With conference play almost upon us, it looks like there is a clear divide between the top five teams in the conference and the rest. With that being the case, let's take a look at those five teams, and compare the case for them and the case against them.
The case for: When they are on, they might have the most explosive offense in the conference. Tyler Harvey has taken the next step in the backcourt, and Venky Jois is still one of the most productive big men in the Big Sky. Last year they had so many PG struggles after Justin Crogsile left, but Drew Brandon has stabilized that position nicely so far this year. They have shot the three-pointer well so far, and when guys like Harvey are shooting well, they can beat anyone.
The case against: Despite that offensive power, they really haven't been consistently excellent on that end of the floor. They only shoot 61% from the FT line, and they don't get their very often with their style of play. Their two-point shooting has been average. They rely heavily on the three-point shot, which is not a bad strategy necessarily, but leaves them vulnerable if they have an off night or play a team that can take that away. Defensively, they have given up 1.06 PPP in DI games, 223rd in the nation. They have been poor at forcing turnovers. They are still a young team (only three members of the rotation are juniors, and none are seniors), so they are still growing a lot from game to game.
The case for: This is the same as we thought in the preseason - they have the best player and the best coach in the conference. Over the past two seasons, they literally have not lost a Big Sky game that they shouldn't have. When they are supposed to win a game, they do, and no other team can say that. Also, Kareem Jamar is playing the best basketball of his career, and so far looks like the conference POY again.
The case against: It's still hard to say where the interior production comes from. Among the five guys that get the most minutes for the Grizzlies, Michael Weisner is the only one over 6'5'', and he is more of a three-point specialist than inside player. They don't get offensive rebound and they don't get easy baskets off post play. Defensively, they haven't forced turnovers (14.5 Turnover % forced - 336th in the country), and teams have shot the ball very well against them. We'll have to see is that regresses to the mean, but so far they have missed Will Cherry more defensively than offensively.
The case for: Athletically, they still match up favorably to everyone in the conference. That is why they have to be included in this list even though they only have one win against DI competition. They have played a tough schedule and not really been up to the task, but they are still contenders. Troy Huff has been his usual self, and looks like the second best player in the conference after Jamar. Defensively, they do a good job of using pressure to force some turnovers, with guys like Huff (5.0 Steal %), Jaron Nash (4.1%) and Jamal Webb (3.6%) all excellent at forcing turnovers.
The case against: The easiest case against them comes from checking out their numbers defending at the rim against two-pointers. Opposing teams are shooting 57.3% percent on two-pointers against UND, one of the worst rates in the country. On twitter, I have seen it described that once you get past UND's first line of defense, it's like a layup line. They are struggling to find consistency in terms of the frontcourt playing alongside Jaron Nash (another big concern), and it is showing up here. The other secret is that despite all of their talent and athletes, they haven't been a great offensive team the last few years. They score 1.01 PPP against DI teams so far, and even though that is a big improvement over their last few years, I'm still not sure that's good enough to win the conference.
The case for: So far, they have looked like the most impressive Big Sky team. For the past couple of years, they have struggled at the PG spot and with depth on the wing, but their signing of guys like Corey Spence and Jordan Wilson killed two birds with one stone, as Tevin Svihovec has thrived moving from the PG to SG. Their biggest strength is still Derrick Barden, who is among the biggest game-changers in the conference. He is one of the handful of guys that can take over a game. UNC is one of the most talented, balanced, and deep teams in the Big Sky.
The case against: Corey Spence was supposed to answer their PG questions, but he has mostly struggled, and Jordan Wilson got the start last game. Spence has the potential to be a really solid PG, but he has to cut down on turnovers and make some more shots (he is shooting under 39% this year) or the move to Wilson will be permanent. At the five spot, Connor Osborne has struggled majorly - he is shooting 37% from the line, and his offensive rebounding numbers are a little bit down, and that is the best part of his game. Dominique Lee should continue to grab more minutes there. Also, over the past couple of years, UNC has been very inconsistent, and there are some signs of that this year, with some harder than they should have been wins over Bethune Cookman, Prairie View A&M, and UC Riverside. But if they can bring it every night (and they should be able to - they are a very veteran team), they absolutely can win the Big Sky.
The case for: They have been the most disappointing team so far due to their lack of a big non-conference win (their best win is against San Jose State), but that can be partly due to a tough schedule, and still figuring things out in the backcourt. The reason for optimism is the same as it was before the year - they are, on paper, the most talented team in the Big Sky, and they have a track record of winning. Davion Berry playing well again, and taking up some of the distributing role. Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy have been a little up and down, but they are still the most imposing frontcourt duo in the conference. As the young guys continue to mature (Jeremy Senglin, Bolomboy, Richaud Gittens, Kyndahl Hill), the team should get better and better as the conference season goes along.
The case against: For the past three years, we have been talking about all of the talent for Weber State, but they haven't broken through and won the conference. A 2-5 start is distressing for any team, and they might be feeling a bit of pressure heading into conference play. The biggest issue, I think, it's that it's starting to be fair to wonder if Jordan Richardson will be able to transition to the off guard. He has continued to struggle... he has only taken nine two-pointers this year, and is shooting just 23.5% from downtown. It might be just a shooting slump, but they need him to play like they thought he would this year. Defensively, most of their struggles have come from not forcing turnovers (which has never been their strength), and not rebounding the ball well, which is a surprise. Opponents are rebounding almost 36% of their misses - last year they were a top 10 team in the nation in this mark.
Thoughts? Who is the favorite heading into conference play?
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