Friday, January 31, 2014

A Wacky Night in the Big Sky (Or, How Weber State is in The Driver's Seat)

It was a strange night in the Big Sky. Suddenly, Weber State is in the driver's seat in the Big Sky, as they are now a game up on Northern Colorado, and the Bears still have to visit Ogden in February. Weber State held off Northern Arizona for a nice road win, while Northern Colorado got beat convincingly by Portland State, who jumped on them early and never looked back.

Here are some other thoughts from Thursday:

- North Dakota solidified themselves as a top three team with a nice road win over Eastern Washington. UND has always had the talent the win the conference, but they have really put things together the last couple of weeks. When they play patiently on offense, and are able to get multiple guys involved (as they have been), they are very tough to beat. Though they dug themselves a bit of a hole with 3 early losses, it's not out of the realm of possibility that it becomes a three team race.

- Meanwhile, it's back to the drawing board for EWU, who continues to get nothing from the bench (6 points on Thursday). As the team is currently constructed, if they are not hitting outside shots (especialyl Tyler Harvey), it's tough for them to score enough to win.

- Southern Utah gave Montana quite a scare, but the Grizzlies finished strong in the last two minutes to get a much-needed win. For Montana, Kareem Jamar scored 25, and Mario Dunn provided a nice spark in the second half, especially defensively. More words to come on Dunn in an article soon. More signs of progress are there for Southern Utah, and I think a win is near - maybe even this Saturday against Montana State. Heck, I'm going to go ahead and make the upset call - Southern Utah will get their first win on Saturday night.

- Don't look now, but Montana is not far off from being in the #4 spot in the Big Sky. There have been a lot of ups and downs, but they are in the mix there.

- Sacramento State showed that relegating them to the 10 spot is a little premature. They used a scorching first half to take down Idaho State, though the Bengals continued to battle and made things interesting late despite a 27 point deficit at one point. Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney each had big days for the Hornets, who hit a ton of free throws down the stretch to put the game away. It was another close road loss for Idaho State, who is now 4-5 and could use a win.

- I mentioned that Northern Colorado has been struggling defensively, but Portland State just bulldozed them in this game. PSU scored 1.33 PPP, shooting 20/34 on 2PA, and 9/19 from behind the arc, while turning it over just 8 times. For the Bears, Derrick Barden had 19 and 11 and was a beast on the offensive glass, but nobody else could get it going, as UNC was 2/15 from downtown. Two weeks ago, Northern Colorado looked like the favorite... now they have a tough road game against what will be a desperate Eastern Washington team, and a loss would put them in a huge hole in the conference.

- Also, don't look now, but Portland State is suddenly 5-4 and one of the hottest teams in the conference. It's time to take them seriously.

Anything else stand out?

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thursday Night Big Sky Predictions

After a perfect day last Thursday, let's try to duplicate the success with some picks this week!

Montana @ Southern Utah
Southern Utah has been getting better, and a win for them is closer than you think. But, I think that the TBirds will have trouble slowing Montana's offense down. The Grizzlies are one of the better shooting teams in the country, and they should have enough open looks against SUU. On the flip side, SUU doesn't have the bodies down low to attack Montana in the paint. Montana 71, Southern Utah 62

Idaho State @ Sacramento State
ISU is a better team, but this one should be a pretty even matchup in Sacramento. The Bengals have been susceptible to teams with good outside shooters, but the Hornets don't have a lot of those guys. ISU does do a nice job of forcing turnovers, so that will be a key point of emphasis for Brian Katz. I look for Dylan Garrity to hit enough shots to give Sac State a much-needed conference win, but it should be a close game. Sacramento State 69, Idaho State 67

North Dakota @ Eastern Washington
This is a game that the Eagles need, as they don't want to drop to 3-6. It will be a fun, high-scoring game, as these are the two fastest paced teams in the Big Sky. North Dakota has been poor defensively in allowing good looks from outside, as teams shoot 40.2% from downtown against them. The Eagles should have a feast day with open looks. The one area where UND's defense excels is taking away the ball, but the Eagles have been solid at taking care of it. This will be the most fun game of the evening to watch. Eastern Washington 85, North Dakota 80

Weber State @ Northern Arizona
The Lumberjacks are undefeated at home in Big Sky play, while the Wildcats have barely been tested on the road. NAU has the athleticism to hang with the Wildcats, which will make this one a fun game. A key area will be the three-point shooting for each squad. Both teams have capable shooters from outside, but Weber State defensively does a better job at not allowing their opponents to get clean looks from outside. In a tight game, an extra good look or two will make the difference. Weber State 68, Northern Arizona 63

Northern Colorado @ Portland State
There is some thought that the Vikings will be able to upset the Bears in Portland (where they are one of the better Big Sky teams at home), but I don't see it. PSU's strength lately has been playing with five guard lineups, but UNC is one of the few teams that has the athletes at every position to match up with that, and take advantage offensively. I think UNC will be able to get tons of good looks against the Vikings defense, and PSU's quickness will be neutralized because frontcourt guys like Derrick Barden and Dominique Lee are quick enough to guard all positions. Northern Colorado 78, Portland State 71


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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Home/Road Splits So Far

Every team is now eight games into the conference season, after Portland State beat Eastern Washington on Monday night. Though schedules are starting to normalize, I thought looking at how many home/road games each team has played could be interesting, since it could at least give a little indication on if records are helped or hindered by schedule.

This is especially true becuase Big Sky teams are 35-9 at home in conference games, the highest home winning percentage for any conference. The home team is winning 79.1% of their games in conference play, an astounding amount. So, here are the splits:

Northern Colorado (7-1) - 6 home, 2 road
Weber State (7-1) - 6 home, 2 road

North Dakota (5-3) - 5 home, 3 road
Northern Arizona (5-3) - 3 home, 5 road

Idaho State (4-4) - 5 home, 3 road
Portland State (4-4) - 4 home, 4 road
Montana State (4-4) - 4 home, 4 road

Montana (3-5) - 4 home, 4 road
Eastern Washington (3-5) - 3 home, 5 road

Sacramento State (2-6) - 2 home, 6 road

Southern Utah (0-8) - 2 home, 6 road

- There are obviously two ways of looking at the home record being 34-9. One theory is that the home-court advantage is huge, and that would explain why teams like Northern Colorado, Weber State, and North Dakota are on top, while Southern Utah and Sacramento State are on the bottom. The other theory is that the home teams having such a great home record because the best teams have happened to start the year by playing at home. After looking at things, the latter seems a bit more likely (though certainly both are contributing).

- This makes things a little more promising for Northern Arizona, the only team that is at least .500 that has played more road games than home games. They are 3-0 at home, and beat Montana and Southern Utah on the road.

- This could also help explain Eastern Washington's slow start. They are 3-0 at home and 0-5 on the road, typical of young teams.

- Northern Colorado and Weber State are clearly the two best teams in the conference to my eye, but they have also benefited from generous early schedules. That is why I think the Big Sky winner will have at least 3 losses, and probably 4, by the time the conference season is over.

Any other thoughts or insights gleaned?

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Big Sky Power Rankings

Another week almost in the books, and it's time for another set of power rankings!

1. Northern Colorado (7-1) - They are still solidly in first, but they have struggled a bit defensively the last few games, and have gone five straight games allowing opponents to score over 1.05 PPP. Right now they are the best offensive team in the Big Sky, and doing great things across the board there, but with a four game road stretch on the horizon, they need to tighten things up defensively.

2. Weber State (7-1) - Suddenly, the Big Sky is looking like a two-team race, again. This time, Weber State's foe is Northern Colorado. The good news for the Wildcats is that the Bears have already lost to someone other than Weber, which didn't happen to Montana the last two years. The Wildcats are 7-1, but have played 6 of 8 games in Ogden. Beating Montana State by 29 was easily their most impressive performance of the year, but we still have a lot to learn about them.

3. North Dakota (5-3) - Suddenly, they look like the third best team in the Big Sky, after winning three straight. The biggest thing is they are starting to get contributions from different guys. Against Sac State, Alonzo Traylor had 17 points off the bench in 26 minutes. Against Northern Arizona, five guys were in double figures, and none of them was Troy Huff. Having those contributors is key for them.

4. Northern Arizona (5-3) - After losing to North Dakota and Northern Colorado on the road by double digits, we know they aren't legitimate Big Sky contenders, but that is not a real surprise at this point in their rebuilding. But, they are a talented and athletic team that can go 7 or 8 deep, which is a luxury that some teams (other than the top two) don't really have. They will be in the mix for a top 4 seed throughout the conference season.

5. Montana (3-5) - For much of the game against Idaho State, the Grizzlies' win probability was below 50%. But for a big second half from Jordan Gregory, the Grizzlies would be 2-6 and down. As is, they did what they had to do on their roadtrip - get a split. This week, they should beat Southern Utah, but then have an interesting date at rival Montana State. That game should tell us a lot about both teams.

6. Idaho State (4-4) - After two disappointing losses against Weber State and Montana, they bounced back for a tough win against MSU. In the big picture, it's still a concern that they can't get any production from their bench. Their core trio of Hatchett, Sanchez, and Hansen has been very solid, but if any of them has an off night, they struggle to beat good teams. That might just be the reality of the roster this season.

7. Montana State (4-4) - They were 4-1 after beating Northern Colorado a couple weeks ago, but that seems like so long ago now, after three straight losses. Their problems right now are on the offensive end. As good as they are at defensive rebounding, they don't create many second chances for themselves, and they don't get many freebies from the foul line. Their next four games include three home games and a road tilt against SUU. They need to come out of that with three wins, or else things will start to get a little dicier for them.

8. Eastern Washington (3-4) - Ognjen Miljkovic returned last game, which is key for their depth. The Eagles played at the 14th fastest pace in the country, yet they are one of the least deep teams in the nation - a tough combo. They have been struggling lately on defense, giving up 1.09 PPP during conference play (while scoring 1.03 PPP), and have struggled to force any turnovers. At 3-4, they aren't where a lot of people thought they were, but they have won the game they are supposed to. If they can continue to do that, and steal a couple they aren't supposed to win, they'll be right in the thick of things in the top five.

9. Portland State (3-4) - They play Eastern Washington in Portland on Monday night (this was written before that, but probably happened by the time you are reading this), and it's a big game for them. One of the unsung role players for them this year has been Marcus Hall, an efficient shooter that fills in where needed. Every team could use a guy like Hall.

10 Sacramento State (2-6) - The Big Sky is a funny league. Going into Saturday, you probably would have said it was clear that the Hornets were #10 in the conference pecking order. Then they went and gave UNC their most competitive game in Greeley during the conference season (the Bears soundly beat North Dakota, Weber State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona). Against the Bears, the Hornets frontcourt scored 13 points. Apart from 6'5'' Zach Mills, it's hard to know where production up front will come from.

11. Southern Utah (0-8) - They are still winless against DI competition, but they are still playing hard every night, and a win will come. In their last three games, they lost on the road in tough environments by six, seven, and three points. It can be hard to see, but they are getting better, and they are not the punchline they appeared to be earlier in the season.


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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Northern Colorado Runs Through Northern Arizona

Another Big Sky conference game in Greeley, another runaway win for Northern Colorado. While Northern Arizona kept battling all game, eventually the end result was another double digit home victory for the Bears, as they improved to 6-1 in the Big Sky with an 87-72 win.

The Bears were downright unstoppable in this game. They shot 11/16 from downtown, 59% overall, and still found the time to grab eight offensive rebounds. It was a group effort, as four guys were in double figures, and ten guys scored for UNC. NAU tried to play man to man, zone, and bring pressure, but Northern Colorado could not be stopped. In the first half, the Bears were drawing up some beautiful plays to get open looks for Tate Unruh, and he responded with five first-half treys.

In the second half, Tim Huskisson played very well (more on him in the near future - he is the most improved player in the conference), Tevin Svihovec had some nice buckets, and they got solid minutes from Corey Spence. In short, it was a game where Derrick Barden did not go off, and they didn't need him to in order to beat a solid team. That's a great sign for the Bears.

One thing that sticks out to me about Northern Colorado is this - right now, what separates them from the rest of the conference is that when guys like Svihovec and Dominique Lee come into the game, there is no drop-off. These guys could be starting for most of the teams in the Big Sky, and having them off the bench is a luxury that nobody else in the conference has right now.

For Northern Arizona, there was good and bad to take away from the game. They really struggled to get into their offense against the 2-2-1 pressure of Northern Colorado, and they will likely see more pressure from North Dakota on Saturday. Another struggle was getting Max Jacobsen the ball in scoring position. He just was not able to get deep enough from his post-ups. They are at their best when he is getting opportunities, but they just weren't there in this game.

The obvious bright spot is Quinton Upshur, who kept them in this game. He was sensational offensively, hitting 7 of 8 threes (his only miss was a shot he threw up as the shot clock wound down), and did a great job finishing at the hoop in transition. He finished with 32 points and looked downright explosive.

The other bright spot to me was Kris Yanku, and I thought that even before he went on a scoring tear in the second half (he finished with 20 points). As Jack Murphy told me after the game, he is not scared of anything out on the court. Against constant UNC pressure (guys like Jordan Wilson and Corey Spence make things miserable for opposing ballhandlers), Yanku was very poised, and almost always seemed to make good decisions. While everyone else for the Lumberjacks looked tentative trying to advance the ball against the Bears zone, Yanku was constantly attacking. He has a bright future, and a bright present.

Northern Colorado is now tied with Weber State at 6-1 as they prepare to host Sacramento State, while Northern Arizona falls to 5-2, as they visit North Dakota on Saturday.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thursday Night Big Sky Predictions

With five games again on the docket for Thursday night, let's dive in and make some predictions about how the games will turn out.

Sacramento State (2-4) @ North Dakota (3-3)
North Dakota has to be feeling a lot better about themselves after beating Montana State on the road, knowing that a win over the Hornets at home pushes them over .500 and keeps them right in the middle of things in the Big Sky race. UND and Sac State are similar in that both rely on their guard play. The difference here will be that the game is in Grand Forks, and that UND is finally getting good production from big man Alonzo Traylor. North Dakota 74, Sacramento State 65

Montana State (4-2) @ Weber State (5-1)
Weber State is coming off two close victories, and two more home games means six of their first eight conference games will be taking place in Ogden. They need to continue to capitalize on that favorable schedule. As we have talked about, the Bobcats biggest strength this year has been not giving opponents second chance opportunities. However, Weber State doesn't thrive on that like, say, Northern Colorado does. I think the Wildcats will be able to get good looks against MSU, and I'm not sure the Bobcats can keep up. Weber State 72, Montana State 66

Montana (2-4) @ Idaho State (3-3)
Early on, this is a big game for Montana. Sitting at 2-4 with roadtrips to Idaho State and Weber State is not where anyone thought they would be. The Bengals are coming off a tough loss on the road on Monday night, and their lack of depth could hurt them playing this game just three days later. I keep expecting Montana to win games that they drop, but I think they can win this one. One big key for Montana will be keeping Jeffrey Solarin off the offensive glass. If they don't body him up, he could get a ton of extra possessions for ISU. However, the Grizzlies know the predicament they find themselves in. I think they get enough outside shots against the Bengals zone to get a key road win. Montana 75, Idaho State 73

Southern Utah (0-6) @ Eastern Washington (2-4)
There will be games where EWU is undone by its lack of depth, but this should not be one of them. The Eagles have played well at home this year, and that should continue against a feisty SUU team. The Thunderbirds have shown they can hang with anyone, but the Eagles won't be looking past them, with no game on Saturday and knowing that they have to have a victory here. Eastern Washington 82, Southern Utah 59

Northern Arizona (5-1) @ Northern Colorado (5-1)
Suddenly, this is the marquee game of the night. Everyone is curious to see if the Lumberjacks are for real. I can say this... they have had the benefit of a soft early schedule, but they also could be the best defensive team in the Big Sky, and their offense is coming along. Some teams have come into Greeley and been affected by the altitude, but that obviously won't be a problem for NAU. If there is an area that the Lumberjacks have struggled, it is in taking care of the ball, and I would expect the Bears to extend their pressure early on in the game. The Jacks have the athletes to hang with the Bears in this game, but I think UNC is able to make a couple more plays defensively to win this game. Northern Colorado 74, Northern Arizona 68


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Monday, January 20, 2014

Big Sky Power Rankings

With three weeks of Big Sky games (almost) in the books, let's take a look at where things stand, along with a quick nugget about each team.

1. Northern Colorado (5-1) - After a disappointing defeat in Bozeman, they were at their best against Montana, showing their ceiling as a team that has a plethora of shooters, guys that can crash the glas, and versatile defenders. After trailing early in the second half, they ended the game on a 44-29 spurt in the second half. Tim Huskisson continues to impress, and the combo of him and Derrick Barden is the biggest reason that the Bears look like the best team in the Big Sky. Those two guys are just hard to matchup against.

2. Northern Arizona (5-1) - After beating Eastern Washington and Portland State, they look like they can be contenders. They are a late victory by MSU away from being 6-0, and have won their last 4 games soundly. Their offense is improving, but the defense has been the linchpin for them, where they have easily been the best defensive team in the Big Sky through conference games so far. Thursday will be a good barometer game for them... if they can stay close to Northern Colorado in Greeley, they are contenders. If they win it, they are suddenly the Big Sky favorite at the 1/3 mark of the conference season. Their top 3 mark is not a fluke.

3. Weber State (4-1) - To call the game against Southern Utah too close for comfort would be an understatement. It was a game that I'm guessing Weber thought they would win by 25, and they had to sweat it out, trailing for much of the game. They have talented pieces but things have not gelled as expected this year. It will be an interesting game Monday night against Idaho State, because if they play like they did on Saturday, the Bengals will upset them in Ogden.

4. Montana State (4-2) - They had one of the most impressive victories in the conference all year, when they dispatched Northern Colorado by 15, a win that looked even more impressive after UNC beat Montana two days later. It was simple how they beat the Bears - they didn't give them any looks outside (1/12 3PT FG), and they didn't give them any second chance opportunities (4 offensive rebounds for UNC). They continue to be great on the defensive glass. You still don't always know what you'll get night to night offensively from them, but they have some defensive things in place that should keep them in most games.

5. Idaho State (3-2) - After taking care of Southern Utah, they get a crack at Weber State before hosting the Montana schools. They aren't quite at EWU's levels, but they struggle to get bench production, as their starters play over 78% of the team's minutes, in the top 20 for most in the country. They play well together, and seem to have a nice thing going offensively, especially in transition. Andre Hatchett has been one of the most improved players in the conference, as he has been fantastic this year at getting to the line, and getting to the basket for easy buckets. That's a big reason for their success.

6. North Dakota (3-3) - It is funny how much things can change based on one game. At 2-3 and coming off of another uninspiring loss to Montana, it was fair to start to wonder if they might be a team that misses the Big Sky tournament. Then they go in and beat a Montana State team fresh off a victory over Northern Colorado, and things aren't quite so desperate. Aaron Anderson broke out in that game with 18 points. He has strangely not been a big factor for them often this year, and that needs to change. He is a heck of a player, and should get the ball often.

7. Eastern Washington (2-4) - Surprisingly, in Big Sky games, they are tenth best in offensive efficiency with 1.01 PPP. That has come against a tough early schedule, but they were expected to be one of the better offensive teams in the conference. Their rotation is very short, especially with Ognjen Miljkovic sidelined. Their bench has played just 18% of the team's minutes, third lowest in the NCAA. Parker Kelly is 6th in the nation in percentage of team minutes played (93.7%) and Tyler Harvey is 8th (93.6%). Somehow, EWU needs to find some bench players to contribute.

8. Montana (2-4) - After an impressive win against UND, they got beat by 11 to Northern Colorado. The problem continues to be on the defensive side of the floor and on the glass. The Bears had 11 offensive rebounds (a 50% OR Rate, since they didn't miss that much), against Montana, shot 24/40 on two-pointers, 5/10 from downtown, and got to the free throw line 28 times. The Grizzlies have the offensive firepower to compete with anyone, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are just a poor defensive team, which they compound by not being able to rebound the ball effectively.

9. Portland State (2-4) - After winning two straight OT games to keep their season alive, they lost big on the road to NAU, done in by a huge second half run. At 2-4 with 4 road games in the books, they are still very much in the thick of things. A bright spot has been Brandon Cataldo... finally getting healthy, he has shown he can be a good contributor for them in the frontcourt as an efficient scorer and capable rebounder. The Vikings have been a little better defensively because they have been forcing turnovers. Their 4 game home stretch coming up will go a long way toward determining if they will be in the tournament race. If they win at least 3 of 4, they are in good shape at the halfway point.

10. Sacramento State (2-4) - Their home victory over Eastern Washington might have been a season saver, because 1-5 with two home losses would have been tough to come back from. As it is, they are 2-4 with road trips to Grand Forks and Greeley, so it will be tough for them to avoid 2-6. Eric Stuteville has given them two straight good games, which could be a key development for their frontcourt. They still need to improve defensively, but they are showing some signs of being a solid offensive team.

11. Southern Utah (0-6) - They sent Weber State to the FT line 43 times on Saturday night, which makes it all the more remarkable that they were very much in the game until the bitter end, and led at the halfway mark. This is why I think they will sneak out a win or two in Big Sky play... they aren't very talented or experienced yet, but they always play hard for Nick Robinson. Weber State was fortunate to beat them on Saturday night, and I never thought I'd say that this season.


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North Dakota and Northern Arizona Get Transfers

I've had a busy week of work, and of dealing with a mild situation in our apartment (which thankfully seems to be closer to resolving itself!), which has made this blog be mediocre over the past week! But hopefully that will be changing. While this was going on, I missed a couple of transfers into the Big Sky.

The first news was that 7-footer Carson Shanks will be transferring to North Dakota from Utah State.

"We are obviously excited to add a player like Carson to our program," UND head coach Brian Jones said. "He is a skilled big man that has a basketball IQ that is off the charts. He passes the ball really well, shoots its really well and can score in bunches.
He will have three and a half years of eligibility remaining, and will be able to play after next season's fall semester. He played AAU for UND assistant coach Gameil Ahelegbe (who also coached Quinton Hooker), so it is a natural fit for him at UND. He is a very nice pickup for North Dakota.

The other news is that former Iowa State guard KJ Bluford will be transferring to Northern Arizona, per his twitter account. From College Basketball Talk:

Bluford announced via his Twitter account on Wednesday that he’ll be transferring to Northern Arizona, giving the Lumberjacks a player who averaged nearly 18 points per game as a sophomore at Northeast Community College in Nebraska last season. Bluford played in seven games at Iowa State before making the decision to leave the program in late-December, playing an average of 5.4 points per game and scoring 2.7 points per contest.
Bluford was a junior at Iowa State after transferring in, so best guess is that he will have one and a half years of eligibility remaining, though I can't confirm that. He adds to a talented stable of backcourt players for NAU, and should be a very nice addition for the Lumberjacks when he is eligible, likely after the fall semester next season.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Helping Fix Southern Utah's Offense

As things currently stand, Southern Utah is the worst offensive team in the country, and possibly the worst team in the country.

Here are some stats against Division I opponents:
- The Thunderbirds are scored 0.84 points per possession, last in the NCAA. The second lowest mark is New Hampshire at 0.87 PPP.
- SUU is shooting 36.1% on two-point FG attempts, again last in the country. The second lowest mark is Howard, at 38.1%. The lowest mark last season was Grambling State, at 38.4%.
- They have a 22.9 TO Rate, which is 339th (out of 351) in the NCAA.
- They rebound 24.6% of their misses, which is 332nd in the nation.
- They are not very good at getting to the line, as their FTA/FGA percentage is 33.8%, 309th in the NCAA. They have shot free throws well when they have gotten to the line.

Basically, they haven't done anything well offensively this year. Their defense hasn't been much better (allowing 1.17 PPP, 345th in the country), but Rome wasn't built in a day. I thought it might be fun to look at some personnel things that could be done to potentially help the offense.

- Give Casey Oliverson all the minutes he can handle - They may be doing this already, as he has played the third most minutes on the team. He has been their best offensive player, efficiency wise, this year. He's only shot 45% on the season, but he is an excellent offensive rebounder, which is good, because there are a lot of chances to grab them. The more minutes he can play, the better.

- Tell AJ Hess to start shooting more - The sophomore guard shoots four threes a game and makes 37% of them. In this offense, he should probably be shooting from the outside even more. He has been horrific inside the arc (6/28, or 21%), but he was a 46% shooter from there last year, so I think that's a sample size issue). If I were Nick Robinson, everything would go through him.

- Give all of Chris Nsenki's minutes to other guards - Nsenki's minutes to seem to be decreasing, as he has averaged 11 minutes per game in Big Sky play. For the year, he's played 37% of the team's minutes, but he is a minus offensively. After shooting 31% from downtown last year, that's down to 3/19 this year. He's made 32% of twos, but he wasn't great in that category last year (7/17). He doesn't get to the line either. John Marshall has not been a scorer this year, but has flashed some talent as a distributor (34.7 Assist Rate).

- Juwan Major might not be ready for big minutes either - The freshman is talented and I know they like him, but he has struggled badly offensively. He is shooting about 38%, and has a 10.7 Assist Rate vs a 34.6 TO Rate.

- Look to push for easy baskets - SUU plays at a slow pace, and their average possession length of 20.2 seconds is 337th in the country. While this might be somewhat driven by personnel, with all of their young guards, they should look to push the pace as much as they can to see if any easy baskets can come.

- Have Trey Kennedy and John Marshall attack the rim relentlessly - Both of these freshman have shown an ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Kennedy draws 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes, while Marshall draws 4.4 fouls per 40. Both are good foul shooters, so the more times they attack the rim and get to the line, the more good things will happen.

Here would be my starting lineup, with notes in parenthesis:
PG John Marshall (Potentially good distributor)
SG Trey Kennedy (Maybe their most talented guy. He is going to be a good Big Sky player)
SF AJ Hess (The team's best outside shooter and all-around scorer)
PF Casey Oliverson (13.2 OR%... crash the glass!)
C Jayson Cheesman (But tell him that if he shoots anything other than a dunk or layup, he's out of the game! He shoots a poor percentage, but he is solid defensively, and showed some ability as an offensive rebounder last year)


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Nice Article about Northern Colorado

Raphielle Johnson of NBC Sports has a nice article about Northern Colorado and their success.

While the triumvirate of Barden, Tate Unruh and Tevin Svihovec were all double-digit scorers last season, junior forward Tim Hukisson (11.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) has increased his scoring output by nearly four points per game compared to the 2012-13 campaign. He, Barden and junior Dominique Lee are key figures in the front court for Northern Colorado, which has just one player in its rotation who stands taller than 6-foot-5 (senior forward Connor Osborne).

The 6-foot-5 Barden’s led the way on the boards for the Bears, and he’s posted two 17-rebound efforts this season with the first coming in their season-opening win at Kansas State. While that game was a step forward for Northern Colorado as a team, it was also a step forward for Barden.

His numbers are slightly better than his averages of a season ago, but there has been a noticeable difference in the way in which Barden approaches the game according to Hill.

“I think Derrick’s biggest improvement is from the shoulders up,” said Hill. “He’s shown a greater maturity when going against bigger, stronger guys and a more consistent work ethic day in and day out.”

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Some Random Big Sky Thoughts

We are now four games into the Big Sky season for almost everyone (Northern Arizona and Southern Utah play Monday night), so let's take a quick peek at random things going on and see what looks interesting.

- According to KenPom's predictor tool, Northern Colorado will win the Big Sky at 16-4, followed by Weber State at 14-6, and Eastern Washington at 12-8.

- If you are keeping track at home, Idaho State (82-75) gave Northern Colorado a much more competitive game in Greeley than Weber State (70-51) or North Dakota (84-66). They were especially adept at getting easy buckets in transition, and their core of Tomas Sanchez, Chris Hansen, Andre Hatchett, and Jeffrey Solarin is really good. They look like a top 5 team.

- After dropping a pair to Eastern Washington and Portland State (in triple OT), Montana is suddenly 1-3. Jordan Gregory was great against PSU, and Kareem Jamar always does a lot of things. Keron DeShields is coming on, and looking like he could be a consistent third option for them. They are still having problems defensively.

- For Montana, I was really impressed by Mario Dunn, who should be a future star. He is not very polished offensively yet, but he can affect the game in many different ways. He played 47 minutes against the Vikings, and finished with 6 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 0 turnovers, 4 blocks, and 2 steals.

- Speaking of affecting the game in many ways, Drew Brandon for EWU's stat line against Montana State - 15 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds.

- With due respect to Derrick Barden, Joel Bolobmoy for Weber State is the best all-around rebounder in the Big Sky. He is second in the conference in DR% (23.8%), and third in OR% (13.6%).

- With that said, if I had to pick a league MVP so far, it would be Barden. He is shooting 61% on two-pointers, he is probably the second best rebounder in the conference, and he has been outstanding defensively. He is a star.

- Southern Utah has now lost 11 straight game (after a season-opening win against Southwestern Arizona), and lost their last two Big Sky games by an average of 32 points per game. According to Ken Pom's rankings, they have the worst offense in the NCAA and 9th worst defense. They will probably win a Big Sky game or two, but it won't be easy.

- After 2 weeks, we only have one undefeated team, and only one winless team in the Big Sky. It should be a fun season!

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Dominique Lee Goes Coast to Coast

On Thursday night against Weber State, Dominique Lee from Northern Colorado went coast-to-coast for a great jam. Fortunately, UNC Athletics got it on video for all to enjoy.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

A Great Sequence From Troy Huff

This is a fun video... in North Dakota's win over Idaho State on Thursday, UND led 47-43 about midway through the second half. And then Troy Huff got a steal and a dunk, then an acrobatic fast break layup, and then finishes off an alley oop with a lay-in. Less than a minute later, UND was up 53-43.

As the announcer said, "My goodness that was interesting!" Watch for yourself:

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Eastern Washington and North Dakota Notch Big Victories

After taking a look at Northern Colorado's win over Weber State, let's take a look at the rest of the Thursday night action around the Big Sky.

Eastern Washington 69, Montana 62
The Eagles held Kareem Jamar to just 10 points and no assists, and they were able to get the ball inside very effectively, and that was the difference. EWU was led by Martin Seiferth, who had 21 points (10/13 FG), 12 rebounds (8 offensive) and four blocks on the night. He was outstanding. Meanwhile, Tyler Harvey was his usual self, with 25 points. Montana now has as many conference losses in three games this year as they did in the past two seasons combined. Needless to say, they have some things to figure. It's a big win for EWU, who have a chance to get back to .500 if they can beat MSU at home.

North Dakota 66, Idaho State 62
UND needed to come out and make a statement at home, and they did in a tight one against the Bengals. Though it was a battle to the very end, UND will take it. Jaron Nash was the star of this game, with 21 points and 8 rebounds, showing the skill set that he brings to the frontcourt. On a night when Aaron Anderson struggled and Troy Huff didn't have a great day, it's a good win for Brian Jones' club against a solid Bengals club. ISU was led by 24 points from Chris Hansen, but it wasn't quite enough as they fall to 2-1. They come to Greeley on Saturday.

Northern Arizona 75, Sacramento State 65
This was a close game at the half, but an early second half run gave the Lumberjacks a good lead that they wouldn't relinquish, as they improve to 2-1 and keep the Hornets winless in Big Sky play. NAU shot a blistering 11/16 from beyond the arc in this game, including as 5/5 effort from Quinton Upshur. The Hornets shot the ball well themselves, but they couldn't stop sending NAU to the foul line. The Hornets travel to take on Southern Utah Saturday night in a game that they simply cannot afford to lose.

Montana State 79, Portland State 76
The Bobcats continue to win close games, going on the road and beating Portland State at the Stott Center, which is never an easy place to play. The win moves the Bobcats to 3-0, meaning they join Northern Colorado as the lone remaining undefeated Big Sky teams. They hit 7/10 free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory. PSU's small lineup posed some problems for the Bobcats (the Vikings shot 55% in the game), but once again, the Vikings had trouble getting any stops. MSU shot 56% from the floor, and made 25 trips to the foul line. Four guys scores in double figures, led by Antonio Biglow with 15 points. The Vikings welcome Montana to town Saturday night, and with a loss, they could be staring down another long season.

Anything else happen that I missed?

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Northern Colorado Exerts Their Will on Weber State

If Northern Colorado had merely beaten Weber State, it would have been a nice statement for them, given Weber State's recent run in the Big Sky and status as preseason favorite. However, the Bears went beyond that, really taking control almost from the outset and beating the Wildcats in all phases of the game.

When UNC beat North Dakota, I came away impressed. After this game, it is now clear that at the current moment, the Bears are the best and deepest team in the Big Sky. It all starts with Derrick Barden, who looks like he could be the league MVP to this point. Barden had 21 points and 13 rebounds, while battling Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy all night in the post. After taking some early shots from the outside, he settled down offensively and was his typical efficient self, shooting 10/15 from the floor.

After Barden, it's a revolving door of guys that make plays when they are called on. Tim Huskisson had another nice night with 12 points, Tevin Svihovec had 15 efficient points off the bench (he is the sixth man of the year in the Big Sky), and Tate Unruh had 10. On this night, even a guy like Cody McDavis stepped up and gave them 16 really solid minutes, grabbing four rebounds, finishing a nice post move, and playing solid defense in the post. Everything that Coach BJ Hill did worked.

On Weber State's side, well, mama said there'd be days like this. It just wasn't their night. Early on, they forcefed the ball to Bolomoby and Tresnak, and had some success. Those guys had 14 of the team's 15 points, and combined for 24 points on the night (Bolomboy also grabbed 14 rebounds). However, even Tresnak, who had a nice offensive game, missed a couple bunnies that he probably makes 98 times out of 100. It was that kind of night.

In the second half, the Bears tightened up their post defense, and the Wildcats struggled to get anything going. UNC came with a lot 3/4 court pressure, and the Wildcats young guards struggled a lot with it. It is clear that Jeremy Senglin and Richaud Gittens are very talented guys, but the stage was a little too big on this night. Fortunately for them, it's only the third Big Sky game.

As of now, the Bears have established themselves as the early front-runners in the Big Sky with a great all-around performance. However, circle February 8th on your calendar - the rematch in Ogden. I think this Weber State team is going to look a lot different than the one we saw on Thursday night.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Thursday Night Preview and Predictions

Conference season is in full swing, which means we have five games Thursday night and five more on Saturday night. If you like Big Sky basketball, it's really a fantastic slate of games. So, let's take a look at each matchup on Thursday night and make some predictions.

Sacramento State (0-2) @ Northern Arizona (1-1)
After an 0-2 start, the Hornets desperately need some positive momentum. Starting the non-conference season with a four game road stretch is tough, but they should have a chance to steal a game or two (they play Southern Utah on Saturday). However, they will need to find a way to slow Max Jacobsen, as they allow opponents to shoot 54.5% on two-pointers this year. Northern Arizona has been liable to turn the ball over too much this year, but Sac State doesn't necessarily have the defensive playmakers to take advantage of that. This should be a close game, but in Flagstaff, I like the Lumberjacks to move above .500.
Northern Arizona 68, Sacramento State 62

Montana State (2-0) @ Portland State (0-2)
As mentioned, PSU will be without arguably their most talented guy, as Aaron Moore was dismissed from the team.Most of their problems this year, again, have stemmed from the defensive side of the ball, as they are allowing 1.13 PPP against DI opponents. MSU doesn't really have the capability to take advantage of that, as they have struggled offensively (and been surprisingly good on the defensive side of the ball). Montana State has been excellent at forcing turnovers, but the Vikings have strong guard play, and should be able to take care of the ball well enough to claw their way to a home win.
Portland State 70, Montana State 65

Idaho State (2-0) @ North Dakota (1-1)
This is an interesting match, because it's hard to say what we have in each of these teams. The Bengals are impressive at 2-0, but they aren't flawless. They are giving opponents too many open looks from deep, and allowing teams to shoot 41.5% against them from downtown. Additionally, the Bengals have a 19.6 TO Rate, which is below average. Unfortunately for them, the one thing UND does well defensively is force turnovers, as their steal rates are in the top 20 nationally. I like UND to force ISU into mistakes offensively, and hold serve on their home-court in a game that will be a lot more competitive and entertaining than we thought it would be at the start of the year.
North Dakota 81, Idaho State 74

Montana (1-1) @ Eastern Washington (0-2)
Both teams have had disappointing starts relative to some of their expectations, but both are good enough that they can quickly get over them. For Montana, it is the shock of losing a conference game, especially at home. The Eagles losses were easier to swallow, being that they were on the road against good teams. Quietly, Montana has actually been a really good offensive team this year - they aren't turning it over, they shoot 37% on threes (78th in the country), and 56% on two-pointers (7th in NCAA)... their problem has been defense. One struggle has been rebounding, and you can bet that Eastern Washington is going to hit the offensive glass hard. How well the Grizzlies rebound defensively could be the key to the game. Chris Kemp is a guy that is playing more for them, and I think that will be a big key for a road win.
Montana 81, Eastern Washington 76

Weber State (2-0) @ Northern Colorado (2-0)
This will be the marquee game of the night, featuring what look like the two best teams in the Big Sky. This will be the first big game where Northern Colorado has a great chance to win, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to any type of pressure from that (even though it is only the third game of the Big Sky season). Traditionally, Weber State has been a tough matchup for the Bears, because they are such a good three-point shooting team, and Weber State is better than just about anyone else in the country at taking that away from an offense. That will put the onus on guys like Tevin Svihovec to be able to create things off the dribble, and I think he can have success there, as Weber State hasn't shown a great ability yet to pressure opposing guards. This one should come down to the wire and be a very entertaining game, but I think UNC shows they are for real.
Northern Colorado 72, Weber State 69

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Aaron Moore Dismissed From Portland State Team

I had heard this rumor earlier in the week, but wasn’t able to confirm it until now – Aaron Moore is no longer with the Portland State basketball team. From the Portland Tribune:

Geving was vague in talking about why Moore — who did not play in Portland State’s 79-62 Saturday road loss to Weber State — is no longer with the Vikings. 
“You’ve got to just, at some point, draw your foot in the sand,” Geving said. “We’re going to move forward, and I still believe we’re going to be better for it, because Saturday night we played hard.” 
Geving said removing Moore from the team was a difficult decision for him on a personal level. 
“Is it easy?” Geving said. “No, it’s not easy. Is it painful? Yeah, it pains me. But I also know our players are going to respond to it better. I’m going to earn the respect of my players a little bit more as opposed to if I just let it continue to go on. Then all of a sudden players are going to go, ‘Well, coach teaches us to act like that, we all get to act like that.’”

Moore averaged 13.2 PPG and 7.1 RPG last season, and often had the look of a guy that could be an all-conference player. Through the early part of this season (he did battle through some injuries), those numbers were down to 11.8 PPG and 5.8 RPG. In their Big Sky opener, he gave Idaho State fans the double bird, which seems as though it may have been the last straw for Moore at PSU.

The Vikings are 0-2 in Big Sky play, and now very thin on the perimeter. JUCO forward Tiegbe Bamba is still out with injury, leaving Kyle Richardson and Brandon Cataldo as the only healthy big men on the roster. They have some talented guards, but they need to hope that the dismissal of Moore brings a lot of addition by subtraction, particularly defensively (where their 1.13 PPP allowed is 332nd in the country) if they are going to turn things around this season.

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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Big Sky Power Rankings: Post Week One

Each team has played two Big Sky games, and the opening week was filled with some surprises, most notably Northern Arizona taking down Montana in their opener. Let's do some power rankings and use it as a springboard to talk about each team and how things look early.

1. Northern Colorado (2-0) - The Bears looked like the most impressive Big Sky team in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and they backed that up with two impressive wins to start the conference season. It wasn't so much that they beat North Dakota and Southern Utah, it was the dominating manner in which they did it. They have a bunch of depth right now, the ability to hurt you on the inside or outside, and athletic big men that really allow them to do a lot of things defensively. Their home stretch this week against Weber State and Idaho State will be VERY intriguing. They can win both of those games at home.

2. Weber State (2-0) - For all of the struggles to begin the year, the Wildcats are off to a 2-0 start, while their nemesis in Montana has already lost. That has to fell good. Jordan Richardson is coming to life, as he has six threes in the first two conference games, including four against Portland State. The other big key is Jeremy Senglin, who has 11 assists against two turnovers over the last two games, showing signs of becoming a more complete PG over the second half of his freshman season. As mentioned above, Weber coming to Greeley to take on Northern Colorado will be a fascinating matchup telling us if there is a new favorite in the Big Sky.

3. Idaho State (2-0) - There is no denying the impressive start of Idaho State, who is the most improved team in the Big Sky (and it's not even close). They continue to play at a much faster pace than last year, and their offense is looking solid. Quietly, newcomer Jeffrey Solarin has been awesome for Bill Evans' club, shooting 59% from the floor and rebounding 20.8% of offensive rebounding opportunities, second in the nation. With guys like him, Tomas Sanchez, Chris Hansen, and Andre Hatchett, ISU is just a solid, and is really establishing themselves as a potential player for a top 5 seed.

4. Montana State (2-0) - Stop me if you have heard this - the Bobcats are off to a nice start. The key for them, of course, is to sustain it. Mike Dison was key down the stretch against NAU, making the game-winner. Right now, MSU is getting by with a lot of balance - nobody on the team has played even 70% of the team's minutes, and their rotation can go 10-11 deep. The other key for them is that opponents rebound only 24.2% of their misses against MSU, giving the Bobcats the fifth best mark in the country. That has really helped their defense this year.

5. Northern Arizona (1-1) - They lost a tough one to Montana State, but I'm sure if you told them they would leave the Montana roadtrip at 1-1, they would have taken it. Even after shooting 0/7 inside the arc against MSU, Max Jacobsen shoots almost 60% on the year on two-point attempts, and he was particular great against Montana, where he scored 21 points on 10/13 FG. NAU does need to take better care of the ball, as their TO Rate is 21.8%.

6. Montana (1-1) - Their is some reason for concern in Montana, and it mostly stems from its defense. The Girzzlies give up 1.10 PPP so far this year, and a horrific 1.14 PPP in their first two conference games (and those didn't exactly come against offensive juggernauts). Plus, that number is even helped by the fact that opponents are shooting 58.8% on free throws against them this year, lowest in the NCAA. Montana is currently the worst offensive rebounding team in the country, and their defensive rebounding isn't too much better. They will score points with guys like Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory, and some talented role players, but if they want to have success, things need to change defensively.

7. Eastern Washington (0-2) - An 0-2 start is never good, but the road swing at Weber State and Idaho State could be the toughest in the league this year. They have now lost six straight overall, and need some positive momentum. They have also struggled defensively, and have struggled to force any turnovers. Last year they were one of the best shot blocking teams in the country, but that hasn't been the case this season. However, they played Weber State tough in Ogden, and had an off shooting night in Pocatello (14/38 from deep). If they struggled at home against the Montana schools there will be more reason for concern, but it's no time to panic yet.

8. North Dakota (1-1) - There is not a good way to say - North Dakota is not a good basketball team right now. They were never really in the game against UNC, and struggled to beat Southern Utah at home. As has been documented, once you get past their pressure defense, the help on the interior is just not there, which is why opponents shoot nearly 58% on twos against them. The flow in the half-court game has not been there either, as they are struggling to get consistent outside shooting, which really opens driving lanes for their guys. There is still plenty of talent, but they have some things they need to work out.

9. Portland State (0-2) - Aaron Moore missed the Weber State game due to a suspension, and there is a rumor (unconfirmed) that he might not be with the team anymore. With Tiegbe Bamba still out due to injury, their frontcourt depth is very thin. After initial signs that they might be improved defensively, time has shown that early good play to be fool's gold, as they are allowing 1.14 PPP, 336th in the country. Based on their track record the past few years, that might not improve.

10. Sacramento State (0-2) - Surprisingly for a team with Dylan Garrity running the point, they have not been very good offensively. Garrity has been solid, and Mikh McKinney has been ok, but they haven't gotten a lot from the rest of the guys. Junior forward Zach Mills is getting more time, and that is a positive development for them, as he shows some nice shooting range, and a good ability to rebound the basketball. Beyond him, they have struggled to get much out of the frontcourt, as was the worry before the season.

11. Southern Utah (0-2) - Probably they will win a few Big Sky games, but it won't be easy. They don't have any offensive firepower, as their 0.88 PPP is third to worst in the country, and they shoot just 37% on two-pointers. There are no easy baskets to come by here. They are also turning the ball over too much, and they don't get many second-chance points. They are one of the youngest teams in the country, and they are giving a lot of guys minutes to get some valuable experience, but unfortunately positives have been tough to come by in the early going.

Anything else stick out to you after the first two games of conference play?

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Friday, January 3, 2014

NAU Stuns Montana

I just got back from vacation so I don't really have time for a write-up of all the games... but just wanted to point out the magnitude of Northern Arizona's win over Montana.

- I started covering the Big Sky two seasons ago... in that time, the only Big Sky team to beat Montana was Weber State twice, at Weber State. NAU now makes Montana 0-1 in Big Sky play, after the Grizzlies went 34-2 the last two seasons.
- The loss for Montana snaps a 31 game conference home winning streak.

I'll have more to say eventually, but just wanted to drop a quick note about this one, since it was such a shocker! Jack Murphy has had a positive start to his tenure in Flagstaff, and nothing shows the progress the team has made more than this victory.

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