After looking at all of the teams yesterday, and their respective chances to win the Big Sky tournmament, let's get to something more concrete - previews of the games themselves, along with some predictions.
I'll go into more detail on the quartefinal games, and then give me predictions for the subsequent rounds in less detail (since there's no need to go deep in depth for matchups that may or may not happen). Without further ado...
#1 Montana vs #8 Weber State
Previous Meeting(s): Weber won 68-60 in Ogden, Montana won 74-63 in Missoula
Thoughts: Jeremy Senglin missed the second meeting, so Weber State's best chance will be to follow what happened in the first meeting. In that game, Martin Breunig was dominant (31 points on 14/18 shooting), but the Wildcats did a good job containing everyone else. The rest of the team shot 10/37 for 29 points, including a 4/18 effort from Jordan Gregory. Breunig has abused Weber in both games, so they may not have a easy time stopping him. Their best bet may be to just single him up with Joel Bolomboy, and stick to the rest of Montana's shooters as close as they can. A guy like Brandon Gfeller can rack up some points in a hurry if he gets good looks, and that could be the type of thing Weber State can't come back from.
The bigger factor, I think, will be the other end of the court, where Weber State doesn't figure to have a ton of success against the Montana defense. Nobody has been better at forcing turnovers in the Big Sky, but WSU has been the second most generous team in giving them up. Getting Senglin back could help that, but he's also had a tendency to turn it over. As I mentioned yesterday, the easiest way to beat Montana could be to get Breunig into foul trouble, and Bolomboy has had some success drawing fouls this year (he takes over 5.5 FTs per game). However, I just don't see the Wildcats getting enough open looks against the Griz, especially since this game is in Missoula.
Montana 71, Weber State 60
#4 Northern Arizona vs #5 Northern Colorado
Previous Meeting(s): NAU won 65-60 in Flagstaff, UNC won 76-74 in Greeley
Thoughts: I watched these two teams in Greeley a couple weeks ago and it was a great game, so it will be fun to watch again. When UNC has the ball, it will come down to who is able to play more to their strengths. NAU doesn't give you good looks in the paint, and they typically rebound the ball well. On the other hand, UNC excels in the midrange and using their quickness to get good shots at the rim, and they can be terrors on the offensive glass. In Greeley, they snagged 14 offensive rebounds, which Jack Murphy believed to be the difference in the game. In the first meeting, they only had six. That is a key thing to watch.
On the other end, The Bears have had trouble containing Kris Yanku, and that will likely continue. UNC is at its best with either Jordan Wilson or Cody Spence out there (or even both, at times), but both guys struggle with the height of Yanku. On the other hand, someone like Tevin Svihovec doesn't have the quickness to stay in front of him. If the Bears collapse on him in the paint, Yanku has the vision and passing skills to take advantage, with shooters on the outside, and guys capable of finishing strong at the rim. It will be a pick your poison type of scenario for UNC, and I expect Yanku to put up big numbers either way.
This should be a great game, as both teams are capable of going on runs and winning this game. However, I trust NAU just a little bit more.
Northern Arizona 73, Northern Colorado 69
#2 Eastern Washington vs #7 Idaho
Previous Meetings(s): EWU won 89-86 in Moscow, and 98-95 in Cheney
Thoughts: As you can tell from the previous game scores, we should be in for a fun, fast paced game. Where teams like Northern Colorado or Sacramento State are great offensively but don't try to push the pace, both the Eagles and Vandals are excellent scoring the ball AND like to push it as fast as they can. Plus, they can have their defensive struggles at times as well (though one more than the other).
The Vandals keeping both meetings close points to the fact that they can win this game, but the Eagles are clearly the favorite as they have more consistently played at a high level. EWU is primarily seen a three-point bombing team, but they have been better this year when they've gotten the ball inside, with guys like Venky Jois and Bogdan Bliznyuk being elite scorers down low. Idaho is also not intimidating down low either, as while guys like Bira Seck and Ark Mkrtychyan are good players, they aren't rim protectors. Look for EWU to get the ball inside as much as they can.
When Idaho has the ball, they need to be hitting outside shots, especially against an Eagles front line that has the best shot blockers in the conference. Fortunately for them, they are certainly capable of doing that, as they shot 40.9% from downtown during Big Sky play, third in the conference. The Vandals aren't going to force many turnovers, but they should look for easy options off of EWU misses, as easy baskets will be important. However, I'm not sure they'll get enough stops to be able to keep up.
Eastern Washington 88, Idaho 83
#3 Sacramento State vs #6 Portland State
Previous Meeting(s): Sac State won 64-60 in Sacramento, and 73-60 in Portland
Thoughts: The availability of Braxton Tucker will be important here, as he scored 18 in the first meeting, but missed the second game. A front line with Tucker and Tiegbe Bamba could be a huge weapon for the Vikings. Collin Spickerman can do some nice things for the Vikings (namely, block shots and crash the offensive glass), but the other two guys are the front line scorers. Tucker has missed the last three games with a knee contusion, and should probably be considered questionable. Another key for them is to take care of the basketball. PSU has been good at protecting the ball, but have struggled against Sac State, where they have turned it over 17 times in both meetings. There are scoring opportunities to be had against the Hornets, but they are also good at forcing TOs, so that will be a key.
When Sac State has the ball, they are an interesting team in that they have the best three-point shooting team in the conference, but they don't look to take a ton of threes. Everything starts with Mikh McKinney, who does it all for the Hornets. McKinney will get his, but they can't let him get great looks for everyone else. The Vikings aren't going to force a lot of turnovers, so it comes down to closing in on shooters such as Dylan Garrity, and cutting off the penetration of McKinney and Cody Demps. All three guys are capable of scoring 20.
In the end, if I was a betting man, I think the most likely scenario is that Sac State wins a close game. However, I think at least one of the lower seeds win (with how even this league has been all year), and I think this is the most likely game. If PSU can take care of the ball (again, has been an issue against the Hornets), they can score enough to win this game. It should be fun.
Portland State 69, Sacramento State 68
#1 Montana vs #4 Northern Arizona
This would be a slugfest of a semifinal, featuring the two best defensive teams in the Big Sky. During their only meeting in late January, NAU scored 0.89 PPP, while Montana mustered 1.00 PPP thanks to 31 points from Jordan Gregory. NAU has the horses down low (including Big Sky Defensive POY Jordyn Martin) to slow down Martin Breunig, but Montana has Mario Dunn to help contain Kris Yanku. Once again, I like the home court to triumph, and I'd take Montana.
#2 Eastern Washington vs #6 Portland State
These teams split during the regular season, so it's a closer game than the seeds might show. However, Venky Jois missed the second meeting (when PSU won), and we are starting to realize he may be the Eagles most important player with his offensive scoring and shot blocking ability. That would make the difference in the third meeting, and I like Eastern Washington in this theoretical matchup.
#1 Montana vs #2 Eastern Washington
In terms of entertainment factor, this is probably our dream finals matchup. The two teams split their meetings, winning on each other's home courts. As mentioned, Montana is the favorite with their home-court advantage, but EWU is a team that can combat the strengths of the Grizzlies. Venky Jois is down low, and he bothered Breunig in their first matchup (in fairness, Breunig was a force in the rematch). The other thing is that, as we've mentioned, Montana excels at forcing turnovers, but EWU is predicated on taking care of the ball... Their 19 turnovers in the two meetings combined is not bad. So, they can score on the Grizzlies.
However, I just can't shake the feeling that Montana is the best team in the Big Sky right now. Jordan Gregory is the go to guy late in games, and it's nice to have that pecking order. We've talked about Breunig. Mario Dunn could be a future defensive POY. Guys like Brandon Gfeller, Fabijan Krslovic, and Mike Weisner all fill their roles. Everything is coming up Montana for me, and that's why I think they will be the Big Sky champions.
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