Big Sky Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.