Before we get to the previews of the games themselves, let's take a quick rundown of each of the teams, and why they could either win the whole tournament, or lose in the first round. It's a wide open race this year, which should make it fun!
Why they can win it: For one, they have home court advantage. The Grizzlies were 8-1 at home during Big Sky play, losing just to EWU on February 5th. The Grizzlies are also playing the best basketball of anyuone in the Big Sky the past few weeks... after that loss to EWU on 2/5, they went 7-1, with the only loss coming in double OT at Idaho (a game they had a 97.2% chance to win with 3:24 left).
They are also the best defensive team in the Big Sky, at 0.998 PPP during conference play. Their 0.12 PPP margin in Big Sky play is easily the best in the conference. Tying it all together, the Griz have a luxury in Martin Breunig that is rare in the Big Sky - a big man with a solid offensive skill set. He was a unanimous first-teamer and you could easily make the case for him as Big Sky POY.
Let me put it this way... If Sac State had finished with a win and hosted, Montana still might have been the favorite to win the conference. As it is, they are clearly the favorite going into things. In early February, I said Montana was a definite contender (unintentionally angering Sac State fans in the process), but they came on stronger than I ever expected.
Why they can lose in round 1: In two of their four Big Sky losses, they had big leads late, and lost it at the end. Such that that is a trend, they could struggle to hold onto leads.With it happening in just two games, it would be far too strong to say they have a tendency to blow late leads, but it's out there. The biggest concern for them, I think, is that Martin Breunig can get into foul trouble. In both of the aforementioned games, he fouled out. While Jordan Gregory is very good, and they have role players that can do some nice things, everything is harder when Breunig is not out there. Losing him to foul trouble early in a game could be the clearest path to a loss for them.
#2 Eastern Washington
Why they can win it: The Eagles pose the best chance of beating Montana, as they did it once and almost did it again. The Grizzlies have been great at forcing turnovers, but EWU can take care of the ball, and Venky Jois can match up with Breunig down low. That would be a heck of a title game!
The Eagles have shown they may have the highest ceiling in the Big Sky, as they had some big road wins earlier in the year, and have looked downright unstoppable offensively at times. We all know about Tyler Harvey and Venky Jois, but Bogdan Bliznyk is a legit weapon, Drew Brandon does a bit of everything, and Parker Kelly can shoot. Even Felix Van Hofe has hit some big shots. They are tough to defend because they almost always have five guys out there that can score.
Why they can lose in round 1: A lot of this has been due to injuries at times, but they haven't quite seemed to be playing to their peak over the second half of conference play. Save for a date with MSU on 2/26, all of their other last eight games were either within four points or went to OT. That shows some close losses, but an elite team should be able to blow out a couple of those teams. As always, the key for them is defense. They finished fifth at 1.08 PPP allowed in conference play, but teams shot 42% from downtown against them. If their own shots aren't falling, they need to be able to rely on the D to pick up the slack for a while before the offense gets rolling again. It remains to be seen if they can do that.
#3 Sacramento State
Why they can win it: Until the last week, they looked like they would be the hosts of the tournament, so obviously they have the talent to be near the top. They have been great in close games, and while it's debatable if that is a repeatable skill, all the checkpoints are there for them to be good late in games, including experienced guards, a big time shooter in Dylan Garrity, the Big Sky POY Mikh McKinney, and a worthy third fiddle in Cody Demps.
McKinney is the biggest reason to think they can win... no matter if you think he should or shouldn't have been the POY, he has been great all year. He can shoot, drive to the hole, find his teammates, and make plays on the defensive side of the court. He can do it all, and that elite player gives the Hornets a shot every time.
Why they can lose in round 1: In the last section, I wrote about success and experience in close games, but that may have made them a little overrated at times, as winning close games can statistically be fluky. For all the hope that Eric Stuteville would provide consistent inside presence, that hasn't really happened this year, which leaves them too reliant on their guards. That can also be a problem defensively, as guys like Nick Hornsby and Zach Mills are good players, but not really great interior forces defensively. The other factor for the Hornets is the way the season ended... They needed one win in the final two games to host the tournament, and plans were in place to convert the rec center on campus for the Big Sky tournament - and then things came crashing down. Will there be a hangover for their confidence?
#4 Northern Arizona
Why they can win it: After Montana, they have the best defense in the conference, and the ability to get stops seems to translate better to tournaments when scouting time may be at a minimum. They are anchored by Big Sky Defensive POY Jordyn Martin, but they have several big bodies down low.
Offensively, Kris Yanku is playing great basketball, and nobody is better than him at driving and dishing, or driving to finish. He has a great understanding of pace and angles, which allows him to get to the rim almost at any time. Late in a close game, he is the best weapon in the conference. Flanking him are shooters Quinton Upshur and Aaseem Dixon. Those two guys struggled a bit earlier in the year, but have played better in the second half of the Big Sky slate.
Why they can lose in round 1: While Yanku is a great shot creator, the offense can stagnant a bit if he is not out there, as Upshur and Dixon can be limited at times in creating shots for themselves or offense for others. If the outside shots aren't falling, they can struggle to score. Another issue is depth... They only go 8 deep, and don't really like to play many guards. It could be easy to wear down. Last, they always seem to have trouble with UNC... they lost to them last year in the opening round, and lost to them in Greeley just a couple weeks ago. It's a tough opener if the Bears are playing well, which they always seem to do in the Big Sky tournament.
#5 Northern Colorado
Why they can win it: They have tons of depth and balance, meaning they could be able to weather the storm better than some if their main guys struggle. Tevin Svihovec was the only member of the team to get into postseason awards but guys like Cam Michael and Tim Huskisson have the ability to carry the offense for stretches. Another thing is that their defense has been bad this year, but they have guys like Cody Spence and Jordan Wilson that can pressure you for 94 feet, which places extra pressure on defense, especially in a tournament when teams might be a little tighter.
Their offense can be as explosive as anyone in the conference, and if some of their role players get hot for a couple games, they could carry the momentum from it right into the NCAA Tournament.
Why they can lose in round 1: The balance is great, but they don't necessarily have that one guy that can carry them and get them a good shot when it's needed. Tevin Svihovec is that guy at times, but you don't necessarily trust him as much as guys like Jordan Gregory, Tyler Harvey, Miki McKinney, or Kris Yanku. But really, the biggest worry here is defense, just like always. In terms of PPP allowed, they were the second worst defensive team in the country. It's hard to win three games in three days like that.
#6 Portland State
Why they can win it: In conference play, they beat EWU on the road... and also lost at home in double digits on three occasions. Point being - they are unpredictable. On any given night, they can beat anyone, which can make them dangerous. If Braxton Tucker plays (still trying to find out), their front line is as explosive as anyone, and a backcourt with Gary Winston and DaShaun Wiggins can score baskets. With a trio of senior guards, they take good care of the basketball and don't give opponents extra possessions. Their talent level, when all healthy and playing right, gives them the ceiling of a team that can win this tournament.
Why they can lose in round 1: As mentioned above, they are very unpredictable, and prone to games where they just don't seem to come out and play. This is not just a problem for this year's team, as it seems to have happened previous years as well. If they don't play their best, they will lose in the opening round to Sac State. Their defense is not the gaping liability it has been in some past years, but it's still not one you trust to get a stop when you need. Also, unlike previous years, their offense has been merely average in Big Sky play. It's easier to see a path for teams like UNC or Idaho in the bottom half of the bracket to make a run than it is to see the Vikings string three straight great games together.
Why they can win it: Like PSU, the Vandals are a team with a high ceiling - they beat Montana, Sac State, and almost beat EWU twice. They are explosive offensively when things are working, from Mike Scott creating shots for himself and others, Connor Hill as one of the best shooters in the conference, and Sekou Wiggs getting to the foul line. They are never out of a game because of how well they can score the basketball.
They also don't get intimidated by anyone. They averaged almost 90 PPG against EWU, arguably should have beat Sac State on the road, and of course had that great comeback against Montana. They don't have to just believe they can beat the best teams in the conference - they know they can. That counts for a lot.
Why they can lose in round 1: Despite all those impressive showings against good teams, they were a Southern Utah win over Portland State on the final day of the regular season away from missing the Big Sky tournament. To call them inconsistent would be an insult to the word "inconsistent." They lack rim protectors so they struggle stopping teams inside, which could lead to a big day from Venky Jois in the tournament opening round. I am as fascinated by them as anyone - I can't wait to see which Idaho team shows up, because they could crash the party,. They could also go out in a fiery crash.
#8 Weber State
Why they can win it: Things have not come together for the Wildcats this year, but it's not like they don't have talent. They were the preseason pick to win the conference, and all those pieces that made voters vote for them are still there. If Jeremy Senglin is able to come back and play (which seems like a safe bet), that's a huge boost for the Wildcats and their offense. When healthy, he's their best offensive guy, and their best chance for an outlier performance. Weber also has Joel Bolomboy, who still has the ability to take over games with his rebounding and shot blocking. For all of Weber's struggles, they finished third in the conference in defensive deficiency.
Plus, let's not remember that Weber State is the defending champions. Though they are missing a lot of those guys that made it happen, many in the rotation played huge minutes for a title winning team last season. Last, for what it's worth, they did beat Montana earlier this year... granted, it was two months ago.
Why they can lose in round 1: For one thing, they are playing Montana at Montana. They are seven point underdogs, and even that line feels a little bit low to me. When the two teams met in late February, the Grizzlies won by 11. They have struggled to score the basketball even when Senglin has been healthy, and the finished eighth in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency. Often, when underdog teams win games they aren't expected to, it happens through shooting. However, Weber was 11th in the Big Sky, shooting just 34.5% from downtown during conference play. If they get hot and shoot the lights out for three straight games, it won't be something that could have been expected.
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