Saturday, March 8, 2008

Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big Sky Conference had a rather ordinary season, ranking No. 25 in conference RPI, with Portland State winning the league by three games over Northern Arizona. The Vikings started just 2-2, but won their last 14 Big Sky games to run away with the conference. NAU seemed like a contender until it lost four of five games in the middle part of the league season. Only one other team finished above .500 in league play.

Favorite: Given the way that it has been playing over the past two months, Portland State is certainly the team to beat heading into the conference tournament. The Vikings beat IUPUI and Akron in back-to-back days in November, which sent a message that they would be a contender. They are very solid offensively, and are extremely effective from behind the arc. Jeremiah Dominguez and the versatile Deonte Huff form an outstanding backcourt, while Scott Morrison is a go-to big man down low.

Contenders: Northern Arizona always seems to be in the mix for the conference tourney championship, and this year is no different. The Lumberjacks come into the tournament on a five-game winning streak, although four of those contests were at home. They have arguably the best inside-outside combo in the league, with Kyle Landry dominating inside and Josh Wilson handling things on the perimeter. Perennial power Weber State got off to a 5-1 start in league play, but the Wildcats lost four of their next six to fall back out of the conference race. Dezmon Harris is an outstanding three-point shooter, but he has struggled down the stretch. Inside, Arturas Valeika is a double-double lock every night out. He has produced two 20-rebound performances in the last four games, as well as another 16-rebound outing.

Sleeper: Outside of the three teams with an above .500 record, Montana is the best bet to make a run in the conference tournament. The Grizzlies started 1-4 in Big Sky play, but won seven of their final 11 to finish strong. They have the best forward tandem in the league in Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet, two players capable of taking over a game and carrying Montana to victory. Ryan Staudacher can really shoot the ball from deep.

Prediction: With the league taking only the top six teams into the conference tournament, there is not a lot of room for monumental upsets and Cinderella runs to an automatic bid. Still, it won’t matter – Portland State is going to win the automatic bid and the league tourney. The Vikings are simply playing too well right now to lose a game on their homecourt in the semifinals or finals. They have the inside-outside balance to adapt to whatever a team throws at them, and have proven over the course of the season that they are the best team.

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