Friday, March 4, 2016

Previewing Saturday’s Big Sky games

Betting line: Montana -16.5
KenPom gives Montana a 93 percent chance to win
Last time: Montana 73, Northern Colorado 66. In a game with 69 combined free-throw attempts, the Grizzlies pulled out a win behind Martin Breunig’s 22 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

What’s at stake: For Northern Colorado, nothing is at stake. Montana needs to win to have a shot at the regular season championship and the Big Sky tournament’s No. 1 seed.* Not sure Vegas shouldn’t have favored the Griz by more.

Betting line: Montana State -1.5
KenPom gives Montana State a 57 percent chance to win
Last time: North Dakota 85, Montana State 68. The Fighting Hawks were dominant at home. They led by as many as 25 points in the second half and four players scored in double figures. MSU senior point guard Marcus Colbert had one of his worst games, committing six turnovers and scoring six points on 13 field goal attempts.

What’s at stake: After the Bobcats knocked off Northern Colorado on Thursday, the talk from the ’Cats postgame was about building momentum for Reno.*

I’m sure North Dakota is feeling the same way, too, because the Hawks are coming off a miserable night at Montana. UND’s starting five combined to shoot 7 for 32 from the field. Yikes.

But you’re only as good as your last game, right? And the Hawks would feel a lot better about life with a win in Bozeman. More importantly, UND still has a shot at the fourth seed if Idaho State loses at Idaho. Montana State, meanwhile, needs to win to avoid dropping from seventh to eighth in the standings (assuming Portland State wins Saturday).

Betting line: PK
KenPom gives Eastern a 50 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

What’s at stake: Weber State needs to win or have Montana lose to clinch its 22nd regular season championship. Eastern Washington is going to be either the fifth or sixth seed in Reno* next week. So from a competitive standpoint this game doesn’t mean much for the Eagles.

Yet … I can’t help but think EWU needs this game more than Weber. I know it’s important for WSU to win the regular season crown, and the ’Cats would hate to drop two straight. But Eastern is in a funk. The Eagles have lost three in a row and guard Austin McBroom, who was scorching hot a couple weeks back, has posted back-to-back sub-par games. He was a combined 8 for 28 against Idaho and Idaho State and had five assists compared to nine turnovers.

Eastern coach Jim Hayford had an interesting quote in an EWU athletics release. He said, "Our team believes that they can beat anybody, but they also know they can lose to anybody. Because we have some players who have been there, I believe we are going to find another gear when we get to Reno. That's what we're going to bank on. They know what it's about and they've had success in that tournament. I'm going to put my eggs in that basket."

That sounds like a coach who is waiting for his team to flip a switch, and he hopes the pressure of the Big Sky tournament will do the trick.

Betting line: Portland State -12
KenPom gives Portland State an 87 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

What’s at stake: Portland State could jump from eighth to seventh with a win and a Montana State loss.

The most interesting thing I’m keeping an eye on, however, is whether PSU forward Cameron Forte can keep pushing for all-Big Sky recognition. Forte was the first Viking to ever (ever) post a triple-double when he had 20 points, 15 boards and 10 assists Thursday against Northern Arizona.

In conference play, Forte is putting up 19.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists a night. Oh, and he’s shooting 61.1 percent from the field.

I bring all of this up because despite averaging a double-double and putting together a great individual season, Forte is (most likely) not even going to be a first-team selection when the Big Sky releases its all-conference teams next week.

When the coaches get together, they have to honor guys from winning teams … Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy, Montana’s Martin Breunig, Idaho State’s Ethan Telfair, North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker, Eastern Washington’s Venky Jois … who on that list can Forte dislodge? A monster effort Saturday might give him a slight, very slight chance.

Betting line: Sac State -9.5
KenPom gives Sac State an 82 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

What’s at stake: Practically nothing from a seeding standpoint. The Hornets have sewn up the 10th seed* for Reno, and the Lumberjacks are going to be either No. 11 or No. 12.

This is a matchup of the two worst offenses in the Big Sky … but, oddly, I find myself not giving up on either team. Both could present some issues for whoever they play in Reno.

Justin Strings (16.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is going to be a problem for any Hornets opponent. And NAU point guard Kris Yanku is back in the NAU starting lineup and had his best individual performance of the season versus PSU, ripping off 32 points, four rebounds, five assists and five steals.

Betting line: Idaho -6.5
KenPom gives Idaho a 74 percent chance to win
Last time: First meeting this season

What’s at stake: Game of the day in the Big Sky. The winner takes the No. 3 seed in Reno.* 

By the time this game tips, everybody will know what’s at stake. It’s possible the Bengals could lose and fall out of the top four (saying goodbye to a first-round bye) if North Dakota beats Montana State earlier in the day.

As far as this specific matchup — it’s a battle of contrasts. Idaho is 300th in the country in adjusted tempo, while ISU is 84th. The Bengals are putting up 76 points a game in Big Sky play, and the Vandals have held teams under 76 points in 15 out of 17 league contests.

A key defensively for Idaho is keeping Telfair out of the lane. The “6-0” junior is averaging 30.75 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.25 assists in his last four games. When he’s not on the floor, the Bengals look lost offensively. Everything they’re doing is predicated on his ability to penetrate and create for himself and his teammates.

On the other end of the floor, Idaho State has to rebound defensively. U of I is the best offensive rebounding team in the conference. And can the Vandals hit some 3s to loosen up the Bengals’ defense?

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

— Kyle Franko

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