There's nothing better than heading into a championship game that is set up to go in any possible direction. That's exactly what we've got in the Big Sky final tonight between Northern Colorado and Montana. The top two teams during the regular season will meet for the third time this season at Butler-Hancock Hall, the site of an 18-point win for the Bears back in January. Montana exacted revenge in February with a 13-point win in Missoula.
Toss in the two best players in the conference - Devon Beitzel for Northern Colorado and Brian Qvale for Montana - and this final has just about everything you could ask for. Can the Bears go where no other team in school history has been, or will it be twice as nice for the Grizzlies? Find out after the jump.
Northern Colorado, #1 Seed, 20-10 (13-3)
Just four years into it's transition from Division II, the Bears are on the brink of qualifying for the school's first ever trip to the Big Dance. Led by Big Sky Player of the Year Devon Beitzel, UNC rolled to a regular season conference championship thanks to a balanced game that saw Northern Colorado rank in the top three in the Big Sky in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
While Weber State may have been a more efficient offense overall, it's hard to argue against the Bears having the most diverse offense in the conference this season, showing a propensity for scoring out of a variety of sets. Thanks to Beitzel, Neal Kingman, Chris Kaba and Elliot Lloyd, Northern Colorado has four players capable of burning opposing defenses from the perimeter, to the tune of a 39% team three-point field goal percentage. So deadly has this quad of shooters been, that according to Synergy Sports, the Bears are the second best spot-up team in the country, scoring nearly 1.5 points per possession with an adjusted field goal percentage of 58.6. They're not shy about shooting either, as the team averaged more than 20 attempts per game during the regular season.
The Bears are nearly as potent running the pick and roll, a set they utilize effectively with Beitzel. The senior is number one overall in the Big Sky in pick and roll derived offense, producing nearly 1.2 points per possession when incorporating both shots attempted and shots created for others. If Northern Colorado can get him going out of this set it doesn't guarantee a win, but it will certainly open a lot of options and keep Montana's defense guessing.
Defensively the Bears were the Big Sky's top team during the 2010-11 regular season, posting an adjusted efficiency of 94.0 according to Ken Pomeroy. They don't particularly stand out in any one discipline save for cutting off cuts to the basket by screeners and players moving off the ball. Opposing teams shot 32% against from beyond the arc and 43% from inside, not outstanding but definitely respectable enough. In a January 6th win over the Grizzlies, Northern Colorado harassed Montana into 32% shooting, doing a good job of mixing up defenses and keeping shooters off balance. That will be key in tonight's contest.
Montana Grizzlies, #2 Seed, 21-9 (12-4)
Montana is looking for a second consecutive conference championship after winning a memorable final over Weber State last year. The Grizzlies met Weber in yesterday's semifinals and cruised to a 17-point win thanks to a massive effort from senior Brian Qvale, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and Montana's leading scorer and rebounder during the regular season. With the 6-11 Qvale anchoring the offense from the inside, the offense has been steered by rising sophomore Will Cherry who has emerged as a solid playmaker.
Using an offense built around entering the ball in the post and finishing in transition, the Grizz averaged 67 points per game and posted the 4th best offensive efficiency in the conference. As is the case with most teams, spot-up opportunities actually make up the largest piece of the team's possessions, but Montana is well below average in this facet of the game, ranking in the bottom one-fourth nationally in efficiency and shooting just 30% from beyond the arc. Ironically enough, 7-footer Derek Selvig is the team's best perimeter shooter. The success of the post game is derived from the high finishing rate of both Selvig and Qvale who account for more than 80% of all possessions on the block this season. Both shoot 50% or better in post-up situations, with Qvale shooting a remarkable 62% from the field overall, which puts him in the top 15 in the country in field goal percentage.
One of funny parts of Montana's offense is despite being one of the slowest teams in the country (313th in pace), they are one of the best transition teams in the country when talking about efficiency. The Grizz score better than 1.7 points per possession on transition possessions - the 34th best mark in Division 1 - and have an adjusted field goal percentage of 61. So while Montana may struggle overall at shooting from the outside, they've done an exceptionable job of finding open shooters on the break and converting this opportunities.
Much like their opponent tonight, Montana's strength is in it's defense. The Grizz are second in the Big Sky in overall defensive efficiency and rank number one in effective field goal percentage against, opponent three-point shooting and free throws allowed. They also don't give up that many three-point attempts, rather funneling opposing players to the paint where Qvale, the Big Sky's all-time leader in blocked shots, is ready and waiting. With the Williston, ND native guarding the rim, Montana has become the best in the country at defending cuts to the basket, standing as the only team in the county to hold opposing teams to less than .8 points per possession in this setting.
These schools split during the regular season with Montana winning easily in Missoula and the Bears rolling in Greeley. Northern Colorado may be the host school and on a six game winning streak, but the Grizz have been here before and it's simply hard not to be impressed with how they handled Weber State in the semifinals. With that said, you can call it two in a row for Montana.