Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 2

After taking a look at the teams on Monday, let's take a closer look at the players that could make up awards teams and award winners, as we head into conference play. These are my predictions for the first two all-conference teams.

First Team:
- Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington - As we enter Big Sky play, Harvey looks like the favorite for the POY. He plays for the best team, and he has continued right where he left off last year as a dynamic scorer. He is averaging 22.8 PPG, but that only tells a little bit of the story. He is shooting a touch under 50% from three point range on the year, and doing it in nine attempts per game, which is almost ridiculous. He takes great care of the ball, and scores efficiently inside the arc as well. He is a star.
- Mikh McKinney, Sacramento State - I give him the slight nod over Garrity because he does more things well. He is a good distributor, and he is third in the league in Assist Rate. He has shot over 60% on two-pointers, and is a good enough outside shooter to keep you honest. He has also been a menace defensively, with the second best steal rate in the nation, swiping the ball 3.3 times per game.
- Venky Jois, Eastern Washington - Jois has cooled down a little after a scorching start, but he has shown a lot of improvement this year, averaging 19 and 8 per game. He is shooting over 60% from the floor, and has gotten better from the stripe. Though the total rebound number is a little inflated due to the fast pace of EWU, he is a good rebounder, and one of the best shot blockers in the conference. Jois does it all for the Eagles.
- Martin Breunig, Montana - Before the year, an insider told me that Breunig would be the best big man in the conference, and so far you could make the argument that is the case. His raw numbers of 16.7 PPG/6.4 RPG aren't as high as Jois, but he has been very good. He is shooting 64% from the floor, and 74% from the line. He's helped to turn around a lot of the rebounding troubles the Grizzlies have had the past couple years, and can block some shots as well. Foul trouble has limited his minutes quite a bit, but when he is on the floor, he's as good as any big man in the conference.
- Joel Bolomboy, Weber State - He hasn't been the offensive player we wanted him to be yet, shooting 44% on two-pointers against DI competition (he has feasted in two games against non-DI opponents), and hasn't rebounded it quite as well as his otherworldy rate from last year. But he still has the talent level to do that, and it should come together as the year goes on. No big man can match his athletic prowess.

Second Team:
- Dylan Garrity, Sacramento State - Garrity has really evolved in his career, but a playmaking freshman who led the conference in assists, into a senior who has to be one of the most feared shooters in the nation. He is a lethal weapon from the outside. He falls to the second team here because he has become more of simply a shooting specialist then he was in the past, but he could climb up to the first team.
- Mike Scott, Idaho - I have talked a lot about Scott this year, and he is a guy that has been efficient scoring 15.5 PPG (shooting 44% from three), while being one of the best distributors in the conference. He is second in the Big Sky in Assist Rate, which he has done while maintaining a minuscule turnover rate. He has been the most improved player in the conference.
- Drew Brandon, Eastern Washington - Brandon is the often forgotten third cog for EWU, a PG who does it all. Though not a great scorer (though he has been very efficient when he hasn't been shooting threes), he also averages 7 RPG from the PG position. Jim Hayford's offense needs a good PG, and Brandon has been that guy this year.
- Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona - It's reasonable to wonder if we saw Upshur's peak last year, but he is a very productive guy that is capable of carrying their offense in some situations. Though not shooting the ball quite as well as last year, he gets a lot of respect from deep. One thing that could help him is if he can get a little better at the line, where is shooting just 59% this year, baffling for a guy with his shooting ability.
- Dominique Lee, Northern Colorado - Lee was excellent in a reserve role last year, but has been even better with increased minutes so far this year. He is super efficient, and has put up better rebounding numbers than anyone in the conference. He is a guy that brings a lot to the table, but doesn't take much off. He has to play the five spot more than you would like, but that doesn't diminish how good he has been.

Let's hear any snubs or your thoughts...

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 1

On Thursday, Big Sky conference play begins. What that means is this - everything that has happened so far this year is useful only insofar as it adequately got teams prepared for what is to come. Other than that, it doesn't matter. There will be no at-large teams from the Big Sky, so as always, it will come down to conference play.

I wrote up a long-winded preview at the start of the year, but thought it might be useful to type up some new predictions for order of finish and taking a look at some of the best players in the Big Sky so far. In part one, I will give a new predicted order of finish.

Two notes. First, is that I will certainly be wrong. With so little separation, things are going to come down to tiebreakers, and there will be a ton of bunching. Second, I think teams two through eight are largely interchangable - If you feel like those teams should be slotted differently, you may well be right. I would love to hear the other thoughts and opinions from league followers, but with as little separation as we have seen from team's play, it would be hard to say that anyone is definitely right, and that includes my opinion.

All that said, let's begin!

1. Eastern Washington (14-4) - Their stellar start dulled a little at the end of non-conference play, where they followed a close loss to Washington (a great performance) with losses to Sam Houston State and California, ending with a too-close win over Lewis & Clark State.  However, those losses were the end of a very long roadtrip, and completely understandable. Their defenese, while not great, is improved over last year, and they look like they are one of the best offensive teams in the country. If non-conference play has taught us anything, it is that the Big Sky should be going through Cheney.

2. Weber State (11-7) - To clarify, for teams with identical records (such as the three 11-7 teams), I have put them in order of who I think is most likely to be higher. The Wildcats have had an up and down start, and they have arguably not beaten anyone better than them. But I still have them second because I still believe in their talent level. Joel Bolomboy hasn't quite made huge offensive strides, but he's still an elite rebounder and defender. They have the athletes and talent which gives them a high ceiling, it will just be mixed in with confounding losses due to all their youth.

3. Northern Arizona (11-7) - If you want to argue this is too high for them, I understand. They haven't looked great offensively, and other than an impressive win over St. Mary's, they haven't played well away from home. But, I think the fact that they can stake a claim to being the best defensive team in the Big Sky will keep them in most games. Scoring will be an issue all year, but only Weber State can defend at their level.

4. Sacramento State (11-7) - I have been down on them so far this year, but the same reason for optimism that was there at the start of the year is still there now. Namely, Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney. The seniors are both killing it, with ORtg of 118.0 (McKinney) and 117.8 (Garrity). McKinney has become the primary distributor, with Garrity's assist rate plunging down to 14.4 (it was 39.1 as a freshman). Nobody has a backcourt like that, which is the biggest reason they will win a lot of games.

5. Montana (10-8) - They are still finding their way, as they have battled injury issues and a new system from Travis DeCuire. Jordan Gregory has struggled a bit being "the man," though he has by no means been anything but solid. As I've mentioned, the biggest reason for hope is big man Martin Breunig, who has been a force inside, and figures to get even better in a Big Sky conference not known for imposing front lines. The key for the Griz, as with most, will be figuring out how to get stops when needed.

6. Idaho (10-8) - The Vandals have quietly been very good, with a good road win over Wazzu and a home victory over UC Davis (which later beat UNC by 10). Connor Hill has been crushing it lately, and Mike Scott continues to be perhaps the most impressive PG in the Big Sky. It's hard to say if Idaho will be helped by other BSC teams not knowing them well, or hurt by not knowing the other teams as well, but one thing is for sure - they are an offensive force that will win a lot of games.

7. Northern Colorado (9-9) - They are very deep, which is nice. They are also athletic. However, I wonder if their lack of size (Dominique Lee and Tim Huskisson are both very good, but play a lot of the four spot at 6'5'') could hurt, though it might be less of an issue during conference play than it was in non-conference play. The Bears are always tough at home, and they can always score, and those two things should get them to .500. One of their strengths the past couple years was rebounding, but that has struggled after losing Derrick Barden, Somebody besides Lee needs to rebound the basketball, and that hasn't happened enough so far.

8. Portland State (9-9) - I never know what to make of the Vikings, but overall they have had some disconcerting losses. They are cobbling together a solid offense, but they haven't really been able to get any easy baskets, shooting 39.4% inside the arc against D1 opponents - which, as you can guess, is not good. They have also dealt with some injury issues to their key frontcourt newcomers, and they need those guys healthy and productive. All in all, a .500 season with wild positive and negative swings seems to be about right.

9. Idaho State (7-11) - They are the poor man's NAU in that they can stop people (but not as well as NAU), but struggle scoring (even more than NAU). As I've mentioned in the past, they don't seem to have any outside shooters other than Chris Hansen, who defenses can key on. On the plus side, Jeff Solarin continues to gobble up rebounds, and get them some easy baskets on putbacks, which is big for them. I think Bill Evans can make the most of the roster, but it won't be enough to make the conference tournament.

10. North Dakota (6-12) - It hasn't been an inspiring start, but guys like Estan Tyler, Terrel de Rouen, and Josiah Coleman should be better than they have shown so far, which will help the offense and perhaps take some pressure off of Jaron Nash. With so many new faces, growing pains were to be expected, but Jones has done a good job of bringing talent in (and hopefully figuring out the rest later). This is a team that should get better as the year goes along.

11. Montana State (6-12) - They have been better than I expected, but they are still a young team that will struggle in Big Sky play. One trait that has carried over from last year is that they are a solid rebounding team, with big men like Danny Robison and Eric Norman showing themselves to be solid on the glass.

12. Southern Utah (4-14) - On December 23, SUU surpassed last year's win total, using a big run at the start of the second half to beat South Carolina State. Similarly, they should surpass last year's conference wins total within the first half of the Big Sky season. If AJ Hess keeps up his play, he will be at least an all-conference honorable mention player, as he has been excellent from outside while taking care of the ball. His development has helped open things for everyone else.

Let's hear everyone else's thoughts on how things look heading into Big Sky play...

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

For Christmas I am back home visiting family in North Dakota, so there probably won't be any more posts here until next week. However, the good news is that conference play is almost upon us! Thank goodness!

So, hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking at the Bottom Tier

So far this year, we have taken plenty of looks at Eastern Washington and what has made them the favorite, and we have also looked extensively at the middle tier of teams, but today let's took at the four who are presumed to be at the bottom right now.

- Idaho State sits at 3-8, after looking good in a neutral court OT loss to South Dakota State, a road loss to Utah State, and a neutral court loss to Cal State Bakersfield. So far this year they are tenth in the conference in offensive efficiency, but fourth defensively.

Their struggles on offense start with the fact that other than Chris Hansen, they don't have many guys shooting well from the outside. Against DI opponents, they have shot 26% from downtown, which ranks in the bottom 15 nationally. Hansen himself has struggle,d shooting just 29% after hitting 40% of his threes last year. That could be just a random fluke, but it could also be due to the fact that ISU doesn't really have a PG, which allows defense to key in on Hansen.

Jeff Solarin has been excellent again, and Nnamdi Ezenwa has given them good minutes, but they need to find someone other than Hansen that will draw the attention of defenses if they want to compete for a conference tournament spot.

- Montana State also sits at 3-8, and there have been some offensive bright spots in Brian Fish's first season. Junior guard Marcus Colbert has struggled with his shooting, but he is in the top 15 nationally in assist rate while also getting to the line. He is a keeper. Danny Robison has been very solid as well up front, showing a nice outside shot which wasn't there in the past. He is one of the most improved guys in the Big Sky.

To compete for a tournament spot, though, MSU needs to improve on the other end of the floor, where they are ninth in the Big Sky defensively. They haven't been able to force turnovers, but they are sending opponents to the foul line too much, so the aggression is not really paying off. DI teams have an effective FG% of 52.8% against them, which is not a good mark when you're not forcing turnovers. They have had good games on that end, but too many have been like their loss Saturday to Portland, where the Pilots made 23/40 twos and 10/20 threes, while turning it over just 10 times.

The Bobcats are probably a year away from contending for a conference tournament spot, but there are at least some good, positive things happening on the offensive side of the ball.

- North Dakota is 4-6, but two of the wins are against non-DI opponents. One of the best positives has been the play of senior guard Lenny Antwi. He didn't look like much of a Big Sky player his first three years, but he has been shooting the ball very well this year, hitting 12/26 threes. Elsewhere, they have a lot of guys in shooting slumps from the outside.

Estan Tyler made 43% of his triples as a sophomore at UMKC - he is 6/21 this year. Terrel de Rouen made 36% as a freshman at New Mexico State - he is 6/21 this year. Jaron Nash made 34% last year - he is 4/15 this year. Josiah Coleman came in as a guy that looked like he could do some things offensively - he is 3/18 from downtown and an abominable 10/41 FG overall. Some of these things should normalize and give UND a much better offense than they have shown so far.

Defensively, they still can't stop anyone in the paint. DI teams are shooting over 58% on two-point attempts against UND this year, a rank that is near the bottom of the NCAA. They don't really have a rim protector, and their perimeter defenders can't keep teams out of the lane. More than anything else, this will hold them back as we enter Big Sky play.

- Southern Utah is still at two wins, but as we've mentioned there are signs of life from their offense. AJ Hess continues to play great basketball, shooting the ball well while not turning it over. He has become more of a primary option which they desperately needed. SUU is shooting 40% from the outside against DI teams, a great mark and a huge sign that they will win some Big Sky games this year.

Defensively, however, they are a mess. Teams have been killing them from three, though that will hopefully normalize a bit. SUU hasn't forced turnovers, and as has been an issue for them the last few years, they send teams to the foul line way, way too much. They just can't seem to defend without fouling, and this is year three of what must be considered a trend.

Another issue is that Trey Kennedy, a guy that did some nice things as a true freshman playing a too-big role, has regressed this year. His turnovers are up, assists are done, and he doesn't seem to be getting any easy baskets. The Thunderbirds need these young guys to develop, and his sophomore season has not been promising so far.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Don't Sleep on Northern Arizona

Last year, Northern Arizona went 3-8 during non-conference play, and got very little attention heading into the conference season. I wrote that they might be better than we all thought, and they wound up finishing third in the Big Sky.

This year, they currently sit at 4-6, and while they aren't flying as far under the radar (in part because of their high finish last year), there hasn't been a lot of talk about them,. However, don't be surprised if they are contending for the Big Sky title.

For one, they can defend at a high level. They currently sit second in the Big Sky in defensive efficiency, just slightly behind Weber State. Last season, they finished second during Big Sky play in PPP allowed, so their past history shows they can be one of the best defensive teams in the conference, if not the best. In a league where teams struggle to get stops, that can set them apart.

A season ago, their biggest flaw was that teams shot the three ball very well against them, which is the opposite of what has happened so far this year. Though that is sure to regress to the mean, they have forced turnovers well, and have good defenders on the perimeter and inside.

The offense has struggled this year, but there are signs that might be turning around. Sophomore guard Kris Yanku has re-joined the starting lineup the past two games, and played well. They have a lot of guys that shoot the ball well on the outside, but Yanku is the guy for them that can consistently get into the lane, break down the defense, and set up teammates. He is still growing, and might be their most important player.

NAU is now 4-6 after their win on the road versus St. Mary's, and I wonder if they might be flying under the radar a bit. Regarded as a challenger for the Big Sky before the season, everyone seems to be in the second tier behind Eastern Washington. However, don't be surprised if Northern Arizona is a team that can challenge EWU.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Big Sky Power Rankings - 12/15/14

For the first time this year, let's tackle some power rankings as a quick gauge on where things stand, just a couple weeks away from the beginning of conference play!

1) Eastern Washington (8-2)
I wrote about them Friday, so I won't talk too much more. Impressively, they led Washington for much of the game on Sunday, with their win expectancy reaching almost 75% with a little over five minutes to play. Big man Robert Upshaw had a big day against them, and the big, scoring center is someone who can have success against EWU's relatively thin front line. However, there aren't many of those guys in the Big Sky.

2) Weber State (3-5)
While EWU looks better and better each game, the Wildcats spot as number two in the pecking order appears more and more tenuous. They lost on the road to UT-Arlington, and then dropped a home game to BYU where they were never really in the game. The losses are all to good opponents, but I still worry about their turnovers, and their ability to create easy opportunities. Jeremy Senglin does have five assists in back to back games, which is a good sign.

3) Northern Colorado (4-4)
They are flying under the radar a bit because they haven't beaten anyone, but it looks more and more like they will be the second best offensive team in the conference. They take great care of the ball, and they are loaded with efficient scorers. Dominique Lee was good as a junior last year, but he has been outstanding as a senior. He is third in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, blocking shots, and shooting 66%.

4) Montana (3-6)
Last Wednesday, they scored 99 points against Davidson... and lost by 11. They are a solid team offensively, but they are struggling to get any stops. Travis DeCuire should be thankful to former coach Wayne Tinkle for leaving him big man Martin Breunig, who scored 30 in that game against Davidson, and is the real deal. The problem is that teams are just hitting everything against the Grizzlies... DI opponents shoot 40% from downtown and 54% on twos against them. Unlike past year, they are doing well on the defensive glass, they just aren't getting enough opportunities at it!

5) Idaho (4-5)
They had a couple of tough road losses last week, but are playing pretty well overall. Like others, they can score, but they can't stop anyone.They haven't been able to force turnovers, and they've sent teams to the line far too often . Against South Dakota State, they shot 17/30 inside the arc and 12/18 from behind it, and still lost 87-85. I have talked about Mike Scott on here, but senior Bira Seck is another guy showing up big. He is in the top ten in defensive rebounding rate in the nation, and getting to the line offensively. His emergence has been a big plus.

6) Northern Arizona (3-6)
Similar to Weber State, they can't be judged on the record alone, because every loss has come against a solid opponent, with the exception of maybe UTSA. Their problem is the reverse of most - they can stop people, but they can't score well enough right now. They aren't getting to the line, and they aren't getting enough easy baskets (just 42.4% on twos). It looks like Kris Yanku was inserted into the starting lineup last game, which should help. Last year, he showed good passing ability and the ability to get into the lane, which could help generate easy chance.

7) Portland State (5-3)
They are a big of a roller coaster, with a 26 point road loss to an average UC Riverside being a real head-scratcher. One thing that has hurt them is the play of Gary Winston. Winston has been great throughout his career, but has slumped to career low numbers to begin his senior season. He will get every chance to play out of it (as he should), but they need him to start hitting shots. The new duo of Tiegbe Bamba and Braxton Tucker continues to play well up front.

8) Sacramento State (5-4)
They have the talent level to be much better, but they've been up and down this year, and have lost three of their last four. Defensively, teams are scoring at will on them inside, and they continue to struggle getting any offensive production from the frontcourt.  One hope is Erc Stuteville, who played 25 good minutes against Portland, contribuirng 14 efficient points and looking like the player he was at the end of last year. The backcourt of Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney is as good as ever,.

9) Idaho State (3-5)
Offensively, they have really struggled shooting from the outside which has hurt what they want to do. Chris Hansen is just 15/45 from downtown, though that should improve with his shooting ability. The problem might be finding someone else that can stretch the defense... Nnamdi Ezenwa has shot well on limited attempts, but nobody other than those guys has made more than three threes so far this year. They don't have enough offensive talent there if they can't hit some shots from the outside.

10) Montana State (3-6)
They have bounced back well from the Kentucky loss, winning three of their last five, including an impressive home win over UT-Arlington (who later beat Weber State). They are pushing the pace, and guys like Marcus Colbert, Mike Dison, and forward Danny Robison has played well in that style. They can't stop anyone, but they are at least playing a more exciting style and building some things for the future. Early on, Brian Fish is building things at MSU.

11) North Dakota (3-6)
It appears that some of the fears are coming true... having lost most of their offensive talent from last year, the new guys haven't been able to step in, and the defense hasn't picked up the slack. Last week against Minnesota and NDSU (two good teams), they lost by an average of 33.5 points. It looks like it will be a long year in Grand Forks.

12) Southern Utah (2-5)
As we've been saying, they could very well still finish last, but they are a much improved club. They are still struggling mightily on the defensive end, but the offense is making a lot of strides. When they don't turn the ball over (which has happened far too often), they are shooting the ball well, and showing some ability to get to the line. They are giving minutes to a lot of guys and seeing what sticks, and so far they are finding some things. Tyler Rawson has looked good, and fellow freshman James McGee has canned 14/25 threes. There are a lot more bright spots this year.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Eastern Washington Continues to Impress

With each passing week, sentiment grows that the Big Sky this year will be going through Cheney, WA. The latest evidence came last night, when Eastern Washington went on the road and beat a good San Francisco team... The Dons had beaten Montana by 19 last week. Earlier this week, EWU went and beat Seattle by 12 in Seattle (Montana beat Seattle by four).

The Eagles are now 8-1, with their lone loss coming on the road in a tight game to SMU (they are 6-3 and widely seen as a likely tournament team). Offensively, EWU has been dynamite, scoring 1.08 PPP against DI opponents, which is 30th in the nation. For comparison, Northern Colorado has been second best, scoring 1.03 PPP, good for 97th in the country.

Also against DI teams, the Eagles are shooting 56.7% on twos, and 40.3% from downtown, giving them a 58.4% effective field goal percentage, top ten in the country. They take care of the ball, and they have a ton of guys that can hurt you.

Venky Jois has become a good free throw shooter almost over night... he was 12/33 from the charity stripe to start the year, but is 23/27 from the line in his last three games. That would take away the biggest weakness of his offensive game, and he is certainly in the short discussion for best big men in the conference.

Tyler Harvey and Drew Brandon continue to excel in the backcourt as guys that do a little bit of everything. Harvey is an elite scorer with unlimited range, while Brandon is a nightly triple-double threat (to wit: he is in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate in the Big Sky, despite being the team's PG!)

Parker Kelly fills his role masterfully, as he is a lethal spot up shooter. Perhaps the best sign for EWU is the emergence of Ognjen Miljkovic in his sophomore year. The big man shoots 46% from downtown, and helps out on the interior with a 5.6% block rate. Against USF, he scored 20 points, hitting 4/7 from behind the arc. Again, he is their four man.

Eastern Washington is far from invincible... defensively, they have been much improved this year but they are not a lockdown D. They have a tough three game road stretch ahead, so it's possible that they could be 8-4 in a week's time, which would dull some of the enthusiasm. But they are an explosive offensive unit with a ton of skilled players and ways to hurt you. When they are on, they can put up 85 on anyone, and so far, it looks like they're going to do exactly that many times over this Big Sky season.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taking Stock of the Second Tier

As we enter mid-December, let's take another look at the pecking order of things right now. Up top, there is Eastern Washington, who has established itself as the early favorite for now. It feels similar to Northern Colorado last year... the upstart that looks ready to challenge for the title, so it will be interesting to see how things hold up. After that, I still think Weber State is second right now... despite their flaws and youth, they have so much talent that they'll be in the race.

But my interest today is those teams that sit behind those two, in the three through eight spots, where you could seemingly draw names out of a hat for an order right now. Let's take a look at those teams, not necessarily in any specific order.

- According to KenPom, Montana is actually the second best team in the conference right now, which would be a surprise to the coaches that picked them eighth before the year. They have been beat handily by good Colorado State and San Francisco teams on the road, and other than that have played very good basketball. The latest win was over a perennially good North Dakota State team, and they also took Boise State to OT and Cal to two OTs.

Their strength so far has actually come defensively, as they have done a good job of forcing turnovers, and (somewhat surprisingly) rebounding opponent misses. Martin Breunig has been a monster, shooting over 60%, rebounding on both ends, and blocking shots. The scary part is I don't really think their offense is clicking as well as expected yet - if that clicks and their defense continues to be solid, they will be in the Big Sky race.

- Another entrant into the race is Northern Colorado, who is behind only EWU in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency.  Against DI opponents, they have a top 20 turnover percentage, and they are shooting 57% on twos. While that is not sustainable, they are getting quality shots and they have the talent to continue to get them. They have nine guys that play at least 39.5% of the team's minutes, while only one guy plays over 60%, so they are tough to gameplan for because they can hurt you in a lot of ways. They still struggle defensively - and they have sent opponents to the line far too often - but if they can shore that up, they're a contender. Of course, they have struggled in that area the past few years, but they have enough offensive firepower to make some noise.

- Many people thought Portland State and Sacramento State would be right up there (including myself on Sac State), but both have been up and down. PSU has the opening win over USC, but they have been a bit uninspiring other than that, culminating in a 26 point road loss on Saturday to UC Riverside (who, coincedentally, is Sac State's lone inspiring win). The Vikings have struggled in stopping anyone this year - Their 1.07 PPP allowed is 328th in the country... They have to improve that if they want to be a serious contender.

Sac State is 4-3, but they haven't played that many meaningful games. The losses to Gonzaga and UC Irvine are understandable, but an 11 point loss to Abilene Christian could be a warning sign. Part of the optimism there was from the presumed improvement from Eric Stuteville, but he has struggled mightily so far in the post. They have the guards to compete, but so far, the frontcourt is again providing very little.

- Northern Arizona has played a tough slate with some difficult roadtrips, but I am sure internally they hoped to be a little better than 2-6. They have been a solid defensive team, but they've struggled to score, with just 0.95 PPP. They aren't getting to the FT line, and they aren't getting many easy buckets. Everyone benefited from Max Jacobsen last year, and while they have talented guys replacing him, they miss his offense early on. Newcomer Jaleni Neely is taking three-point specialist to a new level... he is a solid 40% from deep, but just 4/24 inside the arc.

- Idaho is another team that has the offensive firepower to compete, it's just a matter of whether or not they will get enough defensive. They have some nice wins over South Dakota State, UC Davis, and Washington State, though mixed in is a confusing home loss to Northern Kentucky. Guard Mike Scott continues to play like a POY candidate, excelling in all areas, while Connor Hill is heating up after a relatively slow start. They are a fun, fast paced team that is going to win a lot of Big Sky games, and their addition makes the conference better. Now, they just need to find a way to stop allowing easy baskets, as opponents are shooting over 55% on two-pointers against them.

How do you see the order of these teams?

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Monday, December 8, 2014

[VIDEO] Quinton Hooker Game-Winning Shot

Over the weekend, North Dakota took down Drake 63-62 for a nice road win. With under 10 seconds left, guard Quinton Hooker with a shot that I guess would best be classified as a runner, which gave UND the lead and eventually the win. Take a look for yourself.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Big Sky Freshmen to Watch

Now that we are close to ten games in for each team, let's take a look at some of the stars of tomorrow in the Big Sky - some of the freshmen who have been getting a good amount of playing time so far. In no particular order, a brief look at some of them...

- Bogdan Bliznyuk (Eastern Washington) - It's not easy getting minutes for a talented EWU team, but Bliznuk is playing about a quarter of the team's minutes. He is scoring about three points per game, but that has come from 7/11 FG overall and 3/3 from behind the arc, meaning he has been efficient. Against DI opponents, he is rebounding 15.9% of his team's available offensive misses, which is great. He will continue to struggle for minutes to the talent talent up front they have, but he looks like he will be a good player.

- Hayden Hunter (Weber State) - Playing decent minutews at PG, Hunter has had his ups and downs. He hasn't shown much of a scoring ability yet, scoring just seven points on the year despite playing double digit minutes in each contest. He looks like a playmaker, with a 24.3 Assist Rate against DI teams, but is turning the ball over way too much (almost twice per game). It will be interesting to watch his development, because WSU may need his ability to create for others this season.

- Fabijan Krslovic (Montana) - The true freshman has been starting and playing pretty good minutes for the Grizzlies. As a combo forward, he has been solid offensively, making 50% of his shots. He has been above average on the offensive glass, but needs to contribute more grabbing defensive rebounds. He has shown a knack for blocking some shots so far, with seven in six games.

- Arkadiy Mrkrtchyan (Idaho) - He started five games so far for the Vandals, but has struggle a bit. If you take out the opener against Eastern Oregon (where he had 18 and 8), he has shot 33% from the floor and struggled rebounding the basketball. He has also struggled a bit with fouls, including fouling out against NIU. He has shown some offensive pop overall, including ability from the outside. I would expect his minutes and production to ebb and flow, but it's always a good sign when a true freshman is playing as many minutes early as he is so far.

- Zach Green (Montana State) - He has struggled with his outside shot, hitting just one of nine threes so far on the year. Outside of their loss to Grand Canyon, he has struggled overall offensively, as he has just two field goals in the other six games. He has shown good ability as an offensive rebounder for a guard, and we will have to see if that holds. The good news for him is that he should continue to see 15+ minutes a game, because MSU will struggle this year, and his development will be important for the future.

- Tyler Rawson (Southern Utah) - Early on in the season, Rawson has probably been the best freshman who is playing minutes, as he gotten 20+ minutes in each game and been very productive with his time. He has made 15/21 two-pointers which is not sustainable, but the good news is that he has also been very good at getting to the line (though struggled once he got there), which is a positive development for his future. He has been out of this world as a defensive rebounder, with a rate that ranks in the top 15 in the country. He is also blocking shots well. Coming off the best game of his young career in the win against UTSA, SUU could have a future building block on its hands.

Anyone else that has caught your eye? I'll try to do this every few weeks during the year, since one of my favorite things about college basketball is seeing player's growth through the year and throughout their career. Hopefully these guys will continue to get minutes, and a few more will emerge as well!

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Big Sky 2015-16 Recruits

Now that fall signing has happened, it's finally time to get this page up. As always, this is every changing, and possibly will be outdated at times. Please let me know what I am missing, and I will get it fixed!

Rundowns of the early signing period recruits can be found here, here, and here.

Eastern Washington
- Michael Wearne (6'2'' G)
- Jesse Hunt (6'7'' F)
- Rico Nuno (6'7'' JUCO F)
- Ty Gibson (6'3'' G)

- Tyler Brimhall (6'4'' G)
- Henry Cornelious (6'5'' F)

Idaho State
- Ali Faruqbey (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Anthony Knight (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Gary Chivichyan (6'5'' G)

- Michael Oguine (6'1'' G)
- Jared Samuelson (6'7'' F)
- Walter Wright (5'10'' JUCO G)
- Bobby Moorehead (6'6'' F)

Montana State
- Tyler Hall (6'4'' G)
- Sam Neumann (6'6'' F)
- Mandrell Worthy (6'3'' G)
- Quinton Everett (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Nahjee Matlock (5'11'' G)
- Shikei Blake (6'7'' JUCO F)

North Dakota
- Drick Bernstine (6'8'' transfer F)
- Josh Collins (6'6'' F)
- Adam McDermott (6'4'' G)
- Cortez Seales (6'4'' G)

Northern Arizona
- Brady Twombly (6'5'' F)
- Majestic Tejada (6'1'' G)
- Corey Brown (6'8'' F)
- Junior Searcy (6'4'' G)
- Michael Green (5'11'' G)
- Isaiah Thomas (6'8'' F)

Northern Colorado
- Jordan Davis (6'2'' G)
- Miles Seward (6'3'' G)
- Dallas Anglin (6'2'' G) - transfer from Southern Miss
- Chaz Glotta (6'1'' G) - transfer from Southern Illinois

Portland State
- Torrian Epps (6'4'' JUCO G)
- Evan Garrison (5'10'' JUCO G)

Sacramento State
- Jeff Wu (6'2'' G)
- Joshua Patton (6'8'' F)

Southern Utah
- Will Joyce (6'6'' JUCO F)
- Nick Pete (6'8'' F)
- Brayden Holker (6'8'' F)

Weber State
- Emmanuel Nzekwesi (6'7'' F)
- Juwan Williams (6'4'' G)
- Jordan Dallas (6'10'' C)
- Riley Court (6'4'' G)
- McKay Cannon (6'1'' G) - returning from LDS mission
- Dusty Baker (6'5'' JUCO G)

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Recruiting Rundown: Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah, Weber State

For all of October and the first half of November, I was working on previewing the Big Sky, culminating in this long-winded diatribe about the conference. In this, I missed a lot of recruiting news. In a series of three posts over the next week or so, I will go through the teams and the recruits they have signed thus far, in alphabetical order.

Here is part 1 and part 2 of the rundown, so let's finish things up...

Portland State
The Vikings got one recruit as far as I can tell, signing 6'4'' guard Torrian Epps, a junior college guard who should have two seasons of eligibility left. He plays for Central Arizona College, and Coach Geving says he is "an athletic wing who is very good at getting to the basket and running the floor in transition." As a senior in high school, he shot 44% on threes, so he appears to be able to score all over.  PSU will be losing their top three guards after this year, so Epps will have the chance to play big minutes right away for the Vikings.

Sacramento State
The Hornets signed two in the early recruiting class, inking 6'2'' guard Jeff Wu along with 6'8'' forward Joshua Patton. Wu is originally from Taiwan, but moved to the USA before his sophomore year of high school. Due to transfer rules, he joined his team midway through last season, but shot 50% from the floor and 40% from downtown. He is in the mold of current guards Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, in that he can do everything a guard needs to do, in terms of being able to shoot well, handle the ball, and pass it. I am sure Coach Katz likes the dual guard approach where both guys are nominal PGs, and Wu should fit that.

In their press release, it was announced that Patton will redshirt next year. He averaged 11 and 9 last season, shooting 62% from the floor and setting a school record for blocks. His brother plays at Fresno State, so he certainly has bloodlines for success. It sounds like he needs to fill out physically (hence the redshirt year), but he is a long, athletic guy with a lot of upside.

Southern Utah
The Thunderbirds signed three guys - two that will be freshman and one JUCO player. The junior college player is forward Will Joyce, a 6'6'' guy for New Mexico Military Institute. As a freshman, he averaged eight points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He looks like a guy that will bring a lot of energy, athleticism, and rebounding prowess for SUU next year.

Nick Pete is a 6'8'' forward from California who averaged 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks per game last year.  He is a very good athlete that should be able to affect the game in many ways. Last is Brayden Holker, a 6'8'' forward from Utah who averaged 18.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game a season ago. He was a top ten prospect in the state of Utah, according to ESPN. SUU has done a lot to bolster their frontcourt... despite some struggles, Coach Robinson is bringing in some good players, and it is clear that better days are ahead for the Thunderbird program.

Weber State
The Wildcats have consistently recruited better athletes than the rest of the conference for the past couple years, and their class this year appears to be excellent once again. They signed four guys.

One is 6'7'' forward Emmaneul Nzekwesi, a three-star recruit out of Texas, where the Wildcats have established a nice pipeline. He averaged 19 and 11 next year, and is a powerful player in the post. He has played basketball for just four years, and should have tons of upside for the Wildcats. 6'5'' guard Juwan Williams is also out of Texas, and he averaged 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds a year ago. He joins guys like Richaud Gittens and Ryan Richardson from last recruiting class to add to what will be a very big, athletic backcourt in future years.

Jordan Dallas is a 6'10'' center from Long Beach who averaged 11 and 4 a season ago. He is a long and athletic player who play on the inside and outside. Rahe noted he needed to add some strength, so he should be a redshirt candidate next season. Last is 6'4'' guard Riley Court from Utah, who put up a nice stat line of 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game a year ago. He will likely serve an LDS mission before he enrolls at Weber State. Weber will also add McKay Cannon, who is returning from his LDS mission next year. He is a 6'1'' guard who had offers from other Big Sky schools when he originally signed.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Portland State's Bryce White Fakes Handshake, Steals Ball, Dunks

Missed this from yesterday... at the end of the Portland/Portland State game (which Portland won by 12), PSU's Bryce White faked a handshake, stole the ball, and got a late dunk. Video below.

Thanks to Deadspin for unearthing (that's where I saw it first).

I can understand frustration about losing, especially to a rival, cross-town school... but yikes. Sportsmanship doesn't get a whole lot worse than that.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Big Sky Notes

NOTE: This was written before all of Wednesday's games, which features an impressive Idaho win over Washington State on the road, a tough NAU loss to UTSA in OT, and a Montana loss in double OT to California.

It's been about a week since I've typed up some notes and observations from Big Sky play, so let's go back and take a look at some of the top storylines and things that have happened lately around the Big Sky.

- Jeremy Senglin for Weber State hit his second game-winner in a week, this time hitting a three with 2.4 seconds left to cap a late comeback win over Oral Roberts. Senglin told Brett Hein he thought the Wildcats were down three rather than two, which helps explain the shot selection. Video and quotes can be found here.

The fact that he may not have known the margin changes this storyline a little bit, but the shot and the possession brought up an interesting look at the process versus the outcome in how we should evaluate things. The shot was good because it went in and gave them the win, but the possession itself was not very good. Down two (again, this is complicated if he really thought it was a three point game), the possession was ugly, filled with a bunch of dribbling on the perimeter and then a long three attempt. He was bailed out in a sense by the shot going in, but overall it wasn't a great look.

The Wildcats are now 3-3 with a neutral court win over Nevada and home win against Oral Roberts, but the fact that they are a young team is still clear. The biggest issues seem to be taking care of the ball, and finding someone other than Joel Bolomboy to rebound the ball, but the talent is still evident. Still, while Senglin has struggled a bit adapting to the full-time ball handling role, Bolomboy has shown more assertiveness offensively (with mixed results), and maybe most importantly, Richaud Gittens looks like a star right now. Their future is very bright.

- Eastern Washington continues to win, as they're number 117 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and top 60 by the RPI. They have gotten absurd efficiency from their guards (Drew Brandon, Tyler Harvey, and Parker Kelly), while Venky Jois appears to have taken a big step forward. Offensively, they have been excellent. I think teams know how much they like to shoot threes, and that has given them good looks inside the arc, where they have been dynamite.

 Their next five games are on the road - Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, Sam Houston State, and California. We should find out during this stretch if their ceiling is that of a team that could be a major threat in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, or merely as the best team in the Big Sky. Either way, they have established themselves as the early favorites in the Big Sky with their play so far.

- Northern Colorado has been flying under the radar a bit, but they are a good team. While they have again shown some struggles defensively so far, they could be behind only EWU in terms of their offensive prowess. They have been excellent shooting the ball, as well as taking care of it. It could be partly due to the early schedule, but they look deep... only four teams in the country have given more minutes to their bench in DI games. They may not have a star, but they have a lot of good players.

- Sacramento State is 4-1, but I don't know that we've learned much from their games so sfar. One positive development for them is that Nick Hornsby is playing well early on, but that is mostly due to his unsustainable 12/18 FG. They should still be contenders, but there's not much new information on them.

- Kudos deserve to be given to Brian Fish who got the first win of his head coaching career in a 104-81 Montana State win over UT-Arlington. Kudos also to Southern Utah, who snapped a very long road losing streak with this shot from AJ Hess. In case you missed it, here it is again!

AJs 40 ft shot to for first season WIN at the Buzzer 93-92 from Barbara H Hess on Vimeo.

- Martin Breunig has been as good as advertised for Montana, shooting 20/29 on two-point FG against DI opponents, while showing great rebounding ability. Montana has mixed some good performances with puzzling ones, but Breunig still looks like a star.

- On Saturday, Northern Arizona lost a slobber knocker, 40-36, to North Carolina Central. It's not a good loss, but maybe not quite as bad as it sounds. UNCC plays at a snail's pace, and they have been pretty good defensively. At 2-5, the Jacks look like they could be one of the better defensive teams in the conference, but they are struggling a little bit defensively. Still, the 2-5 record basically means nothing, because they've played a very tough slate of opponents so far.

- On the whole, Idaho has been about what we expected - a team that looks like it will score a bunch of points, but not be able to stop anyone on the other end. Their defensive efficiency is #338 in the country... they haven't forced turnovers, and teams are shooting the ball very well against them. Still, there are positives. Mike Scott looks like the breakout senior player for the Vandals, shooting 12/21 from downtown while sporting a cool 26:2 assist to turnover ratio. Perrion Callandret has also started well, and I will have to eat some crow to an Idaho fan who emailed me about him if that continues.

Each week and each game provides some more data points, as the 5-7 games each team has played so far don't give us too much to go on. Things look to be as competitive as they promised to be before the year began. Anything else that you have noticed?

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recruiting Rundown: Montana State, North Dakota, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado

For all of October and the first half of November, I was working on previewing the Big Sky, culminating in this long-winded diatribe about the conference. In this, I missed a lot of recruiting news. In a series of three posts over the next week or so, I will go through the teams and the recruits they have signed thus far, in alphabetical order.

I started with Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, and Montana, so let's move on to the next four...

Montana State
I wrote a bit about their signees last month, but Brian Fish was very active in his first recruiting cycle for the Bobcats.

They signed 6'4'' guard Tyler Hall, a guy that can shoot the ball well and who Fish says has very high upside. He shot 35% from deep and seems to still be improving. He reportedly had more than a dozen DI offers. Another signee was 6'6'' forward Sam Neumann from St Paul. He can also fill it up, shooting 38% from three-point range last year and scoring 19 PPG. The other high school guy they signed was 6'3'' guard Mandrell Worthy, who averaged 23 points/6 rebounds/5 assists per game last year. He has done everything for his high school team, including playing four positions.

They also got a verbal commitment from 6'2'' JUCO guard Quinton Everett, He is another guy that shoots it well, and should handle the ball well also. From the recruits, Brian Fish's preference to play fast, and have multiple guuys that can handle the ball well and shoot it from the outside seems clear. So far, things are off to a good start on the recruiting trail.

North Dakota
Brian Jones was very busy in the early signing period, as UND signed four guys. One is a transfer from Denver named Drick Bernstine, a 6'8'' forward. He averaged 2.1 PPG and 2.4 RPG for Denver before transferring after the spring semester last year. He will have three years of eligibility left. Jones said he reminds him of Boris Diaw in that he can do everything on the court, and is very skilled. UND has been very active on the transfer market the past couple years, and they have another nice player in Bernstine.

Continuing their Minneapolis pipeline, they got 6'6'' Josh Collins, who plays for De LaSalle high school, a program that is always good. He is a very good athlete that should be able to guard multiple positions and fill in some different roles. 6'4'' Adam McDermott averaged over 16 PPG last year, and is a very good outside shooter. He is the nephew of Greg McDermott, so you know he has good basketball in his genes. Last is 6'4'' Cortez Seales, a combo guard who averaged 16.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 3.0 APG last year. He will be a versatile member of the backcourt who can finish at the rim, which should be a good complement to McDermott.

It's an impressive four man group for North Dakota.

Northern Arizona
The Jacks have been one of the best recruiting teams in the conference, and that continues this year. They signed five guys in the early recruiting period. One is 6'5'' forward Brady Twombly, who Murphy says brings "very good size on the wing and he is a proven shooter." He is from California.

In addition to Twombly, NAU got a whopping four guys from Florida. Majestic Tejada is a 6'1'' guard that was their first commit. He looks to be a true PG that looks to get his teammates involved first before looking for his own shot. Corey Brown is a 6'8'' forward who is teammates with Tejada who is an excellent athlete and rebounder, as he averaged nine boards per game. You have to think they were excited about getting guys who were high school and AAU teammates.

Junior Searcy is a 6'4'' guard that is a skilled scorer. He is a combo guard who averaged 22 and 6 last year, with coaches having great things to say about his work ethic. Last is 5'11'' guard Michael Green, and the quotes about him show he is an explosive guard that can play on both ends of the court. The press release calls the group the "Florida Four," and they look like big-time building blocks for an NAU program that is constantly improving.

Northern Colorado
The Bears got two guys in the early signing period, with the first being 6'2'' guard Jordan Davis from Las Vegas. He averaged 17 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds last year. He originally committed to Eastern Washington, but de-committed and re-opened his recruitment. He also had offers from Northern Arizona and Hawaii, and looks like a good get for BJ Hill and staff. He was the primary ballhandler of his high school team last year, and is solid attacking the rim. They also signed 6'3'' guard Miles Seward out of Canada, who averaged 17 PPG last year. He is a good shooter that will help in the backcourt.

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