1. Montana (16-4, 12-0) – Mike Weisner has been getting more time lately, which is good for Montana’s offense. Weisner has shot over 50% from three-point range this year, meaning he provides a ton of spacing for the Grizzlies. When Weisner plays with Mathias Ward, defenses have to worry about five guys that can hit the three, which is good for Will Cherry’s ability to get by his man. Montana has been great about getting to the FT line, and their FT Rate is #1 in the Big Sky. All of the big three (Cherry, Jamar, Ward) have been adept at getting to the line, which is huge. As a team, the Grizzlies shoot nearly 77% from the FT line, which is in the top ten in the country. Unlike the past two Montana teams, the strength of this year’s version is the Grizzlies versatility on offense.
2. Weber State (15-5, 10-2) – When people think about what makes coaches and coaching staffs successful, usually the focus is on recruiting and in game work. However, player development is just as important, and that is something Weber State has been excellent at (and the same could definitely be said for Montana). The improvement of Damian Lillard is well documented. It can also be seen in a guy like Scott Bamforth. Last weekend, BJ Hill (of Northern Colorado) was talking about how when Bamforth first came to WSU as a sophomore, he was seen by a lot of people as being a bit of a one-dimensional player, but now he is one of the better defensive guards in the Big Sky. Jordan Richardson is another example of a guy that has made huge strides in his career. That excellent player development is a big reason why Weber is a fixture near the top of the Big Sky. It should also make the rest of the Big Sky teams very scared about the future of Joel Bolomboy.
3. Southern Utah (9-12, 7-5) – During conference play, the Thunderbirds are second in the Big Sky in defensive efficiency, and first in EFG% against. That is the biggest reason they are 7-5 and tied for third in the Big Sky. The second is that they have gotten a lot better at taking care of the ball, and they have been the best offensive rebounding team in the Big Sky during conference play. These things have given them a lot of extra possessions and shots that weren’t there during non-conference play, which is a big reason why they have been better in Big Sky play than their early season record would have suggested. They are not a great offensive team (their offensive efficiency is 7th in the league in conference games), but they are getting better as the season goes on. That, combined with their defensive stinginess (topped only by Weber State) had made them a legitimate number three right now. That is not something I saw coming.
4. Montana State (10-10, 7-5) – They do own the most impressive victory of the Big Sky season so far, with their win over Weber State (which they won more handily even than Montana beat Weber), but I still have a hard time trusting them for some reason. They have five home games and three road games left, so they are in a great position right now. Their best attribute continues to be their ability to hang onto the ball. They have been better in conference play defensively, but there is still a lot of room to improve there. UND and UNC are coming to town, and I think we will learn a lot about MSU in those two games.
5. North Dakota (10-10, 5-7) - UND has upped their rate of forcing turnovers in Big Sky play, which has been a boost for them. But the biggest story has been Troy Huff, who continues to play excellent basketball. If we take out his game against Weber State (where he was not good), he has scored at least 12 points in every game this year. He has 20+ points in 6 of UND's last 8 games, and is getting it done on the glass as well. He is forcing a lot of turnovers and taking care of the ball at the same time. He draws fouls. He has been everything Brian Jones could have hoped he would be.
6. Northern Arizona (8-14, 5-7) - After going on the road to beat Sacramento State, they deserve this sixth spot. But after the blistering hot start by DeWayne Russell this year, he has cooled off considerably. His ORtg has been 90 or lower for 6 of the past 7 games, and he has had more turnovers than assists in five of those games (in one it was 1:1). This is not unexpected for a freshman to struggle as the season goes along, but NAU needs him to be great if they want to compete to upset a Montana or Weber State at any point. Fortunately, Gabe Rogers has been picking up the slack lately, averaging 24 PPG in the last five.
7. Sacramento State (10-10, 5-7) - They remain consistently inconsistent. In the last two games, they have led at different points by double digits... and wound up losing both games. Their next two games (home against EWU and PSU) are huge, because the final six games of the conference year are very difficult. They have to win these next two or their shot at a top 4 seed may be gone. A big key is Konnor Veteto, who suffered a knee injury last week. He is a very good offensive rebounder and efficient post player for them.
8. Northern Colorado (6-14, 4-8) - I keep believing in them, and that they have the ability to be a top 4 team, but they can't seem to get over the hump. Every good game (such as last Thursday against ISU) is followed up by a stinker, which happened Saturday against Weber State. They still don't seem to understand what it takes defensively every game to win and be successful in the Big Sky. There are still way too many defensive breakdowns. They have the offense to be successful, but it's fair to wonder if they can put it together enough defensively to make the conference tournament. If they can get a split on the road in Montana, that would be a huge boost for them heading into the home stretch.
9. Portland State (5-14, 3-9) - Through 12 conference games, they have been the worst defensive team in the Big Sky, and it's not even all that close. Opponents EFG% against them i a staggering 55.0%. Conference Teams shoot 53.5% on twos against them, which again is the worst in the conference by a wide margin. Their offense has been good enough for them to be a solid team, but until they can get stops (which hasn't happened for a few years), they are not going to be a contender.
10. Eastern Washington (6-16, 4-8) - The thought this year has been that their offense is OK, but the defense has been really bad. Well, in conference play, you can reverse that for a true statement. Their defensive efficiency is actually fourth in Big Sky games, but they are dead last in offensive efficiency. We saw against Montana how dependent they were on Venky Jois - they scored 46 points without him. They have turned the ball over too much, they aren't getting second chances, and are (most distressingly for them) not hitting their three-pointers, at just 31.4% in conference games. Other than that, there are no big offensive issues.
11. Idaho State (4-17, 3-9) -I love their effort at all times, I love their coaching. But they have to play a near perfect game (or have other teams play really poorly) for them to be in a lot of games. Offensively, they don't get easy shots and they are the worst team in the league shooting threes. Defensively, Bill Evans is doing the best he can, but they don't have the athletes right now. As I have said many times, they are building a nice foundation, and they have matched or exceeded expectations this season, but it's going to take some time.
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