With six different teams all fighting for a chance at the top spot, the Big Sky Conference has become one of the most competitive conferences in all of college basketball. It is currently led by Montana State with a record of 21-6 behind 13 wins in conference play but that could change in an instant the way the league has gone this season.
This is followed only slightly by a high-scoring Weber State squad at 19-9 managing 12 wins in conference play and, despite losing four of its last five, opened Big Sky play by going 9-1 with the team's only loss coming on the road to Montana in that span.
As the top two teams in the conference’s standings currently, both Montana State and Weber State have taken a game from each other on the road with the Bobcats winning in Ogden, Utah, and the Wildcats prevailing during a trip to Bozeman, Montana, which has kept the seedings close with March approaching.
Sitting third in the Big Sky led by an all-around talented group of seniors is Southern Utah — which is outbound for the WAC after this season. At 17-9 overall and 11-5 in conference play, the Thunderbirds are last season's Big Sky regular-season champs and were picked as preseason favorites for the conference. After having fallen in the semifinals of last year's Big Sky conference tournament in an upset to Montana State, Todd Simon’s team is looking for revenge and one last shot at the NCAA tournament as a Big Sky team.
Northern Colorado has some prolific scorers including the conference's leader in senior guard Daylen Kountz, a former Colorado transfer who’s averaging 20.6 points per game. And at 38.4% they’re the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Sky thanks to players like Matt Johnson and Dru Kuxhausen who both shoot 40% or better from behind the arc.
Some tough losses which include falling to Big Sky bottom feeders Sacramento State at home and dropping back-to-back games to seventh place Portland State put Northern Colorado at 16-12 overall with 11 conference wins. But the Bears have pushed the top half of the conference with their high-scoring offense and hot start to Big Sky play which featured wins over Montana State, Montana and Southern Utah.
Closely trailing at fifth in the standings is Montana, which at 17-10 on the season has picked up 10 wins in Big Sky play where the Grizzlies have been very consistent behind possibly the conference's best defense. Montana has beaten or been close with the other top-flight teams — wins over Weber, S. Utah Eastern Washington, and single-digit losses to N. Colorado and rival Montana State — but has lost some head scratchers to the likes of Idaho, Idaho State and Northern Arizona (at home, which is the Grizzlies’ only home loss in 13 games).
Head coach Travis DeCuire and his team will have to close conference play out against three of the Big Sky’s top four squads in Southern Utah, Montana State and Northern Colorado but have the pieces to be competitive in a one-game elimination during the Big Sky Conference tournament.
In sixth place but hanging tough with the top half is Eastern Washington selected to finish eighth and therefore bottom four in the conference's preseason poll. With a record of 14-13 the Eagles only sit two wins behind Northern Colorado in the overall, but at 8-8 in Big Sky play the Eagles have had some tough battles with close losses to Montana, Northern Colorado and now most recently Idaho.
But what the Eagles have shown is the ability to upset some of the conference's best programs, like finding a win over Weber State and a recent overtime victory against Montana State just to show how competitive the Big Sky is this season.
Rounding out the conference are Portland State (9-15), Northern Arizona (9-18), Idaho (8-18), Idaho State (6-20) and Sacramento State (7-16) respectively, who despite individually stumbling have kept the conference tight, each program with its own moment of brilliance.
For Portland State it was coming back down 14 to take Southern Utah to overtime in a difficult 85-82 loss before returning to Oregon from a quick road trip to as previously mentioned, defeat Northern Colorado in back-to-back matchups.
Northern Arizona was able to take fifth place Montana to overtime and pull out a 72-67 victory on the road while Idaho also secured a key victory over the Grizzlies with the Vandals now on a three-game winning streak having beat Weber State, Montana and Eastern Washington.
Idaho State has managed its own upset wins which include a dominant 86-63 home routing of Montana and a close 61-58 defeat against Northern Colorado. And in spite of sitting last, Sacramento State has not been an easy opponent in the Big Sky taking Montana State to the brink in a 68-66 loss and picking up a first conference win over Northern Colorado.
Heading into March the Big Sky is shaping up to be one of the most competitive conferences in the nation with multiple programs that teams won’t want to face in a one-off situation.
While the conference won’t be a multi-bid league for the NCAA Tournament, the finish for this year's Big Sky Conference Championship will be a compelling one.