Saturday, February 28, 2015

Northern Colorado Beats Northern Arizona In Thriller

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the battle between Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona in Greeley on Saturday, as the Bears got the 76-74 win to essentially knock the Lumberjacks out of a chance for the Big Sky title.

It was a back and forth game that saw 13 lead changes, with the largest lead being just seven points. It came down to the end of the game, as NAU clung to a 73-72 lead when Tevin Svihovec drove to the paint, and a 50/50 call resulted in Jordyn Martin being called for the blocking foul. Svihovec made both free throws with just 6.9 seconds left. After an NAU turnover, Tim Huskisson made a pair of FTs, which gave UNC the 76-73 lead.

Of course, there was more wackiness to come... Ako Kaluna got the ball for the Jacks, and he was fouled trying to throw up a heave from halfcourt, giving him three freebies. However, he missed the first, and NAU couldn't corral his intentional miss on the third free throw, giving the Bears the win.

Northern Colorado was led by strong play from the seniors. Tevin Svihovec finished with 20 points, and he bookened things for UNC. He started with 7 of their first 9 points, and then he got a lot of big buckets down the stretch. The other star was Tim Huskisson, who finished with 18 points (12 in the second half) and 7 rebounds. He had several buckets down the stretch, where he was able to use his quickness to get to the basket.

After the game, Coach Murphy said the key was the rebounding, as UNC was able to consistently get second chances. They had 14 offensive boards (in fairness, so did NAU), including four from Huskisson. The other key for their win was that they took good care of the ball - five turnovers in the game, with none in the second half.

For the Jacks, Kris Yanku was his usual excellent self. He finished with 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. UNC coach BJ Hill said they had a bit of trouble with his size, as he was able to get into the paint almost at will at times. He plays with such great pace, and an understanding of angles. He's also got, for my money, the best vision in the conference. I think he's going to the best conference POY by in his senior year.

NAU falls to 11-5 in the Big Sky, and their most likely landing spot is fourth. UNC moves to 9-8, and if they win their finale against North Dakota, they have a good chance of finishing fifth. That could set up a rematch between these two teams in the Big Sky tournament (which would also be a rematch of last year's tournament opener). As fans, we'd be pretty lucky to see another battle between these two teams, because it sure was a fun game tonight.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, February 27, 2015

Idaho Outlasts Montana in Double OT

There were four games last night, but the most interesting both on the court and off the court (with its ramifications) was Idaho's double OT win over Montana.

Travis DeCuire had to be having flashbacks to Sacramento, because this one played out in a similar fashion. In that game, Montana had a 97.0% win probability with 3:03 to play. Against Idaho, they had a 97.2% win probability with 3:24 left, and found a way to lose once again.

The Grizzlies were in control much of the way, but the Vandals went on a 10-1 run to close out regulation, sending the game to OT when Mike Scott hit two free throws with 1.7 seconds left. In the first OT, it was Montana who needed the heroics, as a late Jordan Gregory three tied the game up to give us more free basketball. But in the second OT, Idaho's offense could not be stopped, as they scored 22 points in that five minute session to get the win.

There are no shortage of guys that played well for Idaho, but a guy that really stuck out to me was freshman Arkadiy Mkrtychyan. He finished with 15 points (including 9/10 FT), and had 6 rebounds. It's not the best stat line on the team, but he impresses with his nose for the ball, and ability to make big plays at big moments. In regulation, Bira Seck got fouled down 3, and shot the 1-and-1. He missed the front end, but Ark got the offensive board, got fouled, and then hit both free throws. That is a huge play for anyone, let alone a freshman.

Jordan Gregory led the way for the Grizzlies with 36 points, but he did miss a big free throw down the stretch. With Montana up 3 and about 15 seconds left in the second half, he missed the front end of a 1-and-1, keeping the Vandals alive. Still, overall, he was sensational, carrying the offense. Martin Breunig fouled out, which is somewhat of a theme for him... he is outstanding, but often finds himself in foul trouble.

With the win, Idaho should be all but into the tournament, and of course they have shown with their play against top teams this year that they will be very dangerous. The win officially knocks Montana State out of the tournament, with Idaho State and North Dakota on life support. It also dampens Southern Utah's hopes a bit, after their loss to Northern Colorado.

For Montana, they almost certainly won't be hosting the Big Sky tournament. How you feel about them beyond that is probably open to interpretation. On the one hand, you can read into it that they can't hold onto leads, and struggle at the end of close games. Personally, I find them to be just as dangerous today as they seemed to be yesterday. They struggled in close games... but they also went on the road and had two good teams (Sac State and Idaho) on the ropes. They aren't likely to make those same mistakes again.

It's going to be a great Big Sky tournament.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thursday Night Predictions

Four games on tap Thursday night, and we know the importance of games on the title race, and on the race to make the conference tournament. Let's take a look.

Montana @ Idaho
This is a huge game for many reasons. For one, with a loss, Idaho suddenly finds itself right on the bubble for the last conference tourney spot. For Montana, the implications are obvious, if they win this, it sets up a huge game on Saturday in Cheney. In these teams first meeting in Missoula, the Grizzlies limited the Vandals to just 0.90 PPP, as Idaho wasn't able to get free for any outside looks. That will be key, because of Idaho's offense is generated via the three-point shot (about 36% of their points come via it). Since this is in Moscow, it will be a battle, but Montana is just playing better basketball right now. I expect this one to be close, but I trust the Grizzlies to pull it out. Montana 73, Idaho 70

Montana State @ Eastern Washington
In some sense, this could be a trap game for the Eagles, because they play Montana on Saturday, and because MSU has been playing pretty solidly as of late. However, I don't think it will play out that way for a few reasons. For one, it's in Cheney, and that should help. Two, the Eagles know how important every game is for the title hopes. Three, they haven't been playing great basketball the last couple of weeks, so they know how susceptible they are. I think they handle this game fairly easily. Eastern Washington 79, Montana State 70

Northern Arizona @ North Dakota
NAU knows it still has a chance to win the conference crown, but a tough two-game roadtrip begins in Grand Forks. The Jacks shooting can come and go, but their best attribute offensively is their ability to crash the offensive glass, which is something UND has to watch for. But the story of this game, I think, will be on the other end, where NAU should be able to suffocate UND, not given them any second chances, and restrict opportunities in the paint. That is why I like the Jacks in this game. Northern Arizona 66, North Dakota 61

Southern Utah @ Northern Colorado
A win for SUU would put them in a tie with Weber State (and possibly Idaho) for the final tournament spot, so the stakes are quite clear for them. They go against a UNC team that is struggling badly right now, but always plays a lot better at home. This should be a fun game. The TBirds love to put you on the foul line, but drawing fouls and getting to the line isn't necessarily a strength for UNC. The game is most interesting if only because we never know what we'll see from UNC. However,  I think the desperation of playing at home, being under .500  in Big Sky play, and having lost four straight games will help. Northern Colorado 81, Southern Utah 74

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Conference Title Race

We have two weeks left in the season, and each team has either three or four games left to play. As things are looking, we have a great race at the top of the Big Sky, with four teams having legitimate chances for the conference title. The standings are as follows:

Montana 12-3
Sacramento State 12-3
Eastern Washington 11-3
Northern Arizona 10-4

Let's break things down a few different ways to see how things might shake out when all is said and done.

The Numbers:
When it comes to numbers, KenPom is my go to, and I use the site all the time. Currently, his methodology rates EWU as the best team of the group (144th best team in the country), and projects them to finish 14-4. He has Montana as the second best team (161st best in the nation), and has them at 13-5. The ratings actually show NAU as being a slightly better team than Sac State, but has the Hornets finishing 13-5 and the Lumberjacks at 12-6.

The only issue I have with these rankings is that they go based on the whole season, and lately, EWU has not looked as good as they did earlier in the year. I think they have the highest ceiling of any of these four teams, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will be the team to win the conference.

Here are the points per possession for and against during conference play (interpret how you will):

- Eastern Washington - 1.151 PPP (2nd in Big Sky), 1.09 PPP allowed (7th)
- Sacramento State - 1.152 PPP (1st), 1.09 PPP allowed (8th)
- Montana - 1.11 PPP (6th), 0.98 PPP allowed (1st)
- Northern Arizona - 1.08 PPP (7th), 1.01 PPP allowed (2nd)

For reference, the best offense in the country (Wisconsin) has an AdjO of 1.24 PPP, while the best defense in the country (Virginia) is alloweing 0.84 PPP.

The Schedules:
Here is the remaining schedules for the teams:

- Montana - at Idaho, at Eastern Washington, at Montana State
- Sacramento State - at Portland State, at Northern Arizona, at Southern Utah
- Eastern Washington - Montana State, Montana, at Idaho State, at Weber State
- Northern Arizona - at North Dakota, at Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State

Of those four schedules, I'd want EWU's the most, since they have two home games, and then two road games against more winnable competition. Both Montana and Sac State finish with three road games (of the two, I'd rather have Sac State's schedule, but neither is easy). NAU doesn't have a particularly easy slate either. as UND and UNC are both tough places to win, and obviously both of their homes games are against top 5 teams.

Head to Head:
Head to head is the first tiebreaker... At this point in the year, I'm not going to compare the secondary tiebreakers, because there is too much that can change since a lot of them depend on who else you lose to, and where they fall in the standings. That analysis will come at a later date. For now, let's look at how these teams have performed against each other.

- Montana - 1-0 vs NAU, 0-1 vs Sac State, 0-1 vs EWU with a game remaining
- Sac State - 1-1 vs EWU, 1-0 vs Montana, 1-0 vs NAU with a game remaining
- Eastern Washington - 1-1 vs Sac State, 0-1 vs NAU, 1-0 vs Montana with a game remaining
- Northern Arizona - 1-0 vs EWU, 0-1 vs Montana, 0-1 vs Sac State with a game remaining

It's hard to tell who things favor, because it just depends on who you are tied up with. This isn't necessarily useful for now, but something to keep an eye on, or if you are a fan of one of the teams, you know who you might want to root for more than others (for example, a Sac State fan would rather be tied with Montana than EWU, since you know you win the tiebreaker against them).

My Thoughts:
While Northern Arizona would be a great story, they are unlikely to win it since they are a loss behind everyone else. They need to win out, and while that is possible, I wouldn't call it likely.

Eastern Washington is a game behind the other two teams in the win column, but they should get to that 12th win on Thursday when they host Montana State. From there, I think they are the best bet to win the title, because all of their games are wins on paper. Montana will likely be favored to lose to EWU, and their game at Idaho is probably about a pick'em. Meanwhile, Sac State will probably be favored to lose at NAU, and their game at PSU is probably about a pick'em.

So, add it all up, and I like Eastern Washington as the most likely host of the Big Sky tournament, followed by Sacramento State, and then Montana, and then Northern Arizona.

Of course, all four of these teams have a very real chance, which will make it a fun race down the stretch? What does everyone else think?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Sunday, February 22, 2015

All Home Teams Win on Saturday Night

Now that we are down to the final few weeks of the season, every game seems to have big implications on the Big Sky. There is the race for the top seed (which we'll look at in more depth later this week), and there is also an interesting race brewing for the final tournament spot. On Saturday, there were six games, and the home team won them all. Here are the scores:

Northern Arizona 73, Eastern Washington 69
Montana 74, Weber State 63
Sacramento State 74, North Dakota 66
Portland State 91, Northern Colorado 75
Southern Utah 79, Idaho 77 (OT)
Montana State 67, Idaho State 53

Some notes and observations:

- Idaho is an interesting team, because they have shown they can beat anyone in the Big Sky, but they can also look so flat at times. They led Southern Utah by 10 midway through the first half, and led by three at the break. Then they came out lifeless in the second half, and trailed by 10 with about five minutes to go. They turned it on at that point, eventually sending the game to OT, but the Thunderbirds recovered for the key win. It's hard to know what team to expect.

- Southern Utah still has a chance to make the final tournament spot (they are 5-9, while Weber State is 6-9 in eighth place), but either way, they are an interesting team. They play so many guys, and their youth was evident at times (especially down the stretch), but they always play hard, and they are certainly getting better. James McGee is a real keeper at guard, and guys like Trey Kennedy, Juwan Major, John Marshall, and Race Parsons all made key plays. I still don't love their chances to go to the Big Sky tourney this year, but pencil them in for next year.

- Montana doesn't do anything flashy, but they continue to pile up wins, now five in a row. They got off to a slow start, but controlled the game from late in the first half on. They are playing a shell of the Weber State team we thought we'd see, but they have a lot of balance. One key for them is that Mike Weisner has struggled a bit in his senior year, but he is showing good signs the last couple of games. Earlier this month I wrote that the Grizzlies are a contender, and it is more true than I even expected. They finish up with three road games (including at Idaho and EWU), but they've been playing better than anyone lately. KenPom now has Martin Breunig rated as the best player in the Big Sky so far this season.

- Sac State didn't get any style points for their win over UND, but at this point in the year, it's all about winning. Cody Demps seems to get better every game - after putting up a stat line of 8 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists, he threw up a 9:0 assist to turnover ratio on Saturday. Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity get a ton of credit, and rightfully so, but Demps is one of the most improved guys in the Big Sky. He is a great glue guy.

- The loss dropped North Dakota to 4-11. Two of their final three games are at home, but it's probably safe to count them out. Ditto for Idaho State, who dropped to 3-12 with a loss to Montana State. Speaking of the Bobcats, it's almost definitely too little too late, but they have won three of four, and are showing some fight. Their schedule is brutal down the stretch (and they would have to run the table), but they are showing the potential of what they can be under Brian Fish.

- Tyler Harvey has had a nightmare three games since returning from his thigh injury, adding a 6/19 stat line on Saturday. I have nothing to suggest it's anything but a standard shooting slump (he played all 40 on Saturday, so I don't think health is an issue), but hopefully he gets back on track. The Eagles need him.

- I wrote about NAU in December and how they are a good team, and they have done a good job of making me look somewhat prescient lately, At 10-4, they have won 7 of 8, and they are still in the race for the title. We know about their defense (they are second in the Big Sky behind Montana), but the offense has come alive a bit more during their hot stretch. On Saturday, they beat EWU even though Quinton Upshur was held to four points. Their big men have been playing well lately, Aaseem Dixon is shooting the ball well, and Kris Yanku is doing a bit of everything for them. They are a very solid team.

- Last, Portland State ran all over Northern Colorado, and now own the fifth seed. They won 91-75, thanks to 51 second half points. Plus, they did it without Braxton Tucker, who left the game early with an injury. Everything that you can possibly do well offensively, they did - from shooting the ball well, getting good shots (sometimes it looked like a layup line), rebounding, and taking care of the ball. It was an all-around offensive effort.

- Northern Colorado is in freefall mode with now, as they've lost four straight games, and now rank 348 out of 351 teams in KenPom's adjusted defensive ratings. It is somewhat mirroring last year, where a solid start was undone when they stopped playing any semblance of defense midway through the year. They have three home games left, and the talent to be a threat to good teams in the Big Sky tournament, but at this point, it's not clear if they care enough on the defensive end to get it done.

Any other thoughts from Saturday or on the Big Sky in general?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, February 20, 2015

Don Verlin and Assistant Coach Get Into Heated Exchange on Sideline

Last night during the Idaho/NAU game, Don Verlin and assistant coach Chris Helbling got into a heated exchange that ended with Verlin sending the coach back to the locker room, and reportedly having jim kicked off the team bus as well.

The video can be found here.

Not exactly a great look for Idaho or Coach Verlin. I'll update if there are any more details on the story.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday Recap - Two Things We Learned

We had six games last night, and there were not a lot of surprises. Unlike the craziness of last week's games, all of the higher ranked teams won, creating a little more clarity in the Big Sky picture. Here are the two things it seems we can be more certain of as we approach the stretch run.

1) The top four seeds identities are more or less set
Now, we don't know the order that they will be in, but I think we can be pretty confident in surmising that the current four teams at the top of the Big Sky, will be the four teams in the top at the end of the year. Here are the standings as of today:

Eastern Washington 11-2
Sacramento State 11-3
Montana 11-3
Northern Arizona 9-4

With the way that EWU has been playing lately, it's safe to say that the race for the top seed is wide open (though they are still the favorite for now). Lately, Montana has been playing every bit as good as the Eagles, and the Hornets always loom with their elite guard play. The race should be very good down the stretch.

Behind these four, it's conceivable that any of Idaho, Northern Colorado, or Portland State could jump in the fray... but with each having at least seven losses, it's unlikely.

2) Weber State has come close to locking down a tournament spot
Heading into last night, things were wide open. If Montana State had beaten Weber State, and North Dakota and Southern Utah won their games, there would have been three teams with five losses, and then the Bobcats right behind at four wins. (ISU could have joined the conversation too if they had beaten Montana).

Instead, everything that could have gone right for Weber State. They held on to beat MSU. Then, EWU held off SUU. PSU controlled the game to take down North Dakota. Montana took down Idaho State.

In all, Weber State is now in eighth at 6-8, while the Thunderbirds fall to 4-9. North Dakota has 4 wins, but at 10 losses and a tough schedule, their hopes appear bleak. Southern Utah has the best chance to catch the Wildcats, but they are now two wins behind. It was a good night for Weber State.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Big Sky's Best Newcomers

As is often the case, a list of the best newcomers in the Big Sky is riddled with transfers and junior college guys rather than freshman, and that is the case (for the most part) here. While a couple of the freshmen deserve inclusion here (and if you want more talk about the freshmen, check here), a lot of this list will be guys that came into the Big Sky with some experience already.

By my count, there are four guys that really deserve consideration to be the Newcomer of the Year. In no particular order, here they are:

- Martin Breunig (Montana) - Before the year, I was told Breunig would be the best big man in the conference, and with Joel Bolomboy's numbers down a bit, and Venky Jois battling injury problems, that has proven prophetic. Breunig has been a scorer in the post, shooting nearly 60% on two-pointers, on a lot of attempts. He has also been beastly on the boards, with a 9.9 OR% and 19.9 DR%, both top 7 numbers in the Big Sky. The only thing that has held him back is a propensity to get into foul trouble. However, when he's on the court, he's outstanding. At this point, he is certainly the frontrunner for the award.

- Cameron Michael (Northern Colorado) - UNC coaches told me how excited they were when Michael decided to transfer, and he has been everything they could have hoped for in his first year in Greeley. He has been a great shooter, at over 41% from downtown. He is not just a shooter though, as he takes almost five shots a game inside the arc, where he is also efficient. He takes care of the ball as well. He is just a really good player for them.

- Tiegbe Bamba (Portland State) - His long awaited debut for the Vikings was worth the weight, as he has been a steady frontcourt presence for them this season. On two-pointers, he is shooting almost 63% (he has taken 27 threes, but at least made 9 of them), and he's been a solid rebounder on both ends of the court. He turns it over a little more than you'd like for a big man, but he has helped bring stability to the frontcourt which the Viks didn't have last year.

- Braxton Tucker (Portland State) - The other new equation in the PSU front line is Tucker, who has been very solid as well. Like Bamba, he is an efficient scorer, who has been better at creating his own shot than Bamba has. He is very solid on the offensive glass, sporting a top 10 offensive rebound rate in the conference.

Honorable Mention:
- Ben Wilson (Idaho State) - Wilson is getting a lot of minutes for the Bengals, and can do some nice things. At 6'6'', he has the length to be disruptive in the zone defense, especially up top. He has also been a relatively solid playmaker, with an Assist Rate over 21%. He's not really a scorer, and he's not a natural PG, but has played there most of the year out of necessity.
- Estan Tyler (North Dakota) - Tyler is talented, and his role seems to have grown as the year has gone on. Still, he's been a little inefficient shooting the ball, and turns it over more than you'd like. He's a good shooter, and his numbers are probably hampered a little bit by a lack of a lot of other offensive options for defenses to focus on.
- Bogdan Bliznyuk (Eastern Washington) - Bliznyuk has slowed a little the past week, but he is still a diverse scorer that will be a big factor in EWU's tournament run. The Eagles have a future offensive star on their hands, and a guy that could win a scoring title in the conference at some point.
- Arkadiy Mkrtchyan (Idaho) - You don't always hear a lot about Ark, but he's a really good player for them that does a lot of little things. He doesn't shoot a lot, but he's efficient when he does. He's also a really good rebounder on both ends, and above average at drawing fouls. He could be a future star for the Vandals.

Thoughts? Anyone I missed? Who is the best among the group?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, February 16, 2015

Big Sky Weekend Storylines

Saturday night was another wild night in the Big Sky, so let's get to the storylines.

Eastern Washington and Sacramento State Lose
On Thursday, all of the bottom three teams won their games, so the only logical way to follow that up was to have the league's top two teams lose!

Sacramento State's loss to Idaho was fairly predictable, given that the game was in Moscow, and Idaho almost beat the Hornets earlier this year, and almost beat EWU twice. The Hornets actually led the game by three with 8:28 left, but the Vandals outsocred them 21-7 the rest of the way. Sac State never got on track offensively, shooting just 5/23 from downtown and attempting only 8 free throws. Meanwhile, Idaho was a scorching 23/34 on two-pointers, making up for the fact that they didn't hit from deep and struggled at the foul line. The loss moves the Hornets into a tie with Montana at 10-3, while Idaho is 6-6 and back to looking like a team that is a tournament darkhorse.

Eastern Washington's loss to Portland State was a little more confounding, even accounting for the fact that Venky Jois missed the game. The Eagles got off to a hot start, leading 24-12 over midway through the first half, but a big run early in the second half for PSU gave them the lead and eventually the win. The Eagles can be so reliant on the three-point shot (especially when Jois isn't playing), and that did them in here, as they were 7/25 from deep (Tyler Harvey was just 2/12). The Vikings got big performances by guys like Braxton Tucker and DaShaun Wiggins, moving the Vikings to 6-7, and a spot where they should probably feel comfortable in the Big Sky race. EWU got a reprieve due to the Sac State loss, but a 2-game cushion would have been awfully nice for a team that has struggled with depth and injuries.

The Second Tier is Solidified
For a while, Northern Colorado looked like they could crash the party of the top four teams, but that seems unlikely today. They lost a heartbreaker in triple OT to Montana, though there was a little bit of controversy with the final call of the game. The Bears never led in regulation (and trailed by as many as 15), but then led by 3 with 12 seconds left in double OT, before Montana got three attempts to tie it, as Brandon Gfeller hit the game-tying shot at the buzzer to send it to triple OT.

It's a tough homestand for the Bears, who came into it at 7-4 with an eye on third place, and leave at 7-6. Against Montana, they did some things well though, battling back from a big deficit, and holding the Grizzlies to 1.08 PPP. The Grizzlies will surely take it as well - Greeley is always a tough place to go into and get a win, and their win coupled with Sac State's loss puts them back into the Big Sky picture at 10-3.

Northern Arizona struggled in a loss to Idaho State Thursday, but they bounced back and added to Weber State's misery, handing the Wildcats another home loss. It was not a very pretty game - NAU led 24-15 at the half, but the Jacks will take a big road win. Kris Yanku and Quinton Upshur led the way 37 points in the 61-54 win, which moves the Jacks to 8-4 in the Big Sky.With four home games left, a run for a top 3 spot is certainly not out of the question.

Weber State and Southern Utah Will Battle For Final Tourney Spot
We can almost stick a fork in North Dakota, after a 80-78 home loss to Montana State drops them to 4-9 in the Big Sky. With their remaining schedule, their tourney hopes appear to be slim. (Meanwhile, let's sit back and gives congrats to the Bobcats... who entered a roadtrip at 1-10 and played just as hard as if they were competing for a conference title, winning both games. Great job by them,)

We talked briefly about 5-8 Weber State, but not the worst part - starting guard Jeremy Senglin has a broken jaw and will miss four weeks. They struggled to generate offense even with him, and they showed how big of a struggle things will be when they scored just 0.84 PPP on Saturday. Joel Bolomboy was a star (23 and 15), but the Wildcats need Richaud Gittens to step up, and he struggled badly on Saturday night. We might see Hayden Hunter in the lineup at some point, as the freshman has showed some ability to create shots for others, but it's not clear he's ready to contribute in that big of a role.

For the first time, their spot in the tournament appears tenuous in part because Southern Utah was able to go and get another road win, beating Idaho State 71-67 to move to 4-9. The TBirds were 13/23 from downtown, and their shooting continues to put them in ballgames even when they struggle in other areas. They are a game behind Weber State, but they hold the tiebreaker since they beat them twice. They have four home games left (two road), but those four are against EWU, Idaho, Sac State, and Portland State... not exactly an easy slate.

SOMEONE will have to claim the final tournament spot, but at this point, it's hard to say who. We have to give Weber State the edge, simply because they have 5 wins, but they look capable of losing to anyone. SUU and North Dakota are right behind at 4 wins, but they don't have particularly easy schedules or trustworthy resumes. At this point, it looks like 7 wins will probably get you into the tournament, and you may even have a chance with 6. It's pretty ugly at the bottom.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Wonky Big Sky Thursday Night

First, the good news... my rec league basketball team took home the title last night! Haha. With that out of the way, let's take a look at the Big Sky.

First, just a quick note on the two games that went more or less according to what would be expected. Connor Hill went 8/9 from downtown as Idaho overwhelmed Portland State for the 87-76 home win. The Vandals are now 5-6 and in good shape.

The other was Montana getting a tight road win over North Dakota. It's always tough to win in Grand Forks, and so Montana having to grind out a close win is not a surprise. The Grizzlies are solidly in third at 9-3, while UND is 4-8, but only a game out of the conference tournament final spot.

The rest of the games featured Eastern Washington beating Sacramento State in a bit of a different style of game than expected, and then the bottom three teams all winning!

We expected a high scoring game between the Eagles and Hornets, but that's not what happened. The first surprise was that Tyler Harvey was unable to play, as he was reported to be "probable" earlier in the day. Without him, the Eagles led a defensive battle, eventually going up 58-42 with 7:01 to play, with the game looking well in hand. The Hornets have trailed late several times this year (as I've documented in the past), but this time, they weren't quite able to overcome. They went on a 19-6 run over those last seven minutes, but the Eagles were able to hang on for dear life, and move to 10-1 and take the Big Sky lead.

In the first meeting, the Hornets got everything inside the paint, shooting 24/36 there. This time, they were just 14/36 from two-point range, and the Eagles blocked 13 shots, including 5 from reserve forward Garrett Moon. The Eagles didn't play particularly well offensively - they turned it over an uncharacteristic 17 times, and couldn't get anything inside - but were saved by shooting 12/23 from downtown. Still, without their best player, the Eagles will take it.

[Sidenote: Here is the comment that Jim Hayford had about Harvey after the game, and it seems like the right strategy]

“He probably could have gone tonight, but when you are in the Big Sky you need to be your best in the Big Sky Tournament. I don’t want this injury to get aggravated, so it is something he has taken with him the whole month. He is like, ‘hey coach I am playing Saturday’. So we will see how he responds after yesterday’s practice, but I am going to err on the side of patience with such a special player. When we really need him is if we are fortunate enough to play those three games in March.”
Hopefully he will be back soon, especially because Sir Washington is done for the year after suffering a knee injury. We wish him a speedy and full recovery.


One of the shockers was seeing Southern Utah go into Ogden and beat Weber State, a sentence that would have been unthinkable before the season. The Wildcats were ice cold offensively, as the TBirds held them to 0.82 PPP. The Wildcats were 11/32 inside the arc, and 5/26 behind it. Joel Bolomboy was held to just two points. They played more than well enough defensively to win, but the answers on offense are few and far between.

Southern Utah's win at least keeps their hopes alive for the Big Sky tournament... At 3-8, they are 1.5 games out of the final spot. At the very least, it's another positive experience for a young team - their first road Big Sky conference win in over two calendar years. The odds are still long for this year, but they are building a team that will be deep and experienced next season.


The other shocker in terms of a team going on the road and winning was Montana State going into Greeley and beating Northern Colorado, 90-87. The Bears are always tough to beat at home, and this year, the Bobcats have had trouble beating anyone, anywhere. The MSU got off to a great start, and led by as many as 19 (37-18) late in the first half. UNC crawled back to cut the lead to 40-34 at the break, but the Bobcats just never let their foot off the gas pedal.

Mike Dison led the way with 23 points (on 10/15 FG), while Stephen Holm had 18, and Marcus Colbert had 13. Five other guys had at least six points. As a team, the Bobcats were 22/38 inside the arc, shot 24 free throws, and dominated the offensive glass (in fairness, UNC grabbed plenty of offensive boards themselves).

It's a missed opportunity for the Bears... anytime you score 87 points on 1.24 PPP at home, you should win that game. The fact that it came against the last place Bobcats will make it even harder to swallow. In the big picture, it doesn't really change anything... We already knew MSU was a tough team to play because they play hard, and have nothing to lose. The Bears are still 7-5, and I don't think they'll be in danger of missing the Big Sky tournament. But if they drop a couple more games like this, it could have implications later on.


Last, Idaho State let out all of their offensive frustrations on Northern Arizona, getting an 80-66 home win over the third place Jacks. ISU was led by Chris Hansen, who was 2/10 on two point shots, and still somehow finished with 24 points. As a team, the Bengals took smart shots, took care of the basketball, and made the looks they did get.

The Lumberjacks were just 8/29 from downtown, as Aaseem Dixon and Quinton Upshur combined to shoot 5/19 from deep. Kris Yanku had 7 turnovers. They usually need two of those three guys to be on their game (when all three are, they can beat anyone), and in this one, they all struggled a bit. NAU is still solidly in fourth at 7-4, but it's still a tough game to drop.

However, we have to be happy for the Bengals and Bill Evans, who get some good feelings after what has been a long season.

Anything else I missed?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sac State at Eastern Washington Preview

With the matchup between the two one loss teams on tap, let's get a little better preview of that game than we normally give for regular season games! As pal Brett Hein lays out, this is a huge game for both teams:

Now, I know there's a chance that Tyler Harvey won't play. He is questionable for the game, and he missed both games last weekend.

First Matchup: In the first meeting between these teams, Sac State won 90-77 at home, though it must be noted that Venky Jois missed that game due to injury. In his absence, the Hornets were able to get anything they wanted inside, as they shot 24/36 on two-point shots (Note: Even accounting for no Jois, that is an incredible impressive number... you just shouldn't be able to shoot that well, and the Hornets did). They were also 7/13 from downtown, with sophomore Dreon Bartlett going 4/4 from deep - the only game this year he scored in double figures.

EWU was OK offensively, scoring 1.10 PPP which is a good mark, but below what they've been used to this Big Sky season. The Hornets did a good job contesting from deep, as EWU was just 9/27 from downtown. The game was tied at the half, but the Hornets took control early in the second half and never looked back.

Keys for Sac State: Even with Jois back and healthy, it will be tough for the Eagles to slow down Sac State. Mikh McKinney had 12 assists (and six steals in the first game), and you don't need me to tell you how good he is. Dylan Garrity has also been very good lately, scoring in double figures in each of the last four games. He draws so much attention from defenses with his shooting ability. We know what the Hornets have in those two guys, and they will bring it.

A key for them is the secondary guys. Chief among them is Cody Demps, one of the more improved players in the conference this year. He scored a very efficient 22 points in the first meeting, a career high for him. It's not reasonable to expect that again, but it would be important for him to reach double figures. The other three guys that can reach that mark are Eric Stuteville, Nick Hornsby, and Zach Mills. The Eagles have been susceptible to teams that can rebound the ball offensively, which could bode well for Stuteville and his 10.2% OR Rate (Alex Tiffin could loom large too, as he is also very good on the offensive glass). Getting a few cheap baskets would be a big thing for a road win.

Overall, however, we know Sac State will get buckets. The biggest key will be slowing down the Eagles, which can put up points even if Harvey is unable to go. The Hornets are third in the Big Sky forcing turnovers in conference play, but nobody takes care of the ball better than the Eagles. One reason for hope is that the Hornets have generally played good perimeter defense, holding opponents to 36% shooting from downtown in Big Sky play, second in the league. That helped them win the first meeting (when EWU was 9/27), and will be a big stat in determining if they win this one.

Keys for Eastern Washington: In the first meeting, as mentioned, Sac State dominated offensively, scoring 1.29 PPP and getting anything they wanted. The Eagles hope that the return of Jois (one of the best shot blockers in the conference) will help there. For their many defensive struggles, one area of relative strength is that teams don't shoot too well at the rim against them. Though the Hornets have capable shooters (they are shooting an absurd 46.5% from deep in BSC play), the Eagles can't allow guards like McKinney to penetrate and either dish or get to the rim for an easy basket. The biggest key for them will be slowing down Mikh McKinney, and the myriad of ways he can hurt you.

Offensively, shots have to fall. Tyler Harvey is their best shooter obviously, but all is not lost if he can't play. Parker Kelly is an elite spot-up shooter, and Bogdan Bliznyuk has been outstanding offensively. Harvey can create shots from nowhere, so if he can't go then there will be added emphasis on their ball movement, and finding guys for the open shot.

In that regard, Drew Brandon will be a key, as he is their best playmaker. He has been playing great basketball of late, and can literally do a bit of everything out there. He needs to create shots for others, and he is able to do that. Venky Jois has been back three games since his injury, and they need him to play at the star levels he played at earlier in the year. Against Montana, he was that guy - 12 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks, 4 steals - but he struggle din the other two games since his return. He should be able to have his way down low, and the Eagles need that from him.

Who Wins: No matter the outcome, a lot of points are going to be scored in this game. They combined for 167 points in the first meeting, and we could match that again. In Cheney, the edge goes to the Eagles, as we know the edge that home court has. The availability (or lack there of) makes it a bit impossible to predict, however.

So, I'll hedge my bets. If Tyler Harvey is healthy and playing, I like the Eagles in this game, and I like them win by 8-10 points. If Harvey sits, I think it's closer to a pick'em... in that case, I'll take the Hornets in a close one to use some of the magic they have shown so far this year. It should be a great game.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, February 9, 2015

Big Sky Power Rankings 2/9/15

Let's take a quick snapshot of the Big Sky as of today... where things are sure to change in an instant, as always!

1. Eastern Washington (9-1) - Beating Montana on the road without Tyler Harvey earns them the top spot for me this week, as they led the Grizzlies by as many as nine late, winning 75-69. Montana's D has been solid, but the Eagles scored 1.21 PPP against them, thanks to a great day from Drew Brandon (27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists). Saturday's tilt against MSU was a little more nerve-wracking, as they trailed the Bobcats by eight early in the second half, but they managed to come back and win by 10. They host Sac State on Thursday in the biggest Big Sky game of the year (I'll be previewing it in depth more as the week goes on), and they really need Harvey back.

2. Sacramento State (10-1) - If they beat EWU this Thursday, I promise you Hornets fans that they will be #1 next week. Their win Saturday night against PSU was a little closer than many would have expected, especially when the Hornets were up 9 at the half. PSU cut the lead to as little as two, and Sac State eventually won by 4. The Hornets are now 6-0 in Big Sky games decided by five points or less. This week will show a lot about them - a roadtrip to take on EWU and then Idaho is arguably the toughest in the Big Sky. If they can at least get a split, that'd probably be a good result.

3. Montana (8-3) - Montana got their chance to show they'll be a contender for the regular season title, and fell flat losing a home game to EWU. They responded well, however, holding Idaho to 0.90 PPP, forcing 17 turnovers in the process. Montana continues to hound teams defensively, and have long since showed that their solid defensive performances once Big Sky play started were not a fluke. They're the best defensive team in the conference, which is the biggest reason they're a legit tournament threat..

4. Northern Arizona (7-3) - I had been concerned earlier in the year about their offense, but those concerns have been assuaged somewhat. as they continue to put together impressive performances. While the biggest factor in that is probably due to Quinton Upshur looking like himself against over the past give games, I wanted to write a few words on Kris Yanku. He has been outstanding in all phases recently, really taking over the team. During their four game win streak, he's putting up 16 PPG, 7 APG, 6.5 RPG, and has only turned it over four times. You might not know it yet, but he's a star in the Big Sky, and seems to be getting better and better.

5. Northern Colorado (7-4) - The Bears did what they needed to do, getting a split on their last roadtrip. Now they sit at 7-4 with 5 home games left, so they're in a great spot. Though they have a balanced team, they seem to go as the backcourt duo of Cam Michael and Tevin Svihovec go. They complement each other well, as Michael is an excellent outside shooter, while Svihovec does his best work slashing and getting to the line. They will be a tough out because those two guys are tough to guard.

6. Weber State (5-6) - You can put 6-7-8 in any order, and I wouldn't argue. The Wildcats won their long game last week, beating ISU on the road by seven. While Jeremy Senglin can be inconsistent at times, his ceiling is high, as shown by his scoring 30 points on just eight field goal attempts on Saturday (he was 14/15 from the line).He gives them that elite guard talent that can sometimes be a wildcard come tournament time.

7. Portland State (5-6) - They almost got the big upset win over the Hornets, but couldn't quite get over the top in the second half. One subplot has been the minutes of Tim Douglas... A year ago, he led the team in minutes. This year, his play on the court (taken as a whole) has been fairly similar to last year - he is a an average outside shooter, poor inside, pokes away a few steals, and doesn't turn it over a ton. But he played 15 minutes Saturday, and has played less than 20 in 5 of the last 6. Gobbling up his minutes is freshman Iziahiah Sweeney. Something to watch for the Vikings going forward.

8. Idaho (4-6) - All things considered, it wasn't a real impressive week for the Vandals. They trailed MSU by 11 early in the second half (before winning by 9), and lost by 14 to Montana. It's clear their ceiling is higher than many other teams (they lost their three games against EWU and Sac State by 9 points total), but their floor is a lot lower than the mid-tier teams as well. This week's home games against PSU and Sac State will tell us a lot... they have the talent to win both and be a solid 6-6, or lose both and be sweating things at 4-8. I'm curious to see which Idaho team shows up, and I'm sure their fans are as well.

9. North Dakota (4-7) - Their road win over SUU Thursday was big, as it at least keeps them alive and in the discussion. This week they host the Montana schools, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that they'll be 6-7 heading into the final few weeks. Estan Tyler has become their workhorse - as long as he can stay out of foul trouble. Another name to watch is Carson Shanks, a guy who has really been coming. They are absolutely still in the race for a tournament spot, but they don't have a ton of margin for error.

10. Southern Utah (2-8) - When SUU won two straight Big Sky games to go to 2-3, they could at least dream of a conference tournament spot. Five losses later (the last three at home), and it appears it was just that - a dream. They are a year away, but certainly there is hope for the future. Their bench still plays more minutes than anyone else's in the country, and they are still very inexperienced, with no seniors being a really key part of the core. It would be nice to get a few more wins to end the year to give them some momentum into the offseason, but the schedule won't be easy - arguably they will be the underdog in all of their remaining games.

11. Idaho State (2-9) - It doesn't look like the Bengals year. At 2-9, they are all but eliminated from conference tournament contention. The seven guys playing the most minutes for them are upperclassmen (five seniors, two juniors), which doesn't leave a ton of hope that next year will be better. I like Bill Evans as a coach, and feel he is very solid in terms of game-planning, but they just haven't had the talent to compete.

12. Montana State (1-10) - They have to feel like they let some games slip through the cracks... They led Idaho by 11 early in the second half Thursday, and then EWU by 8 in the second half Saturday, but lost both games by a combined 19 points. They at least showed they are a feisty club that won't lie down for any games. They hit you with a barrage of threes - they attempted 37 against Idaho, and 29 against EWU. Wins will be hard to come by, but they're starting to form an identity for the future.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, February 6, 2015

Battle For Final Tournament Spots Slowly Taking Shape

As of today, it looks like we will have nine teams fighting for eight conference tournament spots. Going further, we can probably assume Eastern Washington, Sacramento State, Montana, Northern Arizona, and Northern Colorado will be in. That's five. That would leave four teams battling for three spots.

Those four teams:

- Portland State (5-5)
- Idaho (4-5)
- Weber State (4-6)
- North Dakota (4-6)

While it would be a nice story if Southern Utah (2-7) was able to make a run, it seems unlikely. They've won three conference games in the past 1.5 seasons, so I don't see them running off a 6-3 stretch to end the conference year, which is what it would likely take to get into a tiebreaker.

- Of the four, we have to give PSU the biggest chance of making it as of now, simply because they've reached the five win mark. However, they also have arguably the toughest remaining schedule. Their next three games are at Sacramento State, at Idaho, at Eastern Washington. It's not hard to envision them coming home at 5-8. From there, they host North Dakota, Northern Colorado, and Sac State, before closing the year on the road at Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Are there four wins there?

- On paper, I think Idaho is the best team of the four, but a home loss to North Dakota could hurt them if it comes down to tiebreakers (they meet only once this year). They have four home games, but one is against Sac State, and another is against Montana, so there aren't a ton of gimmes there either. Next Thursday, hosting PSU, looms as a big game, because Idaho needs a split there for tiebreaker purposes.

- Weber State is a surprise entrant based on preseason expectations, but they've lost 4 of 5. However, their schedule sets up favorably the rest of the way - 5 of their 8 remaining games are at home, and two of the road games are against Idaho State and Montana State. They should be safe.

- North Dakota keeps hanging around, including getting a huge road win at Southern Utah last night. At 4-6, they have four home dates and four away dates remaining, but all the road games are losses on paper (NAU, PSU, Sac State, UNC). However, they showed by beating Idaho on the road that they are capable of getting the upset there. Their best bet is to hold serve at home and get one road upset.

If I have to predict it, I think this is what we'll see by the end of the year:

6. Idaho (9-9)
7. Weber State (9-9)
8. Portland State (8-10)
9. North Dakota (7-11)

Your thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thursday Night Predictions

It's Thursday, which means Big Sky basketball is here! Four games on the docket for the day... let's take a look at them.

Eastern Washington @ Montana
The game of the night in the Big Sky, featuring a good Montana team hosting an even better Eastern Washington team. One concern for Montana... they have thrived defensively on forcing turnovers, but nobody has been better in the Big Sky at taking care of the ball then EWU. Montana needs to be able to pressure the basketball and force miscues, but it will be tough against the Eagles. On the other side, I'm not sure EWU has anyone to slow down Martin Breunig. Venky Jois is a great shot blocker, but Breunig doesn't seem to be the best matchup for him. The Grizzlies need to feed him the ball, and they need him to stay out of foul trouble. I'm taking the road team in this game. A lot of the Grizzlies success has come on the defensive side of the ball, but I think the Eagles are the type of team that can hurt them. Eastern Washington 81, Montana 76

Northern Colorado @ Northern Arizona
These teams have been flying under the radar a bit, but UNC is 6-3, while NAU is 5-3. Both are in the top half of teams in the Big Sky, which will make this a good game. The Bears gave been great on the offensive glass, but the Jacks are stingy in allowing opponents to get second chances. That will be something to watch. The other interesting plot will be that NAU has struggled to get easy baskets, and nothing seems to come easy for them on that side of the ball. UNC has allowed teams to get easy putbacks, and open shots from deep. While the Bears will be able to score against a good Jacks defense, I think NAU is able to get enough for the home win. Northern Arizona 77, Northern Colorado 68

Idaho @ Montana StateAt 3-5, this is not a game the Vandals can afford to lose. Idaho has shown that they can hang with anyone (two close losses to EWU, and a close road loss to Sac State), but they have also shown the ability to lose to anyone. The Bobcats have been surprisingly good defensively in Big Sky play, but they have shown a susceptibility to three-point shooters, which could bode badly against a team with Connor Hill, Mike Scott, and even Perrion Calladnret capable of hitting from deep. In the end, I think the Vandals superior talent wins out in a close game in Bozeman. Idaho 71, Montana State 65

North Dakota @ Southern Utah
Both of these are firmly in the discussion to make the conference tournament, but they could both use a win in a game like this to help them out. Anything more than nine losses will put you on the bubble, and they each have six already. Somewhat surprisingly, in conference play, UND is third defensively, while SUU is fifth, a big change from previous years. Both are OK pushing the pace, which could make this game fun to watch. It is almost a pick'em to me, as North Dakota looks like a slightly better team, but the game is in Cedar City. When in doubt, I go with the home team. Southern Utah 73, North Dakota 69


Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Checking In On Freshmen

It's been a while since we have checked in on the future of the Big Sky... the freshmen. Let's take a look at who I've got as the top five so far, with some notes on a couple other contributors.

1. Bogdan Bliznyuk (Eastern Washington) - Over the past few weeks, Bliznyuk has not just been the best freshman offensive player in the Big Sky, but among the top offensive players for any class in the conference. He is excellent in the paint, and a good shooter from the outside to keep defenses honest. He's been rebounding the ball well also, ranking in the top 15 in the Big Sky in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. He turns it over too much and doesn't add a ton defensively, but he is another big weapon opponents have to plan for against the Eagles.

2. Arkadiy Mkrtchyan (Idaho) - Ark has been excellent all year. He plays just under half the team's minutes, and is a good scorer who knows his role (shooting over 55% this year), is a strong presence on the defensive glass, and has shown a lot of ability to get to the foul line. He can be an all-conference guy in the future.

3. James McGee (Southern Utah) - His role is simply as a shooter off the bench, and he has played that role to perfection. In DI games, he shooting 50% from three, while rarely turning it over. He doesn't really do a whole lot of other things right now, but every team needs shooters like that.

4. Fabijan Krslovic (Montana) - He is getting a lot of minutes for a good team, which is always a positive sign for a freshman. Like other Grizzlies, he has done well to force turnovers. He has some work to do offensively, in that he turns it over too much and isn't a big threat right now, but he should be a solid building block.

5. Zach Green (Montana State) - Green is playing over 40% of the team's minutes, which should bode well for his future. He has not stood out necessarily in any particular way - he is shooting 42% on twos, takes care of the ball, and is an average rebounder for a guard - but for a freshman on a bad team, playing a lot of minutes and not standing out in a bad way can be a good thing. He will play a lot of minutes in his Bobcat career.

- Jeremy Verhagen (Northern Colorado) - Verhagen has shown an efficient offensive game in limited attempts (22/31 on twos against DI teams), but hasn't made much of an impact on the glass for a guy of his size. That will be key for his development.
- Ryan Richardson (Weber State) - He has shown flashes of being an excellent shooter, but has had more bad games than good this year. In his last five games, he's 3/23 from downtown.
- Tyler Rawson (Southern Utah) - He has slowed down a bit after a great start, but he is a guy that can be an efficient scorer and excellent rebounder on the defensive end. He also has some shot blocking abilities, with a 8.0% block rate.
- Carson Shanks (North Dakota) - Since he became eligible at semester break, he has gotten a lot of minutes for UND. Though he hasn't quite added the floor stretching element some expected, he has been a solid inside scorer, and good defensive rebounder. Brian Jones has a keeper inside here.
- Sir Washington (Eastern Washington) - He doesn't get a ton of time, but has done good things when he has been in there. His development will be interesting to watch next year.

Anybody I am forgetting?

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Schedules the Rest of the Way

So far this year in conference play, Big Sky teams are 36-18 at home, the 7th highest winning percentage of any conference. It also seems to be true that it would be a good thing to play as few games against Eastern Washington, Sacramento State, and Montana as possible, since those teams look like the three best at the moment.

So with that said, let's take a look at each team's remaining schedule, with how many home/away games they have left, and how many games against those three teams remain:

- Eastern Washington (7-1) - 4 H/6A - @ UM, Sac State, UM
- Idaho (3-5) - 4H/6A - @ UM, Sac State, UM
- Idaho State (2-8) - 5H/3A - @ UM, EWU
- Montana (7-2) - 4H/5A - EWU, @ EWU
- Montana State (1-8) - 5H/4A - EWU, UM, @ EWU
- North Dakota (3-6) - 5H/5A - UM, @ Sac State
- Northern Arizona (5-3) - 6H/4A - EWU, Sac State
- Northern Colorado (6-3) - 5H/4A - UM, @ Sac State
- Portland State (5-5) - 3H/5A - @ Sac State, @ EWU, Sac State
- Sacramento State (9-1) - 3 H/5 A - @ EWU
- Southern Utah (2-6) - 6H/4A - EWU, Sac State
- Weber State (4-6) - 5H/3A - @ UM, EWU

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Montana is a Definite Contender

I have been a little skeptical of Montana so far this year. They started 6-1 in the Big Sky (before this past weekend), but that was against a very soft schedule, and with a level of defensive performance that didn't seem sustainable based on their defense during the non-conference portion of the schedule. All in all, I liked them, but felt like they were behind Sacramento State and Eastern Washington.

However, after this past weekend, a re-assessment is needed. They pasted Portland State on the road Thursday, and had Sacramento State on the ropes Saturday before the Hornets came back for a win. (Arguably, Montana did more than have them on the ropes - when they led by eight at the three minute mark, they had a 97% chance to win the game. They were on the wrong end of some calls I felt were questionable, but they have themselves to blame with bad turnovers, missed free throws, and then of course giving Dylan Garrity an open corner three to win the game. Of course, Garrity is probably the last guy in the Big Sky you want shooting an open three with game on the line!)

If I did power rankings this week, I'd probably have Montana above Sacramento State*, because they had the Hornets dead to rights on their home court, even with their best player missing a lot of time due to foul trouble. It was an impressive effort, made more impressive because they had beaten PSU so soundly two nights before.

The Grizzlies continue to be head and shoulders above the rest of the conference defensively, as their PPP against of 0.929 is worlds above NAU in second, who is at 1.046. They are forcing turnovers at a conference best rate, and teams are struggling from the outside. Mario Dunn might be the best defender in the Big Sky.

Offensively, they can have dry spells, but it's good enough to keep them in most games. Martin Breunig is either the best or second best offensive post guy in the conference (depending on your preference between him and Venky Jois), which is obviously a huge luxury. Jordan Gregory has struggled a bit in comparison to past years, but he is still a very good scorer. Brandon Gfeller has become a dynamite shooting specialist. They have enough pieces that they are capable on that end.

Their schedule is tough the rest of the way... they host Weber State, still have to go to Greeley, and have two games left against both Eastern Washington and Idaho. This will probably hand them enough losses that a Big Sky regular season title is not likely. However, they have the pieces, and defense, to be a very tough contender for the Big Sky title. With their near road win over Sac State, they showed they can get it done at home or on the road, which obviously becomes even more important in the Big Sky tournament.

*This is one of the reasons I'm not doing them this week... I don't want to see the outrage that would ensue!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball