Now that every team has at least 5-6 games in the books, we are starting to get a better feel for how the Big Sky will shake out this season. At the top, perceptions have not changed much, as least in my mind. My top 2 are still the same. After that, however, things are still very fluid. Here are my rankings as of the end of November.
1) WEBER STATE (4-1)
With their loss to St. Mary’s, the Wildcats may have lost any small chance they had to be an at-large, but they still look like the best team in the Big Sky. Damian Lillard is showing he is all the way back from his injury, as he currently leads the nation in scoring at 25.6 PPG. There are some questions that still remain, such as: Can they get consistent inside scoring? And when will Kyle Bullinger be, well, Kyle Bullinger? He’s pulling down boards like a beast, but is struggling mightily to score. But, the Wildcats have the most talent and fewest question marks in the conference. Weber State is still the Sky’s best chance at a first round upset in the NCAA Tournament.
2) MONTANA (4-2)
Montana has had its ups and downs. Downs: a one-point home win over Great Falls (who?) and a road loss to North Dakota (though not as bad as it first sounds). But the Grizzlies have also had their ups, most notably a home win over Long Beach State. Will Cherry is still the best PG in the Big Sky, and coupled with Kareem Jamar they have an excellent backcourt that brings it on both ends of the court. The key is the frontcourt, which has been plagued by inconsistency and lack of productivity. Derek Selvig is back from his ankle injury and played well against the 49ers, but can he bring that every game? The biggest factor might be the emergence of freshman post Billy Reader, who is already the best inside scorer on the team. Couple the improvement of Reader and a couple of freshman wings (Keron DeSheilds and Kevin Henderson), and Montana will be near the top throughout the season. Wayne Tinkle’s teams don’t take possessions off defensively.
3) EASTERN WASHINGTON (4-2)
Eastern Washington should be very excited about the beginning of Jim Hayford’s time as head coach. They have lost twice, but they were competitive in eight-point losses at Gonzaga and at Oregon. Collin Chiverton is living up to the preseason hype, as he scored 25 points in each of his first two games. Off the court, Jim Hayford has signed 5 recruits for next year, and he will have a couple of Division-I transfers. Big man Cliff Ederaine has been a solid third option after Chiverton and PG Cliff Colimon, which EWU has to be excited about. There are many among the followers of the Big Sky that believe Eastern Washington might be the toughest challenger to Weber State.
4) PORTLAND STATE (4-2)
The Vikings have not really done anything to stand out yet this year, but they haven’t done anything really bad either. Their two losses came against a solid-looking Denver team on the road, and a decent Wyoming club in Laramie. Their two best players have performed to expectations, as Charles Odum leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) and Chehales Tapscott is tops in rebounding (9.5 per game). The big disappointment has been JUCO PG Lateef McMullan. Coach Tyler Geving had a lot of positive things to say about him, but he has been pretty bad so far, averaging 2 assists per game and shooting 20%. He needs to improve quickly. Tapscott is really a player you should know, as he does a little bit of everything. His line is 14 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, and 1.5 BPG. He is a do-it-all undersized PF, and he might be the best post man in the Big Sky.
5) MONTANA STATE (3-3)
The Bobcats have a couple of solid wins this year, going on the road to beat Utah and San Jose State. But sandwiched in between was a home loss to Seattle, and a road loss to Idaho where they weren’t really in the game most of the way. They have a lot of talent and athleticism on the wing, but they have struggled to bring it every game. Brad Huse said before the year that this team would be balanced and dynamic, and so far that balance has been shown through 9 players playing double digit minutes. Can one of the guys step up and be the go to guy that gets buckets when they need him? I am not sure. Christian Moon has hit some big shots this year, but they need Jamie Stewart or Xavier Blount to step up and be the guy. Montana State is a tough team to figure out, and one gets the feeling they will be a bit streaky this year.
6) SACRAMENTO STATE (3-3)
We knew Dylan Garrity would be solid as a freshman, but he is averaging over 7 assists per game while also taking good care of the basketball. If he can get his jumpshot going, he will really be something special. The other star for the Hornets has been JUCO wing Joe Eberhard, who has already won a Big Sky POW Award and leads the team in scoring and rebounding. They are also getting very productive minutes from post Konnor Veteto, as well as wings Walter Jackson and John Dickson. Even though their solid start has been aided by a schedule featuring some cupcakes, for a program that has not had a winning season in over 20 years, they have been a pleasant surprise early on.
7) NORTHERN COLORADO (2-4)
The Bears started 0-4 with a difficult schedule, but they have not looked too bad despite the uneven record. They are a talented group, just very young. Paul Garnica is emerging as the lead guard, leading them in scoring and assists this year with a much improved outside shot. BJ Hill is still mixing and matching the frontcourt rotation, but they have talent, so that is not the problem. They will get better as the season goes on, and it would not be a surprise to see them in the top 5. They only have one senior and two juniors on the roster.
8) IDAHO STATE (1-5)
Fans were cautiously optimistic after they almost beat Oklahoma to begin the season, but it turns out that was just a solid performance for one game, and the Bengals have performed to expectations the rest of the way. They have not beaten a Division-I opponent, and the only reason they get the nod to stay out of the cellar is that they have at least come close. JUCO PG Melvin Morgan was touted as the best passing PG Joe O’Brien had recruited, but he is averaging less than 3 assists per game. Joe O’Brien’s seat was hot entering the season, and if anything, it has been turned up by a 1-5 start. They need to turn things around quickly to save his job, but his schedule is not doing him any favors. It is possible ISU will be 1-10 going into conference play.
9) NORTHERN ARIZONA (2-5)
There is not a lot of positive for Mike Adras’ team so far this season. The Lumberjacks have no wins against Division-I opponents, and they haven’t even really been close (their closest was a 12-point loss to North Dakota State). They lost a lot of talent last year, and they have not been able to recover from the preseason injury to their star guard, Gabe Rogers. The lone bright spot has been freshman PG James Douglas, who is leading the team in scoring and is the only one averaging double figures. Mike Adras is usually at his best when he is underestimated, but it will be difficult for the Lumberjacks to make the Big Sky Tournament this year.
One more month until conference play begins!
Read more from Jonathan Reed at BigSkyBBall