Thursday, January 31, 2013

Midseason Podcast With Gidal

Earlier this week, Gidal Kaiser (of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle) and I recorded a podcast looking at the Big Sky. As you might expect, we focused a bit on Montana State, but also took a broader look at the league.

The podcast can be found here.

You can also find his current power rankings... where he's got Montana State ranked #2, ahead of Weber State at #3.

Let me know what you think if you listen to the podcast!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Big Sky Midseason Review

With half of the conference season in the books, let's take a look around the Big Sky and assess awards, all-conference teams, and of course predictions for the rest of the way.

1. Montana (Currently 10-0, Predicted Finish 18-2) – I said on a podcast with Gidal Kaiser that to me, Montana is the surprise of the Big Sky over the first half of the conference season. Consider the following:

- Will Cherry broke his foot late in the offseason. Though he came back just before conference play started, he is still getting in the groove to play with the consistency that he did last year.
- Kareem Jamar, who is 6’5’’ and plays the 2 or 3, is the Grizzlies best offensive post player and best rebounder.
- Their defense is not at the level we have become accustomed to seeing from Montana over the past few years, and it is arguably the worst Grizzlies defense since 2008.
- They don’t have an inside scoring threat or above average rebounder on the frontline (their best 4/5 man is Mathias Ward, who is at his best as a jump shooter).

Yet, when you look at the standings, they are 10-0 and again in control of the Big Sky race. As if there was any doubt about Wayne Tinkle’s coaching ability.

2. Weber State (8-2, 17-3) - Defensively, they don't force a lot of turnovers, but they do everything else well. Teams aren't able to take a lot of threes against them, and are shooting just 27.9% when they do. WSU has been the best rebounding team in the conference, with Joel Bolomboy being among the best defensive rebounders in the country. WSU has been good blocking shots as well. With all that said, their defense has been even better than their offense. Let's just say Montana is the favorite heading into the second half of the year because they have an in on home-court advantage, but this race is far from decided.

3. Montana State (6-4, 12-8) – The Bobcats have been the surprise team of the Big Sky so far, with a win over Weber State and being seconds away from beating Montana (in Missoula). They are avoiding turnovers at a great rate, and doing a good job of turning people over. A key for them is if Antonio Biglow continues to embrace his role off the bench, where he is a great weapon on both sides of the floor. Marcus Colbert continues to develop and get better, which has been huge for Brad Huse. They have to be careful of a second half letdown, as that has been MSU’s calling card over Brad Huse’s tenure.

4. Sacramento State (5-5, 11-9) - They have as much balance as any team in the conference not named Weber State. All of their regular starters are capable of scoring 15 points in a given game, and a couple of their bench guys are as well. The key is their senior laden frontcourt - Konner Veteto, John Dickson, Joe Eberhard. Those guys are good enough to carry the Hornets on a nice postseason run, but they are just inconsistent enough that you have trouble completely trusting them still.

5. North Dakota (5-5, 10-10) - After a 4-10 start, they have 4 of their last 5 thanks to the schedule turning in their favor and the return of Troy Huff. After last year, the question marks were in the frontcourt. We thought they addressed those with their recruiting class, but it hasn't worked out that way. Alonzo Traylor is academically ineligible, Ryan Salmonsen is redshirting, and Jaron Nash was granted eligibility by the NCAA (like he should have). This again leaves them reliant on their guard play, but that formula has worked out for them in the past. However, as down as the Big Sky is, it's still a big step up from the Great West.

6. Portland State (3-7, 8-12) - As has been the case the past few years, they are still a bad defensive team, with their AdjD ranking 335th in the country. This is not a good sign especially considering that they are one of the most veteran teams in the country, with no freshmen and most of their rotation players being upperclassmen. They have had a tough schedule, and six home games in the second half should serve them well, since they are 5-2 at home and 0-10 on the road.

7. Northern Colorado (3-7, 8-12) – I keep waiting for them to breakout, but they keep losing to teams that arguably don’t have the talent they do. After looking fantastic against Portland State and Eastern Washington, they went on the road and lost to Northern Arizona (on a buzzer beater) and Sacramento State. They need to figure out how to win on the road. Fortunately, the schedule does get easier, with 6 home games coming in the second half. If they can win five of those (which is definitely do-able), then they will still be in good shape to make the Big Sky tournament, where they have the personnel to be dangerous.

8. Southern Utah (5-5, 7-13) – Why the big drop that I am projecting? The schedule is about to get tougher. In the second half, they have 4 home games and 6 road games… and the home games are against teams like Montana, Montana State, and Sacramento State, who are three of the four or five best teams in the Big Sky. With the way they turn the ball over (bottom ten in the country) and foul people (nobody’s opponents shoot more free throws), I think they may be due to regress a little bit. However, people (myself included) have been underestimating them for much of the year, and I get the impression they thrive on that.

9. Northern Arizona (4-6, 7-13) - Offensively, they are dependent on Gabe Rogers and DeWayne Russell for a lot of their offense. Defensively, they continue to struggle a bit. They give up more points than anyone else in the Big Sky, though that is partially due to their fast pace (there are worst defensive teams). They would be wise to do what they can to get more shots for Max Jacobsen and Gaellen Bewernick, two high efficiency players. They play you hard every game.

10. Idaho State (3-7, 6-14) - They continue to play at one of the slowest paces in the country with one of the worst offensive efficiencies, but teams have had trouble with their zone defense this year. Two of their wins have been by a point, but they also almost beat Northern Arizona and Montana State. They don't have the talent to match up with a lot of the conference at this point (though Bill Evans is bringing good players in), but they always fight hard. That will steal them a few more wins.

11. Eastern Washington (3-7, 6-14) – There have been plenty of growing pains, but that was to be expected this year. Jim Hayford and the Eagles give significant playing time to three true freshman, true sophomore, and a redshirt sophomore (transfer Martin Seiferth). All three of the freshmen – Venky Jois, Daniel Hill, Thomas Reuter – seem to fit Hayford’s system very well, and this experience should pay dividends down the road. At least, that is the hope. For the rest of this year, they are still too reliant on the three-point shot (which is not always terrible, but not ideal when you are only shooting 34%), don’t defend very well, and don’t force many turnovers. That leads to an up and down year, which looks right for this group.

- Kareem Jamar* - Jamar has been as good as ever, increasing his scoring, rebounds, and assists this year while keeping his turnover rate low even with increased ballhandling duties at the start of the year. He doesn’t necessarily wow you during the game, but you look at the end of the day and he’s got 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. He pressed a bit early in the year, but has found his groove.
- Scott Bamforth – Bamforth has been key for Weber State, continuing to stake a claim as the best shooter in the Big Sky (91% FT, 44% 3PT). He has been excellent taking care of the ball as well. The Wildcats have the potential to be even better next season, but Bamforth is a guy they will miss.
- Dylan Garrity – The assists numbers are down from last year, but overall Garrity has been a better player. He’s been really good shooting the ball, with a ridiculous 58% on twos and a stellar 41% from downtown, big improvements over his freshman year. He may not ever be an elite defensive player, but he’s not far off from being the best offensive player in the conference.
- Davion Berry – There was a lot of hype for Berry before the season began, and he has lived up to it. He shoots 2% on twos and 42% on threes, excellent percentages for a SF. He is a very good passer with a nice assist rate, and contributes on the boards as well. Berry has matched or exceeded the expectations that the team and fans had for him coming into the season.
- Derrick Barden – He started a little bit slow, but his talent and athletic ability is evident when you watch him. Over his last six games, he is averaging 11.5 rebounds per game, including almost five per game on the offensive glass. He is not an extremely polished offensive player, but he gets a lot of easy baskets with his great rebounding ability and quickness. All this despite the fact that he is really probably only 6’3’’.

- Mathias Ward – You still wish he rebounded better, but he is great at what he does. He is a great midrange and free throw shooter, and has slowly built up his three-point stroke throughout his career. He can score an occasional bucket inside as well. He leads the Grizzlies in scoring and opens up a lot of driving lanes because you cannot help off him.
- Jackson Stevenett – He is second in the conference in scoring, and just seems to know what to do when he gets near the basket. He is also a solid rebounder for his size. SUU is a tough squad this year, and Stevenett is the perfect leader for that. He simply gets the job done every game.
- Aaron Anderson – He was forced to carry the load for UND for a lot of the time that Huff was injured, and he has played well. The increased usage has dipped his shooting percentages a bit, but he has compensated by getting more assists and turning the ball over less, obviously a winning combo. Huff and Anderson is one of the best duos in the Big Sky.
- Will Cherry – By the end of the year, Cherry will almost certainly be on the all-conference first team. But, he has still played under 50% of the Grizzlies’ overall minutes, which makes him a little less valuable in my book than some of the other guys ahead of him. His shooting percentages and steal rate are still way down as well. He still impacts the game in a lot of ways, but I will wait for a healthy rest of the year to put him on the first team.
- Venky Jois – He has come in as a freshman and surpassed all expectations, leading the conference in rebounding while scoring 13 points per game. He shoots over 50% from the field, makes his free throws, and is a good shot blocker. He is a great piece for Jim Hayford to build around.

- Tate Unruh – For my money, Unruh is the best shooter in the Big Sky. He has also added a little bit more to his offensive game, as he has been better away from the ball (getting himself open), and a little bit better off the drive. One of my favorite Big Sky players to watch.
- Troy Huff – Like Will Cherry, I think there is a great chance that Huff will finish the year higher than I have him here. Over the past month, you could argue that he has been the best player in the conference. However, he has played just over 40% of the team’s minutes for the year (because of a jaw injury that kept him out for an extended time). That’s just not enough yet for me to put him on one of the top two teams yet.
- Kyle Tresnak – On a per minute basis, he should be higher. He is still scoring at an efficient rate, but even more impressively he had increased his rebounding rate by a huge margin compared to last year. He has been really good. But, even though he starts, he plays just over 20 minutes per game with the frontcourt depth the WSU team has. That makes it tough for me to put him above Jois, who plays 34 minutes per game.
- Aaron Moore – He was the toughest omission from the top two teams for me, as Moore has been really good in the first half. He is in the top 8 in both OR% and DR%, all the while being efficient scoring the ball. Moore has been a great find for Tyler Geving, surprisingly being the best Vikings player so far this season.
- Gabe Rogers – He leads the Big Sky in scoring, but he has been a volume shooter. He takes eight threes per game, but shoots just 30% from there. He is only at 40% on twos. Part of all the shots is because NAU doesn’t have a lot of guys able to create their own shot right now, but Rogers have been much more of a volume scorer rather than leading the conference with any type of efficiency.

Where do you agree or disagree?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Will Cherry Moving Up Records Lists

From Bob Meseroll, Will Cherry is moving up Montana and Big Sky career lists:

Cherry scored 28 points in Montana’s 76-74 win over Weber State on Saturday night, the Grizzlies’ sixth win over the Wildcats in their last eight meetings. Cherry passed Ken McKenzie (1973-75) for eighth place on the career scoring list with 1,332 points. McKenzie finished with 1,321. Next up is No. 7 Jordan Hasquet, who scored 1,396 from 2006-09.

Cherry, already UM’s all-time leader in steals with 243, moved within four of Northern Arizona’s Tom DeBerry on the Big Sky’s all-time list with four more thefts Saturday against the Wildcats. DeBerry had 247 from 1974-76. Nevada’s Kevin Soares (1988-92) is No. 2 on the list with 255 and Sac State’s DaShawn Freeman (2002-06) is the all-time leader with 283.

With three assists against the Wildcats, Cherry now has 360 for his career, one behind Doug Selvig (1980-84) for eighth place on UM’s career list. Roger Fasting (1988-92) is No. 7 with 363, JR Camel (1996-98) is No. 6 with 365 and Marc Glass (1980-84) is No. 5 at 369.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Video of Montana/Weber State Scuffle

As if you needed any reason to be excited about the rematch between Weber State and Montana, things should be even more heated next time around after a post game scuffle between the teams.

Video from The Standard:

Nobody seems to know exactly who or what started things. Here is Randy Rahe:

“My assistants, we’re going to try to find out. I don’t know what happened, I don’t like it, I don’t know whose fault it was,” Rahe said. “I’ll just tell you this, if it was our fault, there’s going to be hell to pay because that’s not how we do things. It was an emotional game. Kids on both teams fought really hard and we’ve got some kids that know each other on both teams. Who knows what really happened. I’m sure it was probably from both ends would be my guess, talking a little bit.”
You should probably mark February 14th on your calendar (for a reason other than Valentine's Day)!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, January 28, 2013

Eastern Washington Tops Portland State

With a 2-7 start in Big Sky play, this was a game that Eastern Washington simply had to have. They delivered with a 76-65 win over Portland State, thanks in part to a huge game from freshman big man Venky Jois. Jois showed why he is the best freshman in the Big Sky, finishing with 20 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks. He was too much for the Vikings to handle in the second half.

EWU got a lot of other help as well. Parker Kelly had 17 points, shooting 5/8 from beyond the arc. Martin Seiferth had 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Kevin Winford contributed 12 points, with Jeff Forbes still ailing a it. It was a great effort all around, as the Eagles shot 47% from the floor and turned it over just six times.

For PSU, they got another double-double from Aaron Moore, who had 20 points, 10 boards, and 4 blocks. He is a guy that deserves to be talked about as an all-conference type performer. Unfortunately, his frontcourt mate Renado Parker was not effective, shooting 1/9 from the floor. The Vikings as a team shot 39%.

Both teams move to 3-7 in Big Sky play... and the win means we can safely assume that after a half of Big Sky play, all 11 teams have a very legitimate chance to reaching the Big Sky tournament. 

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Gabe Rogers and Christian Moon Share Big Sky Honors

For the second straight week, there are co-Big Sky Players of the Week. This time, sharing the honors is Gabe Rogers of Northern Arizona and Christian Moon of Montana State.

Moon, a 6-foot-2 senior from Inkster, Mich, averaged 17.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game as the Bobcats won three conference games to move into sole possession of third place. Moon shot .640 percent from the field, .538 from 3-point range and made 13-of-17 free throws.

Rogers, a 6-2 senior from Houston, Texas, averaged 31.5 points per game and shot .571 percent from the field as Northern Arizona beat Northern Colorado and lost by two points to North Dakota.
Both guys are certainly deserving after some excellent games. Congrats to them for the honor.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Montana Has Won 23 Straight Big Sky Games

Last year, Montana started 4-1 in Big Sky play before winning their last 11 regular season conference games (to finish 15-1), and then won two games in the Big Sky tournament. This year, they have started conference play at 10-0, pushing their Big Sky winning streak to 23 games overall, 21 straight in regular season play.

The record is 24 straight regular season conference wins, set by Weber State back in the 60s. Here is the upcoming schedule:

@ Portland State
@ Eastern Washington
Northern Colorado
North Dakota

It is four games they will be favored to win. The toughest might be the first... on the road at Portland State. The Vikings have been very tough at home this year, going 3-1 so far in conference play, with the only loss being in OT to Weber State.

They survived a tough game against Weber State thanks to a big day from Will Cherry, his best of the year. He finished with 28 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals. He is rounding into form for the Grizzlies, who again look like the team to beat in the Big Sky.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gone Fishin'

OK, I am not really fishing, but I will be spending the next couple of days enjoying the beautiful Colorado outdoors. Which means, unfortunately, I will most likely miss round one of Weber State vs. Montana, as well as the rest of the action on Saturday night.

Hold down the fort while I am gone and enjoy the Big Sky action!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Montana State Beats Weber State (and Other Headlines)

And then there was one. As in, one Big Sky team undefeated in league play.

In the surprise of the night, Montana State took down previously undefeated Weber State, strengthening their position as the third best team in the Big Sky (at least, for now). It was no fluke either, as Montana State played good defense (save for a barrage of threes at the end of the game by Weber State, which made the final score of 79-74 closer than the game was at the end), took great care of the ball (7 turnovers), and made all of their free throws down the stretch (including their last 12).

It was a big win for Brad Huse, as they moved to 5-4 in Big Sky play, notching easily their biggest win of the season. There was no shortage of heroes, but the biggest one might be Antonio Biglow. The much talked about junior guard scored 18 points (in 24 minutes) off the bench, also getting three assists and three steals. He was huge down the stretch.

“He's really been coming along since he's been back with us,” Huse said of Biglow, who missed five mid-season games with a suspension. “Tonight he did a good job negotiating our offense and making good reads, making solid plays for us. It's really encouraging moving forward, the depth we have in that backcourt and the things they all bring.”
Xavier Blount chipped in an efficient 18 points and 7 rebounds, while Paul Egwuonwu added a double-double for the Bobcats. Davion Berry led the Wildcats with 24 points, but a lot of those came on late threes. The Wildcats missed some key free throws late. With memories of last year's loss to Idaho State surely on their minds, they will need to quickly refocus, as they head to Missoula on Saturday night.


Idaho State kept things interesting for awhile, but eventually Montana pulled away from the Bengals, winning 70-51 to move to 9-0 in the Big Sky. It has been a very long time since they have lost a Big Sky game.

Mathias Ward scored 21 points to lead Montana, while Spencer Coleman scored 20 points off the bench. If Coleman can find his groove, the Grizzlies are going to be extremely tough to beat.

A couple injury notes in this game. Will Cherry left the game in the first half after being poked in the eye, but he did return in the second half. He finished with six points. Meanwhile, reserve guard Jordan Gregory wasn't as lucky. He left the game with a leg injury, but said he didn't know the extent of the damage yet (it may be known by the time you read this). Here's hoping it's not serious.


The most thrilling game of the night was in Flagstaff, where Northern Arizona beat Northern Colorado 67-65 on a buzzer beater from senior guard Mike Dunn. It was a well played game with both teams making shots.

NAU got a great performance by Gabe Rogers, who finished with 28 points on 11/19 shooting, none bigger than a late three that put the Jacks up 63-62 late. He also hit a couple of big free throws. With the score 65-62, Tevin Svihovec banked in a long three with 4.8 seconds left. On the next possession, NAU took it the length of the court, getting a nice floater from Mike Dunn to win the game. It was a great play design and great execution.

Svihovec led UNC with 16 points, while Derrick Barden notched yet another double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds), but it was not enough for the Bears to pick up a key road win. NAU is now 4-5 in Big Sky play, while UNC is 3-6.


Dylan Garrity hurt his back in pregame warmups and missed the game, but it didn't matter, as Sacramento State downed North Dakota by a final of 67-58. UND opened the game on a 24-12 spurt, and looked like they might roll to a comfortable road win. However, the Hornets then went on a 26-6 run of their own, with UND's first second half points coming at the 12:25 mark.

Four players scored in double figures for the Hornets, notable John Dickson (11 points and 12 rebounds) and Cody Demps (a career high 10 points). The Hornets moved to 4-5 and their schedule sets up nicely for them to make a little run.

North Dakota drops to 4-5, but through no fault of Troy Huff. He had 24 points and 9 rebounds, and continues to look like one of the best players in the Big Sky.


Last, Southern Utah took down Portland State with relative ease, winning 76-63 in a game that was never really in doubt. Jackson Stevenett led the way with 21 points, while Damon Heuir added 19 points and six assists. The Thunderbirds won this game down low, with a 20-10 advantage in second chance points and a 36-18 advantage on points in the paint. SUU moves to 4-5.

Portland State was led by Aaron Moore's 19 and 9, but they fall to 3-6 in Big Sky play.

* Picture from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Mike Dunn With Game-Winner For Northern Arizona (Video)

I will have more to say on the game later, but wanted to post video of the game winner by Northern Arizona senior guard Mike Dunn. With the game tied at 65 (after a Tevin Svihovec bank three), the Lumberjacks went coast to coast for the game winner to beat Northern Colorado.

Three things to notice.

1. Great play call by Jack Murphy to get the ball into Stallon Saldivar's hands with his momentum going toward the basket. With only 4.8 seconds to play that was huge.
2. Great decision making by Saldivar. He is a senior who is in the top ten in Big Sky career assists, and it showed. Took it far enough to draw the defender, then found Dunn open.
3. Great clock awareness by Dunn, who drove as close as he could to still be able to settle and get off a good shot before the buzzer went off. That's how it's done, and that is how Northern Arizona got the game-winner.

(Game winner is at the 1:00 mark)

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday Night Big Sky Predictions

It’s Thursday night in the Big Sky, and you know what that means – five conference games!! Let’s break them down quick, as always, with a prediction.

Northern Colorado 79, @ Northern Arizona 71
DeWayne Russell will be interesting to watch in this game, because he has quickness that will be tough for the UNC guards to match up against. But NAU will need someone else to step up and be a second scorer, with the most likely candidates being Gabe Rogers or Max Jacobsen. UNC seems to be hitting their stride, with Derrick Barden and Connor Osborne creating extra possessions on the offensive glass. This should be an entertaining game, but I think the Bears have a little more firepower.

@ Montana 67, Idaho State 54
Idaho State should be very prepared, as Bill Evans will be extremely familiar with all of the Grizzlies. Unfortunately, the Bengals won’t be able to score enough points to keep up with Montana, especially in Missoula. Fresh off a scare against Montana State, the Grizzlies will be ready to play because they know that one letdown is the difference between being at home for the conference tournament and going to Weber State (just ask Weber State about their game in Pocatello last year). Kareem Jamar has been on a roll lately.

Weber State 76, @ Montana State 66
With Weber State’s trip to Montana coming on Saturday, it is easy to envision them looking past this game. But WSU’s depth is so good that if some guys don’t come fully focused, there are plenty capable players that Randy Rahe can turn to. The Bobcats have played well lately, and they will need a great defensive effort in this game. Antonio Biglow returned from suspension last week, but I think the team is better when he plays off the bench and Marcus Colbert starts at PG. If Biglow embraces that role, he would be a huge weapon for Brad Huse.

@ Southern Utah 65, Portland State 62
About the only thing I can promise for this game is that it will involve a lot of fouls, since Southern Utah is involved. I think the difference will be that in the second half, when SUU needs a bucket, the Vikings aren’t going to be able to stop Jackson Stevenett. The loser drops to 3-6, but luckily, they will still be right in the thick of things.

@ Sacramento State 66, North Dakota 60
Last year when these teams met in Sacramento, the Hornets beat UND fairly handily, winning by 11. This year, they will return home from a 4 game roadtrip, while UND heads out on a the road after a long homestand. Of the Hornets eight conference games, just three of them have come at home, which should put them in a good position. I expect the Hornets to pound it inside, and hope to get a big day from Konner Veteto.

Last Week: 4-1
Season: 15-5

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Big Sky's Most Under Appreciated Players

I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the guys that don't seem to get a lot of publicity around the Big Sky (or maybe it's just that I don't talk about them enough). Sometimes role players who don't get their due, or starters who are overlooked because of other guys on the team. Anyway, a quick look at six guys who match that description for me.

- Jordan Richardson (Weber State) - After the departure of Damian Lillard to the NBA, much of the Weber State PG talk was about Gelaun Wheelwright, the talented sophomore. But quietly, Richardson has been excellent. He is making 49% of his threes, and leads the conference in assist to turnover ratio. Not bad.

- Jayson Cheesman (Southern Utah) - He has been a bad offensive player, shooting just 39% despite taking most of his shots near the rim. But he has excelled defensively and rebounding the basketball. He is fourth in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage, and first in block percentage (as well as top 25 in the country in that stat). He has had a nice debut season for Nick Robinson.

- Jordan Gregory (Montana) - He started at the beginning of the year, and now is a valuable bench player for the Grizzlies. He is showing signs of being a really good offensive player, knocking down outside shots and showing good strength with his ability to drive the basketball. He has work to go as a distributor, but he should slide into the starting spot next year and be a really good player.

- Lateef McMullan (Portland State) - Last season he was a bit of a chucker offensively, making just 31% from down. His TO rate was higher than his assist rate, and he was just an overall inefficient player. This year, he has been huge for the Vikings and showed vast improvement. He is up to 40% on threes, much better inside the arc, and his assist/turnover ratio is a lot better. If he keeps it up, it's not a stretch that he could get all-conference mentions.

- Max Jacobsen (Northern Arizona) - NAU is thin upfront, but Jacobsen has been a very pleasant surprise. He is scoring well in the post, and making over 60% of his shots. He is not a great rebounder, but has been respectable, especially on the offensive glass. One shudders to think of the NAU offensive post game without him this year.

- Tomas Sanchez (Idaho State) - Sanchez has become ISU's best player, with a ton of versatility and ability to help the team in a multitude of ways. He is the team's best outside shooter, leads the team in assists and steals, and is second on the team in rebounding. He hit the game-winner last week against Sacramento State. He is a ton of fun to watch.

Anyone else you think deserves more due?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big Sky Power Rankings

We have reached the part of the season where you can almost throw out head to head results. With 9 teams separated by two games, and six tied with identical 3-5 Big Sky records, it's not feasible to say that someone should be ahead of another team simply because they beat someone else.

For example, North Dakota went on the road and beat Idaho State. Idaho State creamed Northern Colorado in Pocatello. So obviously North Dakota would beat Northern Colorado in Grand Forks, right? Wrong, as you probably guessed, since the Bears beat UND there earlier this year. That is just one of many such examples. So what that means is that spots three through eleven basically can be put in any order. Here is mine.

1. Weber State (13-3, 8-0) - They just won four games in ten days, but the road will get even tougher. Their next four are on the road, with trips to Montana, Montana State, North Dakota, and Northern Colorado. If they escape that unscathed, it would be fair to start to talk about them running the table in the Big Sky. Based on close road games against Southern Utah and Portland State, I don't think they are quite ready for that.

2. Montana (12-4, 8-0) - They are again undefeated in conference play (I believe their streak is at 21 straight games), but so far, this team is not as good as last year's version. The biggest reason is defense. Last season, their AdjD was 95.0, which was 58th in the conference and led the conference by a mile. This year, they are at 103.8, which is 243th in the country (and fourth in the conference). The Grizzlies are really good again, but they have a ways to reach last year's ceiling.

3. Montana State (7-9, 4-4) - All of a sudden, the Bobcats are playing almost as well as anyone, as they probably should have beat Montana, and followed that up with a nice win over Southern Utah, bouncing back in a strong manner. They have already traveled to North Dakota, Northern Colorado, and Montana, so if they can get through the first half of conference play at 5-5, they will be in good shape. However, as MSU fans will tell you, past performance (and in the first half of the Big Sky season) does not guarantee future returns (in the second half of Big Sky play).

4. Sacramento State (8-8, 3-5) - Among their losses, a one point defeat to Montana, a loss on a buzzer beater to Idaho State, and giving Weber State all they could handle in Ogden. The team benefits when the ball is in Dylan Garrity's as much as possible. He shots 57% on twos, 40% on threes, gets to the line, and has a great assist rate. Everything in the Hornets offense needs to run through him.

5. Northern Colorado (5-11, 3-5) - It's not that they beat Portland State and Eastern Washington that was so impressive, but the way they did it. The PSU game was over within the first ten minutes, and the game against the Eagles was the most impressive I have seen them play since winning the Big Sky title. The key to the team might be sophomore forward Tim Huskisson. At his best, he is a plus defender who can knock down threes and score in transition. But he can get lost defensively at times, and lost focus offensively and turn the ball over.

6. North Dakota (7-10, 4-4) - As they showed in their last three games, they can win at home. If they can beat Sac State or Northern Arizona on the road this week, they will enter the second half of conference play with a lot of confidence. A key for them has been getting to the charity stripe. They are third in the conference in FT rate, and knocking down nearly 75% of their free throws when they get to the line. Troy Huff has posted an ORtg over 100 in each of the last four games.

7. Portland State (5-10, 3-5) - Their offense has been a bit better than I expected, thanks in part due to the big improvement by Lateef McMullan (more on that in a near future post). They haven't really had problems scoring the ball. Defensively though, things are still ugly. By the numbers they are the worst defensive team in the conference, but this year there is no Chehales Tapscott and Charles Odum to boost their offense every night.

8. Northern Arizona (6-12, 3-5) - Point guard Stallon Saldivar now ranks ninth on the all-time Big Sky assists list, with 440 career assists. The next name to pass is Billy Allen (Nevada) who finished his career with 468 career assists. Here's hoping he continues to move up those record books.

9. Southern Utah (5-12, 3-5) - No team allows its opponents to shoot more free throws, but they help combat that defensive liability by not allowing teams to shoot many threes. Their biggest problems continue to come on the offensive end, where their turnover rate is still very bad. One reason they have been able to keep all of their games close is that they are the second best defensive rebounding team in the conference. They don't allow teams to get a lot of second chances, and that is huge.

10. Idaho State (4-13, 3-5) - After a 1-11 start, they won 3 of their lat 4 but I think they still face long odds to make the conference tournament. They don't shoot the ball well from the outside, don't get many second chances, and because of their slow pace don't get many easy baskets in transition. It's tough to score enough points when these things are all true. They have only cracked the 60 point mark against DI opponents twice, and one of the times required an 88 footer. They will win a few more, but it will be tough for them to get to the 9 win range.

11. Eastern Washington (4-14, 2-6) - They are committed to letting the young guys play, especially after the departure of Justin Crogsile. If you look ahead a couple years to the system that Jim Hayford wants to play, guys like Venky Jois and Thomas Reuter are going to be key centerpieces on the team, and you can see how well they fit. There are a lot of growing pains right now, but the team will be better in the long run for the experience the freshmen are getting.

Your thoughts? What would you change?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, January 21, 2013

Montana State Evens Record With Win Over Southern Utah

In a battle between 3-4 Big Sky teams, it was Montana State beating Southern Utah on Monday night to even their Big Sky record at 4-4 and move into a third place tie in the Big Sky.

It was a bit of a grinding game (as Southern Utah games often are), and remained tight for most of the night. The reffing was uneven at times, and the game got physical. But it seemed like whenever Montana State needed a big shot, Christian Moon was there to provide. The senior guard scored a career high 24 points, shooting 9/13 from the field. He also added five rebounds.

One interesting story was the return of Antonio Biglow, who had been suspended. He didn't put up big numbers (5 points, 1 assist) in his playing time, but I thought he had a positive impact. He showed good quickness and didn't seem to force a lot of shots. His season has not gone very smoothly so far, but the ceiling of MSU is higher when he is in there.

Damon Heuir led the Thunderbirds with 20 points, though it took him 20 shots to get there. Jackson Stevenett was his usual solid self, with 19 points on 8/14 shooting. Jayson Cheesman had 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks, but missed a key layup late in the game that got close to sealing it for the Bobcats.

Montana State is now tied with North Dakota for third at 4-4. Southern Utah is tied for fifth place in the Big Sky with five other teams. So it goes early in the Big Sky season.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Troy Huff and Tate Unruh Share POW Honors

Northern Colorado's Tate Unruh and North Dakota's Troy Huff were named co-players of the week, as they both played well and helped their teams win a pair of home games.

Huff, a 6-5 junior guard from Milwaukee, Wis., averaged 21.5 points, 8.5 rebound and 3.5 steals per game as North Dakota earned home wins over Portland State and Eastern Washington. He also became the 32nd player in school history to score 1,000 career points.

Unruh, a 6-4 junior guard from Branson, Mo., averaged 20 points per game, shot .667 percent from 3-point range and .577 from the field as the Bears notched home wins over Portland State and Eastern Washington.
Well deserved for both guys. Both are juniors, and we could be hearing from them in the all-conference honors at least once over the next two seasons.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Big Sky Freshmen Rankings

Normally, there might be a few freshmen that earn enough time to make a significant impact, and usually they are guards. Last year, the three freshmen with the biggest impact were Dylan Garrity of Sacramento State, James Douglas of Northern Arizona, and Tevin Svihovec of Northern Colorado.

This year, there are four guys that stand out as having a big impact, and two of them are freshmen. What's more, the big men are really good, and at least a couple of the freshmen have a chance to be all-conference players. The top three in particular you could put in any order and be able to make a case. Further, a freshman leads the conference in scoring, rebounding (Jois and Bolomboy are one and two), blocked shots, and second in steals. The guys up top are having great seasons.

Let's rank them.

1. Venky Jois (Eastern Washington) - 13.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.3 BPG
All he has done so far in his first season is shoot over 50%, score 13 per game, and lead the Big Sky in rebounding and blocked shots. He has a good handle for a big man, which allows EWU to do a lot of things through him. He scores well on the low block, plays a ton of minutes, and looks to me like he will be the emotional leader of the team for his four years. All in all, you can't really ask for a better debut season than what Jois has brought so far.

2. DeWayne Russell (Northern Arizona) - 16.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.4 RPG, 2.0 SPG
After a blistering start, he has cooled down a bit but is still a very productive player. He leads the conference in scoring, as he is already really good at getting to the FT line and shooting 37% from long range. He presses at times, but that is not unexpected for a freshman who is being asked to do as much as Russell is doing. Defensively, he has quick hands, and he is second in the conference in steals. He is a great building block for Jack Murphy.

3. Joel Bolomboy (Weber State) - 7.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.9 BPG
On a per minute basis, it's tough to argue that Bolomboy has been the best freshman in the Big Sky. He is third in the country in DR% (29.0) and 18th in OR% (15.8). He has simply been incredible on the boards. He is second in the Big Sky in rebounds per game. His block rate is a superb 7.7% as well. So why is he only third? Here is the percentage of their team's minutes played for the top three:

Jois - 84.2%
Russell - 81.5%
Bolomboy - 54.9%

Through no fault of his own, he doesn't get the minutes the guys above him get. That puts him third on the list, though I could see him moving up by the end of the year.

4. Marcus Colbert (Montana State) - 5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.1 APG
It's rare to say this about a freshman, but I think he has been a calming influence at the PG spot for the Bobcats. While Antonio Biglow was suspended, Colbert got more playing time, and the team went 4-1 and turned around their season. He is an unselfish player, and I think that rubs off on the rest of the team. He doesn't put up big numbers, but he doesn't take bad shots and has a good grasp of the offense.

Honorable Mention: Thomas Reuter (Eastern Washington), Daniel Hill (Eastern Washington), Greg Tucker (Northern Colorado)

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Mike Weisner's Game Tying Three

On Saturday night, Montana got a three-pointer with 3.4 seconds left from sophomore Michael Weisner to send their game with Montana State to overtime (where the Griz won 76-71). Here is the video of it, courtesy of Jerek Wolcott.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Rest of Saturday Night's Action

I was in Greeley watching the Northern Colorado/Eastern Washington game, but there was a lot of intriguing basketball being played around the Big Sky. Here is a quick synopsis of what went down (please feel free to fill me in on what I missed!)

- Sacramento State played Weber State very well, but ultimately fell short in their comeback bid. It was a two point game with a little over three minutes left, but Weber State hung on for the 65-56 win. WSU was keyed by Scott Bamforth (18 points, 7 rebounds) and Kyle Tresnak (15 points, 8 rebounds), also getting really good contributions from Frank Otis and Joel Bolomboy.

The Hornets got 20 points from Dylan Garrity plus 16 and 9 from Konner Veteto, but were just 1/8 from downtown. After a tough defeat against Idaho State on Thursday, it's a moral victory for the Hornets, but I'm guessing that didn't send them home happy. WSU moves to 8-0 in Big Sky play, while Sac State falls to 3-5.

- It was a tough night for the other undefeated team as well, as Montana needed overtime to knock off rival Montana State 76-71. If anything, it appears the Grizzlies were fortunate to escape this one with a victory. MSU led 65-63 with 27 seconds left when Marcus Colbert went to the line for a 1 and 1. He made one of two... which eventually led to Mike Weisner hitting a three with 3.4 seconds left to send the game to an extra frame. In the OT, Montana scored the first six points, and MSU couldn't get a point until there was 22 seconds left.

Kareem Jamar led Montana with 23 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds. MSU was obviously extremely disappointed to let a victory slip through its grasp, but there improvement over the past month has been extremely impressive.

- North Dakota moved into sole possession of third place in the Big Sky with a 85-76 victory over Portland State. They were a perfect 21/21 from the free throw line in the win, winning their third straight Big Sky game to move to 4-4. They got matching 25 point games from Troy Huff and Aaron Anderson, and they are becoming the team that everyone thought they would be. Huff was 99/15 from the floor with six rebounds, three steals, and just one turnover.

PSU got great production from their starters, with four guys in double figures. After a tough roadtrip, they drop to 3-5 in the Big Sky, joining the masses.

- Finally, it was Northern Arizona getting a big road win over Idaho State. They had been two teams trending in a bit of opposite directions, so Jack Murphy has to be really happy with the victory. Gabe Rogers scored 22 for NAU, while DeWayne Russell chipped in an efficient 19. Both teams are now 3-5 in conference play.

I know I missed a ton, so please let me know what of note happened!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Northern Colorado Pulls Away From Eastern Washington

Other than Montana and Weber State, Northern Colorado has the highest ceiling of any team in the Big Sky. I say that with confidence right now, especially after watching the Bears beat Eastern Washington 72-56 on Saturday night. Simply put, it was the best performance from UNC I have seen them give since I started covering the Big Sky, and one a lot of people have thought they had in them.

The Bears were led by their defense and rebounding. They outrebounded the Eagles 47-29 in the game, including grabbing a whopping 18 offensive rebounds (more on that later). They held EWU to just 8/23 from downtown and 38% shooting for the game. It was a stellar effort from the starters and the bench, as BJ Hill tightened up the rotation a bit, playing just eight guys.

The star for the Bears, and the reason that teams might not want to play them come conference tournament time is Derrick Barden. He scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds (the second time in three games that he had 15 rebounds), including eight on the offensive glass. Simply put, and this is not exaggeration, he can do things athletically that nobody else in the Big Sky can do. On a fast break he went up for a dunk attempt over Venky Jois, and even though it missed, it was an impressive athletic display. I am hoping to write more about him later in the week, but he is the difference between UNC and some other Big Sky teams. The combination of Barden and Tim Huskisson will be tough to matchup against.

Tate Unruh continues to play real well for Northern Colorado as well - to me he is playing at an all-conference level offensively. He is so lethal on the catch and shoot, coming off screens. With just a little bit of room he buries you. He was 5/9 from downtown and finished with 21 points. His off the dribble game is improving as well.

While UNC improved to 3-5 in Big Sky play, Eastern Washington dropped to 2-6. They are a young team, and it shows. They struggle with consistency, and don't always have great shot selection. Collin Chiverton is a guy that can shoot you in or out of a game, and unfortunately he struggled tonight, finishing just 5/16 in 19 minutes.

One guy you can't help but be impressed with is freshman Venky Jois. He finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 blocks. He still leads the conference in rebounding (but Barden is on his tail), and has a nice offensive game as well. He was solid in the post, and has a really nice handle for a big man. He is the cornerstone for the future of this team, and that is a good thing. Another freshman, Daniel  Hill, handled the ball well, but was limited by an apparent ankle injury early on. It could be a long rest of the season, but I do think the Eagles have a bright future.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Chris Hansen of Idaho State Hits an 88 Footer Before Halftime

Idaho State won on a late shot from Tomas Sanchez, but that wasn't the only buzzer beater in this game.

At the end of the first half, Idaho State wing man Chris Hansen drained an 88 footer. It was big at the time, since it cut Sac State's lead from 29-18 to 29-21 at the half. Obviously, the three points wound up big at the end of the game, since it was a 60-59 final.

Video can be found here, courtesy of Local News 8 in Idaho Falls.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Idaho State Beats Sacramento State on Late Tomas Sanchez Bucket

With Sacramento State coming in to Pocatello to play Idaho State, most everyone could have expected a close, competitive game. That is exactly what happened.

Sacramento State led most of the way, but it was Idaho State making the plays down the stretch to win, 60-59. Let's set the stage.

It was 57-56 Hornets, with the ball and about 50 seconds on the clock. They had a great possession, stalling for much of it before getting the ball into Dylan Garrity's hands late. He showed great poise, passing the ball off to John Dickson for an open lay-in. Hornets lead 59-56, 19.8 seconds left.

After that, a couple coaching decisions shaped the rest of the game. The first was a good decision by Bill Evans. Instead of trying the three, ISU recognized that there was enough time to get a quick two and foul. So, Tomas Sanchez took the ball hard to the rim and scored with 11.8 seconds left, cutting the lead to one.

On the Hornets inbound (which came after a timeout), it was Joe Eberhard in bounding the ball, eventually getting it to Julian Demalleville. This is curious because Eberhard is an 80% free throw shooter on the year, while Demalleville had been 10/16 from the line in his career. You have to get the ball to your best free throw shooters in that situation.

You know what happens next. Demalleville missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Sanchez got the ball, took it the length of the court, and scored on a driving bucket with 2.5 seconds left. Dylan Garrity missed a last second heave (apparently Brian Katz was upset because he thought there should have been a foul called, but I agree with a no-call), and the Bengals win 60-59.

Great coaching from ISU, poor coaching down the stretch from Sac State, big time plays by Tomas Sanchez, and suddenly both teams are 3-4. With the way things are going right now in the conference, that type of 20 second stretch could be the difference between making or missing the Big Sky tournament.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Montana and Weber State Lead Conferences by 3.5 Games...

... After 7 conference games. That is pretty remarkable domination. I will have more to say on tonight's games, but a quick look at the standings.

1. Montana / Weber State (7-0)
3. Montana State (3-3)
4. Southern Utah / Sacramento State / Portland State / Southern Utah / North Dakota (3-4)
9. Northern Colorado / Northern Arizona / Eastern Washington (2-5)

I guess you could say spots three through eleven are up for grabs.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Big Sky Thursday Night Predictions

Another Thursday night, another five Big Sky games. Let’s make some predictions.

@ Northern Colorado 75, Portland State 74
This is essentially a pick’em in my eyes. Portland State has performed better this season, but UNC is at home and they will be desperate, because they know that at 1-5 they need to start winning games. A fun matchup to watch in this game will be Derrick Barden versus Aaron Moore. Both are junior college transfers that started the year relatively slowly, but have become two of the very best rebounders in the conference over the past 2-4 weeks. At one point Moore had three straight double-doubles, while Barden is coming off a monster 21 point, 15 rebound game against Montana (on the heel of 14 and 11 against Montana State). Both guys are vital to their team's success, and interestingly enough, if you look at Derrick Barden's KenPom profile, the player he is most similar to is... Aaron Moore.

@ Weber State 81, Northern Arizona 61
After some road games that were a little closer than expected, Weber State returns home against Northern Arizona in a game they should win fairly handily. Weber State has excelled defensively this year because they are so good at not allowing teams to shoot threes (and teams are shooting a poor percentage on threes, but that should regress a little closer to the mean). WSU is best in the country allowing just 19.6% of 3PA/FGA. Offensively, all they’ve done since losing the best PG in the country is continue to be the best offensive team in the Big Sky, as they do it with a ton of balance and a rotation that can go at least 10 deep. There will be a day soon where NAU will be able to go into Ogden and play a very competitive game, but that day is not Thursday.

@ Montana 76, Southern Utah 66
On paper, this should be a bigger margin than ten points, but the Thunderbirds have a way of making games close, as their three conference losses are by a combined 13 points (and one of the games was at Weber State). Still, two stats stand out on the Thunderbirds resume that makes them hard to think of as a contender for the three seed. One, they hack a lot. You should remember the time Sacramento State shot 55 FTs against them, and they are second to last in the NCAA in FTA/FGA. Second, they are in the bottom five nationally in turnover percentage, which is probably music to Will Cherry’s ears. Nick Robinson’s bunch is scrappy enough to keep things interesting, but Montana is too talented, especially at home.

Sacramento State 62, @ Idaho State 57
At times, it seems like the Hornets are poised to be the number three team in the Big Sky, and at other times it seems like they are going to struggle to make the conference tournament. This is a good chance to get a road win in the Big Sky, as Idaho State is coming off of a Monday game (and their offensive deficiencies have been well documented). The key for the Bengals seems to be Melvin Morgan, in part because he takes a ton of shots (his shot percentage is 13th highest in the country). If he is on his game, ISU can beat a lot of teams because he takes a bunch of threes. When he is shooting poorly (which seems to be more often than not), it’s very tough for them to generate enough offense.

@ North Dakota 72, Eastern Washington 65
Other than the home court advantage, I like UND in this game because of the stars of each team. For North Dakota, Troy Huff is rounding into form after missing time because of injury, and in the past couple games has looked like the guy we thought he would be, with the talent to be one of the best players in the conference. On the other side, Collin Chiverton remains a bit of an enigma. He has the talent to score 20 points on any given night, but he is just as likely to score five points on about 1/8 shooting in 15 minutes.

Last Picks: 3-2
Season: 11-4

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Northern Colorado Is Better Than Its Record...

... Says Bob Meseroll of The Missoulian.

I realize they played nine of their first 12 games on the road, so there’s the distinct possibility that this group hasn’t learned how to close out games, but I can’t see that lasting much longer. UNC (1-5 in league, 3-11 overall) will be the team no one wants to play in the postseason tournament … provided the Bears get there.

There’s a wealth of talent, at least in the starting five.
That last line of the first paragraph is the big caveat... UNC has the talent to give people fits, especially with their offensive ability. But, they are 1-5 in Big Sky play, and my guess is at least 8 conference wins will be needed to make the conference tournament.

They have played the toughest conference schedule so far, so that will balance things out a little bit. They are getting better offensively, as shown with seven turnovers in a loss to Montana last weekend. But they need to improve defensively - where they are 324th in the country in defensive efficiency.

If they can shore things up defensively, they can still be the third best team in the Big Sky, as I predicted before the year. But so far, they have shown they still have a ways to go.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, January 14, 2013

Weber State Improves to 6-0 in Big Sky Play

Idaho State kept things tight for a half, but eventually Weber State's powerful and varied offensive personnel was too much for the Bengals. WSU erupted for 42 second half points, shooting 60% from downtown in the second half, to win 70-54 and move to 6-0 in Big Sky play.

Things did not start out pretty for the Wildcats. They had 10 turnovers in the first half, and struggled with Idaho State's zone. The Bengals were controlling the tempo, and WSU seemed a bit lost, and there was a lot of cross court lobs coming from them. They simply didn't look comfortable against the zone, and that is something they will have to fix.

However, they got a big boost in the second half from senior Scott Bamforth, who scored all 17 of his points in the second frame. Davion Berry also finished in double figures with 16 on the night, and he was big in the first half. Also key in the first half was Royce Williams, who had 9 points on 4/4 shooting in 9 minutes. Williams is a guy that plays 12 minutes a night for the Wildcats... and I am convinced he could start at least five Big Sky teams. That is how deep Weber State is right now.

The Bengals drop to 2-4 in Big Sky play, and there is no magic similar to last year - when they knocked off then undefeated Weber State on a last second three ball. ISU got a nice night from Chris Hansen, who finished with 15 points and showed some nice offensive versatility in the first half, but it wasn't enough. Melvin Morgan was 2/10 from the field for eight points, and when he has those types of games, it's very difficult for ISU to win. That is especially true when ISU is playing without Tomas Sanchez (out due to injury), who is their best player right now.

Highlights of the game can be found here.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Weber State and Montana in Mid-Major Top 25

Good to see both teams crawl into the Mid-Major Top 25.

Weber State is 24th, while Montana is 25th. The Wildcats are 5-0 in Big Sky play (before Monday night), while the Grizzlies are 6-0.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Weber State Assistant Phil Beckner...

... Had some good works written about him in an article on Grantland.

The article talked about Damian Lillard's passing ability, and it notes that part of that was due to all the work done by him and Beckner while Lillard was at Weber State.

Like any other part of the game, passing needs to be dutifully trained. Especially as a pick-and-roll point guard, Lillard must be equipped with a variety of passes that allow him to find open teammates. Thankfully, that skill was emphasized under the watchful eye of assistant coach Phil Beckner during Lillard’s time at Weber State, and the rookie guard has come into the league more prepared than most to showcase it. Already this year, Lillard has shown off a passing repertoire that’s helped the young Blazer guard keep his team in the thick of the playoff race.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Montana @ Northern Colorado Pictures

My wife was kind enough to take some pictures during the Montana/Northern Colorado game on January 12th... here is a sampling. You can enlarge any of the photos by clicking on them.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Poll to the Right

Posted a new poll, asking who you think will win the Big Sky regular season. Really, there are only two possibilities. Thought it might be fun to see what everyone thinks, and if it's fun we can try some more polls out to see what the consensus is. So go vote!!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Montana Beats Northern Colorado in Offensive Battle

On Saturday in Greeley, neither team was really able to stop the other. Montana shot 56% for the game, while Northern Colorado shot 50%. However, Montana was the team making the plays down the stretch in an 85-77 Grizzlies victory. It was a fun one to watch in person, as teams were making threes, putback dunks from UNC, and Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar doing their thing.

Kareem Jamar was his normal smooth self. He doesn't have athletic ability that jumps out at you, but he does everything well. He almost couldn't miss on this day, scoring 26 points on 9/10 shooting (including 4/5 from downtown). He also had six assists on the day. He was especially key late in the first half... with UNC up by as many as 15 points in the first half, Jamar was the spark Montana needed. In the last few minutes of the first half, he hit three threes, and drove in for an and-1.

Will Cherry also played a huge part in this game, scoring 21 points, while dishing out six assists and grabbing five rebounds. He is their emotional leader, and helped get them going in the second half, on a day when the crowd was a bit sleepy (attendance was 355, thanks to having the game opposite the Broncos game). It would have been an easy game to sleepwalk through, on the second leg of a road trip, but Cherry made sure the energy was there in the second half. Cherry and Jamar are fun to watch play together, because they know each other's games so well.

Not all is well for Montana, because they still struggle on the glass (UNC had 18 offensive rebounds), and they don't get hardly any post touches, but Cherry and Jamar can make up for a lot of other deficiencies.

For Northern Colorado, it was not a bad effort at all. Offensively, they played as well as they have all year against a quality opponent, turning it over just 7 times. BJ Hill said afterwards that it was about as well as they can play offensively. Tevin Svihovec was playing like he did last year, with 19 points. It was his best effort of the year. Derrick Barden was an absolute beast, with 21 points and 15 rebounds (8 of them offensive). I hope to write a little bit more on him in the near future, because he is a ton of fun to watch.

Defensively, though, the Bears still had a ton of issues. They have a tendency to lose guys (on a key possession late, with Montana up 78-73, Mathias Ward broke free near the end of the shot clock for an easy and-a, because the UNC defender lost track of him). They also struggle to help when the offense penetrates and gets past the first defender. The big men don't have great close outs, which is a problem against teams that can put four or five shooters on the floor, like the Grizzlies can. Add it all up, and it's a lot for the Bears on a day when the offense played well enough to win.

However, the game did showcase the talent that made me pick Northern Colorado to finish third before the year began. Barden and Tim Huskisson are the most athletic pair of forwards in the conference, and Tate Unruh and Svihovec provide plenty of spacing with their shooting ability. The pieces are in place, and they are getting better. The bad news is, at 1-5, they need to start winning some games quickly.

On the other side, Montana just continues to win. They move to 6-0 in Big Sky play. The scary thing for the rest of the conference is they already have a gaudy record, and Wayne Tinkle's teams always seem to get better as the season goes on.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, January 11, 2013

Quick Hit Saturday Predictions

Just some short predictions for Saturday, where we again have a full give game slate!

@ North Dakota 67, Montana State 64
I wanted to pick MSU here, but was convinced on Twitter that UND is the smarter choice. The Bobcats are coming off some tight, emotional comeback wins, and will go from Greeley on Thursday night to an early afternoon game in Grand Forks. That’s a tough stretch.

Montana 73, @ Northern Colorado 67
I wanted to pick the upset here, because I’m not sure who is going to stop Derrick Barden from pulling down a ton of rebounds. But at the same time, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar should wreak havoc defensively on a UNC backcourt that is looking for a consistent ballhandler and playmaker.

@ Southern Utah 62, Idaho State 54
Only true Big Sky fans will be watching this game, as neither team has been all that aesthetically pleasing. But Nick Robinson is doing one of the best coaching jobs in the conference, and I think that will continue with a big home win here.

@ Eastern Washington 77, Sacramento State 67
The Eagles are finding their groove a little bit, while the Hornets are struggling. After seeing these teams respective performances on Thursday night, I like EWU to even their Big Sky record.

@ Portland State 78, Northern Arizona 69
Portland State has been tough at home, and I expect that to continue. DeWayne Russell is playing well for the Lumberjacks, but Gabe Rogers is struggling to provide efficient offense. PSU will be too much down low for NAU, with Aaron Moore’s game continuing to come on strong.

Thursday: 4-1
Season: 8-2

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Random Big Sky Thoughts on Thursday Night

I was at the Northern Colorado/Montana State game last night, so I didn't actually get to watch any of the other games... but here are some thoughts based on the box scores and things I read about them.

- It was a good night for freshmen. Joel Bolomboy for Weber State got perhaps his biggest role of the year in a win over Southern Utah, and he made the most of it. He had 13 points (on three FG attempts), 17 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Venky Jois for Eastern Washington is leading the conference in rebounding, and had another big day, going for 14 and 14 in a win over Northern Arizona. It wasn't DeWayne Russell's fault that NAU lost - he had 17 points on 5/11 shooting, and grabbed seven steals to boot. Did I mention these guys are all freshmen?

- On Monday night, Southern Utah's opponent (Sacramento State) shot 55 free throws. Yesterday, their opponent (Weber State) only shot 49 free throws. I guess that's progress?

- I said that if I had to pick a midseason all-conference team, Jackson Stevenett would likely be on it. He made that prediction look good, scoring an efficient 29 points in the Thunderbirds loss.

- Even with a 3-0 Big Sky start, I (and I'm not alone here) have been slow to buy in on Southern Utah this year. But, they were impressive in defeat. At this point, you have to say they are a very legitimate contender for the third spot in the conference.

- Gabe Rogers finished 3/15 for Northern Arizona, and is shooting 30.6% from the field. That is why, even though NAU is much improved from last season, they are going to struggle to make the Big Sky tournament in Jack Murphy's first season. You just wonder where they are going to get enough offense night in and night out.

- Collin Chiverton with 22 points in 20 minutes (and four rebounds, three assists, two steals, three blocks). When he is on, not many guys in the Big Sky are capable of matching his scoring prowess. It is good to see him fully back into things, and he makes the Eagles a dangerous team.

- He only played 13 minutes, but interesting to see that Andy Martin got the start for Montana in their win over North Dakota. You get the sense that Wayne Tinkle is open to anything up front. Mathias Ward was the star of that game, scoring 27 points on 11/16 shooting. I don't know that there is a better midrange shooter in the Big Sky.

- North Dakota looks really limited offensively with the exception of Troy Huff. They have their work cut out for them if they want to make the conference tournament, because they really are not playing good basketball right now.

- I will see Montana in person on Saturday and I am excited for that. Even though they are 5-0 there are questions. Who gets the tough rebound for them when it matters? Who can they count on for production other than Cherry/Ward/Jamar?

- Portland State has not exactly been known for their three point shooting the last couple years, but it was key for them in a home win over Sacramento State. They hit seven of them over a three and a half minute stretch, and finished the game 12/18 from deep. Combine that with the nice inside duo of Aaron Moore and Renado Parker, and slowly things are coming together for the Vikings.

- The Hornets have to be wondering what has happened to Joe Eberhard. He was quietly one of the best players in the Big Sky last season, but his scoring has dropped four points per game and his shooting has dropped 10 percentage points. They need him.

- As always, the logjam after Montana and Weber State is still there. I hope everyone at the Big Sky is familiar with the tiebreaker rules, because I have a feeling there will be a lot of logjams in the 3-11 spots at the end of the season.

Anything else you saw?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Montana State With Comeback Road Win

Not long ago, Montana State was 3-7 overall, 0-2 in the Big Sky Conference, and losing two of their most talented players (Jamie Stewart was dismissed, Antonio Biglow was suspended). Things looked bleak. But then a funny thing happened. The Bobcats started playing like a team, becoming much better defensively, and attacking the rim more offensively. They became a little bit more than the sum of their parts.

After two home wins last week, MSU faced a test of coming into Greeley and playing a Northern Colorado team that was pretty desperate for a win. For most of the game, it looked like UNC was going to get it, as they led by as many as nine in the second half. But the Bobcats hung around, and made their move over the last four minutes.

They got some help to... as Northern Colorado seemed to get tight, committing turnovers down the stretch and missing some easy shots. Tevin Svihovec struggled with a couple bad turnovers, and Tim Huskisson threw a lazy pass in the last 30 seconds. Each time, MSU took advantage. When they had the ball, they were the aggressor, with guys like Xavier Blount and Mike Dison (who hit the go-ahead free throws with about 30 seconds left) taking the ball to the rim and getting fouled or getting easy baskets.

All of a sudden, the Bobcats are 3-2 in Big Sky play and playing good, team basketball. They have a nice rotation going, with Mike Dison/Marcus Colbert at the point, Christian Moon/Xavier Blount/Calen Coleman on the wing, and Paul Egwuonwu/Flavien Davis up front. They are confident and look like a team that will be playing in the Big Sky tournament.

Some other notes from the game:
- Derrick Barden was as good as advertised, finishing with 14 points and 11 rebounds. He was fantastic on the glass, skying for offensive rebounds and using his big hands to come down with them. He looked like an all-conference player in this game.
- Tate Unruh is my favorite shooter in the Big Sky conference to watch (with all due respect to Scott Bamforth). He has a great release and smooth stroke. He led the Bears with 23 points, including 5/11 from downtown. Unfortunately, the rest of the team was 1/10 from deep.
- To call UNC unsettled at the PG spot right now would be kind. Tevin Svihovec was supposed to make the leap, but he has been making some bad decisions, especially down the stretch. Paul Garnica was probably the top backup option coming into the year... but he had his pocket picked by Christian Moon early in the game and didn't play the rest of the way. James Davis was their best PG in this game. He is still trying to find his way offensively, but he is their most sound perimeter defender.
- I thought the refs got it right on a flagrant-2 foul call (along with ejection on Blake Brumwell in the second half. With Unruh going for an uncontested layup, Brumwell gave him a full two-handed shove while Unruh was in midair. It was a dangerous play, and the refs were right to boot Brumwell.
- When Xavier Blount does not settle for threes, but goes hard to the rim, he is one of the more dangerous players in the conference. He is tough to defend because he is so strong and uses his body well.
- I am not sure it is what Brad Huse intended when the season began, but I really like the PG duo of Marcus Colbert and Mike Dison for the Bobcats. They are very unselfish and give maximum effort on both ends.

Anyone else watch the game?

*Photos taken by my lovely wife!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Midseason All-Conference Picks

A site called College Hoops Daily put out their midseason all-conference picks for every conference in the country, so I thought it'd be fun to take a very brief look at what they are thinking for the Big Sky.

G: Dewayne Russell (Northern Arizona)
G: Justin Crosgile (Eastern Washington)
G: Kareem Jamar (Montana)
F: John Dickson (Sacramento State)
F: Venky Jois (Eastern Washington)
They bolded Justin Crogsile of Eastern Washington as the best player in the conference so far, an award which he obviously wouldn't win since he is no longer on the team.

It's tough to take a crack at it without going too deep into it, but here is my quick selections for what I would say is the all-conference team at midseason.

G: DeWayne Russell (Northern Arizona)
G: Kareem Jamar (Montana)
G: Jackson Stevenett (Southern Utah)
F: Davion Berry (Weber State)
F: Venky Jois (Eastern Washington)

Ask me again tomorrow, and it's possible I have different picks!

I would love to hear where everyone agrees or disagrees...

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thursday Night Big Sky Predictions

Once again there are five games on the Big Sky slate for Thursday night, so let's take a crack at some predictions!

Weber State 75, @ Southern Utah 59
The records (WSU 4-0, SUU 3-1) make this one seem like a marquee Big Sky matchup, but I'm not sure it's going to play out that way. Weber State has been really good lately, and they are in the top 90 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (put another way, Montana is second best in each, and they are 170th in the country in both adjusted offense and defense). Simply put, by the efficiency numbers, Weber State is the best team in the conference and it's not all that close. Southern Utah will struggle to score in this game.

Montana 67, @ North Dakota 65
You know the Grizzlies will be motivated, because they went into Grand Forks last season and got beat by North Dakota in OT. But I'm not sure North Dakota is as good as it was last year - it's Adj D has dropped from 209th last year to 300th this year. They just aren't getting stops. On the other side, the fact that Will Cherry has gotten to the line 21 times in the last two games is a good sign for the health of his foot - he is being aggressive going to the rim. The Grizzlies are slowly finding their groove.

@ Northern Colorado 74, Montana State 70
UNC looked very bad in their last outing, but it was their fourth straight road game. Of their 12 games this year, nine have been away from home, and two of those home games were against non-DI competition. So you have to figure they will be excited for this game. They had better be, because the Bobcats have showed a lot of scrappiness in the last two games. The key will be how well the Bears hold onto the ball - they are 306th in the country in turnover percentage, while MSU is 51st in the country at forcing turnovers. Tevin Svihovec, your team needs you. I think they will respond.

@ Portland State 67, Sacramento State 62
The Vikings have quietly played pretty good basketball lately. They lost to WSU at home in OT, and then went on the road and gave Montana State and Montana good games. Meanwhile, the Hornets played a slobberknocker on Monday night, a game that had to be mentally and physically draining. For PSU, Aaron Moore is starting to make a bid to be an all-conference player, as he has three straight double-doubles and is fourth in the Big Sky in rebounding.

@ Eastern Washington 81, Northern Arizona 71
 This one will be in Cheney, and could be the most entertaining game of the night. EWU simply has to start playing better defense - so far this season they have been the worst defensive team in the conference. For NAU, DeWayne Russell continues to lead the conference in scoring (16.6 PPG), but he has struggled a bit over the last six games. But at this point in the year, it's not farfetched to say he has an argument to be the player of the year. Another strong freshman is Venky Jois for EWU, who leads the Big Sky in rebounding (9.1 per game).

What are your thoughts?

Last Week: 4-1

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Bob Meseroll's Big Sky Power Rankings

Like I had last week (and would currently have), he's got Weber State at number one, followed by Montana.

Weber State (4-0, 9-3): The Wildcats are playing at a very high level right now, having beaten their last three opponents by an average of 40 points (University of the Southwest had a lot to do with that). Still, the Wildcats are a plus-20.5 in scoring margin in four league games. Weber is getting production from one through five and off the bench. Guard Scott Bamforth, who had a bum shoulder last season, is 15 for 26 from 3-point range in league games. Kyle Tresnak, Davion Berry, Jordan Richardson and Gelaun Wheelwright all join Bamforth in double digits in scoring and freshman Joel Bolomboy is second in the league in rebounding … off the bench. Weber will be tough to dislodge from this perch.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jamie Stewart Dismissed from Montana State

For the second straight season, Jamie Stewart will not be finishing the season on the Montana State roster. Last season, he had academic issues, this year, he has simply been dismissed from the team with no specifics being reported.

From Gidal Kaiser of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

While he did not divulge specifics Thursday night, head coach Brad Huse confirmed that Stewart “is no longer with the program.” Juniors Paul Egwuonwu and Flavien Davis both acknowledged Stewart’s capabilities as a player but would not comment further.
Stewart was a 6'4'' senior guard that gave them a lot of versatility with his ability to handle the ball. This year, he was averaging nine points and four rebounds per game, playing 23 minutes per night. They have the depth to make up for the loss, but still not something you want to have happen.

Coach Brad Huse is arguably coaching for his job, as he is in the final year of his contract and has a restless fan base, and this type of thing obviously never helps. As Kaiser notes in his article, it is becoming a trend for the Bobcats.

Since the start of the 2010-’11 season, 11 players have left the MSU program for various reasons, among them dismissal, academic ineligibility or NCAA rules violations. That includes at least four walk-ons.
We wish Stewart the best on whatever is the next chapter of his life.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sacramento State Misses 26 Free Throws... and Wins

Southern Utah traveled to Sacramento State on Monday night and the result was... well, ugly. The Hornets won 64-59, but they did it while missing 26 free throws and turning it over 17 times.

A sampling of the stats:

- In the first half, the teams combined for 23 fouls and 20 turnovers.
- By the end of the night, Sacramento State was 29/55 from the free throw line, and Southern Utah was 15/21. There were a total of 76 free throws shot, and 33 turnovers between the teams.
- Three Hornets were in the double digits in free throw attempts, and another player had eight attempts.
- Among some of Sac State's numbers - Dylan Garrity was 10/15 (91% FT shooter coming in) and Mikh McKinney was 7/14 (87%).
- In the final 3:19 of the game, Sacramento State shot 10/24 from the charity stripe.

If you weren't able to watch the game... congratulations. It was ugly, although Coach Katz and the Hornets will take it, as it evens their Big Sky record to 2-2. Southern Utah falls to 3-1.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Justin Crogsile Leaves Eastern Washington For Personal Reasons

On Friday, I read and reported that Eastern Washington guard Justin Crogsile was dismissed from the Eastern Washington team. As it turns out, that was wrong, because Crogsile has left the team for personal reasons.

Crosgile, the leading scorer on the Eastern Washington University basketball team, cited a “need to be closer to home” for his surprise decision to leave the squad earlier this week.

“It’s been a great experience at Eastern Washington, and I have nothing against the coaches or players here,” Crosgile said in a telephone interview Friday night.

Crosgile said he plans to return to his native New Jersey to be near his mother and his 3-year-old son.
Crogsile was averaging over 14 points and five assists per game, so the loss is potentially big for the Eagles. However, Jim Hayford's club is not unprepared.

Freshman guard Daniel Hill is eligible, and I know he is a guy that the coaching staff likes a lot.Though he has yet to put up much numbers, there are signs that he will have a big role. He has played five games this year, with increasing minutes. Last night, he took the potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation, and the ball was in his hands as he drove to the hoop to try and tie the game (but was blocked by Flavien Davis). He will be one to watch.

In the end, Crogsile played 12 games for the Eagles after sitting out last season due to transfer rules. We wish him the best in his future, and EWU will look forward to the future with Daniel Hill and others at the PG spot.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball