- Matt Cox
3MW All Conference Teams:
1. North Dakota Seeks Inaugural Invitation
The Fighting Hawks enter this year's Big Sky tournament scorching hot having won 7 of their last 8 games, including a sweep of Weber St. (last year's conference champion) and home victory against Eastern Washington (this year's 2nd place finisher). Playing well at the right time was well compensated in this particular season, thanks to the postseason ban on Northern Colorado, leaving only 11 eligible teams for the Big Sky tourney. The odd number gave the Fighting Hawks a critical opening round bye in this year's bracket, as they now await the winner of Portland St. and Northern Arizona - both of whom were actually responsible for two of NDU's four conference losses. A stout backcourt duo - 1) conference player of the year Quinton Hooker and 2) Hooker's undervalued sidekick Geno Crandall - will look to avenge an embarrassing defeat suffered in their opening Big Sky game at Portland when the Vikings rocked North Dakota by 36 points.
2. Can Weber Regain Form?
As the reigning Big Sky regular season champs, Weber St. was in the driver's seat to take home the conference crown yet again this year - that is, until a poorly timed 4-game skid cost the Wildcats their top spot in the standings as they watched both Eastern Washington and eventual champion North Dakota creep ahead of them over the past few weeks. And while three of those losses came at the hands of the Big Sky's top squads, it was the Wildcats' underwhelming performances leading up to the losing streak that has raised some legitimate concerns. After a 3-point loss on the road to a poor Sacramento St. team, Weber needed overtime two nights later to get passed Portland St. and barely eeked by a sub-500 Northern Colorado team at home a few days after that. The reality is that the Wildcats are certainly beginning to 'bend,' but whether or not they 'break' lies in the hands of senior lead guard Jeremy Senglin. The preseason player of the year candidate has been streaky over the past month and Weber can't afford his shooting to go cold if they hope to make a run at back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
Northern Colorado's lack of attendance shakes up the typical 12-team bracket, which now heavily rewards the top-5 seeds with opening round byes. All games will be in Reno, which makes the slogan of this tournament a little confusing... (everyone's already in Reno, so where exactly is the road starting from?).
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
North Dakota, Weber St. and Eastern Washington: 15-seed
Much like the MAC tournament, the Big Sky championship is truly a toss-up. The top-3 teams were separated by a game each in the final standings and rank 183rd, 184th and 188th respectively in kenpom.com's overall rankings. Weber split with Eastern Washington in the regular season, but dropped both of its contests with North Dakota, while EWU lost it's only game against the Fighting Hawks at North Dakota. What distinguishes North Dakota is their balance on both ends ends of the floor, compared to Weber and Eastern Washington who tend to rely on outscoring their opponents to rack up consistent wins. However, Eastern Washington began to rid itself of the historically poor defensive reputation developed over the past few years under Jim Hayford and wound up finishing 2nd in the Big Sky in overall defensive efficiency, right behind North Dakota. The X-factor has been forward Jacob Wiley, whose 8.7% block rate was tops in the league and ranked in the top-5o of all players nationally.
Dark Horse Team(s):
Montana St. had won 5 in a row before dropping their last regular season game against a tough matchup in Weber St (the Wildcats emphasize taking away the 3-point shot, which is precisely what the Bobcats live and die by). Led by the sharpshooting Tyler Hall, Montana St. is a usually a tricky matchup for Big Sky opponents - they typically throw out 5 players who can all step away from the basket and knock down shots from deep and despite having no true 'centers', the Bobcats feature a relatively 'position-less' lineup that gives them a ton of flexibility on the defensive end. The only glaring achilles heel for this team has been defending without fouling, as only five teams in the entire nation sent their opponents to the charity stripe more often. This will be especially important in a looming 2nd round revenge date with Weber St., who tallied 25 of their 76 points from the foul line in their defeat of the Bobcats last week.
(8) Portland St. defeats (9) Northern Arizona
(7) Sacramento St. defeats (10) Idaho St.
(6) Montana St. defeats (11) Southern Utah
(1) North Dakota defeats (8) Portland St.
(5) Montana defeats (4) Idaho
(2) Eastern Washington defeats (7) Sacramento St.
(6) Montana St. defeats (3) Weber St.
(1) North Dakota defeats (5) Montana
(2) Eastern Washington defeats (6) Montana St.
(2) Eastern Washington defeats (1) North Dakota