-Jim Root and Matt Cox (teamwork makes the dream work)
(Compare to our preseason preview here)
- Montana Soars Above: Coming into this year, only three times had a Big Sky team finished inside the top-100 in kenpom.com's overall rankings at season's end - Montana held claim to two of those occurrences. Given head coach Travis DeCuire's track record of success since arriving in Missoula back in 2013, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the Griz accomplished that feat yet again this year. Behind the dynamic backcourt duo of Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, Montana was shot out of a cannon to start league play, jumping out to a flawless 13-0 start en route to a 16-2 conference record, securing the Griz the regular season title by two games over Idaho.
- Montana State Crashes and Burns: While Montana State's in-state rival shattered most preseason expectations, the Bobcats went in the opposite direction this year as one of the larger disappointments in the entire the mid-major landscape. Despite bringing back almost everyone from the year prior - including a fringe NBA draft pick in Tyler Hall - AND injecting a hyper-versatile wing transfer into the mix in Konnor Frey, Montana State tumbled into oblivion during the 2nd half of the Big Sky schedule. As my colleague Jim alluded to in his preview before the season, the defense was simply never addressed - the Bobcats finished with the worst defense in the conference and were absolutely gashed on the interior due to a complete lack of rim protection. Combine the defensive woes with a season long shooting slump for a team that relies heavily on the 3, it's easy to see how the Bobcats wound up in the cellar of the Big Sky standings in two way tie for 8th place.
- Callandret Goes Down Again: Allow me to make the least controversial statement in the history of sports journalism - injuries suck. And you know what sucks even more than injuries in general - repeated injury offenses to the same player. So allow us here at 3MW to pour one out for Idaho's stud guard Perrion Callandret, whose career is officially over after almost making it through an entire season without a trip to the trainer's table. Callandret missed the entirety of last season with a knee injury and had played in all 27 games this year until he suffered yet another knee injury in the Feburary 22nd tilt against in-state rival Idaho State. It goes without saying, but this is a huge blow for one of the real contenders to seize the Big Sky tournament crown this week and will put even more pressure on Victor Sanders and Brayon Blake to carry the offensive load for the Vandals.
The entire tournament is played in Reno, Nevada, meaning the teams can legally use their William Hill/MGM sports betting apps at the venue...
What to Watch:
- Can Idaho overcome the loss of Perrion Callandret (again)? Callandret's career has been riddled with injuries, and after a mostly-healthy campaign, he is once again done for the year (and, sadly, his career is over). Victor Sanders and Brayon Blake are still good enough to win 3 games in 3 days, but without the redshirt senior's heady playmaking and shooting, the task becomes even more difficult.
- Will any of the opening round teams make a run? Portland State and Northern Colorado are particularly dangerous, and they'll have the advantage of having gotten a tournament game under their belts come round 2. Additionally, they get Wednesday off, so tired legs shouldn't really be an issue. The teams that earned byes need to remain wary, as the Big Sky has the depth to become a truly chaotic tournament.
Who Will Win:
- Montana - The Grizzlies have been the best team in the league all season, and save for a post-Valentines Day hangover trip where they dropped games at Idaho and Eastern Washington, they didn't lose a league game. Ahmaad Rorie (Oregon) and Jamar Akoh (Cal St. Fullerton) give them a devastating inside-out combination of transfers.
If Not Them, Then:
- Eastern Washington - The Eagles have the best player in the conference in Bogdan Bliznyuk and have won six straight entering the tournament (including beating Montana and Weber State), so the mystical momentum is on their side. My main concern - Shantay Legans is a first year coach, so there's some uncertainty as to how he'll prepare the team for the tournament setting.
- Weber State - In the 12 years Randy Rahe has been patrolling the sidelines at Weber State, only once has he finished below .500 in the conference. He has built an identity for Weber State hoops, institutionalizing a brand of basketball that revolves around winning the battle of the 3-point line. That formula was executed yet again in 2018 as the kerosene-hot Wildcats connected on 43% of their treys in conference action and surrendered the 2nd fewest 3-point attempts in the league. They've yet to prove they can take down league champ Montana, but the imbalanced schedule gave the Wildcats only one crack at the Griz this season - the hand could certainly play out differently at a neutral site venue with Randy Rahe making adjustments after the loss last week in Missoula.