota 79, Portland State 75.

Your predictions?

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day One Is In The Books

With three quarterfinal games of the Big Sky tournament on Thursday, we knew we'd get some great games. Fortunately, we were treated to all three games coming down to the end. Let's take a quick recap of what happened.

North Dakota 79, Sacramento State 76
This one was consistently entertaining from start to finish, with both teams making plays offensively throughout. The Hornets build up a lead in the second half, but North Dakota stayed right in it, made some free throws down the stretch, and got a stop when they needed it. The Hornets were led by their strong backcourt, as always. Mikh McKinney led the way with 24 points and 7 assists, practically living at the foul line in the second half. His backcourt mate Dylan Garrity had 18 points and six rebounds, draining all four threes that he attempted. Cody Demps was big as well, with 15 points.

But North Dakota just had too many weapons in this game, and hit lots of big shots down the stretch. The star at the end was Aaron Anderson, who kept making plays. He finished with 16 points and four assists. The other guy that I thought really stepped up for them was Josh Schuler, who had 11 points and four assists off the bench, and just kept making big play after big play. The senior was huge when UND needed him most. He did get tackled a bit by McKinney at the end of the game (McKinney was desperately trying to foul, not a dirty play at all, just had a bad ending), so it remains to be seen his status going forward.

For the Hornets, it's a bitter loss since they were so close to the win, but they can at least take solace in the fact that they should be back next year, and be one of the favorites in the Big Sky. North Dakota advances to play another day, and that's all you can ask for at this point in the season!

Northern Colorado 62, Northern Arizona 60
For a while, it looked like the Northern Colorado club we saw to begin the conference season - the one that was obliterating opponents, unstoppable on offense, and relentless on defense. With nine minutes to play, they led by 20. But NAU is a resilient club, and they just kept chipping away, until suddenly it was 62-60 and the Jacks had the ball with the chance to tie or win. Quinton Upshur's shot at the end didn't fall, but it was a great effort getting back in the game. NAU fed big man Max Jacobson all game, and he was excellent in his swan song, with 18 points. Aaseem Dixon was another star, with 20 off the bench, keying the comeback with three pointer after three pointer. Like Sac State, they will be back and even better next season.

For the Bears, if they play like they did the first 30 minutes, they absolutely can beat Weber State. If they play like they did down the stretch, they'll get blown out. Tevin Svihovec led the charge early, and finished with 14 points. Derrick Barden had 15, and Tate Unruh had 12 points. They remain, even now, a mystifying team, and that was certainly on display on Thursday. Hopefully we will see the "Good UNC" on Friday, because when they are clicking, there is not a more fun team to watch in the Big Sky.

Portland State 70, Montana 63
Just like that, Montana's title defense is over. Portland State did something nobody has been able to do for a couple years... beat Montana in the Big Sky tournament. Montana led much of the first 30 minutes or so, but this was a close game throughout. With four minutes left, the game was very much in doubt... but from then on, the Vikings could do no wrong.

Montana struggled from the outside, shooting 1/10 from three-point range. Kareem Jamar was 0/5 from deep, and just couldn't get a jumper to fall all game, though he still finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. He had an amazing career (hopefully I will write more on that soon), but it was a tough final game. Credit should go to PSU defensively... it was the best defensive game I've seen them play. They were flying around, and packing the paint.

Offensively, the Vikings were excellent as well, and hit a lot of tough shots, and attacked the rim hard. Kyle Richardson continued his string of great performances, finishing with 19. DaShaun Wiggins had 18 off the bench. Gary Winston had 11. The Vikings struggled offensively early, but really found their groove in the second half. They absolutely can win the Big Sky tournament the way that they are playing right now.

Still, it was odd to see Montana fall. Since I started writing this blog, they have reigned supreme in the Big Sky, winning the title each of the last two seasons. Their string of four straight conference title game appearances is outstanding. It has been fun watching Kareem Jamar throughout his career. In applauding Portland State for their win, we must applaud the Grizzlies on their way out.

The semifinals are set -

(1) Weber State vs. (6) Northern Colorado
(2) North Dakota vs. (5) Portland State

Previews to hopefully come in the morning! Any thoughts?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Scouting Report: Montana vs Portland State

The final opening round matchup features the fourth seeded Montana Grizzlies against the 5th seeded Portland State Vikings. Their two meetings this year were pretty epic.

First meeting in Portland - Portland State beat Montana 81-78 in three overtimes!
Second meeting in Missoula - Montana won 82-76 in overtime. You may remember the end of regulation.

So, will the third matchup live up to the great games we saw in the first two meetings?

Why Montana Can Win:
Before losing their finale against Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies had won five straight games. Offensively, we know they'll be able to get buckets against the Vikings. While they scored just 1.01 PPP in the first meeting, they had 1.22 PPP in the second meeting. During conference play, Montana had the second best offense in the conference, while PSU's defense was seventh. Moreover, PSU's strength as a defense is in forcing turnovers, but the Grizzlies had the lowest turnover rate in the Big Sky thanks to their many ballhandlers. They can handle any Vikings pressure, and should be able to break down the defense and get to the hoop, with no real rim protectors for the Vikings.

Defensively, the Vikings aren't built to take advantage of Montana's weaknesses - in the post and on the glass. PSU is not a good offensive rebounding team, which is good for Montana because they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference. While Kyle Richardson could have a big game for PSU, no other big is able to take advantage of Montana's lack of frontcourt power.

The other factor is simply that Montana plays their best in the conference tournament. They are the two time reigning champion, so you know they'll be confident heading into this game. Wayne Tinkle is a great coach, and he should have a great gameplan ready. Kareem Jamar has had some of his best games when it matters most, so you know he will be bringing it. That experience will be huge.

Why Portland State Can Win:
Of all the first round matchups PSU could have drawn, Montana might be the best. For the same reasons that PSU isn't really built to take advantage of Montana's weaknesses, the reverse is true. PSU will sometimes play four and five guard sets, and the Grizzlies don't have any big men skilled enough to take advantage of that. Heck, the Grizzlies would probably prefer to play four guard sets themselves with Kareem Jamar at the four! That suits Portland State just fine.

Portland State is a good but not great outside shooting team (though they do have a few guys that can hurt you if you give them looks) but they have been excelling at getting easy baskets. They have shot 54.0% on two-pointers in Big Sky play, second best in the league. Montana's defense has been allowing teams to shoot 53.4% on twos, third worst in the league. You can make the connection. Without much in the way of interior defense, PSU will have opportunities to get to the rim and get easy baskets in the half-court.

Last, momentum is an overrated concept, but the Vikings do come into this game playing their best ball of the season. They won 5 of 6 just to make the tournament, including three of four away from home. They really have a nice rotation now that Richardson has established himself in the post, and they have a lot of guys that can hurt you around him. They know they can win this game.

Final Verdict:
This game will be fun because the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both are very guard-oriented, both have struggle defensively, and both have a lot of backcourt options. We could see 8-9 guards on the court at times. Both meetings were epic this year, and another great battle should be coming. I'll take the Grizzlies for two reasons. One, as mentioned, they have the best coach in the Big Sky and a ton of experience in this spot. Many of PSU's guys have not played in the Big Sky tournament, while Montana obviously has won it two straight years. Second, I think Montana's offense is a little bit better than the Vikings. They will have the best player in this game in Jamar, and I think when things get bogged down, they are more equipped to deal with it. For those reasons, Montana is the pick. Montana 75, Portland State 73.

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