Monday, February 29, 2016

Recapping the Big Sky: What happened, player of the week, game of the week

In a glance, this is what happened last week …

Weber State (14-2) swept Montana State and Montana at home.

Montana (13-3) split, winning at Idaho State and losing at Weber State.

Idaho (10-6) beat Eastern Washington at home.

Idaho State (10-6) split home homes, losing to Montana and beating Montana State.

Eastern Washington (10-6) lost at Idaho.

North Dakota (10-6) swept home games, knocking off Portland State and Sacramento State.

Montana State (7-9) lost at Weber State and Idaho State.

Portland State (6-10) split a pair of road games, losing at North Dakota and beating Northern Colorado.

Northern Colorado (6-10) split home games, beating Sac State and losing to Portland State.

Sacramento State (4-12) dropped back-to-back road games, at Northern Colorado and North Dakota.

Southern Utah (3-13) won on the road at Northern Arizona.

Northern Arizona (3-13) lost at home to Southern Utah.

Summing all of that up … HOME teams went 7-3. Weber State, Idaho, North Dakota and Southern Utah had perfect weekends with unblemished records.

And things fell just right to set up what is one of the most exciting final weeks of the season I can remember the Big Sky Conference having in recent memory. Here’s the deal: Everybody wants a top-four seed. A huge part of that (of course) is based upon the idea that if my team is a higher seed, I’ll player lower-seeded teams in the tournament — duh, right?

But something else to keep in mind. The tournament is set up so seeds 5-12 play on Tuesday. Win and advance to the quarterfinals on Thursday. Win and move on to the semifinals Friday, and the championship is Saturday.

A team that falls to the fifth seed, for example, is going to have to win FOUR games in FIVE days to take the Big Sky title. We’re talking about teams “playing their best” at the end of the season and “getting hot.” But if any of the 5-12 seeds pull off a couple upsets and make it to Saturday night in Reno,* how much energy would they even have to finish the deal?

Here’s a few things we know …

1) I found the Big Sky’s tiebreaker rules from 2013. I’m assuming they haven’t changed. Based on those rules, I believe the seeds as of today are … (to be clear: I could be totally wrong)

1. Weber State
2. Montana
3. Idaho
4. Eastern Washington
5. North Dakota
6. Idaho State
7. Montana State
8. Portland State
9. Northern Colorado
10. Sac State
11. Northern Arizona
12. Southern Utah

Idaho, I think, would be the No. 3 seed because the Vandals are 3-1 versus the teams they’re tied with for third (this doesn’t totally work since ISU hasn’t played either U of I or EWU yet). Also in this scenario, Eastern is the No. 4 seed because it went 1-1 against Idaho and North Dakota went 0-2. Idaho State slips to the sixth seed because the Bengals have the worst record (0-2) for head-to-head competition among the teams tied for third.

2) Based on the seeds I have (that could be totally wrong), here are the first-round matchups that would take place Tuesday, March 8.

Game 1: No. 8 Portland State vs No. 9 Northern Colorado

Game 2: No. 5 North Dakota vs No. 12 Southern Utah

Game 3: No. 7 Montana State vs No. 10 Sac State

Game 4: No. 6 Idaho State vs No. 11 Northern Arizona

3) Taking it one step further …

Game 5: Weber State vs Portland State/UNCO

Game 6: Eastern Washington vs UND/SUU

Game 7: Montana vs MSU/Sac State

Game 8: Idaho vs ISU/NAU

3) Keep in mind that the exercise of figuring out all the seeds was a complete waste of time (most likely). Idaho State’s trip north to play Eastern Washington on Thursday and Idaho on Saturday should help clear up the seeding scenarios — or make it even murkier.

5) Ken Pomeroy’s Big Sky all-conference team currently includes Montana senior Martin Breunig, Weber State senior Joel Bolomboy, North Dakota junior Quinton Hooker, Eastern Washington senior Venky Jois and Portland State senior Cameron Forte.

That’s a solid list. All of those guys have been rocks for their respective teams. But when the league’s coaches get together are they really going to select four forwards and one guard? Six players were all-Big Sky first-team selections a year ago, and there were four guards and two forwards. And on the second team, the coaches had four guards and one forward.

It’s going to be a really interesting selection process. Here is who I view are the contenders for first-team all-Big Sky (conference-only stats) …

— Weber State
Joel Bolomboy (17.7 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 57% field goal)
Jeremy Senglin (17.4 ppg)

— Montana
Martin Breunig (19.7 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 65% field goal)

— Idaho
No one, which I realize is odd. The Vandals might have the league’s coach of the year and a top-four seed, but nobody from Idaho is going to receive first-team all-Big Sky recognition.

— Eastern Washington
Venky Jois (18.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 71% field goal)
Austin McBroom (23.4 ppg, 3.9 apg)

— North Dakota
Quinton Hooker (21.3 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.2 spg, 53% field goal, 47% 3-pt field goal, league-leading 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio)

— Idaho State
Ethan Telfair (23.4 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.1 spg)

— Montana State
Tyler Hall (21.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
I also considered listing Marcus Colbert as a contender. The senior guard is averaging 15.6 points and 5.6 assists per game, and he makes Hall’s life easier by directing the ’Cats’ offense. But it’s hard to conjure a scenario where Colbert could leapfrog the likes of McBroom, Hooker and Telfair to make the first-team list.

— Portland State
Cameron Forte (19.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 62% field goal)

— Northern Colorado
Anthony Johnson is having a fine season (15.2 ppg) but doesn’t stand a chance.

— Sacramento State

— Northern Arizona

— Southern Utah
And nope

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker. This one is easy. Hooker, in two wins, scored 72 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished seven assists. And he did all of that while shooting 26 of 32 (81.3 percent) from the field and 8 of 11 (72.7 percent) from 3.

GAME OF THE WEEK coming up: Too tough to choose. Weber State/Idaho State are headed up to play Idaho/Eastern Washington and those results could shuffle the standings around a bit.

TEAM TO WATCH CLOSELY THIS WEEK: North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks have a lot to play for. If Hooker and company can go 2-0 this week (a big “if” considering they’re at Montana/Montana State), not only would have they a great shot at a top-four seed, they’d carry the momentum of five straight wins to Reno.*

*Obligatory #RoadtoReno
*Obligatory #RoadtoReno

— Kyle Franko

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 28 + a few highlights


From the Spokesman Review ... Chris Sarbaugh leads Idaho past EWU

Some strong words, which I love, from Idaho guard Victor Sanders in the Spokesman after the game: “We’re not satisfied. We’re not happy. We’re on a mission. We’re on a mission to get to the pinnacle of what we’re supposed to do. We want to win a Big Sky championship and we have to take it one game at a time and this is just a stepping stone to get there.”


From the Grand Forks Herald ... MEN'S BASKETBALL: UND 97, Sacramento State 71 (another stellar night for Quinton Hooker)

Hooker is, without a doubt, your Big Sky Conference player of the week. Against Sacramento State, the junior played in an effortless fashion, scoring 34 points in 32 minutes while shooting 11 of 12 from the field and 5 of 5 from 3. That's one heck of a game, and it follows Thursday's effort when Hooker had 38 points against Portland State, an 80-77 UND win.

In the two games, Hooker averaged 36 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists on — get this — 81.2 percent shooting.


From the Greeley Tribune ... UNC men's hoops fall to Portland State University (check out Portland State's game-winning shot in the video below)

Vikings forward Cameron Forte missed eight free throws and had five turnovers, but the graduate senior led PSU with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 39 minutes. Northern Colorado head coach B.J. Hill had a great quote in the Greeley Tribune.

Hill said of Forte: “You don’t see too many guys in our conference who are that skilled. He demands a double team. ... We didn’t feel we could guard him one-on-one and we had to throw a lot of different things at him. He’s like a 6-foot-7 guard. He sees how you’ll rotate on him and how you’re (setting up) to stop him.”


From the Missoulian ... Weber drops Montana out of first place

The Missoulian's Kyle Sample touched on a bit of a controversy that happened during the game. Toward the end of the first half, the officials went to a video review and the broadcast mentioned that they thought the referees were looking for evidence of a player spitting.

Sample wrote in his story that it was UM junior guard Walter Wright who was accused of spitting "in the direction" of Weber State's bench. During the game the referees found nothing and the action moved on. After it was over, however, Wildcats guard Juwan Williams got into a slight scuffle with Wright during the postgame handshakes

I'll be curious to see if the Big Sky Conference goes back to video to see if they can find Wright, or another UM player, spitting, because if they do I have to assume there could be some sort of punishment handed down during the week.

Honestly, I hope nothing else comes out of the situation. More than anything, this incident is reflective of the Montana-Weber State rivalry — it's as heated and competitive as ever.

From the Standard-Examiner ... Weber State takes sole possession of first place with 60-54 win over Montana

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 27



From the Spokesman Review ... Eagles look for defensive intensity at Idaho

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News ... Brothers Chad, Nate Sherwood share spotlight at Idaho


From the Grand Forks Herald ... UND’s Quinton Hooker joins an elite group

North Dakota coach Brian Jones told the Herald: “As the captain, (Hooker) has to demand these young kids get to his level. Not necessarily in scoring but from an urgency and energy standpoint.”

Sacramento State game notes


From the Billings Gazette ... Turkish terror bombings hit home for MSU's Gobeloglu

The Gazette's Greg Rachac does a terrific job, as usual, in the above story. Check it out. Scroll down a bit and you'll also see some very interesting quotes from Montana State coach Brian Fish. Apparently, MSU couldn't find hotel rooms in Pocatello because of the high school state wrestling tournaments going on. Fish isn't pleased.

“It’s a screw-up I’m not happy about by our league,” Fish told the Gazette. “Idaho State, they’ve got things going on and they didn’t reserve rooms for us. We’ve been trying to get hotels. … We’re staying a long way away. That’s not the way you handle things. That’s not very professional on their part. It takes you completely out of your rhythm. But it’s part of life on the road. It will be addressed this summer and when we have our coaches meetings.”

Rachac mentions that according to the Big Sky Conference it's the visiting team's responsibility to book hotel rooms during the regular season.

I bring this all up because ... 1) It's interesting. It's life on the road. ... 2) Idaho State coach Bill Evans is a prideful guy, and he's all about respecting the opponent. Fish really went after the Bengals in that quote. Evans is going to take it personally.

From the Idaho State Journal ... Matchup with Montana State big for Bengals

“They’re a terrific shooting team," ISU coach Bill Evans told the Journal. “They’re much improved.”

Both teams are "much improved" and have had seasons that have taken many by surprise. In the preseason media polls, the Bobcats and Bengals were pegged to finish second to last and dead last. Now they have the opportunity to play a game in late February with real consequences.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle ... Backcourts on center stage when MSU men face Idaho State

Here's the real question with this game. Will former NBA pros Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury be in the gym again to watch Ethan Telfair do his thing?

From the Standard-Examiner ... Down, but not out, Weber State's Joel Bolomboy reflects on his Wildcat career

Weber State coach Randy Rahe told the Standard-Examiner: "He’s a sponge. He can’t get enough. Because of his work ethic and attitude, every year he’s made a significant jump.”

After reading the story, I got the sense from Bolomboy and Rahe that Weber State's star is done for the season. I hope not. But it doesn't sound promising.

From the Missoulian ... Montana, Weber State rivalry has deep roots

Read that last story. It's a fun look back at the rivalry between the two best basketball programs in the Big Sky.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Previewing Saturday’s Big Sky games

Are you all caught up on what went down Thursday night? If not you can find all the results, updated standings and links to stories here.

Betting line: Northern Arizona -6.5
KenPom gives Northern Arizona a 74 percent chance of winning
Last time: Northern Arizona 74, Southern Utah 63. The Lumberjacks out-rebounded the Thunderbirds 44-29, which led to 17 second-chance points for NAU. And the ’Jacks flipped 13 T-bird turnovers into 23 points. NAU guard Kris Yanku flirted with a triple-double, finishing 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

On Thursday: Both teams had the night off

What’s at stake: With a loss, the Thunderbirds lock up a last-place finish in the conference standings.

Betting line: Idaho -3
KenPom gives Idaho a 60 percent chance to win
Last time: Eastern Washington 74, Idaho 60. Felix Van Hofe and Austin McBroom combined to 11 3-pointers, and the Eagles held the Vandals to 31.3 percent shooting as they led by as many as 24 points in the second half.

On Thursday: Both teams had the night off

What’s at stake: Eastern is clinging to a one-game lead over three teams for third place. If Idaho wins Saturday night, the muddled Big Sky standings aren’t just a mess — they’re thrown into a grinder with one weekend left in the regular season.

As far as this matchup, I’m surprised KenPom favors the Vandals so heavily. Idaho is good at home but not great with an 8-4 record (conference losses to Sac State and Southern Utah). EWU’s offense leads the Big Sky in 3PA/FGA (44.1 percent), and U of I is 12th in the league defensively in 3PA/FGA (44.2 percent).

In other words, Eastern’s offense is built around shooting 3-pointers and Idaho’s defense is structured around the principle of protecting the paint and forcing long jump shots.

Obviously each team will make adjustments from game to game, and the Vandals didn’t play well in Cheney during their first matchup. It’ll be interesting to see what Idaho coach Don Verlin does to affect EWU’s potent offense.

Betting line: North Dakota -7.5
KenPom gives North Dakota a 77 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

On Thursday: North Dakota guard Quinton Hooker had himself a game. The junior surpassed the 1,000-point mark at UND and poured in a Division I single-game school scoring record 38 points as UND held off Portland State 80-77.

What’s at stake: North Dakota is one of four teams (along with EWU, ISU and U of I) battling for a top-four spot in the postseason.* Considering that the Fighting Hawks travel west for road games at Montana and Montana State next week, they need this game to remain in contention.

Betting line: Idaho State -3
KenPom gives Idaho State a 62 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

On Thursday: Idaho State guard Ethan Telfair picked up his fourth foul against Montana with 12:40 to go in the second half. The junior went to the bench with the Bengals trailing 52-48, and when he reentered the Grizzlies had pumped up their lead to 64-54. ISU never recovered.

Montana State, I think, learned Weber State is a bad matchup, whether Joel Bolomboy is playing or not. The Wildcats scored 42 points in the paint on the Bobcats, and WSU defended MSU guards Marcus Colbert and Tyler Hall exceptionally well. Those two combined for 39 points but needed 41 field goal attempts.

What’s at stake: The Bobcats’ loss Thursday virtually guaranteed they’re no longer in the run for a top-four seed in Reno.* The Bengals are still very much in that conversation. So from “what’s at stake” standpoint, ISU has more on the line in this game.

As far as this matchup is concerned, it seems simple enough. The Bobcats are a jump shooting team. They’re going to rely on that plus Colbert’s ability to penetrate ISU’s zone. If Idaho State can contain Colbert, the Bengals should be able to pull away in the second half because MSU is going to struggle defending Ethan Telfair and company.

Betting line: Portland State -2
KenPom gives Portland State a 55 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

On Thursday: Losers of five straight, Northern Colorado trailed Sac State 61-56 with 6:03 left in the game Thursday. The Bears rallied, outscored the Hornets 16-6 down the stretch and picked up a win they desperately needed.

Portland State, meanwhile, had another fantastic game from graduate senior Cameron Forte at North Dakota. He put up 24 points and 13 rebounds and gave the Vikings a chance in Grand Forks.

As a quick aside: Forte, in Big Sky action, is fifth in the league in scoring (20.0 ppg), second in rebounding (10.4 rpg) and fourth in field goal percentage (61.4 percent). Portland State is 5-10 in the conference and probably won’t finish any higher than eighth place. But Forte is having an all-Big Sky type of season.

What’s at stake: Seeding. PSU and UNC are going to head to Reno* with seeds in the 7-10 range.

Betting line: Weber State -4.5
KenPom gives Weber a 68 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

On Thursday: On a night when Brandon Gfeller scored one point and Martin Breunig needed 14 shots to end up with 14 points, Montana still rattled off 90 points (1.27 points per possession) on Idaho State. Walter Wright (29 points) and Bobby Morehead (eight 3s) were magnificent.

The Grizzlies showed off their depth, and so did the Wildcats against Montana State. Kyndahl Hill slid into the starting lineup to replace Bolomboy, and he combined with freshman center Zach Braxton to shoot 12 of 16 from the field. The duo had 30 points and 14 rebounds.

What’s at stake: The winner will have a one-game advantage over the other for the regular-season championship and postseason’s No. 1 seed* with two games left in the season.

*obligatory #RoadtoReno

— Kyle Franko

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 26 + a few highlights



Idaho State outgunned by Montana in 90-77 loss (video)

Eye-opening quote from ISU guard Ethan Telfair in the Idaho State Journal: “Clearly, Montana’s the best team in the conference"



Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 25


From the Grand Forks Herald ... COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Postseason positioning

UND coach Brian Jones told the Herald: "I don't think there is a strong favorite on a neutral floor."*


Bengals coach Bill Evans told the Journal: “I think Montana’s one of the harder teams in this league to guard. They have really good perimeter shooting and they have a young man inside (Breunig) that can really score the ball.”

In the article above, Sample highlights what is going to be a great matchup tonight: Montana freshman Michael Oguine's budding prowess as a defensive stopper to try and and deal with Idaho State junior Ethan Telfair or sophomore Geno Luzcando (as well as future matchups with Weber and UND guards).



From Skyline Sports ... Weber State’s Bolomboy out with Montana teams coming to Ogden ... "sick to my stomach when it happened."

Via Brandon Garside in the article above, it sounds like WSU coach Randy Rahe will use 6-foot-4 sophomore Dusty Baker at the four quite a bit in Joel Bolomboy's absence.

“We gave him a quick crash course on how to run our stuff,” Rahe told the Standard-Examiner. “Thankfully Dusty’s really smart and he picks things up really quick. He did it on the fly down at Northern Arizona and did a really good job. He made a few mistakes, but that’s going to happen.”

Also from the Standard-Examiner ... Bracket watch: If the Big Sky Tournament started today

MSU head coach Brian Fish had an interesting quote in the Gazette: “I saw the injury on film and it certainly didn’t look good. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that takes some time to bounce back. But at the same time I don’t think it changes them a lot.

“It takes a pro out of their lineup, but they’re not a one-pony show. Their other scholarship (players) are very good. It will just give (another) guy an opportunity to do some things. Bolomboy is very impressive on film, and he’d be hard to replace. But I think they’ll (do) it as a group. So it won ‘t change much.”

That first paragraph is the scary part. Bone bruises are a bit funky and the recovery time is murky.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle ... MSU men hit the road fighting for Big Sky position

*obligatory #RoadtoReno

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Previewing Thursday’s Big Sky games

Betting line: North Dakota -6.5
KenPom gives North Dakota a 74 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season
What’s at stake: Portland State snapped a five-game skid last Saturday when it beat Eastern Washington and scored 1.30 points per possession (ppp). Don’t bet on the Vikings repeating that sort of performance, but will they have any carryover momentum?

North Dakota is currently in sixth place but has a realistic possibility of finishing as high as third with a strong finish. One thing to watch for: UND junior guard Quinton Hooker is 26 points away from reaching a 1,000 for his career. The Vikings have an athletic backcourt, so that’ll be a fun matchup.

Betting line: Montana -2.5
KenPom gives Montana a 59 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season
What’s at stake: Most folks looking at the Big Sky this week are excited for Montana-Weber State on Saturday — understandably so. But I can guarantee you UM head coach Travis DeCuire and players are focused on the Bengals, even if they owned ISU last season.

The Grizzlies punished Bill Evans’ matchup zone in two matchups a year ago. They averaged 89 points and shot a combined 57.4 percent (58 for 101) from the field — while draining 27 3-pointers in two wins. Montana sharpshooter Brandon Gfeller knocked down 12 3-pointers just by himself.

The 3-point arc will play a huge role in Thursday’s matchup, too. In conference play, the Grizzlies lead the Big Sky shooting 41.9 percent from deep, and the Bengals are No. 1 in the conference defending the arc (holding opponents to 32 percent shooting).

Two more things: One, ISU’s Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando versus Montana’s trio of Walter Wright, Michael Oguine and Mario Dunn is going to be fun. Two, the Bengals are playing in Reed Gym as opposed to Holt Arena because of Idaho’s state high school wrestling tournaments. Holt is cold, drafty and holds 8,000 fans for basketball games. Reed’s capacity is 3,040 and should come close to selling out for this game. The atmosphere will be fantastic.

Betting line: Sacramento State -1
KenPom gives Sac State a 51 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season
What’s at stake: The Hornets, in conference play, are 11th in the Big Sky scoring .994 ppp. They haven’t shot the ball well from 3 or the free-throw line. Northern Colorado, however, hasn’t been particularly effective defensively, either. So whose weakness will be exploited? Will the Bears, who have dropped five straight, be able to outscore the visiting Hornets? Or will Sac defend well enough and find a way to manufacture the points it needs to pull out a win on the road?

Betting line: Weber State -11.5
KenPom gives Weber an 86 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season
What’s at stake: How will Weber State respond to Joel Bolomboy’s absence? Montana State isn’t the kind of team with a player who will attack WSU in the post, but the Bobcats are third in conference action scoring 1.104 ppp. They have the weapons to challenge a Wildcats defense that’s No. 1 in Big Sky play holding teams to .947 ppp. We’ll get a gauge at how easily WSU coach Randy Rahe adjusts to life (for now) without his defensive anchor.
Live stats

— Kyle Franko

This week in Big Sky basketball -- Feb. 24

Check out the weekly Big Sky podcast in the video below. Host Scott Garrard interviews Sacramento State's Adella Randle-El, Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy and Ned Hirsch, who is described as a college basketball "super fan."

5 Questions with Montana Grizzlies beat writer Kyle Sample

The Missoulian's Kyle Sample was kind of enough to join to answer 5 Questions about Montana basketball as the Grizzlies head south for two huge games against Idaho State (Thursday) and Weber State (Saturday).

1) Senior forward Martin Breunig’s numbers are up across the board. He’s averaging more points (19.2 vs 16.7), rebounds (8.8 vs 7.3) and blocks (1.08 vs .8) per game. His efficiency numbers a better, too. Breunig is 11th in the country with an effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent.

So, Kyle, how has Breunig improved after a fantastic junior season? Is it just natural maturity? Or did Breunig target anything in the offseason specifically to refine?

The biggest difference for Martin is that he is more aggressive this year and much more aware of where he is on the court and what the defense is trying to do to him. He is so smart against double-teams. If they chase him off the block, he's aware of where they are coming from and has been really smart — and willing — finding the open guy. But in the case where teams dig in on the block and then back away, he's been really good at feeling that and remaining patient.

He's also getting himself in better position to score. Unless teams run him off the block with a double, it's not often that they're able to force him out of the low post. Once he gets it on the block he's so explosive and has such great touch that, more often than not, he's either scoring or getting fouled.

2) I think because Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy is basically a walking double-double and has NBA scouts docked courtside at his games, Breunig’s play has gone a little unnoticed (outside of Missoula). If the Grizzlies beat the Wildcats this week and go on to win the regular season, is Breunig your pick for Big Sky player of the year? Why or why not?

There are a lot of good candidates for that award, but he would be my choice if Montana wins. We thought we were going to see Breunig and Bolomboy go one-on-one this weekend in Ogden, but now it seems doubtful that is going to happen. Martin is playing with a lot of good weapons, probably more than the coaching staff thought available when the season started, but he doesn't have another player who can score like Jeremy Senglin so he’s shouldering a lot of the load offensively. Also, the attention he demands when he is on the floor, even on a bad shooting night, is so great that it allows so much room for others to pick up the slack on those rare occasions. 

3) Kyle, you wrote a long profile on Montana head coach Travis DeCuire last week that I’d encourage any Big Sky fan to check out. As you’ve gotten to know DeCuire over the past two seasons, what are his strengths as a head coach? And from your perspective, what has DeCuire learned about coaching in the Big Sky that he’s incorporating in Year No. 2?

I don't want to say he's learned this, because he showed it last season with a roster that didn't exactly have the pieces to run the team the way he wanted, but he's really adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of this team.

As a product of the Montana coaching tree and former player at UM, he came with a dizzying array of half-court sets. The plan was to employ those throughout the season and then add in some sets that would spread the floor. But when foul trouble and some early issues grasping those ideas caused the offense some issues, he switched things up to take advantage of the skills Walter Wright and Michael Oguine brought to the team. It helped space the floor for Breunig and allowed the team to get in a rhythm as conference play opened.

4) It’s a big week for Montana Grizzlies basketball with road games at Idaho State and Weber State. But since the regular-season champion no longer hosts the postseason tournament,* it’s not like the Grizzlies are fighting for anything other than the No. 1 seed in Reno. How much of an emphasis is Montana placing on postseason seeding? Do you think DeCuire really cares whether his team is the 1 or 2 seed in a few weeks? And just to add on to that, how would you gauge how Montana Grizzly basketball fans feel about the move to Reno?

I don't think Travis cares if they are a 1 or a 2 seed, but he does care about winning the regular-season title. He wants that ring and he wants to hang a banner from the Dahlberg Arena rafters. Montana graduates just one senior and I think he wants to teach some of the guys who will be here in the future — five graduate next season — what it takes to run the table and close out the regular season. So in that respect it's important to the program, and if they don't do that these next four games will be seen as a disappointment.

The feeling I get from Griz fans is they really, really don't like this new set up. They were pretty content with watching the Griz host the tournament and many won't be able to take a week of work off to travel to Reno. So I think there is some real resentment in Missoula.

5) Montana wins a Big Sky championship and reaches the NCAA tournament for the fourth time this decade if … ?

This is going to sound really insightful so prepare: The win if they stay healthy and the frontcourt stays out of foul trouble. With Mario Dunn's wrist slowly getting better, the backcourt has depth, but the front court doesn't have a lot. If Breunig and Fabijan Krslovic are on the bench for long periods, Montana doesn't have much experience to turn to. Jack Lopez has been a revelation this season, but he can't play the 5 and is really best as a 3 unless the Griz go to a three-guard lineup and then he's a really good stretch 4. But they don't want to play that lineup for long stretches, so they need to be smart defensively. If that can happen, I think they're the odds-on favorite.

*obligatory #RoadtoReno

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Most Powerful Power Rankings in Big Sky basketball -- Feb. 23

Inspired by ESPN NBA reporter Marc Stein, a committee (of one) ranks the Big Sky Conference’s 12 teams every Tuesday.

These are the Most Powerful Power Rankings in Big Sky basketball. Treat them as such.

1. MONTANA (17-8 overall, 12-2 Big Sky)
Last week: 2
RPI: 149
KenPom: 155
The lowdown: The Grizzlies rise to the top in the power rankings for two reasons. One, Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy has been diagnosed with a bone bruise in his left knee. Two … yeah, that’s about it.

The committee (of one) wasn’t so sure the Grizzlies shouldn’t have been No. 1 before Bolomboy’s injury. Montana’s defense, fifth in conference play allowing 1.008 points per possession, doesn’t match Weber State’s league-leading .947 points per possession. But the Griz, with Martin Breunig orchestrating down low and shooters spreading the floor, are scoring 1.152 per possession on offense (which only trails Eastern Washington).

2. WEBER STATE (20-7, 12-2)
Last week: 1
RPI: 155
KenPom: 134
The lowdown: First and foremost, the committee (of one) is rooting for Bolomboy’s return. Injuries stink. We want everybody to show up in Reno* with their rosters intact and ready to go.

Bolomboy is the central component of Weber State’s defense mentioned above. Twenty two percent of opponents field goal attempts are from 3 — the lowest percentage in the Big Sky and ninth in the country. It’s the kind of stat Bolomboy influences just by his presence on the floor. WSU guards aren’t worried about the player they’re guarding blowing past them for an easy layup. They can apply intense ball pressure because Bolomboy is patrolling the paint.

If Weber’s star center is going to miss a significant amount of time, we’re assuming junior Kyndahl Hill will shift into the starting lineup. Coming off the bench, Hill is one of the best reserves in the league. Playing 22 minutes a game on average, he’s third on the team in scoring (8.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.9 rpg).

Hill is capable of filling a bigger role, but WSU’s other forwards are exceedingly young. Weber coach Randy Rahe may decide to play smaller lineups with Hill as the center and Juwan Williams, Ryan Richardson or even Richard Gittens on the floor at the “four” along with three other guards.

Weber wouldn’t be the defensive juggernaut it is now if Rahe leans on the four-guard lineup, but maybe their offense would pick up the slack with an increased tempo.

3. EASTERN WASHINGTON (16-11, 10-5)
Last week: 3
RPI: 212
KenPom: 190
The lowdown: In his last four games, Eastern guard Austin McBroom has scored 35 points on North Dakota, 37 on Northern Colorado, 22 at Sac State and 36 at Portland State.

McBroom is eighth in the country in the percentage of possible minutes played (93.8 percent), and he’s somehow become arguably more important to Eastern’s championship hopes than preseason Big Sky MVP Venky Jois.

McBroom brings me to another point. The Big Sky has a number of guards who are just a joy to watch. The list includes Idaho State’s Ethan Telfair, North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker, Weber State’s Jeremy Senglin, the corpse of Northern Arizona’s Kris Yanku and Montana State’s Marcus Colbert. (Off the committee’s list is Montana’s Walter Wright and Idaho’s Victor Sanders and Perrion Callandret. Good players … just not as exciting as the others.)

4. IDAHO (17-11, 9-6)
Last week: 4
RPI: 228
KenPom: 218
The lowdown: Idaho held a 33-22 lead at Sacramento State with 18:38 to go in the game. At that point, the Vandals’ win probability hit 87.4 percent.

In the final 18 minutes or so, though, the Hornets outscored the Vandals 46-32, and Idaho missed out on a chance to vault into a tie with Eastern Washington for third place — both in the real conference standings and the Most Powerful Power Rankings in the Big Sky Conference. 

5. NORTH DAKOTA (13-12, 8-6)
Last week: 5
RPI: 233
KenPom: 207
The lowdown: I like North Dakota. The more I watch the Hawks, the more I like. They’ve got a solid eight-man rotation, a great guard in Hooker, they bring size and shooting off the bench … there’s a lot to like … yet … it feels like a roster a year away from true championship contention.

6. IDAHO STATE (14-12, 9-5)
Last week: 6
RPI: 276
KenPom: 264
The lowdown: At fourth place, the Bengals are right where they want to be in the league standings. Can they remain there? Their final four games are versus Montana (win probability = 41 percent) and Montana State (64 percent) and on the road at Eastern (21 percent) and Idaho (26 percent).

7. MONTANA STATE (12-14, 7-7)
Last week: 7
RPI: 266
KenPom: 260
The lowdown: A couple random thoughts on Montana State: It’s an improving program. Everything you hear emanating out of Bozeman about head coach Brian Fish is positive. Of all the teams crammed into the middle of the standings, we feel like Montana State has one of the highest chances of pulling off a couple stunning upsets ... or the Bobcats could get bounced in the first round. Nobody in the conference relies as heavily on the 3-point shot as the Bobcats. They’re a dangerous bunch if Tyler Hall and company find their groove — but if the 3 balls aren’t dropping can MSU do other things well enough to pull out a victory in a tournament setting?

8. PORTLAND STATE (9-16, 5-9)
Last week: 9
RPI: 284
KenPom: 250
The lowdown: The Vikings scored 1.30 points per possession against Eastern Washington. That’s ridiculous. So is this: Portland State scored 107 points in that game while attempting 12 (12!) 3-pointers. It makes the committee (of one) question Eastern’s No. 3 ranking.

9. SACRAMENTO STATE (11-14, 4-10)
Last week: 8
RPI: 267
KenPom: 270
The lowdown: The Hornets and Vikings are teams in interesting spots right now. KenPom slightly favors both to beat Northern Colorado and lose to North Dakota this week on the road. Then they’re favored to finish the regular season with back-to-back wins at home against cellar-dwellers Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.

If that scenario happens, it’s unlikely either would improve their seeding in the postseason tournament.* It would, however, be a serious burst of momentum for either team as they head to The Biggest Little City in the World.*

10. NORTHERN ARIZONA (5-21, 3-12)
Last week: 11
RPI: 310
KenPom: 334
The lowdown: Yanku has the league’s respect. He earned it with a stellar sophomore campaign. But it’s still shocking to watch the Lumberjacks and see Yanku as a junior coming off the bench in what has been a precipitous drop for the bad-luck Lumberjacks in 2016.

11. NORTHERN COLORADO (8-18, 5-9)
Last week: 10
RPI: 316
KenPom: 323
The lowdown: The committee (of one) probably shouldn’t have the Bears ranked this low. But in intense discussions, we just don’t like how they’ve lost five in a row and are one of the worst defenses in Division I basketball.

12. SOUTHERN UTAH (4-21, 2-13)
Last week: 12
RPI: 332
KenPom: 345
The lowdown: Quite literally, the only reason Northern Colorado isn’t the worst defense in college basketball is because of Southern Utah.
*obligatory #RoadtoReno
*obligatory #RoadtoReno
*obligatory #RoadtoReno

NOTE: The KenPom rankings have been updated and are current through Tuesday at 3:15 MST.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Recapping the Big Sky: What happened, player of the week, game of the week

In a glance, this is what happened last week …

Weber State (12-2) swept Southern Utah and Northern Arizona on the road.

Montana (12-2) extended its winning streak versus Montana State to 12 with a win at home.

Eastern Washington (10-5) split a pair of games, beating Sacramento State but losing to Portland State on the road.

Idaho State (9-5) split a pair of games on the road, losing at Northern Arizona but defeating Southern Utah.

Idaho (9-6) split two games, beating Portland State on the road and losing at Sacramento State.

North Dakota (8-6) beat Northern Colorado at home.

Montana State (7-7) lost at Montana.

Portland State (5-9) split two home games, losing to Idaho and knocking off Eastern Washington. 

Northern Colorado (5-9) lost its fifth consecutive game, this one at North Dakota.

Sacramento State (4-10) split home games, falling to Eastern Washington but beating Idaho.

Northern Arizona (3-12) split two games in Flagstaff, running away from Idaho State and losing to Weber State.

Southern Utah (2-13) dropped two games at home to Weber State and Idaho State.

Summing all of that up … HOME teams went 5-5. Weber State, Montana and North Dakota had perfect weekends with undefeated records. With Eastern’s loss at Sacramento State, the Wildcats and Grizzlies are in first place and have a 2.5-game cushion.

So who is going to finish at the top of the standing is clear. But seeds 3-7 are a jumbled mess. Eastern Washington, currently third, holds a half-game lead on Idaho State. The Bengals are clinging to a half-game lead on Idaho. North Dakota sits in sixth place but only a game back from fourth. And Montana State, seventh right now, is lurking and could maneuver its way up a few spots with some wins.

We’ve got two weeks and 22 games left in the regular season, and the Big Sky is going to need every one of them. Here are a few things we know …

1) Weber State was a big winner by pulling out two close road games, but the Wildcats received a scare when senior forward Joel Bolomboy appeared to injure his left leg in the first half at Northern Arizona.

Standard-Examiner reporter Brandon Garside Tweeted that Weber State had scheduled an MRI for Bolomboy’s leg, and he expects news as soon as Monday morning.

Assuming the Wildcats are a top-two seed, their first game would be March 10 — 17 days away. Let’s hope that’s more than enough time for Bolomboy to recover.


2) Idaho State is going to have one heck of a time holding on to fourth place. If the Bengals are going to do it, they’ll likely need to go 2-0 at home this week versus Montana on Thursday and Montana State on Saturday.

The Bengals finish the season traveling to Eastern Washington (March 3) and Idaho (March 5). On the road, they’ve done a fantastic Jekyll and Hyde impersonation.

In ISU’s last two road trips the variance in its performance has swung wildly from game to game …

at North Dakota on Feb. 4, ISU lost 76-60 and … shot 19-62 from the field (30.6 percent) … 7-30 from 3

at Northern Colorado on Feb. 6, ISU won 90-57 and … shot 32-55 (58.2 percent) … 13-20 from 3


at Northern Arizona last Thursday, ISU lost 81-68 and … shot 19-48 (39.6 percent) … 8-22 from 3

at Southern Utah last Saturday, ISU won 89-71 and … shot 31-55 (56.4 percent) … 8-13 from 3

Obviously there were a number of other factors affecting the final results in those games. But it’s pretty remarkable how the Bengals’ offensive production can shift from one game to the next.

ISU head coach Bill Evans, in my time covering the team, was always great at having a feel for the morale of his players. If they play poorly one night, he seems to have a way to connect with his guys to get them to perform much better in the next game.

3) The Big Sky Conference* has taken some heat for expanding the postseason tournament to include all 12 teams. Since everybody is getting in, of course, there’s less of an emphasis on regular-season games. You could draw a line after the eighth team in the standings in the past and know anyone below that mark was in mortal danger of their season ending when it was time to dance.

In the old format, Northern Colorado, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah wouldn’t qualify for the tournament (using today’s standings). NAU and SUU, in particular, wouldn’t have much to play for considering how far back they are.

But you can count me as a supporter of the 12-team tournament. Read quotes from the likes of Sac State coach Brian Katz or Southern Utah coach Nick Robinson. They’re preaching to their guys that, yeah, we haven’t been great, but if we keep working, getting better, we can show up in Reno* and battle — and who knows what the heck can happen?

If you’re a Montana or Weber State or Eastern Washington fan, I can see how you wouldn’t like the new 12-team look. For the programs that have consistently struggled, however, it’s a welcomed change of pace.

4) If you’ve been following Big Sky basketball long, how fun is it to see things like …

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Montana guard Michael Oguine. The freshman scored 27 points and had five rebounds against Montana State while shooting 7 of 13 from the field and 12 of 14 from the foul line.

GAME OF THE WEEK coming up: Montana at Weber State, 7 p.m. MST. They’re only playing once during the regular season, and it could decide who gets the No. 1 seed in Reno.* The Purple Palace is going to be rocking.

TEAM TO WATCH CLOSELY THIS WEEK: North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks are a very interesting team and someone I’d mark down as an under-the-radar championship contender. Junior guard Quinton Hooker is a bona fide stud. UND hosts Portland State and Sac State this week, and two wins have the potential to launch them up a couple notches in the standings.

*obligatory #RoadtoReno
*obligatory #RoadtoReno
*obligatory #RoadtoReno


Do you like dunks? The Big Sky Conference* does, and the league took to Twitter to show off a few from last week's slate of games.

*obligatory #RoadtoReno

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 21


North Dakota nearly gagged away an eight-point lead in the closing minutes, but the Fighting Hawks held on and stayed a game behind Idaho State for fourth place.


The Wildcats managed to avoid the upset and stay knotted with the Grizzlies at the top of the Big Sky standings.
The story to watch from this one, though, is Joel Bolomboy ...


Photos: Montana beats Montana State 87-78 in Brawl of the Wild

Oguine, Gfeller rise up to lead Montana to 12th straight win over Montana State

Oguine, Grizzlies get best of Hall, Bobcats (read this one)

MSU men drop 12th straight against Montana

Interesting quote from MSU Brian Fish (that can be found in the bottom link) in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Let’s just cut to the chase: Montana and Weber (State) are the two teams in this league that are a little bit better than everybody else."


I can't actually find any articles from this game. Sure, you could go to the athletic web sites of Southern Utah and Idaho State, read what's there and check out the box scores.

There's also this, a compilation of ISU highlights produced by Idaho State's athletic department ...


Vikings' Shooting Barrage Buries Eagles, 107-91

This is a ridiculous box score. Nine combined players scored in double figures. Vikings forward Cameron Forte (32 points, nine rebounds) had an incredible dunk, which you can see for yourself at the 3:40 mark in the video below that was produced by the Portland State Vikings, and senior EWU guard Austin McBrooms put up 36 points on 22 shots.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Big Sky morning links -- Feb. 20

Great slate of games tonight ... the Big Sky bball blog previewed each of them and included links to video/audio/stats in a post you can find right here.




From The Spectrum & Daily News: A conversation with former coach Bill Evans

If you know Evans at all or have followed his career, make sure to check this one out. Here's one interesting quote from the article.

"There’s a lot of up and downs in coaching. There are some highs and there are some lows. So I try not to get too high and not to get too low. It still doesn’t feel good to lose games. So I still got a lot of edge to me and a lot of fire, and we've got a game on Saturday against a team that just took one of the best team’s in this league right down to the wire."

From the Idaho State Journal ... Bengals try to avoid another trap at S. Utah

After Idaho State lost Thursday to Northern Arizona 81-68, head coach Bill Evans said on the ISU postgame radio show: “I don't think we played with the energy and toughness tonight that we have been playing with prior to this game. We did not guard the arc well and we couldn’t make baskets. We weren’t very good offensively and defensively. That is a bad combination.”


From the Missoulian: DeCuire follows long, winding road back to Montana ... this is one you're going to want to read.

Also from the Missoulian earlier this week: Former Griz Gregory signs with Australian club

Skyline Sports weekly podcast: Big Sky Breakdown: Around the Big Sky, February 19 ... Colter Nuanez interviews EWU guard Austin McBroom, Idaho's Chris Sarbaugh, Montana State head coaches Tricia Binford and Brian Fish and Montana head coaches Robin Selvig and Travis DeCuire.