Saturday, March 4, 2006

Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big Sky Conference had a very good season overall, and they are at #17 in the RPI, their highest total in years. Northern Arizona jumped out to an 8-0 conference record and ended up winning the league by two games over Montana. Two other teams finished at least .500 in the league. However, all eight teams were competitive and every team had at least four wins within the conference.

Favorite: Northern Arizona, after a ten-game winning streak, has lost 2 of their last 3 and 3 of their last 7 overall. The Lumberjacks lead the league in scoring offense, but are also next-to-last in scoring defense. They are near the top in nearly every statistical category on the offensive side, but are in the bottom half of several defensive categories. NAU has four players in double-figures, including one of the best backcourts in the Big Sky. Kelly Golob and Steve Sir are both excellent long-range shooters, while Tyrone Bazy is a very solid all-around player. Ruben Boykin is one of the better inside players in the conference. He leads the Big Sky in rebounding and is also a force on the offensive end.

Contenders: Montana jumped on the nation's radar when they defeated Stanford back in the non-conference season. They have won 5 of 6, including wins over Northern Arizona and Oral Roberts. The Grizzlies have the best scoring defense in the conference, and are also the most-efficient team from the field. They might have the best duo in the conference in guard Kevin Criswell and forward Andrew Strait. Both are likely all-conference players. Virgil Matthews is a solid all-around performer. Eastern Washington has won 6 of 8 to reach 3rd in the conference. They don't look overly impressive on paper, but the Eagles are home to one of the best freshmen in the country. Rodney Stuckey is 9th in the country in scoring, and is also in the Top 5 of the Big Sky in assists and steals. Deuce Smith is a good contributor on the perimeter, while Paul Butorac is a solid option down low.

Sleeper: Sacramento State has lost 5 in a row and 9 of their last 10, but they can have potential to make a run due to their scoring ability and the fact that they force a lot of turnovers. Moreover, they have balance on the offensive end. Alex Bausley anchors the interior, while Jason Harris is a very good inside-outside player. DeShawn Freeman is an excellent point guard and Loren Leath and Haren Hargrave are solid perimeter scorers.

Prediction: Even though Northern Arizona led the conference from beginning to end, I don't think they have the defense necessary to win the conference championship. Teams that can't get stops in crucial situations don't win high-stakes games with a lot on the line. Therefore, I'm going with Montana. They have an excellent duo in Criswell and Strait, providing them with inside-outside balance. Moreover, they have the best scoring defense in the league. Add that to the fact that they are playing well lately, and I think the Grizzlies will top the Lumberjacks in the title game and get the automatic bid.

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