The 2014-15 Big Sky season saw more parity than I can remember in the Intermountain West's mid-major conference. The conference champ and tournament host site were up for grabs on the season's last day, as well as the final three spots in the conference tournament.
The field is set and Montana is hosting at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula for the third time in fourth years. For the first time, the Big Sky has an eight-team field and nobody gets a first round bye.
In this tournament, there isn't a single result, first-round games or final champ, that would truly surprise me. The probabilities from Team Rankings support this sentiment:
via Team Rankings
The Semi column represents the likelihood each team has of winning its first-round game. Two-seeded Eastern Washington has the biggest expected advantage in the first round, which is surprising given Montana's home-court advantage and the battles Eastern and Idaho have had twice already.
The order of probabilities in who ultimately wins varies considerably from seeding. The title nod is skewed heavily in favor of Eastern Washington. Despite Montana's home-court advantage, EWU is easily the best RPI team in the Big Sky. Montana is 11-3 at home, and one of those losses--the only Big Sky team to do it--was to Eastern.
Related: Big Sky bracket and schedule
For an NCAA Tournament outlook, a championship from Eastern Washington might mean a 14-seed. Montana could grab a 16-seed and avoid Dayton. Anybody else is almost a lock to play in Dayton in a 16 vs. 16 game.
Here is a breakdown of the first-round matchups. All games will be on WatchBigSky.com.
(1) Montana (18-11, 14-4 -- RPI 146) vs.
(8) Weber State (13-16, 8-10 -- RPI 257)
March 12 - 8:00 pm MT
Head-to-head: Split 1-1
(at Weber: Weber 68-60 -- at Montana: Montana 74-63)
For the fifth time in six seasons, Weber State and Montana will face off in the conference tournament. Montana is 4-0 in the previous four matchups in that span. There has never been this level of seeding difference, however, as Weber State finds itself in the unusual position of last-seed-in and big underdog.
Montana is led by Washington transfer Martin Breunig, who is developing into a monster in the post. Breunig scores 16.6 points per game on 60% shooting and grabs seven rebounds per contest. He scored 31 points on 14-of-18 shooting in the loss in Ogden, which Weber State won surprisingly comfortably despite Breunig's effort.
Jordan Gregory leads UM in scoring with 16.8 per game. He has had a particularly poor shooting year, but finds ways to get his team points when they need it.
Weber State has talent, but is massively inexperienced (one senior, one non-JC-transfer junior) and have been playing without starting point guard Jeremy Senglin, freshman of the year in 2014, who broke his jaw. There is a possibility he might play some, but Weber State is planning to play without him. JC transfer Chris Golden has been playing point guard for the first time in his life and has done well, but teams have been throwing traps and presses at Weber to exploit the inexperience.
(2) Eastern Washington (23-8, 14-4 -- RPI 89) vs.
(7) Idaho (13-16, 8-10 -- RPI 263)
March 12 - 11:00 am MT
Head-to-head: Eastern Washington 2-0
(89-86, 98-95 OT)
The Big Sky's best RPI and the nation's leading scorer both reside in Cheney, but the Eastern Washington Eagles draw new-old rival Idaho in the first round. Idaho's proximity to Eastern Washington made them a natural rival to EWU in their return to the Big Sky, and the matchups have not disappointed.
I'm not sure how Team Rankings pegged Eastern as an 80% favorite in this matchup, as both games were decided by three points and one went to overtime. Given its experience, I feel Idaho has underachieved greatly this season. But this should be the most exciting and fun-to-watch matchup of the first round.
In their first game, Idaho's Mike Scott shot 4-of-9 from three but it wasn't enough to best Tyler Harvey's 23 points. In the second at EWU, Harvey had just returned from injury and scored only 13 points in 28 minutes. But freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk was a monster off the bench, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and pulling down 15 boards.
(3) Sacramento State (19-10, 13-5 -- RPI 150) vs.
(6) Portland State (15-13, 9-9 -- RPI 220)
March 12 - 1:30 pm MT
Head-to-head: Sac State 1-0
(64-60 in Sacramento)
Sacramento State's season set up just like it was supposed to: a senior-laden team was on the cusp of its first-ever Division I conference championship. But the Hornets went 0-2 to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in the season's final week, losing out on the conference title and hosting rights.
The Hornets are still plenty good when playing well, however. Mikh McKinney was tabbed the Big Sky player of the year and can fill up the hoop with the best. McKinney willed Sac State to a win at Weber with 27 second-half points, for example. Dylan Garrity is a sharpshooter who can burn a lot of teams if given the chance.
The pair combined for 33 points to beat Portland State in their lone matchup this season. The Vikings have experienced guards themselves, but couldn't quite rise up to challenge for the top of the conference. DaShaun Wiggins leads the Viks with 15.8 ppg and shoots 43.8% from three. Gary Winston has been a solid complement on the guard line, while newcomer Tiegbe Bamba adds 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds from the post.
I'd expect Sac State to win this game, but as I mentioned at first, no result would surprise me.
(4) Northern Arizona (18-13, 13-5 -- RPI 167) vs.
(5) Northern Colorado (15-14, 10-8 -- RPI 236)
March 12 - 5:30 pm MT
(at NAU: NAU 65-60; at NoCo: NoCo 76-74)
While parity reigned, there is still some distinct separation between the top four and bottom four in the tournament (See RPIs, Seeds 1-4: 89, 146, 150, 167 vs. 4-8: 220, 236, 257, 263). Northern Arizona vs. Northern Colorado is a perfect example, so it's fitting they are the 4-5 matchup.
NAU lost by 6 at Ole Miss, lost a slugfest to NC Central (24-6, 16-0 in MEAC), and beat Saint Mary's in Moraga. NoCo, on the other had, lost to every decent non-conference opponent it played. The Bears haven't quite capitalized on the experience of Tevin Svihovec and Tim Huskisson, while Quinton Upshur and Kris Yanku have led NAU to be a relative surprise.
However, NoCo's 76-74 home win over NAU on Feb. 28 officially ended NAU's shot at winning the conference, so the Lumberjacks finished one game out of first place. Yanku spoiled his 20-6-6 game by missing the front-end of a one-and-one bonus with the game tied. Svihovec hit a pair of free throws with 7 seconds left to win the game for NoCo.