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


  1. Good analysis but your first sentence says 3 weeks left (2 weeks I believe) and 5 or 6 games left (3 or 4 games left I believe). I just know if Sac wins out we host. All the other stuff doesn't matter to me.

    1. Good call, not sure why I had that in my brain. I will get that fixed!

  2. + one on your predictions for the final standings with good assessment made (hope that EWU's slipping ends as I wish them at top peak to win the tourney & to best represent the BSC). Fear a Round 1 (play-in) game in NCAA no matter what.

  3. Sac st will be a dog to both Port st (about 3) and to No Arizona (about 51/2-6) Idaho will be about a one pt fave over Montana and E Wash will be about 7. Hope that helps a bit.

    1. Montana will have ZERO problems with Idaho. I would bet large sums of cash on Idaho being a 1 point favorite. Montana is absolutely rolling right now. And as I predicted about 2 weeks ago, they will win the Big Sky regular season, and the Tournament. Unfortunately the crème rises to the top in the Big Sky. As an EWU fan this pains me to say, but Hayford and Company are not the crème yet. Maybe next year.

  4. Thanks Jon, excellent break down. Very exciting finish to the season. I go with EWU as well since they have 2 home games and can also knock off one of the teams chasing the crown.

  5. Great breakdown. I do think EWU or Montana will take the regular season. Montana's Breunig is nearly unstoppable way down low and there is no one like him in the rest of the conference. EWU is starting to struggle...I noticed the Jacks had success with EWU by driving and dishing...don't be surprised if other teams continue that kind of attack. NAU put big long defenders on their outside shooters and focused on outside D. That overall formula seems to really shake EWU up. So either EWU or Montana win the reg season, but I would bet EWU gets knocked out before earning a tournament crown. NAU, as much as it pains me, may be on fire, but has a tendency to play close games even when they are a superior team...that's a recipe for an unexpected loss. Montana is my pick for conf tourney champ, although I won't be at all surprised if Sac State pulls it off purely on the strength of an amazing and mature backcourt.

  6. Jon, great write up. I think Sac State wins any two way tie breakers except with NAU since they have head to head over Montana and better win % over NAU than EWU. A Sac St tie with NAU would probably go to NAU since NAU was perfect against EWU and Montana.

  7. Jon, great write up. I think Sac State wins any two way tie breakers except with NAU since they have head to head over Montana and better win % over NAU than EWU. A Sac St tie with NAU would probably go to NAU since NAU was perfect against EWU and Montana.

  8. Jon I see it differently. Eastern has been struggling with everyone that they play rather at the top or the bottom. I see them having an extra game as an extra chance to lose. Montana at Eastern will be an absolute dog fight. Weber will likely be playing for their tournament lives when they meet on the 7th. I think Eastern has a tougher road than the numbers on paper indicate. I think Montana has the edge.

    1. You may well be right... they have struggled a lot lately. If they don't start to play a bit better than they have the past couple of weeks, then they can absolutely lose any of their games. That is what will make these last couple of weeks so fun!

  9. I know I might be jumping ahead a little bit here but I want to bring up the fact that this might be the year where the BSC might have a team in both the NIT and NCAA Tournament. Not to mention a team or two in the CIT. With the conference being so wide open this year, the regular season champions could loose in the first round of the Tournament championship and not win the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but that means that they would get the automatic bid to NIT, which is a prestigious tournament in itself. And then the CIT tournament, which host 32 top Mid-major teams that are not in the NIT or NCAA tournament. I believe that all 4 of the top 4 teams with make a tournament (SAC, MONT, EWU, NAU) , which one is the true question. This is a fun year because it's not a race between WEBER ST. and MONT like every other year. Being a SAC fan, what scares me is how strong NAU looks lately. NAU might not have the most experience or talented team, but when it comes to basketball tournaments, it's all about how "hot" you are entering the tournament!

    1. I disagree... I believe 2 teams get a tournament bid max. If you look at the way the league is ranking, its really bad. You don't have to look further than ESPN. They have Sac State playing a 16 seed play in game. Aka meaning the Big Sky Tourney winner is last or dead last in the field of 68. If that's the case, the teams who do not win the tourney most likely get no invites to the NIT. Unless the winner of conf. doesn't win the tourney. I think the league is in the same spot as it usually is. 1 to 2 post season bids.

    2. The only way a Big Sky team gets into the NIT is if the regular season champ loses in the tournament. Yes I think the other 3 teams will go to the CIT. So there will be 3 teams in the post season.

    3. I highly doubt the CIT takes 3 Big Sky Teams... Guess time will tell.

  10. I think the conference tourney winner will likely be Montana. If that happens I think EWU's strong overall record and win over Indiana gets them invited to the NIT. I think if NAU plays all the way to the conf tournament championship game, then it will make the CIT. NAU has wins over Saint Mary's and Fresno State while Sac State does not have comparable wins. That will make 3 total. #1JacksFan