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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