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Big Sky Tournament Primer: It’s a 3-team race in Boise for the title

SUU, Weber State and EWU all have legit shots, but picking one of them is a tough bet to make

NCAA Basketball: Big Sky Conference Tournament Final Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Sky Conference — like all of college basketball this season — has been pretty wild and unpredictable.

COVID-19 ran through the league to the point that the only teams who have played each of the top five seeds (SUU, Weber, EWU, ISU, MSU) are the bottom three teams (Sac State, NAU, Idaho).

There has been a lot of parity in the league and, honestly, I won’t be surprised if any of the teams make a run and win the league.

So, here is all you need to know ahead of Big Sky in Boise.

Bracket:

Schedule:

All times are MST.

First Round through Semifinals (Wednesday, March 10 through Friday, March 12) — PlutoTV, channel 1050

Game 1: No. 8 Northern Colorado vs. No. 9 Sacramento State, 9 a.m.

Game 2: No. 7 Portland State vs. No. 10 Northern Arizona, noon.

Game 3: No. 6 Montana vs. No. 11 Idaho, 3 p.m.

Quarterfinals, Thursday, March 11

Game 4: No. 1 Southern Utah vs. Game 1 Winner, 11 a.m.

Game 5: No. 4 Idaho State vs. No. 5 Montana State, 2 p.m.

Game 6: No. 2 Eastern Washington vs. Game 2 Winner, 5 p.m.

Game 7: No. 2 Weber State vs. Game 3 Winner, 8 p.m..

Semifinals, Friday, March 12

Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 5 p.m.

Game 9: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 Winner, 8 p.m.

Finals, Saturday, March 13 — ESPNU

Championship Game, 6 p.m.

The ‘Favorites’

1-seed Southern Utah (19-3, 12-2 Big Sky): I am using the term favorite loosely here. I really do think there are three or four teams with legit chances at a Big Sky title. But let’s start with the regular-season champs: the Southern Utah Thunderbirds.

The ‘Birds are fun. They got the short-shorts and probably the most athletic team in the league led by highflying guard John Knight III and lanky scoring wing Tevian Jones. It would be fitting for SUU to win the league and go to the NCAA tourney considering SUU is WAC bound after next season.

Now things get weird. SUU went 2-2 against its top competition: 2-seeded Weber State and 3-seeded Eastern Washington (the Big Sky preseason favorite).

Outside of those losses, the Thunderbirds ran through the Big Sky starting with a pair of free-throw wins over Montana as part of a funky start for the conference season — which had a weirdly down year finishing sixth in the league.

3-seed Weber State (17-5, 12-3 Big Sky): Remember when I said only the worst teams played the top teams? Yeah so Weber never got to play EWU due to COVID-19 leaving the Wildcats with a weird hole in the schedule.

But that really doesn’t matter with this team. Weber State pulled off an insane rebuild rolling with a slew of transfers that had to gel quick with the pandemic keeping teams from in-person workouts for much of the preseason.

Isiah Brown — formerly of Northwestern and Grand Canyon (dude likes purple teams) — became one of the league’s top guards putting up 18 points, 3.5 boards and three assists per game en route to being named the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year.

2-seed Eastern Washington (13-7, 12-3 Big Sky): The Eagles dominated the individual conference awards getting the MVP (Tanner Groves) for the second year in a row (Mason Peatling won in 2019-20), DPOY (Kim Aiken Jr.) and the top reserve (Tyler Robertson).

But the Eagles finished second?

That is what happens when you lose to Idaho State in the second-to-last game and don’t get a chance to break the close finish against Weber State.

The Eagles are a good team, even if they infuriate me with their charge hunting ways. EWU was the favorite last season before the world went to hell and entered the less-like-hell 2020-21 season as the favorite.

It is a three-team race, but more could make noise.

The dark horse

5-seed Montana State (11-9, 8-6 Big Sky): The Bobcats out of Bozeman started league play off hot, really hot. MSU won its first six league games — beating less-than-stellar teams Northern Colorado, Portland State and Northern Arizona.

Then, the Bobcats took a week off due to COVID-19 and completely scratched the rivalry series with Montana. That is right, arguably the biggest Big Sky rivalry didn’t happen in men’s basketball this year.

Following the pause the Bobcats dropped five in a row: the first four to already-noted top teams Weber and EWU, and then a horrid, terrible, no-good, embarrassing loss to Idaho. Yes, the team that finished with one win, the Idaho Vandals.

If the Montana State that started the league off on fire shows up then things could get fun. But if the team that lost to Idaho shows up, Idaho State should have a Game 5 win on Thursday.

The way, way, longshot (hear me out)

10-seed Northern Arizona (5-15, 4-10 Big Sky): I am going to get dragged for this but hear me out.

The Lumberjacks had a bad year and I — being the main media member to cover the Jacks out here in Flagstaff — had an upper-level seat to see it in the Rolle Activity Center.

I have seen a lot of bad NAU teams and this one was different.

Sure five wins is bad, really bad, but the Lumberjacks have the one thing that most five-win teams don’t have: a first-team All-Big Sky star in junior point guard Cameron Shelton. Shelton led the league in scoring at 20.3 points per game, was eighth in rebounding at six per game, third in assists at 4.1 (could have been more if his teammates made shots), and led the Big Sky in percent of minutes played, percent of possessions used and percent of the team’s shots.

Dude did it all and then some for Northern Arizona and if he goes off and just one or two of his teammates play well, NAU can beat someone and make a weird run.

Prediction

After all that I am going out on a limb and saying I trust SUU the most.

The Thunderbirds play fast (third in tempo in the league) and shoot a ton of 3s (30% of league scoring comes from deep, lead the league in attempts and makes but makes 33.7% of tries). The ‘Birds defense isn’t great but I am betting on some shootouts and a potentially wild finals game between SUU and whoever wins between Weber State and Eastern Washington.