Sunday, March 6, 2016

Previewing the first round of the Big Sky tournament

Things get underway starting Tuesday. Before then, here are a couple different places to find printable brackets. ... The Big Sky Conference has one. ... The Standard-Examiner has one.

Big Sky bball dot com also has a quick glance at the entire tournament field and game times.


Betting line: Portland State -4
KenPom gives Portland State a 63 percent chance to win

Winner gets No. 1 Weber State, Thursday, 1:05 p.m.

During the regular season: PSU won the series 1-0

PSU 89, UNCo 86 in Greeley

Stars of the game
PSU - Cameron Forte … 17 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 turnovers, 1 block, 1 steal
PSU - Calaen Robinson … 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists in 26 minutes … game-winning 3-pointer
UNCo - Anthony Johnson … 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting

Trends/what to keep in mind: Led by the brilliance of forward Cameron Forte and bolstered by a soft schedule down the home stretch, Portland State has won three in a row and four of its last five.

Northern Colorado was in a downward spiral the last month, dropping six of the seven games it played in February. But when UNCo traveled to Montana last Saturday and played the Grizzlies as they contending for a regular-season title, the Bears erased the frustrations of February and pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the season, knocking off UM 78-72.

That brings us to Tuesday. When PSU and UNCo last played Feb. 27 in Greeley, Colorado, the Vikings ripped off 1.22 points per possession and the Bears rattled off 1.18 points per possession.

Expect more of the same in the rematch. Neither team is good defensively. Can Forte, who is averaging 23.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 60 percent from the floor in his last five games, carry PSU to a first-round victory? Or will the Bears’ guard-heavy lineup be productive enough on offense to overcome their deficiencies on defense?


Betting line: North Dakota -7
KenPom gives North Dakota an 82 percent chance to win

Winner gets No. 4 Idaho State, Thursday, 3:05 p.m.

During the regular season: North Dakota won the series 1-0

UND 88, SUU 72 in Cedar City

Stars of the game
UND - Quinton Hooker … 28 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, 4 steals, 8-of-12 shooting, 11 for 11 from the free-throw line
SUU - Trey Kennedy … 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals

Trends/what to keep an eye on: Rebounds are a funky stat and aren’t always reflective of who is playing well and who isn’t. But the boards are something to watch with the Fighting Hawks. North Dakota is 12-1 when it wins the rebounding battle and 3-13 when it’s out-rebounded.

When UND rolled past SUU back in January, the Hawks held the Thunderbirds to 42 percent shooting and, you guessed it, won the battle for rebounds 38-27.

This game, more than any other in the first round, looks like a complete mismatch. North Dakota is one of the top-four defenses in the league, holding teams to .994 points per possession, and Southern Utah is 10th in the Big Sky scoring .997 points per possession (those are conference-only stats).


Betting line: Montana State -1.5
KenPom gives Montana State a 58 percent chance to win

Winner gets No. 2 Montana, Thursday, 6:35 p.m.

During the regular season: MSU won the series 2-0

MSU 71, Sac State 64 in Bozeman

Stars of the game
MSU - Marcus Colbert … 21 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals
MSU - Sarp Gobeloglu … off the bench, 20 points, 5 rebounds in 25 minutes, 5 of 7 from 3
Sac - Jeff Wu … off the bench, 11 points in 22 minutes, 3 of 4 from 3

MSU 79, Sac State 76 in Sacramento

Stars of the game
MSU - Tyler Hall … 25 points, 5 rebounds … 8-of-18 shooting, 5 of 10 from 3
Sac - Justin Strings … 23 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks

Trends/what to keep an eye on: Justin Strings, who leads the Hornets in conference play with 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, had a miserable night at Montana State, scoring 11 points on 13 shots while playing a team-high 36 minutes.

But Strings recovered at home, bullying his way inside the paint to have one of his better games this season. He’ll need another effort like that for the Hornets to pull off the upset against the Bobcats. Sacramento State (.987 points per possession) is one of the worst offensive teams in the league, and that’s where Montana State, especially if the 3s are falling, excels.

One thing for MSU fans to keep in mind, senior Cody Demps (12.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 43.5 FG%) missed both games against Montana State.


Betting line: Eastern -13
KenPom gives Eastern a 84 percent chance to win

Winner gets No. 3 Idaho, Thursday, 9:05 p.m.

During the regular season: EWU won the series 2-0

EWU 96, NAU 73 in Cheney

Stars of the game
EWU - Venky Jois … 21 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 10-of-12 shooting
NAU - Ako Kaluna … 18 points, 4 rebounds, 8-of-19 shooting

EWU 84, NAU 73 in Flagstaff

Stars of the game
EWU - Austin McBroom … 28 points, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 turnovers, 10 of 12 from the free-throw line
EWU - Bogdan Bliznyuk … 22 points, 10 rebounds, 6 of 10 from 3
NAU - Mike Green … 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 8-of-19 shooting

Trends/what to keep an eye on: The defending champs faded late in the season, losing four straight games — two of those at home where Eastern Washington started 10-0.

There are two ways to think about the Eagles’ four-game skid. One, they’re falling apart because they’re tired. EWU isn’t a deep team, and head coach Jim Hayford has leaned on his stars to eat up big minutes.

No team in the Big Sky Conference relies more on the 3-pointer and tired legs affect jump shooting. In their last four losses, the Eagles are shooting 34.3 percent from beyond the arc* — which stands in stark contrast to their 38.9 percent shooting clip for the season.

And the second way to look at the Eagles’ late-season slide … they simply slogged through a difficult schedule. Eastern lost at Portland State back when the Vikings were desperate for a win. Then they played Idaho, Idaho State and Weber State back to back to back, losing those three games by a total 10 points.

When it comes to Tuesday’s matchup for Eastern against NAU, the Eagles are the most highly favorited team in the opening round of games. It’s hard to conjure a scenario where the ’Jacks, who allow 1.129 points per possession in league play, are good enough to stymie Eastern’s high-powered attack (1.169 ppp). And NAU certainly can’t outscore EWU if the game is fast paced.

But there a couple nuggets that make this game interesting. One is the duel between NAU point guard Kris Yanku and EWU point guard Austin McBroom. Yanku has had a disappointing junior campaign, but he’s a gamer. The second is that Lumberjacks coach Jack Murphy is going to get his guys to play hard. Murphy can sell his team on the fact they’re heavy underdogs and the pressure is on Eastern. Plus, the winner plays Idaho in quarterfinals and one of NAU’s three league victories was against the Vandals.

*It should be noted Eastern played very well offensively Saturday against Weber State, hitting 10 of 20 3-pointers. What killed the Eagles were 10 missed free throws.

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