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Big Sky Tournament: Montana leads the charge, but a plethora of stars could change everything

Watch out for Bogdan Bliznyuk and Damian Lillard’s alma mater.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Washington James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This year, the Big Sky Conference was a tight race between Montana and Idaho, both surpassing 22 wins. While the Grizzlies seemed to be the most dominant team the majority of the season thanks to a 13-game win streak to start conference play, both Idaho and Eastern Washington beat Montana late in the season.

Montana’s success this year is due to their deep roster. Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine are the most reliable backcourt in the conference, and unlike other squads, they have a few quality big men — most notably hidden-gem transfer Jamar Akoh. Not only can the Grizzlies score, but they can also defend better than any team in the conference. They are a top 25 team nationally in steals and 2-point defense.

Though Montana (23-7, 16-2) will go into tournament play in Reno as the top seed, it wouldn’t be a shock if talented opponents pull an upset. Specifically, No. 2 Idaho, No. 3 Eastern Washington and No. 4 Weber State have the best chance at knocking off Montana.

Why? The conversation starts with Big Sky Player of the Year Bogdan Bliznyuk.

Bliznyuk is a straight up manimal. Some could say he’s pretty good: He enters the Big Sky Tournament as the third-highest scorer in the conference, and second-most in assists. The senior finished the year with a stat line of 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He shot over 50% from the field, 36% from three and over 90% from the line. Because of him, Eastern Washington is surging at the right time; they come into Reno with a six-game winning streak.

Idaho is on a three game win streak of their own thanks to super seniors Victor Sanders and Brayan Blake. Sanders has 15 20+ point games this season, and he could easily go for more in the tourney. Blake provides the perfect counterpart with ten 20+ games himself. While Sanders succeeds more offensively from the outside, Blake can be counted on more in the paint.

However, there’s no scoring machine like Weber State’s Jerrick Harding. The sophomore led the Big Sky in scoring with over 22 points per game — most recently by tearing up Montana State to the tune of 46 points. In nine full seasons with Weber State, coach Randy Rahe has succeeded by leading the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments; his squad this year could certainly make it there as well.

The Bracket

Schedule

All games will take place in Reno, Nevada at the Reno Events Center.

Tuesday, March 6

No. 8 North Dakota vs No. 9 Montana State, 3:05 p.m. ET,

No 5 Northern Colorado vs No. 12 Northern Arizona, 5:35 p.m. ET,

No. 7 Idaho State vs No. 10 Southern Utah, 8:35 p.m. ET,

No. 6 Portland State vs No. 11 Sacramento State, 11:05 p.m. ET,

Thursday, March 8

No. 1 Montana vs TBD, 3:05 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

No. 4 Weber State vs TBD, 5:35 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

No. 2 Idaho vs TBD, 8:35 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

No. 3 Eastern Washington vs TBD, 11:05 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

Friday, March 9

Semifinal #1, 8:35 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

Semifinal #2, 11:05 p.m. ET, Pluto TV/Watch Big Sky

Saturday, March 10

Championship, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN U

Prediction

I’m rolling with the regular season champions, the Montana Grizzlies. Almost every team in the Big Sky has an elite guard (Sanders, Bliznyuk, Harding, Andre Spight, etc.) just to name a few, but not ever team has the depth and hunger to win to match Montana. The Grizzlies expect to be in the tournament because of Travis DeCuire’s leadership. With that said, expect strong threats from Eastern Washington, Idaho and Weber State.