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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