Big Sky Conference

Travis DeCuire
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (AP Photo)

Big Sky Preview: Montana, Weber State lead the way

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky.

After a 2013-14 season in which eight teams managed to win at least ten games in conference play, there was more separation in the Big Sky pecking order in 2014-15. The number of teams with ten or more league wins was trimmed to five, with Montana and Eastern Washington finishing tied for first at 14-4 and Sacramento State and Northern Arizona a game behind the Grizzlies and Eagles at 13-5.

Jim Hayford’s Eagles managed to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, winning at Montana in the Big Sky title game, but he has a lot to replace with four starters from that team having moved on including high-scoring guard Tyler Harvey. That leaves senior forward Venky Jois as the lone returning starter, but fellow forward Bogdan Bliznyuk could be one of the Big Sky’s breakout players after averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with their personnel losses EWU has the potential to be a factor in the Big Sky race.

As for the favorites, a Montana team led by forward Martin Breunig and guards Mario Dunn and Brandon Gfeller can certainly make that claim even with the graduation of leading scorer Jordan Gregory. Travis DeCuire’s first season as head coach at his alma mater yielded a share of the Big Sky regular season title and a trip to the Postseason NIT. The question now is whether or not this talented group can go a step further than they did in 2014-15, as they fell at home to EWU in the Big Sky title game.

Another team to keep an eye on is Weber State, which returns the tandem of guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Joel Bolomboy. In total five of Weber State’s top six scorers (four starters) from last season are back, meaning that the pieces are in place for the team to rebound from last season’s 13-17 record. The Wildcats struggled on both ends of the floor but especially offensively, shooting just 45 percent inside of the arc and ranking 258th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

But Randy Rahe’s squad was young, with a number of players getting used to new roles. With a season of experience under their belts, Weber State can make a leap up the Big Sky standings.

Jack Murphy’s Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who won 13 league games last season, return two of the Big Sky’s best players and as a result are capable of contending as well. Guard Kris Yanku emerged as one of the conference’s top point guards as a sophomore, and with forward Jordyn Martin serving as the team’s defensive anchor (Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year last season) NAU can overcome the fact that they lost three starters from last season’s CIT finalists.

Southern Utah may be able to take a step forward in Nick Robinson’s fourth season at the helm, as they return five of their top six scorers led by senior wing A.J. Hess. The middle of the Big Sky won’t lack for intrigue, which is usually the case for the conference. Five teams won between seven and ten conference games last season, with the best offensive team of that quintet (Northern Colorado) finishing at the top of that group. Yet while in seasons past those teams were fighting for a conference tournament berth, they’ll only be fighting for seeding as the format (all 12 teams qualify) and location (Reno, Nevada) of the tournament have changed.

Prior to last season either Montana or Weber State won four of the last five Big Sky tournament titles (2011 being the exception), and at least one of those two has played in the last six championship games. Given the talent back at both programs, the 2015-16 season could see one of those two traditional powers holding the Big Sky trophy come March.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “It’s either Montana or Weber State. Montana lost (Jordan) Gregory but they have some guys coming back, and Weber State has more experience after last season. The talent on both of those teams make them the ones that will be the favorites to win the league.”
  • Sleeper: “They lost some guys but I like Northern Arizona. (Kris) Yanku is one of the best players in our league, and he can score and distribute the basketball. And they’ve got the league’s Defensive Player of the Year (Jordyn Martin) back as well. Jack Murphy’s done a good job rebuilding that program.”
  • Star to watch: “He’s going to have more attention on him because of the guys they lost, but Venky Jois might be the best player in the conference. He’s a handful to stop in the post, and he rebounds and passes well too.”

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martin Breunig, Montana

In his first season on the court for the Grizzlies, the former Washington forward emerged as one of the top players in the Big Sky. Averaging 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and shooting better than 59 percent from the field, Breunig was one of three players to be a unanimous All-Big Sky selection.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: A first team All-Big Sky selection as a junior, Jois is the most experienced returnee for Jim Hayford’s Eagles.
  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State: Bolomboy averaged a league-best 10.2 rebounds to go along with 13.3 points and 1.7 blocks per game last season.
  • Kris Yanku, Northern Arizona: One of the conference’s top freshmen in 2013-14, Yanku averaged 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game last year.
  • Jeremy Senglin, Weber State: Senglin averaged 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSkyMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Montana
2. Weber State
3. Northern Arizona
4. Eastern Washington
5. Southern Utah
6. Portland State
7. North Dakota
8. Northern Colorado
9. Idaho
10. Sacramento State
11. Idaho State
12. Montana State

Introducing Cinderella: Meet the Eastern Washington Eagles

Tyler Harvey and company are a team to keep an eye on (AP Photo)
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Tyler Harvey and company are a team to keep an eye on (AP Photo)

Conference: Big Sky

Coach: Jim Hayford

Record: 26-8 (14-4)

Ratings and rankings:

Kenpom: 140
RPI (NCAA.com): 78
AP/USA Today: Not ranked

Seeding: Eastern Washington is projected to be a 14-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Names you need to know: G Tyler Harvey (23.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg), F Venky Jois (16.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.3 bpg), F Ognjen Miljkovic (10.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), G Drew Brandon (9.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.9 apg)

Stats you need to know: Jim Hayford’s Eagles are one of the best offensive teams in the country, as they’re averaging 81.1 points per game (third in the country). Eastern Washington shoots 40.6 percent from three and 48.1 percent from the field, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories. As for the defensive end, opponents are shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from beyond the arc and those are numbers this team could stand to improve upon.

Tendencies: The three-point shot is an important one for this group, as they score more than 38 percent of their points by way of that shot with six players having made at least 20 three-pointers. Eastern also shoots well inside of the arc, as they’re making 52.2 percent of their two-point attempts per kenpom.com. Harvey’s the main scoring option, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only player capable of getting going. That’s what makes this team so tough to defend. The Eagles will show multiple looks defensively, including some full-court pressure, but the defense is where this team has had issues.

Big wins, bad losses: Eastern Washington posted one of the biggest wins in school history in late November, as they won at Indiana. Their worst non-conference loss came at Washington in December. In conference play the Big Sky regular season co-champions picked up wins over fellow contenders Montana (they beat the Grizzlies in Missoula twice this season) and Sacramento State. As for any head-scratching losses, their two-point home loss to Portland State is probably the only one.

How’d they get here?: With the Big Sky tournament being played on Montana’s home court, Eastern Washington erased a nine-point second half deficit to win 69-65. Prior to that the Eagles took care of Idaho and Sacramento State by identical 91-83 scores, and overall they’ve won five straight heading into the NCAA tournament.

Outlook: This is a very dangerous team, and because of their offensive skill Eastern Washington is more than capable of springing an upset. But the defense is the question mark with this group, especially if they run up against a team that can cycle perimeter defenders on Harvey without a serious drop-off.

How do I know them?: Of course there’s the win over Indiana, and they also played No. 20 SMU tight before ultimately losing by nine. This is Eastern Washington’s second NCAA tournament appearance with the first coming in 2004 when they lost to eventual Final Four participant Oklahoma State. And the school also produced Rodney Stuckey, a first round pick in the 2007 NBA Draft who’s currently with the Indiana Pacers.

Big Sky Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey (AP Photo)
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Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey (AP Photo)

The Big Sky race was an entertaining one down the stretch as it tends to be, with three teams fighting for the title and others working to make sure that they weren’t left without a seat when the music stopped (four teams don’t qualify). Montana and Eastern Washington shared the crown, with the Grizzlies getting the top seed and the right to host the event. In addition to those two Sacramento State will be heard from, and Northern Arizona has the pieces needed to make a run as well. This should make for an entertaining weekend in Missoula.

READ MORENBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

The Bracket

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MORENBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 12-14

Where: Dahlberg Arena (Missoula, Montana)

Final: March 14, 9:00 p.m. (ESPNU)

Favorite: Montana

The Griz have talented players, led by guard Jordan Gregory and forward Martin Bruenig, but this pick is more about defense and home-court advantage. Montana was the best defensive team in the Big Sky in conference games, as they led the way in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point percentage defense. They were also tops in defensive efficiency (per kenpom.com) by a considerable margin. Playing at home will help, but the biggest reason why Montana should be seen as the favorites is the fact that they can defend.

And if they lose?: Eastern Washington

Jim Hayford’s Eagles averaged just over 80 points per game in conference games, and per kenpom.com they were the most efficient offensive team in the Big Sky. Tyler Harvey can light it up from the perimeter, as he’s averaging 22.9 points per game and both Venky Jois (17.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Ognjen Miljkovic (10.2 ppg) also average double figures. In total six players average at least 8.1 points per game for a team that won at Montana in early February.

Sleepers:

  • Sacramento State: The Hornets were in the driver’s seat for home court advantage as recently as last week but two losses ended those hopes. Guards Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity have been excellent on the perimeter for Brian Katz, and they’re good enough to lead the Hornets to three straight wins.
  • Northern Arizona: Jack Murphy’s Lumberjacks have won six of their last seven games, with the lone defeat coming against a Northern Colorado team they’ll play in the quarterfinals. Quinton Upshur leads the way offensively for a team with three players averaging between 12.8 and 14.4 points per game, and NAU ranked second in the Big Sky in field goal percentage defense in conference games.

Player of the Year: G Mikh McKinney, Sacramento State

Averaging 19.0 points, 5.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game, McKinney is ranked either first or second in the Big Sky in each of those statistical categories. He’s also shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from beyond the arc for the 19-10 Hornets.

Coach of the Year: Brian Katz, Sacramento State

Katz’s Hornets were expected to be a quality team, as the coaches picked them to finish fourth back in October. But the Hornets exhibited more staying power in the Big Sky race than some may have anticipated, and this is just the fourth winning season in the last 38 years of the program. The 19 wins Sacramento State has right now are the third most in school history for a single season.

All-Big Sky Team:

  • McKinney
  • Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington: Harvey’s the leading the scorer in the conference, as he’s averaging 22.9 points per game.
  • Kris Yanku, Northern Arizona: Only a sophomore, don’t be surprised if Yanku wins Big Sky POY before his career’s done. He’s averaging 13.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
  • Martin Bruenig, Montana: Bruenig, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington, averaged 16.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and shot better than 60 percent from the field.
  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: Jois improved his scoring by nearly four points from last season, up to 17.1 ppg while also grabbing 7.6 rebounds and shooting 60.4 percent from the field.

CBT Prediction: Montana caps Travis DeCuire’s first season at the helm with an NCAA tournament appearance, outlasting Eastern Washington in the title game.

Big Sky approves home for conference tournament should Sacramento State win regular season title

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In some conferences in which the chances of receiving an at-large bid are slim (and that’s generous in some cases), there’s been a move to ensure that the regular season champion receives some perks in the conference tournament. In the case of the Big Sky that means the regular season champion gets to host the conference tournament, an eight-team affair scheduled for March 12-14.

In the case of Sacramento State (11-3 Big Sky), which is a half-game out of first place and has hopes of making its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, this brought about an important question that needed to be addressed. With their home court deemed unsuitable to host a conference tournament for capacity reasons (it can only hold just over 1,000 spectators), where could the Hornets host the event should they win the regular season title?

Friday afternoon, the Big Sky conference announced that it has come up with the answer.

After inspecting Sacramento State’s recreation and wellness center, the conference determined that the event could be played there should Sacramento State earn the right to host. Preparations will begin immediately, and the good news for Sacramento State is that they’d be able to use the perk meant to reward the regular season champion.

Roughly 3,000 seats, a portable court, a lighting structure, and basketball stanchions will be moved to “The WELL” to create a suitable venue for the championship. The Sacramento Kings NBA franchise will provide the basketball stanchions.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” said Big Sky Conference Deputy Commissioner Ron Loghry, who toured ‘The WELL’ on Thursday. “Everyone on Sacramento State’s campus is working hard to make it a reality. It will be a great venue for the championship.”

With a site determined, the job now for Sacramento State is to go about earning the right to host by winning the regular season title. Brian Katz’s team, led by senior guards Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, plays its final home game of the season against North Dakota on Saturday.

Following that are three straight road games to end the regular season, and they’ll need help in the form of at least one Eastern Washington (11-2 Big Sky record) loss as well.

Big Sky to evaluate its conference tournament structure

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While the question of where conference tournaments are played in power leagues tends to dominate the discussion in college basketball, that’s also an especially important question for smaller conferences. And given the fact that members of one-bid leagues can see their seasons boil down to a couple of days in March, it can be argued that the question of where a conference tournament should be played is of even greater importance to those conferences.

In recent years the Big Sky has allowed its regular season champion to host the conference tournament, a decision that rewards the team that had shown itself to be the conference’s best throughout the regular season. However the Big Sky will take a look at its conference tournament structure, with this move being announced on Wednesday.

“While our current format often leads to strong attendance and does a great job of protecting our top team, we also realize it has become problematic for many reasons,” Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said in the release. “Our school administrators and coaches have raised valid concerns, including travel costs, travel logistics, student-athlete welfare, and fan experience.

“We need to continue to have discussions regarding how many teams will qualify, and if we move to a predetermined site, where that will be and if the location will be the same for the men and the women.”

There are questions to be considered as evidenced by the commissioner’s comments, such as whether or not to play at a neutral site and the possibility of playing both men’s and women’s tournaments at the same location. The host school has won the last four Big Sky tournaments, with Montana being the last non-host to win the league’s automatic bid in 2010.

And there’s also the question of how many teams will qualify for the event, with the top eight teams being eligible for the 2015 conference tournament. That change comes as a result of the arrival of Idaho, pushing the number of members up to 12. There will be no byes in the tournament, meaning that the top seed won’t be advanced directly into the semifinals (as was the case in 2013 and 2014).

NCAA Tournament Primer: Weber State Wildcats

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Get to know all of the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bids here.

Conference: Big Sky

Coach: Randy Rahe

Record: 19-11 (14-6 Big Sky)

Rankings and Ratings:

– Kenpom: 176
– RPI: 154
– AP/USA Today: Not ranked

Seeding?: According to Dave Ommen’s most recent bracket, the Wildcats will be a 16 seed.

Names you need to know: G Davion Berry (19.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.0 apg), G Jeremy Senglin (11.1, 2.1, 2.2), F Kyle Tresnak (11.2, 4.8)

Stats you need to know: Weber State led the Big Sky in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, limiting  opponents to 42.5% shooting from the field. Offensively, the Wildcats scored a respectable 72.7 points per game, ranking second in both field goal (47.8%) and free throw percentage (73.3%) and first in three-point percentage (38.9%). From a playing time standpoint seven players are averaging at least 18 minutes per game.

Tendencies: Berry is the key decision-maker for the Wildcats, as he factors into 29.9% of the team’s possessions and ranks second in the Big Sky in offensive rating (minimum 24% possessions). Tresnak is the team’s best interior scoring option, with sophomore Joel Bolomboy being the best rebounder with 10.8 rebounds per game. Weber State isn’t great at forcing turnovers but they are one of the best teams in the country when it comes to blocking shots, ranking third nationally in block percentage (6.1%; Tresnak averages 1.9 blocks/game).

Big wins, bad losses: The Wildcats didn’t pick up a non-conference win of note, losing to BYU and UCLA. Weber State beat North Dakota three times, Northern Colorado twice and split their two meetings with Montana in conference play.

How’d they get here?: Led by Tresnak, who scored 27 points (11-for-15 FG) and grabbed five rebounds, the Wildcats beat North Dakota 88-67 in the Big West title game.

Outlook: While Berry’s a talented player capable of giving opponents fits, it’s difficult to see this team winning a game unless they wind up in Dayton for the First Four.

How do I know you?: The Wildcats are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, but this is a program that along with Montana has set the standard in the Big Sky in recent years. And you’re probably familiar with alum Damian Lillard, who’s now one of the best young guards in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers.