There are just four teams above .500 in the Big Sky Conference, yet, somehow, the league is ranked a modest No. 17 in data daddy KenPom’s conference rankings.
And it is probably better than last season as a whole.
I don’t fancy myself an expert on much but that is a wild thing to see. The league has been surprisingly close despite the lackluster records across the board, with the highest close-game rate in the nation per KenPom — 26 of 89 games have been decided by four points or fewer or via overtime.
Despite that, the top four seems to be the same old group followers of the Big Sky know and love (or hate depending on you rooting interest): Eastern Washington, Montana State, Weber State and Montana. The bluebloods of the Big Sky — remember the league doesn’t include Southern Utah anymore — hold firm at the top, while everyone else is trying their best to not suck too much.
If there is one thing about the Big Sky I found most hilarious it is that the All-League first team is a bunch of guys 6-foot-5 and taller. Many of these tall lads managed primary ball handling duties for their teams despite being listed as either forwards or off guards.
Let’s get into it with the league that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since Montana upset Nevada in 2006 in a 12-over-5 upset (shouts Will Cherry), and never allowed Damian Lillard to play in the Big Dance because, again, Montana exists:
Note: All games in Boise, Idaho, and all times listed as MT.
First round, Saturday, March 4
Game 1: No. 9 Northern Arizona vs. No. 10 Idaho, 5:30 p.m., ESPN+.
Game 2: No. 7 Portland State vs. No. 8 Northern Colorado, 8 p.m., ESPN+.
Second round, Sunday, March 5 (Games 3 & 4) through Monday, March 6 (Games 5 & 6
Game 3: No. 1 Eastern Washington vs. Game 1 winner, 5:30 p.m., ESPN+.
Game 4: No. 2 Montana State vs. Game 2 winner, 8 p.m., ESPN+.
Game 5: No. 4 Montana vs. No. 5 Idaho State, 5:30 p.m., ESPN+.
Game 6: No. 3 Weber State vs. No. 6 Sacramento State, 8 p.m., ESPN+.
Semifinals, Tuesday, March 7
Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN+.
Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN+.
Finals, Wednesday, March 8
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN+.
Eastern Washington (22-9, 16-2): David Riley (league coach of the year) already has the Eagles back at the top of the league in just his second season at the helm since taking over for Shantay Legans, who left to recreate Portland over in the WCC.
Safe to say things are going just fine for Riley. The Eagles won the regular season title, doing so for the first time since the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season (that was a special EWU team), and aside from the other favorite, seem like the best shot at an NCAA Tournament win the league has. The Eagles did not lose a game between Dec. 17 and Feb. 23, but ended the season with back-to-back, single-digit loses to Idaho State and Montana State.
EWU is one of those teams that you can look at, top to bottom, and see a bunch of dudes. Not one guy has really stood out, rather its been depth that has carried the Eagles. Four Eagles, led by Angelo Allegri and Steele Venters (league MVP, albeit he robbed Dillon Jones) at just about 15.6 points per game, average north of double figures. That, combined with the best field-goal shooting and defending team in the league, makes for the top team heading into Boise.
Montana State (22-9, 15-3): The defending champs are back, and Danny’s Sprinkles are again a good team.
Ignore last year’s drubbing against Texas Tech in the NCAA Tournament for a moment. No, the Bobcats don’t play a style that is entirely conducive to winning against teams in the big tourney, but this style, detailed below by Montana Griz fan and podcaster Brint Wahlberg on Twitter, works just fine against the Big Sky:
Alright, I had a suspicion about the MSU Bobcats men's hoops team and this Sunday morning I've got a little time on my hands so I did some light researching. Looking at conference only stats, MSU has been to the free throw line the most in the Big Sky, 425 times.— Brint Wahlberg (@Bwahlberg) February 26, 2023
If you didn’t go through the long-as-hell thread, that is fine.
Let me TLDR it: The Bobcats are big, and shoot tons of free throws. They are one of the beefiest Big Sky teams with Big Boys Jubrile Belo (6-foot-9, 240) and Great Osobor (6-foot-8, 245) and — it sure seems like — head coach Danny Sprinkle knows it and takes advantage of the iffy officiating in the Big Sky.
Throw in the highlight tape magic of RaeQuan Battle, who will dunk on anyone he pleases and rip out your heart, and you got a team that can win the title.
I am going to take a different approach than the rest of my friends here at Mid-Major Madness dot com for the longshot/darkshorse/bad team section because, well, I think only EWU and MSU have actual, real chances of winning the league.
Weber State (17-14, 12-6) and Montana (16-13, 10-7) deserve a mention, even if as extra-longshots. Both are historically dominant in the league, and always seem to end up in the top four or five and hang around in the tournament. Death, taxes, and Weber and Montana having first-round Big Sky byes (or something else that Rothstein would tweet if he watched the Big Sky more than twice a season).
Weber has, in my opinion, the best player in the league in Jones — a 6-foot-6, 235 bowling ball who can do about anything on the court. Plus, the vibes of Lillard are always around this team.
Montana has Travis DeCuire, the longest-tenured active Big Sky coach and Montana’s all-time leader in wins. But, they also seem to play a brand of basketball that can leave you feeling uneasy. If they muck a game up enough, Montana can win. They, too, deserve some level of respect because of whatever the sports version of nepotism is (Big Sky blueblood status?).
The rest of the Big Sky is pretty much a who’s who sickos committee meeting. So, let’s run through them in mostly quick fashion.
Idaho State (11-20, 8-10): I will never trust a team from Idaho.
Sacramento State (14-17, 7-11): The Hornets and first-year head coach David Patrick earned their first-ever first-round tournament bye since the league made that the format in the mid 2010s so that is neat!
Portland State (12-18, 6-11): The Vikings play fast as hell but that hasn’t really translated to winning games. They are forever the “sneaky” team and I will root for them.
Northern Colorado (11-19, 6-12): Oh how the mighty have fallen. Who would have thought that all that was holding together the Bears was Bodie Hume, Kur Jonguch and ducttape? Now that they are gone, things went south fast in Greeley.
Northern Arizona (9-22, 5-13): Editors note: I am an NAU graduate who also covered the team for the local paper once upon a time. This is pretty much the NAU that Lumberjack fans know all too well ... a team with a fun, undersized point guard who can score like crazy in Jalen Cone — but not much else. Also, they have good-old networking connections on the team with Liam Lloyd (son of Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd) and Jake Wistrcill (son of Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill). NAU has also had some wild games and the best play-by-play broadcaster in the league — shouts to my old buddy Mitch Strohman — who has produced bangers on his broadcasts:
Hear a guy call 2 game winners... The insane shot to win from Portland State with 0.4 left came after a buzzer beating three from Northern Arizona pic.twitter.com/mI5RvyhLg1— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 11, 2023
Idaho (10-21, 4-14): All you need to know about Idaho is the athletics department didn’t even let Zac Claus coach the tournament before firing him. Like I said, I never trust a team from Idaho.
My blood boils even writing this, because I despise how they play, but Danny and his Sprinkles will win back-to-back conference titles and the Era of the Bobcat will continue to dominate the Big Sky Conference (sorry Montana fans). Shouts to former Mid-Major Madness poster Kyle Cajero, current MSU men’s hoops SID. This one is for you buddy.