Saturday, March 3, 2007

Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big Sky Conference was wide-open heading into the season, and not much has changed since then. Weber State and Northern Arizona tied for the league title, both going 11-5, as NAU won seven of their last eight, and WSU dropped two of their last four. By virtue of sweeping NAU, Weber State got the #1 seed. Montana finished only one game back of those two, and seven of the league’s nine teams finished .500 or above. Unfortunately, since only six teams make it to the conference tournament (still don’t understand that), 8-8 Eastern Washington and one of the nation’s best players, Rodney Stuckey, won’t get a chance to play in the postseason.

Favorite: Weber State, despite falling into a tie for first-place down the stretch, comes into the tournament as the favorite because they host the semi-finals and finals should they get there. The Wildcats shoot the ball well from all over the court, and are efficient on the defensive end. Senior forward David Patten is one of the best frontcourt players in the league, and averaged over 16 points per game over the final five games. The backcourt of Juan Pablo Silveira and Dezmon Harris is also very good, with both players averaging double-figures.

Contenders: Northern Arizona is the hottest team in the league, and comes into the tournament with a 7-1 record in the second half of the league season. They are the best shooting and offensive team in the conference, and they also rebound well. Six players average at least eight points per game, led by forward Ruben Boykin, arguably the best post player in the conference. He is joined up front by Kyle Landry, who is averaging over 14 points and 9 rebounds in his last three games. NAU has, by far, the best perimeter in the league, with Tyrone Bazy and lights-out shooter Stephen Sir on the wing, and one of the passers in the country, Josh Wilson, at the point. Montana won eight of their final twelve games to put themselves only one game back of the league leaders. They reached the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Nevada in the first round. The player that led them there, Andrew Strait, is back. He is very strong and tough to stop in the post. Jordan Hasquet and Matt Dlouhy combine with him to form the best frontcourt trio in the conference. All three average in double-figures. Cameron Rundles is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, and he is the main man on the perimeter.

Sleeper: I hate going with the fourth place team in the conference as the sleeper, but Portland State has a real shot at winning the automatic bid. The Vikings have won seven of their last eleven games since starting 2-4 in conference play. The three league losses in that stretch were by a combined 14 points. PSU has excellent inside-outside balance, with forward Juma Kamara and 6-11 center Scott Morrison anchoring the post. The perimeter features leading scorer Dupree Lucas and Deonte Huff, who is one of the better rebounding guards in the Big Sky. Sixth man Paul Hafford averages 9.9 points per game in only 19.1 minutes a contest.

Prediction: With only six teams in the conference tournament, and all of them going at least .500 in conference play, the Big Sky should feature an exciting couple of days. Weber State is the top-seed, but I see them getting upset in the semi-finals by a hot Portland State team. Northern Arizona is going to win the automatic bid. They have the best starting five in the league, with options and experience at every position. Look out for the Lumberjacks in March.

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