- Matt Cox
(check out the Big Sky preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Jordan Davis, Sr., Northern Colorado
Coach of the Year: Travis DeCuire, Montana
Newcomer of the Year: Bernie Andre, So., Northern Arizona
Freshman of the Year: Bodie Hume, Northern Colorado
1. No Akoh, No Problem
Last Saturday played out perfectly for Travis DeCuire and the Griz. Entering the day tied for first place with just one game remaining, Northern Colorado fumbled away a golden opportunity on their home floor, while the veteran Griz took care of their own business with an 18-point victory over Sacramento State. The perfect storm of events helped Montana slide one game ahead of the Bears in the conference standings, which brought back a second straight conference title to Missoula. Most expected the defending Big Sky champs to run away with the regular season title belt this year, but a crumbling injury to Jamar Akoh stripped the Griz of arguably the most disruptive player in the league. In the 11 conference games he played in, Akoh averaged 16.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and anchored the interior fortress of Montana’s impenetrable defense.
With little reinforcement behind Akoh on the bench, DeCuire was forced to revamp Montana’s identity with a smaller, more guard-centric lineup. In a league that loves to chuck it from deep, DeCuire took a page out of the rest of the Big Sky’s playbook. While the Griz still finished with the second fewest 3s attempted in the conference, they capitalized on those high-quality chances and found the extra real estate inside via dribble penetration from all five guys on the floor. Montana led the league in both 3PT and 2PT FG%, thanks to the crafty interior finishing of Sayeed Pridgett and the precise long-range shooting of Kendal Manuel and Donaven Dorsey. While the Griz’s lack of rim protection sans Akoh was exposed on occasion, the small-ball lineup allowed guys like Pridgett and Dorsey to thrive offensively as mismatch headaches for opposing front lines.
2. Wounded Warriors
After so many programs took a substantial leap forward last season, marquee players all across the Big Sky started dropping like flies this year. The laundry list of injuries stunted a lot of the national momentum and reputational equity built up last season, but also made for great drama in just how unpredictable each and every conference game was.
In addition to the Akoh injury for Montana, Weber State’s own low-post presence Zack Braxton also missed three pivotal games in early February, while hyper efficient combo guard Ricky ‘Doc’ Nelson was sidelined for the bulk of Big Sky play with a stress fracture.
Eastern Washington was essentially playing with scabs during non-conference, and after returning to full-strength in early January, the Eagles’ top perimeter scorer Jacob Davison has been back on the trainer’s table for the last seven games with an ankle injury.
While Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis rarely needs much help, one of his most trusted running mates, Jalen Sanders, has been in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury of his own, forcing Davis to morph into a human ox to shoulder one of the heaviest offensive burdens in the country.
Southern Utah’s highly touted UNLV transfer Dwayne Morgan was lost to injury in just the fourth game of the season, gutting what many viewed as one of the most talented rosters in the Big Sky of its most versatile two-way weapon.
While the aforementioned squads had the roster depth to withstand key losses, Northern Arizona, Idaho State and Idaho had no Plan B to stay afloat when the injury bug bit them during league play.
3. Hall Finds Help
Tyler Hall’s lack of support last year compounded the pain of an ailing ankle injury, precisely why the Bobcats became increasingly fragile as the season progressed. The outcome was a slippage in the Big Sky standings, as the Bobcats limped to a 6-12 league record, a five game drop off from the year prior. Hall’s renewed health has helped right the ship in 2019 but it’s his longtime backcourt mate Harold Frey who has transformed Montana State into a dangerous sleeper in this week’s Big Sky championship. The Norwegian lead guard has blossomed from a mistake-free game manager into a premier playmaker, evidenced by both a rise in usage and an uptick in efficiency. While crafty forward Keljin Blevins also deserves credit for his spike in production as complementary piece, the Hall / Frey duo has fueled Montana State’s surge down the stretch.
Boise, Idaho is the stage for the Big Sky tournament, which makes an already competitive field even more unpredictable since no higher seeds will enjoy the luxury of home court advantage. The awkward 11-team bracket sets up three games between the bottom-6 seeds in the opening round and awards a bye to the top-5 regular season finishers.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
Even without Akoh, Montana proved they were the class of the conference this season and are the favorite to cut down the nets in Boise – current odds for the Griz to win the tournament are +140 at 5dimes.com. There’s a chance Akoh returns for the postseason – some believed he might return for the final weekend road trip – but the Griz will still be the hunted even without his services. According to bracketmatrix.com, Montana looks destined to wind up on either the 14 or 15-seed line, which is exactly where the committee slotted the Griz last season for their opening round matchup with eventual title winner Michigan.
Dark Horse Team
With the way the Akoh-less Grizzlies have rebranded themselves, Northern Colorado is the obvious dark horse candidate to steal the automatic bid. Look no further than the most recent meeting between these two on February 25th, when the Bears when into Missoula and knocked off the Grizzlies in their building. Head coach Jeff Linder has surprisingly eased up on the offensive gas pedal this season, but Northern Colorado’s 74-72 win in Missoula proved that the Bears’ spread-out, pick-n-roll heavy offense is a perfect counter for ‘Montana 2.0’ (aka Montana in a post Akoh world). The Bears lack an intimidating presence inside, but without Akoh, few teams in the Big Sky feature a dominant low-post scorer. Weber State’s Zach Braxton is a burly back-to-the-basket threat inside, but his minutes have been limited since missing three games in mid-February.
(6) Montana State over (11) Idaho
(10) Idaho State over (7) Southern Utah
(9) Sacramento State over (9) Northern Arizona
(1) Montana over (9) Sacramento State
(4) Weber State over (5) Portland State
(2) Northern Colorado over (10) Idaho State
(3) Eastern Washington over (6) Montana State
(1) Montana over (4) Weber State
(2) Northern Colorado over (3) Eastern Washington
(2) Northern Colorado over (1) Montana