Thursday, February 28, 2013

Another Wild Night in the Big Sky

I joked on twitter on Thursday night that the best bet in the Big Sky is that the lower seeded team is usually going to win, if only to ensure that the Big Sky race in the middle stays tight. While that happened a little bit, some clarity is finally starting to emerge in the Big Sky.

I thought about ranking the games in order of their impact on the Big Sky picture, but that would have been an exercise in futility. Every game was loaded with importance on this night. So let's go through each game.

Northern Arizona 67, Idaho State 58
Looking at the Lumberjacks closing schedule, this was a must-win game, and they delivered. ISU kept the game tight for 30 minutes, but NAU really made the plays on both ends of the court down the stretch to pull away and win it fairly easily. ISU was solid offensively in the first half, but the Lumberjacks really locked down defensively down the stretch.

The Jacks also got a big game from Gabe Rogers, who led the team with 24 points. He has now scored 22+ points in 9 of his last 11, and is averaging 24 PPG over that stretch. The Bengals tried to go to a box and one to slow him down in the second half, but they got nice plays in the second half from Stallon Saldivar and DeWayne Russell. The win moves NAU to 8-9, which is a common record for Big Sky teams right now.

Montana State 62, Southern Utah 61
It was at this point that I more fully realized that I don't really know anything. MSU had lost five straight games... so of course they went on the road and got a nice comeback win over a suddenly reeling Southern Utah club. SUU led for 39 minutes, but it was a late Antonio Biglow layup that put MSU ahead 62-61, and neither team would score again. It went down to the last second... MSU took the ball out of bounds with 4.4 seconds left, but they threw it away. Damon Heuir picked up the ball... but passed up a chance to take a (difficult) shot. His pass went out of bounds, and time expired.

It was an ugly, choppy game at times, but Brad Huse will take it. MSU shot 36% and made 4/16 threes, but won the game by outrebounding SUU 39-28 (which is hard to do) and taking care of the ball, with just eight turnovers compared to 14 for the Thunderbirds. Jackson Stevenett had 19 for SUU, but  Heuir had just 7 points and five assists. Paul Egwuonwu was the player of the game, with 14 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for MSU.

Both teams now sit at 8-9.

Northern Colorado 88, Eastern Washington 80 (OT)
This was a fun one to watch, because it was a game of runs back and forth. Both teams looked poised to take control of various times throughout the game, but neither could get over the hump. The biggest play of the game came with about a minute left in regulation... with EWU clinging to a 72-69 lead, Tate Unruh drained a 30 footer to tie the game. It showed Unruh's confidence... the shot clock was not running down, and the play didn't appear to be designed for that, but Unruh knew he could make the shot, and he did. Big time shot.

In the extra frame, UNC took control early and didn't look back. The end result was an 88-80 win, keeping UNC's season alive while almost effectively ending Eastern Washington's, barring a miracle and some luck in the final three games. There were some big performances on both sides in this one. UNC was led by Derrick Barden (28 points, 10 rebounds) and Tate Unruh (21 points, 7 rebounds), while EWU got big games from Martin Seiferth (11 points, 21 rebounds) and freshman Tyler Harvey (22 points). I am not sure that Tyler Harvey is the answer at PG (I think he might be a little better suited to play off the ball), but he has been a great find in the second half of the year.

Northern Colorado improves to 8-10 in the Big Sky, while Eastern Washington falls to 6-11.

Weber State 70, Sacramento State 55
 The Hornets did what they could, but the talent gap was just too large in this game. Weber State hit 11/19 from downtown and pounded Sac State on the glass. Those things combined with the Hornets shooting 39.6% to give the Wildcats a relatively easy road win. Davion Berry led the way for WSU with 22 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. Weber moves to 15-2 and keeps the pressure on Montana, while Sac State falls to 7-10 and has to get a win on Saturday.

North Dakota 74, Portland State 66
Finally, a Big Sky team has a chance to separate themselves a little and does it! With the win, UND moves to 10-8 in the Big Sky, which should basically clinch them a spot into the conference tournament, and gets them very close to locking in the number three seed. The loss ends any remote chance that PSU had of making the tournament. Troy Huff (18 points, 4 steals), Aaron Anderson (16 points), and Jamal Webb (11 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) were all big for UND, who held PSU to 40% shooting in a gym where the Vikings have been pretty good offensively.

Here is how things look in the middle:

3. North Dakota (10-8)
4. Montana State / Southern Utah / Northern Arizona (8-9)
7. Northern Colorado (8-10)
8. Sacramento State (7-10)
9. Eastern Washington (6-11)

Yep, Saturday is going to be a pretty big day as well!!

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Nice Article on Randy Rahe

The Deseret News wrote up a nice article on Weber State coach Randy Rahe, a coach you don't always hear about it, but is quietly becoming an extremely accomplished coach.

Nestled in the 2006 hiring class is Weber State coach Randy Rahe. During his time in Ogden, he's accumulated the second-highest winning percentage (66 percent), the third most wins (139) and his 88-24 Big Sky record is the highest conference winning percentage (79 percent) among all 46 coaches.
Weber State is a good gig with some nice advantages, but Rahe has had a lot of success doing things his way:

He began constructing a successful framework in recruiting. Rahe's vision prioritized morally sound character, emphasizing education, and reflected his hard-working, passionate mentality. The prototype has produced 18 all-conference players and 19 all-academic members, and in 2012, Weber State earned a perfect score of 1,000 in the NCAA APR (Academic Progress Rate).
Well done Coach Rahe and Weber State.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thursday Night Predictions

With two weeks left, everything matters. There are five games on Thursday night, and every one of them has big implications in the race for the conference tournament. Let's make some predictions.

Weber State 72, @ Sacramento State 64
Neither team will lack for motivation. Weber State's once poor chances of getting the top seed got a lot better within the last week, and they know it. A Montana loss suddenly looks a lot more possible in the final four games. The Hornets are capable of pulling an upset at home, but I just think WSU will be locked in for this game. If they are, they are too talented to be beat here.

@ Portland State 77, North Dakota 72
The Vikings are longshots to make the conference tournament, but their season is not over yet. If they can win two straight at home, they will be very much alive heading into the final weekend. They know that starts against UND. PSU is a much better team at home than on the road, and they will be very motivated. In conference play, UND has been the second worst team in the Big Sky about allowing their opponents offensive rebounds, while the Vikings have been second best at grabbing them. I think the Vikings hold home court.

@ Southern Utah 74, Montana State 63
The Bobcats are going in the wrong direction, having lost five in a row and six of seven. At one point they looked like a sure bet to be a top 4 team in the Big Sky, but now they are barely holding on for a spot in the tournament. I don't see them reversing course on the road against a SUU team that, for the most part, has won the games they are supposed to win.

@ Northern Arizona 66, Idaho State 64
You know that ISU is going to come into this game and give it all they have, because that's just what they do. However, I'm not sure they have the firepower to go on the road and steal one away from the Lumberjacks, who know from looking at their remaining schedule that this is a game they have to have.  Gabe Rogers has scored 22+ points in 8 of his last 10 games, and has really picked it up in the second half of conference play. NAU's offense relies on him perhaps more than any other offense in the Big Sky relies on one player, and he has them in contention for a tournament spot.

@ Eastern Washington 74, Northern Colorado 71
These teams are eighth and ninth in the race right now, so it is close to a must win for both teams. UNC has to steal at least one of two road games this week, while EWU needs to win both home games. After the Bears' loss to North Dakota last week, I don't have confidence in them to go into Cheney and get a road win. The point guard play hasn't been there for them. EWU has gotten a boost lately from Tyler Harvey, who has gone from bit player to a potential building block for Jim Hayford.

Thoughts? Anything I have wrong?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dissecting the Big Sky's Top Scorers

Before the year started, I thought Collin Chiverton would be the leading scorer in the Big Sky, for a variety of reasons. Things obviously haven't quite worked out that, but there is a good race going on for the scoring title. There are three realistic contenders for the scoring title during conference games, but let's take a look at the top six right now, and go through a quick dissection of where they are at their best.

1. Jackson Stevenett (Southern Utah) - 19.9 PPG
Stevenett has been his normal self, as this is right in line with what he has done throughout his career. This is his highest scoring output, but that is only because he is a bigger part of the offense than ever - he has remained his efficient self. He shoots over 50% on his twos, and has a three-point shot that at least has to be respected (20/61 on the year). He is also good at getting to the line, and has shot a remarkable 120/135 (88.9%) from the line this year. For as much as he does for them, his efficiency and ability to pick his spots is fun to watch. He should get consideration to the conference POY.

2. Gabe Rogers (Northern Arizona) - 19.5 PPG
Rogers fires up eight threes per game - 215 total on the year - which, shockingly, isn't even in the top ten in attempts. He shoots 34.4%, which is not great, but not bad at all. Rogers is in a spot where sometimes he is forced to take a lot of shots, because (other than himself and DeWayne Russell), NAU guys struggles to create their own shots at times. He is 13th in the country in % of his team's shots he takes while he's out there, at 33.8%. He doesn't have a great game going to the hoop and scoring inside (41.7% inside the arc, which remarkably is a huge improvement on last year's 31.1%), and doesn't draw a lot of trips to the line.

3. Troy Huff (North Dakota) - 19.3 PPG
Huff is fifth in the country in % shots taken, at 35.8%. He might be the most athletic player in the conference, and is the most likely (along with Joel Bolomboy of Weber State) to throw down a highlight reel dunk, which he has done on multiple occasions this season. He has been amazingly consistent on his two-point percentage in his career - 48.6% (2011), 48.6% (2012), and 48.4% (2013). He is not a great outside shooter, though much better than last season. He doesn't get to the stripe a lot, and only shoots 68% when he gets there. If he can work on his three-point shot and/or free throw shooting this offseason, he can be a major force next year.

4. Damon Heuir (Southern Utah) - 17.3 PPG
Unlike his teammate Stevenett, Heuir is a little bit more of a gunner than an efficient offensive machine. He shoots the same percentage as Stevenett from three, but he has taken more than twice as many, hoisting up six per game. Inside the arc he is only at 41.2%, which is not great. He is solid at getting to the FT line, where he shoots a solid 78%. I think all of his shooting is at least partially due to the fact that SUU is not teeming with a lot of guys that can create their own shot, which can force Heuir to try to make something out of nothing. There is no denying that even though his percentages aren't great, he is a key cog in their offense this year.

5. Davion Berry (Weber State) - 15.2 PPG
Berry has matched the hype, becoming the top scoring option for a deep Weber State team. He doesn't force thing, and will pass the ball if someone else has a better look or if he is just having an off day (22.5 ARate). He has shot 53.5% from inside the arc, and 43.5% outside it, both of which are excellent marks. He has been good but not great at getting to the line, but is only shooting 71% from there. Room for improvement. He has been everything Randy Rahe could have asked for, and more.

6. Aaron Anderson (North Dakota) - 15.2 PPG
Anderson has been asked to do more than ever this year, and while his shooting percentage from three has dropped (48.1% down to 41.1%), he has made it up it with a better assist rate and lower turnover rate. But alas, this is about his scoring ability. Even though the three point shooting it down a little, 41.1% is still really solid. He has really improved in his ability to get to the line, which is especially important since he shoots 85% from the stripe. Before the year, I thought Anderson's ceiling might be a good role player. I was wrong. He has shown he can be a really good #2 scoring option. He might be the most improved player in the Big Sky.

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Injury Updates on Will Cherry and Mathias Ward

Stellar updates from Bob Meseroll on Will Cherry and Mathias Ward, and their upcoming status.

First, Will Cherry:

“It was kind of the same, but it was more when I came down that I heard it pop,” Cherry said. “I instantly thought it broke. There was no way I could have gone back in the game. It was the same exact feeling as when I broke it.”

X-rays on Sunday, though, did not show a break and a more detailed look with a CT scan on Monday confirmed the X-rays.

“They actually said it looked exactly the same as my last checkup. (Jan. 28),” Cherry said.

Cherry said there is no timetable yet for his return.

“That’s a hard call,” Cherry said when asked if he thought he would play for the Griz again. “As of right now I don’t know too much. I haven’t walked an ounce on it since. I want to say I’ll give it a week to see how it’s feeling. Right now it feels as if something’s wrong, but nobody knows what it is. That’s the confusing part and that’s the scary part because I don’t know what the percentages are of me going back out there and this time breaking it.
To me, that sounds like a guy that has probably played his last game in a Montana uniform. That would be more than understandable, especially when dealing with a recurring injury like that. Everyone wants to see Cherry back in a Montana uniform, myself included. But hopefully he doesn't feel any pressure to do anything other than what is best for his future. Knowing what I know of the Montana program, I don't think there will be any pressure placed on Cherry, which is good.

Then, Mathias Ward:

Ward missed Saturday’s overtime loss at Davidson after spraining the arch in his left foot late in a win at Idaho State.

“I just came down on someone’s foot wrong, twisted it and felt something pop,” Ward said Tuesday.

Doctors have told Ward he could possibly recover in time to play in the Big Sky tournament, which begins March 14 in either Missoula or Ogden.

“I’m hoping to come back sooner than that,” Ward said.
This fits basically with what we knew of the injury initially - that Ward was likely out until the tournament, with a chance to come back earlier. It seems as though that is still true.

So in order to keep the top spot, the Grizzlies are going to have to win two road games this weekend without two of their top three players.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

X-Rays Negative on Will Cherry

This is good news, from Bob Meseroll:

X-rays on the Grizzles’ senior point guard’s injured right foot were negative. Cherry re-injured the foot -the same one he broke in September – during Montana’s overtime loss to Davidson on Saturday. I don’t have any additional info for now, but will post updates when I do.
Obviously he is still hurt, so I am not sure what this means in terms of his status for the rest of the season. But at the very least, this is good news for him long-term, and there is at least a chance it seems now that it will mean good news for Montana short-term.

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Big Sky Standings Rundown

Two weeks remain in the Big Sky slate. As of right now, there is realistically probably 7 teams battling for 3 spots in the conference tournament. There is also intrigue at the top. Here is a quick rundown:

Some thoughts:

- Here is a quick reminder of the Big Sky tiebreaker rules.

- It is a tough two game stretch for Montana, especially if they are playing without Will Cherry and Mathias Ward. They travel to Bozeman to take on a reeling Montana State team this Saturday, and then have to travel to Cedar City to take on Southern Utah two days later. That is a huge game, and it will not be easy for the Grizzlies.

- As long as Weber State gets past Sacramento State, it is hard to see another loss on their schedule. That would keep the pressure on Montana

- It is easy to see the importance of North Dakota beating Northern Colorado last week. UND is now alone in third place and basically a lock for the tournament. Meanwhile, UNC would have been in fifth, but now they sit in eighth, just below the cut line. They likely need to beat either EWU or PSU on the road (which is not going to be easy), and then take down Southern Utah at home. They have not done themselves any favors.

- Southern Utah gets Montana State at home, and then they will welcome Montana. For that one, the TBirds will be on extra rest, while Montana travels on short rest. A win in either of those games should get them in.

- Eastern Washington gets North Dakota and Northern Colorado at home this week. Based on their spot in the standings and the fact that go to Ogden in the final weekend, they have to win both of those games to have a chance. They are definitely capable.

- Montana State has more home games than anyone else down the stretch, which (in theory) puts them in a great position down the stretch. But with the way they have been playing of late (5 straight losses, and losers of 6 of 7), nothing can be assured.

- Sacramento State could basically put themselves in if they can upset Weber State this week, but as long as they take care of things at home against Idaho State, they should still be in good shape. Basically, they would put themselves in a spot where they would need to beat either NAU or MSU on the road in the final week. That can be done.

- Northern Arizona also has to play both Weber State and Montana. They are in the same spot as Sac State... they have to take care of ISU at home, and then beat either Sac State or Montana State on the road. If they do that, they should be in pretty good shape.

It will be a great final two weeks in the Big Sky... with the possible exception of Portland State/Idaho State on the final day of the regular season, literally every game matters in a big way.

*Thanks to Dave for the Excel standings idea!

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Does Montana Look Like Without Cherry and Ward?

It seems almost certain that Will Cherry will miss the rest of the season, with reports that he re-broke his foot. Mathias Ward's status is less certain, but there is at least a very good chance he will miss this week's games, where they will travel to take on Montana State and Southern Utah.

What do they lose with those two guys? All season long, it has been said that the Grizzlies biggest thing going for them was the big 3. That was - Ward, Cherry, and Kareem Jamar. Obviously, this would take out 2/3 of that trio. Ward and Cherry account for almost 40% of the team's scoring. Ward is the best midrange shooter in the Big Sky, and Cherry is the best defender in the Big Sky.

They can't replace Cherry's defense. That is no offense to the rest of the team, it's just that there is nobody in the conference (and not many in America) that are as good as Cherry. He is second all time in the Big Sky in steals. But how will they go about replacing these guys' offensive production? Here are some things to watch:

1) Kareem Jamar has to be the man - Simply put, Jamar has to be at his best every game. With Cherry out (and possibly even if Cherry is healthy), Jamar is the best player in the conference. He averages 14 PPG, 6 RPG, and 4 APG.  He is now Montana's best scorer, rebounder, and passer. He has to do it all for them right now, and he is good enough to do that. On Saturday, he was two assists away from a triple-double, and that was no aberration. They will rely heavily on Jamar.

2) Spencer Coleman and Mike Weisner need to step up - Coleman and Weisner are probably more traditional threes, but they will be asked to play a ton of four and possibly even some five down the stretch. Over the last couple of years, the Grizzlies offense has been at its best when they have five guys that can step away from the hoop and shoot. They did that this year when Ward was at the five, and one of these guys at the four. Now, one of them might be asked to play center often. Both guys can hit the outside shot (Weisner in particular has been excellent from outside), but the key will be how they rebound and defend.

3) Keron DeShields and Jordan Gregory can no longer be role players - We looked at these guys closely before the season began, but now their contributions will be more important than ever. Both have made nice strides this year, but Wayne Tinkle is going to need them to be consistent offensive threats for the Grizzlies. Gregory has been the more efficient scorer this year, shooting 53% on twos and 43% from downtown. DeShields is a guy that Tinkle loves for his toughness and fearlessness, but he has been a little inconsistent offensively. He is only an average outside shooter (but better facilitator than Gregory), but he needs to take the next step without Cherry.

Looking at the roster... if Cherry and Ward are done for the rest of the year (or at least, however long they are out), the Grizzlies need these three things to happen. They have more traditional big men (Eric Hutchison and Andy Martin) but both guys have only been effective in spurts, and they are slow-footed post men. The Grizzlies have performed best with a quick lineup of shooters, and a lineup of DeShields-Gregory-Jamar-Coleman-Weisner is the best chance at that. But it's hard to say how that lineup would perform defensively and on the glass. I suspect we will find out down the stretch.

Wayne Tinkle is the best coach in the Big Sky. He has proven this over the year. But this may be his biggest challenge.

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Big Sky Goes 5-5 At Bracker Busters on Saturday

Let's take a quick rundown at the Big Sky's performance in Bracket Busters, a day in which the conference represented itself well. It was a 5-5 day, but one of the losses was by one at the buzzer, and another still earned the conference respect. Let's go into them:

- In the biggest matchup of the day, Montana fell to Davidson 93-87 in OT. They played the game without Mathias Ward, and Will Cherry also suffered an injury late in the game (and has reportedly re-broken his foot). They simply gave a great effort, especially down the stretch, and they should hang their heads high after the game. Wayne Tinkle again showed why he is the best coach in the Big Sky, both with halftime adjustments (Davidson star Jake Cohen had 25 points in the first half, and 3 points in the second half and OT combined), and by the way the Grizzlies battled back even without two of their stars.

The biggest star of the day was junior Kareem Jamar. He finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists, and seemed to do it all down the stretch and in OT. It is clear that if Montana has any chance to win the Big Sky, they will need Jamar to turn into a full-time star like that.

- Northern Colorado was in a dogfight with UC Davis, and it looks like they would come away with a win. Paul Garnica hit a three with 16 seconds left to give the Bears the 78-77 lead. However, UC Davis answered with a bucket with two seconds left, and that was the ballgame. One storyline to watch... Tevin Svihovec has been struggling a bit, and did again on Saturday (5 TOs), while Garnica was solid (12 points, 7 assists, 0 turnovers)... it would not be a surprise to see Garnica's minutes increase, and Svihovec's decrease down the stretch.

- Idaho State looked like they might get a win against potential future Big Sky member Idaho, but fell just short, losing 75-69 to the Vandals. Four Bengals scored in double figures, led by Chris Hansen (19 points) and Tomas Sanchez (18 points, 7 assists). However, the Bengals had no answer for Idaho crashing the glass, ad the Vandals had 21 offensive rebounds which resulted in 34 second chance points. That was the difference in the game.

- North Dakota rekindled an old NCC rivalry with their game against Nebraska-Omaha, but UND was unable to pull out a road win. UNO won 83-75, and North Dakota had no offense down the stretch. UNO ended the game on a 13-2 run Troy Huff led the team with 21 points, while Aaron Anderson had 19.

- Northern Arizona at least got a trip to Hawaii out of Bracket Busters. The game itself did not go so well. The Lumberjacks got beat soundly, losing 84-50. DeWayne Russell led the team with 14 points, while Gabe Rogers had 12. The good news for NAU is that ultimately, the game doesn't really matter at all.

- Weber State already owned the best win by a Big Sky team this season with their early win at Dayton. Now, they have the second most impressive as well, after they went in and beat a good Oral Roberts team on the road. They trailed by seven at the half, but came back to win 70-66, improving their record to 20-5 on the season.

Kyle Tresnak led the way with 20 points, while Scott Bamforth (16), Jordan Richardson (12) and Frank Otis (11) were all in double figures. In a testament to the depth of Weber State, leading scorer Davion Berry shot just 2/7 from the field for seven points, and the Wildcats still picked up the win. (One note... even though Berry struggled shooting, he still found ways to contribute, with a team high seven assists). This is why they are so dangerous, a lot of guys can get it done.

- Eastern Washington took down Sam Houston State 81-76, but some of the numbers in the game were crazy. For example, the Bearkats pulled down 29 offensive rebounds and held a 45-29 rebound edge over EWU, and still lost. Eastern Washington blocked a Big Sky record 16 shots in the game, including 8 from Martin Seiferth and 4 from Venky Jois. Collin Chiverton led the Eagles with 20 points, while Parker Kelly had 17.

- Portland State may not make the Big Sky tournament, but they are ending the year playing some decent basketball. They won their third straight game, using a 16-0 to take down UC Riverside 66-58. The Vikings trailed by eight midway through the second half, but used that run to take command of the game. Aaron Moore had 13 and 9 for PSU, while Michael Harthun had 15. While PSU's chances aren't good, they could at least have a shot at a tiebreak scenario if they can win 3 of 4 down the stretch.

- Sacramento State got an exciting win over Cal State Santa Barbara, as a Konner Veteto bucket with five seconds left gave the Hornets a 51-50 win. The Hornets had lost two straight, so it had to be a good feeling for them. Also, in their quest to finish over .500, the win moves them to 13-12 on the year. Four Hornets were in double figures, but the key was the defense. UCSB shot 33.3% from the floor, and the Hornets also avoided giving them free points at the line. Nice game for Sac State.

- Finally, Southern Utah was also on the right end of a one point game, beating Cal State Northridge 73-72 on a late bucket from Jayson Cheesman. The TBirds were down by as many as 13, but battled back for the home win. Jackson Stevenett led the team with 21 points, and Damon Heuir had 18.

Anything else that I missed on the day of Bracket Busters?

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Will Cherry Suffers Foot Injury

In the offseason, Will Cherry suffered a broken foot and missed most of the non-conference season. In Saturday's Bracket Busters game against Davidson, he re-injured his foot, and it could be serious. From Bob Meseroll:

Then with 4:40 to play, Will Cherry came up lame. He spent the rest of the game on the bench with ice on his right foot, the same one he broke back in September. He said after the game that it feels the same as it did when he broke it during a pick-up game.

“That’s what he says, but obviously we won’t know anything until we get an X-ray,” Tinkle said. “He said it feels the same, but who knows? Obviously, if that’s true, it’s not a good thing.”
Eventually, we can get into what the potential loss of Cherry means for Montana, and their chances in the Big Sky. In the meantime, let's all hope for the best. Cherry is a good kid, and a great player. There has been talk of an NBA career for him (and I think he is good enough to play at the next level), but obviously a serious foot injury wouldn't help, as players from the Big Sky already face longer odds.

Cherry is the most talented player in the Big Sky, and one of the best perimeter defenders in America. He has had a fantastic career for the Grizzlies. Hopefully we will get to see him again in a Montana uniform.

EDIT: This is not confirmed, but the word is that Cherry has indeed re-broken his foot. If that is the case, we wish him a speedy recovery.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Should Tyler Geving Get a Contract Extension?

Greg Crawford, for one, thinks so:

Take all this into consideration and perhaps you might agree, why Geving should get a long term extension. In his second year on the job, of a four year deal after replacing Ken Bone who departed for Washington State, Portland State's men's basketball program was placed on APR (Academic Progress Rating) for some of the lowest scores in the country. The terms dealt a severe blow to Portland State basketball. Loss of scholarships, loss of practice time and no post-season for that one year period. At the time, I was telling people, that Portland State basketball would take five years to recover. Many laughed, they are not laughing now. Geving has turned the academic side around, something he inherited and not on his watch, to the point that Portland State now gets perfect APR scores.
What are everyone else's thoughts?

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Montana Leading Scorer Mathias Ward Could Be Out Awhile

Montana currently sits at 15-1, in first place in the Big Sky. But their lead is tenuous. With Weber State just a game behind them and looking strong, the Grizzlies can't slip up, because if they lose first, they lose homecourt advantage in the Big Sky tournament.

This makes the news coming out of Missoula tough for the Grizzlies. Mick Holien reports that on a Tuesday radio show, Wayne Tinkle said that Mathias Ward could be out for awhile.

It’s wait and see for Ward who sustained an injury to his arch against Idaho State and undergoes medical tests this week to determine the injury’s severity and length of rehabilitation, Wayne Tinkle said during Tuesday’s radio show.

It’s a tough pill for Ward, who is the league’s fifth leading scorer and has played in 118 games for Montana, starting the last two seasons (55 games).
Ward is Montana's leading scorer at 14.8 PPG, and he is perhaps the best mid-range jump shooter in the Big Sky. But that is only part of the point. The larger point is that Montana is already painfully thin in the frontcourt. Ward itself isn't really a true big man (he is not a very good rebounder), but their other best options upfront are Mike Weisner and Spencer Coleman, who are probably better suited to play the three.

If Ward is out awhile, such as for next week's road games or even longer, Montana could be in trouble. Without Ward, they will likely play even smaller, with guys like Spencer Coleman or Mike Weisner playing some at the five, along with four guards. They won't really have a choice.

Bottom line, this could be a game changer at the end of the Big Sky season.

*Thanks to WeberHoops for the tip

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

North Dakota Gets Thrilling Win Over Northern Colorado

In Wednesday's night tilt between North Dakota and Northern Colorado, there was about 37 minutes of tight defense and inconsistent offensive play. UND took a lead into halftime, UNC came out in the second half and led by as much as 11, and the rest of the game was a tight, back and forth affair.

After a flurry of buckets back and forth, Northern Colorado led 61-60 with the ball late. Tevin Svihovec made only one of two, giving UND the ball down 62-60 with 18 seconds to play. After working the ball around, it made its way to Aaron Anderson, and the junior guard delivered. He buried a back breaking three. On the ensuing possession, Tate Unruh tried to make something happen, but got the ball stolen. After making 1 of 2, the Bears needed to go the length of the court in 1.8 seconds.

Remarkably, they got off a great shot. The ball got tipped to Tim Huskisson, who had what seemed to be a wide open layup (would like to see a replay), but he missed it as the buzzer went off. It looked like he was a bit surprised to actually get the ball right there, in that spot. With the miss, UND won the game 64-62.

Two things that add injury to insult for the Bears in this game:
1) North Dakota was shorthanded, as Brandon Brekke and Josh Schuler did not make the trip because of injuries. If you're keeping track at home, that's their fourth and fifth leading scorers.
2) It was a game that North Dakota wanted to win, obviously, but a game that Northern Colorado NEEDED to win. The loss drops them to 7-10 in the Big Sky. That means they almost certainly will need to split their road games next week (at Eastern Washington and Portland State), and then beat Southern Utah at home.

Some other thoughts from the game:
- Troy Huff was not at his best (19 points on 6/18 FG, two rebounds), but he stayed aggressive down the stretch and made some nice plays. Plus, his drive and two-handed slam was perhaps the most athletic play in the Big Sky this year. That or this allep oop slam he had earlier in the year.
- Apart from the last three, Anderson was solid. He was money down the stretch from the line, finishing 7/7 from the stripe. Even though he was only 1/5 from deep. He had 21 points, six rebounds, and five assists. He is a really good all-around player.
- Connor Osborne had his best game of the season, finishing with 19 points and 6 rebounds, including some huge plays down the stretch. Derrick Barden didn't really stand out, and finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. That is a compliment. Makes tons of plays every night, and it has become commonplace.
- Tevin Svihovec was very shaky down the stretch. He got swiped by Jamal Webb, almost got swiped by Troy Huff, and badly missed a FT in the final 20 seconds. If UNC will take the next step, Svihovec has to take the next step. No other way to say it.
- Tate Unruh is a fine player, but this had to be one of the worst games of his life. He was 2/11 from the floor, and 0/5 from downtown. If you are BJ Hill, you want him to keep shooting... they just weren't falling tonight. It was shocking to see because he is such a great shooter.

Anything other thoughts on this game?

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Big Sky Standings Rundown

With all but four games in the books for each team, we are basically no closer to figuring out who the third seed will be, or which seven teams will be in tournament than when the season started! That is what makes the Big Sky so great. 10 wins will get you in for sure, and I have a feeling that nine wins will probably make you pretty safe. But if you have eight, you'll be sweating things, and there is certainly a chance that nine will put you in a tiebreaker as well.

So let's take a quick rundown of the Big Sky standings and assess the team's chances.

1. Montana (15-1)
Well, they still control their destiny. Road games against a reeling Montana State team and a physical Southern Utah team look like the biggest challenges. Montana should win both of those games, but it's far from a foregone conclusion. They get Sacramento State at home, and while the Hornets gave them a ton of trouble in Sacramento, it's hard to see it happening in Missoula. The two road games are going to be the key.

2. Weber State (14-2)
Obviously they have to hope that Montana loses and that the tiebreakers go into their favor. In terms of winning out, their schedule is favorable. They travel to Sacramento State (who is struggling) and Northern Arizona, but then get Portland State and Eastern Washington at home - two teams that have struggled badly in road games.

3. North Dakota / Southern Utah (8-8)
Southern Utah's task got tougher when they found out third leading scorer Wade Collie got arrested and suspender, but the biggest challenge for them is the schedule. They get the Montana schools at home, then travel to North Dakota and Northern Colorado to end the year. There is probably one win in that group, but not sure there is more than that. North Dakota travels to Northern Colorado this week, and then PSU and EWU the next week. They need at least one of those three. Then they end the year with Southern Utah at home. 10 wins seems like the right number that they will get.

5. Northern Colorado / Sacramento State / Northern Arizona / Montana State (7-9)
Northern Colorado, to me, looks to be in the driver's seat for fifth right now, if not higher. They have played well the last three games, and the schedule breaks nicely. They get UND and Southern Utah at home, two teams right above them in the standings. They travel to EWU and PSU, two winnable games (though nothing on the road is easy). I think they can win three of four. Montana State has three home games remaining, but they are playing bad basketball right now.

Sacramento State and Northern Arizona get Weber/ISU at home, and then the Montana schools on the road. There is one game (ISU at home) where they'll be favored, and could be underdogs in the other three. There seems to be a fairly decent chance that Sacramento State @ Montana State on the final day of the season will decide who goes to the conference tournament who goes home.

9. Eastern Washington (6-10)
The loss to Portland State makes things very difficult for the Eagles. Basically, they need to win 3 of 4 to have a fighting chance. First up is two home games, with Northern Colorado and North Dakota. I don't love their chances, but it could be a lot worse. Then, they go on the road to face Idaho State and Weber State. With due respect to ISU, there is a reason they are last in the conference. That is a winnable game. Again, not ideal, but all is not lost quite yet for the Eagles.

10. Portland State (5-11)
Technically, they are still alive. But they most likely have to win four straight, and I don't see that. If they can go into Ogden and beat Weber State, they will deserve a spot in the tournament. But nothing they have done this year suggests they are capable of such a run.

11. Idaho State (4-12)
Idaho State has impressed me this year. They have been in some games they probably shouldn't have, and they always play hard. Bill Evans and laid a nice foundation.

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Weber State Leads The Country in FG Percentage

Weber State has been good offensively this year, we know. But as it turns out, nobody in America is shooting the ball as well as them.

They currently (as of Monday night) lead the country in field goal percentage at 51.3%. They are third in the country in three-point percentage, sitting at 42.3% (Creighton leads the country at 42.9%). That is impressive.

Obviously, a lot of guys contribute to this. Frank Otis shoots 68.8% from the field, which is second in the country. Among their normal rotation of nine guys, all but two of them shoot better than 50% on twos. The two that don't are Scott Bamforth (who makes up for it by shooting 42% on threes and 91% from the line) and James Hajek, their least used offensive player.

The Wildcats are dangerous.

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Derrick Barden and Davion Berry Share Big Sky POW

Coming into the year, we knew that Davion Berry and Derrick Barden would be two of the best newcomers in the Big Sky. This week, they shared the honor of the best player in the Big Sky.

Berry, a 6-foot-4 junior guard/forward from Oakland, Calif., averaged 17.0 points, four assists, 3.3 rebounds and two steals per game in the three wins. Berry shot .643 percent from the field, .500 percent from 3-point range, and .769 percent from the free-throw line in three wins.

Barden, a 6-5 junior forward from Detroit, Mich., led the Bears to two important home wins to get his team into a tie for fifth place in the league standings. He averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per game, shooting .720 percent from the field.
After the game Saturday night, I called Derrick Barden a star, as he has really become one of the most dangerous weapons in the conference. Before the season, I said that he would lead the conference in rebounding... if I had put that on any sports betting sites, I could be doing good right now. For the season, Barden is second in the conference in rebounding (9.0 per game), but when looking at conference games only, he leads the Big Sky with ten boards per game.

Congrats to both guys, who should be among the top contenders for player of the year next season.

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Southern Utah's Wade Collie Arrested and Suspended

Southern Utah has had trouble scoring at times this year. Those issues will be exacerbated with the news that third leading scorer Wade Collie has been arrested for alleged drug possession, and has been suspended indefinitely.

According to the Iron County jail records, Wade Collie, 21, was arrested early Sunday morning. Few details surrounding the arrest were immediately available.

The county booking website indicates that he was being held on suspicion of having drug paraphernalia and of possession a controlled substance with intent to distribute it. Bail for Collie was set at $10,000
Collie was averaging seven points and 3.6 rebounds per game, shooting 42% from the field and 39% from downtown. He was also solid on the defensive glass for them.

The Thunderbirds have a tough schedule down the stretch, and could have used Collie. But with the seriousness of the allegations, I am guessing we have seen the last of him this season. If the charges are true, hopefully the arrest can be the start of a chain to turn his life around.

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ESPN Article on Will Cherry

Last week, Myron Medcalf of ESPN wrote a nice article on Montana guard Will Cherry, and battling through adversity of an injury this offseason.

Frustration and concerns about his future had replaced his typically vibrant demeanor because he had no promises that he would regain his former on-court swagger. "Those two or three months were probably the two or three hardest months of my life," he said. "I've never had to deal with adversity like that. I probably cried about [it] twice just thinking about what I could lose."

On those nights, he called Yvette Martin.

Like any good mother, she soothed the pain. But she also preached the message she'd reiterated since Cherry was a boy: Fight for what you want.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kevin Winford Has Surgery

Eastern Washington has been hit hard this year, and they didn't get out of Saturday unscathed.

Senior guard Kevin Winford took a blow to the shin, which resulted in compartment syndrome. It required surgery on Saturday evening after the game, but from Winford's twitter feed, it appeared to go well. Also according to his twitter feed, he will miss two weeks. Hopefully we will get to see him back out on the court.

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Rest of the Big Sky: Chaos Continues

Really, there hasn't been a lot we can count on in the Big Sky so far this year. The list is as follows:

- Montana will win anywhere except Ogden.
- Weber State will win anywhere except in Montana.
- Everyone else will beat everyone else at random.

So it went again today. Montana and Weber State won again, so they are still in a battle for the top spot. Other than that... the last place team beat the third place team, and the ninth place team beat the other third place team. Ho hum.

Northern Arizona kicked off the day with an OT win over North Dakota. They got big plays down the stretch from DeWayne Russell, who hit some key baskets at the end of regulation going to the basket. In overtime, Gabe Rogers hit big shots. Troy Huff had 19 points and 11 rebounds, but was held scoreless in the last 17 minutes of the game. Aaron Anderson led the team with 24 points, including three threes, but it wasn't enough.

It was a big win for NAU, as it moved them to 7-9 and part of the tie for fifth. North Dakota falls to 8-8, but they are still tied for third.

They are tied for third because Eastern Washington took down Southern Utah in a chippy game on Saturday afternoon. The game featured four technical fouls, a flagrant foul and an ejection before the Eagles outlasted Southern Utah 86-72. SUU point guard Damon Heuir got ejected early in the second half in this game.

Beyond the chippiness, EWU played perhaps their best offensive game of the year. They shot 54% from the field and got to the line 37 times (though they missed 15). They had great balance, with four guys in double figures, led by 18 from Collin Chiverton. When things are clicking, they have a lot of weapons, and they showed it. On the other side, Jackson Stevenett had 26 for the Thunderbirds and AJ Hess had 24, but nobody else had more than five.

EWU is now 6-9 in the Big Sky and suddenly very much a factor in the conference tournament race. SUU is 8-8, and while they still look like a good bet to go to the conference dance, things are less sure than they used to be.

Quick notes on the last couple games... Montana survived a scare but got past Idaho State 61-54 in Pocatello. Will Cherry had 10 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, and three steals, giving him 258 career steals, second all-time in the Big Sky. Three other Grizzlies were in double figures.

Weber State avenged their loss to Montana State, with the 69-61 win. The final margin was only eight, but it sounds like the Wildcats had things in hand for most of the second half. MSU cut the lead to three with 17 minutes left, but WSU followed that with a 15-2 run. The Wildcats shot 64% from the floord, led by 21 points and 5 assists from Davion Berry.

Montana State is now apart of the 7-9 party, while Weber State keeps hoping that Montana will get knocked off.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Derrick Barden Is A Star

Since conference play began, Derrick Barden has played like an all-conference player. On Saturday night, he played like the best player in the Big Sky. In Northern Colorado's 78-64 win over Sacramento State, the Hornets simply had no answer for Barden on either end.

Let's start with the numbers. Barden had 15 points and 10 rebounds... in the first half. And that was even after he went down for a few minutes with a leg injury. He finished the night with 21 points, 14 rebounds (6 offensive), and shot 10/11 from the field. 

Offensively, I thought he was very assertive from the get go. He used his quickness and strength to establish great position down low, and scored when he got the ball down there. He was a monster on the offensive glass, and turned most of his offensive rebounds into easy baskets. He scored on the drive. All of his baskets were within five feet (at least, that I can remember)... and he is 6'3''! There's nobody else like him in the Big Sky.

Defensively, he executed the game plan very well. After getting burned a bit by UNC's guards in the first meeting between these teams, the Bears made an effort to jump all back screens and show, and nobody was better at this than Barden. After jumping the screen, he forced the ballhandler to dribble back a few feet, and then was quick enough to get back to his man. That was a big reason why the Hornets offense was out of sorts for most of the night, and Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney couldn't really get anything going all night, finishing with nine points apiece.

I have said all year long that UNC has the third highest ceiling in the Big Sky, and Barden is the reason. He is a lot of fun to watch.

A few other notes:
- Tate Unruh had another nice day, finishing with 20 points. He moves off the ball as well as anyone else in the Big Sky.
- Tim Huskisson was also a big factor for the Bears. He had 15 points and was good on both ends. He is still a little bit inconsistent as a sophomore, but he is on the cusp of being a really good player. It will be fun to watch his development.
- Joe Eberhard was a non-factor for the Hornets in this game. He had two points and two rebounds in 20 minutes, and it seemed like his impact was even less than that. He was such a good player for them last year, but seems to be lacking in some confidence now.

The Bears and Hornets are now part of a four way tie for fifth in the Big Sky at 7-9. Northern Colorado feels like it's hitting its peak right now, while Sacramento State's once promising season seems to be falling off the rails. It will be an interesting final two weeks.

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A Look at North Dakota's Jaron Nash

After last season, Texas Tech forward Jaron Nash transferred to The University of North Dakota so he could be closer to his father, who is suffering from MS. Remarkably, for a reason that certainly only the NCAA knows, he was twice denied his request to get immediate eligibility. Rachel George of the USA Today wrote a really nice article on Nash and his relationship with his father.

While Nash spent his first semester at North Dakota hoping the NCAA would waive a transfer rule that requires him to sit out a year before he can play – his request was denied twice – his grades suffered and in December he was ruled academically ineligible. After transferring from a major program to be closer to home, the weight of his father's illness wore on him.

"When I found out I wouldn't be able to play (because of the NCAA's rulings on the waiver), it kind of took a toll on me," Jaron says.

Molded by those old VHS tapes of his father's college days and a group of friends, men Jerry trusted to teach his son what he could not, Jaron grew into a lithe 6-8 forward with ball-handling skills. They helped him follow in his father's footsteps to earn a Division I scholarship.

Jaron says he is on track to be eligible for his senior season and is focused on his last chance to play in front of his father. For Jaron, it has been a difficult year – he's had to learn to fight like Jerry.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Big Sky Tiebreaker Rules

I know this will be a constant reference down the stretch... where there could be tiebreakers all over the place at the end of the regular season. Here is the Big Sky tiebreaker, per the Big Sky.

1. Head-to-Head Competition

a. Consider the head-to-head record during the Conference season. In double round robin play a team would have to sweep the opponent to break a tie with this method.

b. In the case of more than two tied teams, consider the Conference regular season record for head-to-head competition among all of the tied teams. This process is used to break ties between any of the tied teams with any remaining tied teams returning to the process at criteria 1.a. (above). (Example: Teams A, B, C, and D have identical record from a double round robin season. In head-to-head competition Team A emerges with 4-2 record against the other tied teams, team B and Team C have a 3-3 record and team D has a 2-4 record. Teams A and D can be placed in the final standings at that point while teams B and C return to criteria 1.a. If B and C have split their regular Conference season games, they will move to criteria 2. Performance against other teams in descending order.)

c. In the case of three or more teams having identical win-loss records, the normal tie-breaking procedure would be used. When one or more of these teams is eliminated by using the tie-breaking procedure, the remaining teams involved would then return to the criteria listed in a., above, to break the tie. This will be done until a team is established for that particular seeding position.

2. Performance against Conference teams in descending order of finish, beginning with the No.1 team. (Example: Teams B and C remained tied after head-to-head criteria from above. Team A has been declared the Conference Champion based on the above criteria. Team B has split the Conference season games with team A and team C has lost both of the Conference games to team A. Team B is now placed in second place ahead of team C.)

3. RPI rankings

4. Coin flip between the tied teams

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Northern Colorado and North Dakota Get Key Wins

It was a game that Northern Colorado had to have, and they responded with a solid all-around effort in a 76-68 victory over Northern Arizona, who was right above them in the Big Sky standings heading into the day. They did it even though they didn't necessarily play their best.

"I think we took another step tonight and did what good teams, maturing teams, growing teams do, which is find a way to win when you play bad, when you play ugly. When you give up 56 percent, you turn it over 18 times and you get outrebounded, you shouldn't win. But these guys withstood a heck of a run in the second half, fought back and made free throws down the stretch and found a way to get it done. That's what growing teams do. That's what good teams do."
The key was this... at the half, UNC led 35-26. Within the first two minutes of the second half, NAU went on a 9-0 run to tie the game. It was gut check time for the Bears, and they responded, scoring a quick eight straight points to get the lead back, and they never gave it away after that. They were led by three guys offensively in this game. Tevin Svihovec (24 points, 4 assists), Derrick Barden (21 points, 6 rebounds), and Tate Unruh (17 points, 5 steals) were all huge, which I imagine is about what BJ Hill expected for this season.

The Lumberjacks got DeWayne Russell contributing again, scoring an efficient 15 points and looking like the guy that was so good early in the season. Gabe Rogers also had a big day, leading the team with 23 points. But nobody else was over seven points, and that lack of diversity offensively hurt them.

Both teams are now tied for seventh in the Big Sky at 6-9. The Bears will have another chance to take a big step forward on Saturday night, when they host Sacramento State.


Sacramento State will want to forget Thursday, a night where they lost 49-48 to North Dakota in a game that they had chances to win. The Hornets shot 33% from the floor, and seemed to miss a ton of easy shots in this game. It is their fourth one-point conference loss of the season, which is remarkable to think about.

Down the stretch, both teams gave a how-to on what not to do at the end of games. With UND clinging to a three point lead, they missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Hornets got the ball, and scored. UND inbounded with about 18 seconds left... and Aaron Anderson dribbled the ball a bit before throwing it away. Fortunately for UND, the Hornets then dribbled the ball away, having to foul Lenny Antwi, whose ensuing miss dropped him to 5/12 on the year from the line. The Hornets got the ball back, and while they didn't have a lot of time, Dylan Garrity gave a late pass to John Dickson, whose desperation 30 footer missed the mark. Even though there isn't a lot of time, Garrity has to take the ball strong to the basket in that situation.

Troy Huff led the way again for North Dakota, with 13 points and 10 rebounds. It was not a pretty game by any means (UND didn't get a field goal in the last ten minutes), but sometimes that happens. Brian Jones will take the ugly game if it means a victory any day.

UND is now 8-7 and tied for third, while Sac State is 7-8, tied for fifth, and all of a sudden they are not too far off from the cut line between making and missing the tournament.

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Idaho State and Portland State Dominate in Victories

I thought Idaho State and Portland State were supposed to be the two worst teams in the Big Sky? That is what the standings say, and for the most part, that's what the eye test has said too. But on Thursday night, they looked like they should a lot higher up in the standings.

First, Idaho State creamed Montana State. Any adjective that you want to use, you can, as the final was 87-51 Bengals. They were led by sophomore Chris Hansen, who made a school record nine threes en route to a career high 27 points. As a team, the Bengals shot 64% from the field. On the other side, MSU turned the ball over 17 times and shot 38%.

The win moves ISU to 4-11 in the Big Sky, while MSU falls to 7-8, tied for fifth. For the Bobcats, this is deja vu. Another promising start is falling away, as they have lost three straight with a trip to face Weber State coming up. Second half collapses are becoming like the setting sun - they always happen.


In the nightcap, Portland State easily dispatched Southern Utah, winning 90-69. Six Vikings scored in double figures, led by Michael Harthun's 19, while Renado Parker had perhaps his best game of the season with 16 and 8.

PSU moves to 4-11 and while it is likely too late for them to make a run at the conference tournament, they have the talent, especially at home, to beat some teams. Offensively they can score, the challenge for next year will be turning that into production on the other side of the court as well.

SUU falls to 8-7, and they are now tied with North Dakota for the three seed in the Big Sky.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Weber State Is The Best Team in the Big Sky

The standings will show that Montana is 14-1, while Weber State is 13-2. The Grizzlies still have Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, who might be the two best players in the conference. They still have Wayne Tinkle, the best coach in the Big Sky. But on Thursday night, Weber State clearly looked like the best team in the Big Sky.

The Wildcats beat Montana 87-63 on Thursday night in Ogden, and the game was never really in doubt from about midway through the first half and on. Montana's record-setting winning streak ended with a thud, as they had no answer for Weber on either end of the court.

Weber has been the best defensive team in the Big Sky this year, so it was appropriate that they got started in this game defensively. Montana scored just 24 first half points, because the Wildcats were using their athleticism to shut down everything. Kareem Jamar had no room to operate (finishing with 4 points), and that caused Will Cherry to press a bit. The Grizzlies turned the ball over early, and WSU just got more and more aggressive.

Offensively, Weber State aggressively pounded the ball down low, and they got whatever they wanted. Kyle Tresnak had 19 points on 8/10 shooting, and Frank Otis had 14 points on 5/7 shooting. This is a winning blueprint for Weber, because the Grizzlies don't have the size to match up. Put it this way... when Tresnak or Otis have the ball down low, Montana does not even have one guy to match up defensively with them them, let alone a defender for each guy. They got anything they wanted inside, and that was not a fluke.

WSU also got big games from Gelaun Wheelwright (14 points, 4/4 from downtown) and Davion Berry (16 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals), as those two guys seemed to have an answer for Montana often in the second half.  Anytime the Grizzlies threatened to threaten (it would be a stretch to say they threatened in the second half), there was an answer.

On the year, Weber State has been the better offensive team by a smidgen, while being much better defensively. The fact that they lost by 2 to Montana and slipped against Montana State (which the Grizzlies almost did as well) does not change the fact that on a neutral court, Weber State is the better team.

However, that is the ace in Montana's hand. If they win out, they have home-cpurt advantage in the Big Sky tournament, meaning that if the teams meet again, it would be in Missoula. The Grizzlies have a tough schedule down the stretch, but with Tinkle at the helm and a leader like Will Cherry on the court, it would not surprise anyone if the Big Sky will still go through Montana.

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It's Now Or Never For Northern Colorado

Through 14 Big Sky games, Northern Colorado is 5-9, and they currently sit tied 8th in the Big Sky. But that, of course, is just part of the story. They have faced the toughest Big Sky schedule so far, with 8 road games compared to 6 home games, and having played both Montana and Weber State twice each already.

Conversely, this means they have the easiest schedule in the conference down the stretch. They play four home games (current rank of teams in Big Sky - 7, 4T, 4T, 3) and two road games (8T, 10T). They control their own destiny. Before the year, I picked them to finish third, so obviously I thought they would be doing better than they are. They showed glimpses of being that they team when they walloped Portland State and Eastern Washington at home, but they followed up those victories with losses to Northern Arizona and Sacramento State.

Last week, they got another potential signature win, when they went on the road and beat Montana State. It was a game they needed to have, and they played as well as they have all year to get the win. This week, though, they have two games at home that will go a long way toward determining whether they make the trip for the conference tournament or whether they watch it at home for the second straight season.

On Thursday, Northern Arizona comes to town.
On Saturday, Sacramento State comes to town.
Next Wednesday, North Dakota comes to town.

In case you missed it, here are the current standings:

3. Southern Utah (8-6)
4. Montana State / North Dakota / Sacramento State (7-7)
7. Northern Arizona (6-8)
8. Northern Colorado / Eastern Washington (5-9)

They play the teams in front of them at home. As a team, that is about all you can ask for. We will get a clear look at what the Bears are made of. It is times like this where I am thankful to live near Greeley, because the next three games should be very interesting!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freshman Joel Bolomboy Is One Of Country's Top 3 Rebounders

We knew that Joel Bolomboy of Weber State was going to be good coming out of high school. He had offers from schools such as New Mexico and Texas A&M, so obviously he had the talent to excel at the Big Sky level. When he signed, I wrote: "He is athletic and has a long wing span (which is a bit of a cliche, but still worth mentioning) and a quick jump, which allows him to be a solid shot blocker. He is still developing there, and could be a force on the glass and defensively inside for Weber State."

Still, I had no idea he was going to be this good, this quickly. As a freshman coming off the bench, all he has done is average 8.2 rebounds per game (in 22.2 minutes - he is third in the Big Sky in rebounds per game), and have one of the top three rebounding rates in all of college basketball.

Here are the top five rates, as of Wednesday night:

A couple notes...

1) Kevin Hill is leading the country, but he plays 10.9 minutes per game. Of the top five, Bolomboy is second in minutes per game (far away trailing Cooley in that category).

2) According to KenPom's numbers, Bolomboy is 18th in OR%, and 8th in DR%. Only two other players crack the top 20 in both categories (and neither of them is Cooley... who is the best offensive rebounder in the country but 26th in DR%).

3) Again, Bolomboy is a true freshman whose game could still be described as raw. But he has insane leaping ability (just watch any of his putback dunks), and seems to have a knack for going up to get the rebound right after it comes off the rim. When I saw him in person, I noticed that most of his rebounds seemed to come at the rim, meaning he wasn't letting the ball come down to let anyone else get it. This is what makes him such a terrific rebounder.

There is a lot to like about his game. He shoots 55% from the field and blocks a bunch of shots (his 7.7% block rate is top 100 in the country)... but he stands out because when it comes to rebounding, there are few players in the entire country that can match Joel Bolomboy.

* Thanks to Nathan Walker for the link.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

A Rundown of the Big Sky Standings

Well, only six games remain for each team in Big Sky play. Of the eleven teams, only seven will make the conference tournament and have a chance to dance. Let's take a look at where each team stands and a look at where they might finish.

1. Montana (14-0)
Their path is the simplest - they control their own destiny. If they lose one game or less, they will be the one seed, get a bye in the first round of the Big Sky tournament, and host the tournament. If they lose two games, the door is open. Potential stumbling blocks are at Weber State (but if they win, they are all but guaranteed the top seed), at Montana State, and at Southern Utah.

2. Weber State (12-2)
First, they have to beat Montana on Thursday. That is a must. From there, they need to win out (potential stumbling blocks are at Sacramento State and at Northern Arizona) and get help, and then hope the tiebreakers go in their favor. Suffice to say, things don't look good for the Wildcats and the #1 seed. At the very least, they are just about locked into the two spot.

3. Southern Utah (8-6)
With their record, it's hard to see them falling lower than the sixth spot, even if they struggle down the stretch. It's possible that they will struggle, because their schedule is not easy. They have four road games, and their home games are against Montana and Montana State. KenPom has them favored to win just one of their final six games. Safe to say, the three spot is still very much up for grabs.

4. North Dakota / Montana State / Sacramento State (7-7)
Of the three teams, it looks like Sacramento State has the toughest road ahead. They have four road games remaining (against North Dakota, Northern Colorado, and the two Montana schools), and one of their home games is against Weber State. At best they can probably hope for 3-3. UND/Sac State will be a big game on Thursday. UND's three road games are Northern Colorado, Portland State, and Eastern Washington... plus, they are done playing Montana and Weber State for the year. That would seem to give them an upper hand here. Montana State finishes with three at home, but they play both Montana and Weber State.

7. Northern Arizona (6-8)
The schedule will not be easy for NAU. They have a huge game this Thursday against UNC, which became a lot bigger once they lost to EWU. Then they travel to North Dakota, who is 3-0 at home on Saturday Big Sky games this year. They have a home date against Weber State, and end the year in Missoula. They really need this game on Thursday.

8. Northern Colorado / Eastern Washington (5-9)
It is a close to a must win for the Bears against NAU, because a loss would put them two back of the Lumberjacks, and they wouldn't have a tiebreaker. A Saturday date with Sacramento State is enormous as well. The schedule is in their favor down the stretch... their two road games are at PSU and EWU, and they are finished up with Montana/Weber State. Things don't look too bad for the Eagles either... they end the year at Weber State, but there are five winnable games other than that. The Eagles have a really good chance to be factor down the stretch.

10. Idaho State / Portland State (3-11)
There is no sugar coating... things look bleak for both clubs. They are both three games out of the final tournament spot, and neither appears poised to make a run to end the year. Each teams have four home games left.

If I had to choose as of today, here is my guess for the final order:
1. Montana
2. Weber State
3. North Dakota
4. Southern Utah
5. Montana State
6. Sacramento State
7. Northern Colorado
8. Northern Arizona
9. Eastern Washington
10. Portland State
11. Idaho State


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Kareem Jamar is Big Sky POW

As Montana went and set a Big Sky record this week, Kareem Jamar was a big reason why, and he has been named the Big Sky Player of the Week.

Jamar, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward from Venice, Calif, averaged 16 points, 8.5 rebounds. 6.5 assists, 2.5 steals and two blocks per game as the Grizzlies picked up home victories over Northern Colorado and North Dakota. In the two games, Jamar shot .545 percent from the field, and .857 percent from the free-throw line.
Jamar has been finding his role of late, which is a bad sign for the rest of the conference. When he is rolling, Montana is almost impossible to beat. Just ask Weber State about last year's Big Sky title game.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Montana Sets Big Sky Record With 25 Straight League Wins

With their 78-58 win over North Dakota on Saturday night, Montana has set a new Big Sky record for most consecutive regular season wins, as they have now reached the 24 straight win mark. They won their last 11 regular season games last season, and have started this year at 14-0 in Big Sky play.

From Bob Meseroll of The Missoulian:

The Griz are loathe to look back at what they’ve accomplished with crunch time immediately ahead of them, but for their fans, here are some impressive numbers:

- Montana has won 27 straight games against Big Sky teams including the two wins in the postseason tournament last year.
- The Griz have won 24 straight regular-season league games at home, breaking the record of 23 set by Idaho from 1980-83.
- Montana’s 14-game win streak this season is second only to Akron’s 15-game skein and matches the school-record win streak set just last season.
- Dating back to last season, the Griz have won 38 of their last 44 games.
As noted, this streak is made all the more impressive by the fact that Montana also won two games in last year's Big Sky Tournament, meaning they have really won 27 straight league games.

It is an incredible streak, but highlights the incredible job that Wayne Tinkle and the staff have done at Montana. It also highlights the great play of guys like Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, two guys who just don't let Montana lose, it seems. 

Montana and Big Sky fans would be wise to enjoy Wayne Tinkle as much as possible, because with his track record and ability as a coach, it will not be long until a bigger school with deeper pockets will come calling. Whenever that does happen, the Grizzlies will always be able to look back at this record with pride.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Saturday Night Big Sky Predictions

With five games on tap this evening, let's take a quick look at them and make some predictions.

@ Montana 77, North Dakota 70
It's an interesting matchup because neither team relies on their post offense, but lets the guards and the outside shooting do most of the work. They are second and third in FT rate during conference play, a good sign that the guards are staying aggressive. Troy Huff is playing better than anyone else in the Big Sky, and North Dakota is playing much better than the team that got beat soundly by Montana (in Grand Forks) a few weeks ago. But it's too tall of a task for them to go into Montana and sweep.

@ Weber State 75, Southern Utah 65
The Thunderbirds have a way of keeping things interesting, and I expect this game might be a little closer than Weber State fans will like. However, the Wildcats just have too much talent and depth for the Thunderbirds. WSU has the defense to slow down Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, and SUU can't generate enough offense outside those two to beat a good team on the road.

Northern Colorado 72, @ Montana State 68
This pick is because I think talent wise they are similar, but UNC is the more desperate team. The Bears know that with a loss, it's not at all inconceivable that they will be three games out of the seventh spot with only six games to go, a hole that would be extremely difficult to climb out of to make the conference tournament. If they need more motivation than that to come out and play tough defense for 40 minutes, I am afraid it's just not going to happen this year.

@ Sacramento State 77, Portland State 73
What it comes down to is this... when the Vikings need a stop late in the game, I have no confidence that they will get one. Their defense continues to be the worst in the conference by a wide margin. Though the continued injury of Konnor Veteto (which has hampered his play) helps make this one closer, the Vikings just don't have what it takes to win on the road right now.

@ Northern Arizona 64, Eastern Washington 61
I wanted to pick the Eagles here, but I am still not sure about Venky Jois' availability, and NAU seems to have something nice going at home this year.  Gabe Rogers has been playing outstanding basketball, and they are getting just enough help from their other guys to win. Unless Jois is back and fully healthy, it will be tough for EWU to find the offense to win this game.

Thoughts? Unfortunately I will be out and unable to watch any of the games... but hope the night provides some good Big Sky action!

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Rest of the Night in the Big Sky

After looking at North Dakota's road win over Montana State and Southern Utah getting the win to move into third place in the Big Sky, let's take a quick look at the other three games on the slate.

Northern Arizona 79, Portland State 72
After the first half, it looked like Northern Arizona might run away with this game, as they took a 51-35 lead into intermission. However, the Vikings jumped out to a 17-4 start in the second half, cutting the lead down to four before NAU (and Gabe Rogers) righted the ship. Rogers scored 25 points (including seven treys), while Stallon Saldivar had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Jacks. PSU got great efforts from their big men Renado Parker (18 points, 13 rebounds) and Aaron Moore (19 points, 11 rebounds) but it wasn't enough.

NAU moves to 6-7 in Big Sky play and will have a great chance to move to .500 with Eastern Washington coming to town Saturday. Meanwhile, PSU drops to 3-10 and look like conference tournament longshots at this point.

Montana 73, Northern Colorado 63
 This was a game where Montana seemed to be in complete control the whole way, yet UNC managed to hang around for most of the ballgame, always seeming to be in that 6-10 point range. Kareem Jamar gave the type of performance that makes him arguably the best player in the Big Sky, with 18 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals. Jamar has to give BJ Hill nightmares, because it never seems like Northern Colorado can slow him down. Will Cherry finished with four steals on the night, and his 250 career swipes is third all time in the Big Sky. I am going to miss watching him play. Montana moves to 13-0 and tied the record for most consecutive regular season Big Sky victories with 24.

Northern Colorado got 17 apiece from Derrick Barden and Tate Unruh, but it wasn't enough, as they fall to 4-9. It's not quite a must win, but they could really, really use a win against Montana State on Saturday.

Sacramento State 61, Eastern Washington 55
Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Venky Jois (out again with an injury), EWU managed to keep things interesting thanks to their defense. EWU lead 48-47 late, but they just couldn't get enough buckets late to win.  The Hornets got some big buckets late from Dylan Garrity, who finished with a game high 15 points and 6 assists. John Dickson also chipped in an efficient 13 points and 5 rebounds, which was big because Konnor Veteto was again hampered by a knee injury.

It was a big win by Sac State to move to 6-7, because the final six games of the year for them are brutal. Eastern Washington, meanwhile, falls to 4-9, and they are in trouble. They need Venky back.

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Southern Utah Is Alone In Third Place

It wasn't the most pretty game, but that's not how Southern Utah likes to win anyway. The Thunderbirds were able to go into Pocatello and grind out an 81-79 road win over Idaho State, which, when combined with Montana State's loss, leaves SUU alone in third place in the Big Sky at 8-5.

The Thunderbirds have been accused of being a two man offense, but they won on a night when Jackson Stevenett (7/17, 22 points) and Damon Heuir (6/15, 17 points) did not have their best games. Three other players scored in double figures, the the TBirds shot a blistering 25/28 from the charity stripe, including hitting their last four in the final ten seconds.

Southern Utah also overcame 22 turnovers. This was a big problem for them earlier in the year, but they had gotten better over the last few weeks. Needless to say, they have a chance to be the third best team in the conference when they take care of the basketball. When they don't, they can lose to anyone.

Idaho State put four guys in double figures, but it wasn't enough to get the win. They shot 41% for the game, turning it over 16 times themselves. They played hard and gave themselves a chance to win.

Southern Utah moves to 8-5 in the conference and is almost a lock for the conference tournament. Idaho State falls to 3-10 in Big Sky play, and seems to almost be a lock not to make the conference tournament.

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North Dakota Gets Big Road Win Over Montana State

It seemed like not that long ago that North Dakota was the team that couldn't win a road game. Well, they have put that idea to bed.

Despite trailing by double digits early in the second half, UND stormed back to beat Montana State 82-73 in Bozeman on Thursday night. Simply put, UND looked like the more athletic team in this game, constantly attacking the basket late in the second half to put the Bobcats away.

To nobody's surprise, Troy Huff led the way with a game high 25 points. He also chipped in five rebounds, four steals, and three assists in this game. If you want to argue that nobody in the conference is playing as well as Huff is right now, I will not disagree. He has been utterly fantastic.

He had help in this game. Aaron Anderson finished with 17 points, including a nail-in-the-coffin and-one late in the game. Shane Benton had a surprising 13 points off the bench, and Jamal Webb chipped in 12 points, six assists, three steals, and only two turnovers. 

The key for Montana State was their turnovers, as they had 17 of them. Avoiding turnovers is vital to their success, and they have a tough time winning when they are this sloppy with the ball. Xavier Blount led them with 19 and 7, while Blake Brumwell had a career day with 14 points and give rebounds.

North Dakota is now 3-3 on the road in conference play, and moves to 7-6 overall. Montana State drops to 7-6, and they are currently tied for fourth in the Big Sky.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Big Sky Power Rankings

With just eight conference games remaining for each team, I figured it was the perfect to do a little bit of power rankings! As always, let me know what you think and where you agree or disagree!

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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