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 MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology
When: March 12-14
Where: Dahlberg Arena (Missoula, Montana)
Final: March 14, 9:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
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.
- 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:
- 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.