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Big Sky Notebook

January 8, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Big Sky Notebook

by Nicholas Lozito

Reevaluating The Big Sky

So things haven’t gone exactly as planned this preseason for most Big Sky teams. The conference has a combined 42-59 record, with many of those wins coming against non-Division I teams. About half of the conference is playing mediocre basketball, while the rest are playing downright awful. But now that the preseason is behind us, struggling teams can regroup and focus on the conference schedule, which kicks off this weekend.

And now that I’ve had two months worth of games to evaluate the conference, time has com to re-rank the teams heading into Big Sky play. Here is how I ranked the teams heading into the preseason:

1. Montana Grizzlies (3-9)
2. Eastern Washington Eagles (4-9)
3. Weber State Wildcats (6-7)
4. Sacramento State Hornets (6-7)
5. Portland State Vikings (6-7)
6. Idaho State Bengals (2-10)
7. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-6)
8. Montana State Bobcats (7-5)

OK, so I’m a moron. But that’s why I always give myself a second chance. Here is how I see the Big Sky stacking up heading into conference play.

1. Weber State (7-6)

Preseason Analysis: I originally picked Montana to be the conference’s top team, based on their solid recruiting class — highlighted by junior college transfer Kamarr Davis — and the fact that coach Pat Kennedy has had two years to get the program together. But after the Grizzlies went 3-9 in the preseason I had to go with the conference’s bread-and-butter — Weber State — as my Number 1 team.

The Wildcats haven’t played stellar basketball by any means this preseason. But who has? They are still searching for a consistent backcourt scorer to replace Jermaine Boyette. John Hamilton (11.8 points) would seem to be the most likely candidate, but he most recently went scoreless in a home loss to Utah. Head coach Joe Cravens is also still looking for one of his point guards — sophomore Jamaal Jenkins or junior college transfer Ryan Davis — to grab hold of the starting spot.

The Wildcats have the conference’s best frontcourt. Forwards Slobodan Ocokoljic (15.9 points, 6.6 rebounds) and Nic Sparrow (11.2) and transfer center Lance Allred (12.4 points, 4.6 rebounds) should dominate in the Big Sky.

Weber State’s biggest win so far came on the road at Southern Utah, 82-68. Their worst came at home to intra-state rival Utah State. The Wildcats are 5-2 at home, 2-4 on the road. The Wildcats are 3-3 in their last six games and open up conference play at Idaho State on Saturday.

Last Week: Ocokoljic recorded a season-high 27 points on 12-of-12 shooting from the free-throw line as Weber State lost 70-60 to Utah at home. Utes senior forward Nate Jacobson countered the Wildcat forward’s effort with 28 points of his own, connecting on 5-of-7 3-pointers. The Wildcats got sixteen points from Allred in a 83-51 win over Savannah State on December 30, one day after losing on the road at Troy State, 79-59.

2. Portland State (6-7)

Preseason Analysis: It’s been a trio of junior college transfer guards who have Portland State playing some of the best basketball in the Big Sky. Blake Walker (18.4 points to lead the conference, 6.4 rebounds) is easily the conference’s preseason MVP, as he scored 41 in a recent win over Tennessee State. Fellow junior college transfers Sheu Oduniyi (10.2 points) and Will Funn (nine points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.1 steals) are also playing well in the backcourt.

Coming off an injury plagued season, forward Seamus Boxley is leading the conference in rebounding with 8.8, while scoring 13.2 points. Preseason all-conference selection, forward Seth Scott, has struggled on the court and has missed time due to injury and suspension. However, he has played over 20 minutes in each of the past three games, and is averaging nine points and 6.7 rebounds in that span. Also coming off an injury-plagued season, center Marshal Hartman provides a solid rebounding presence inside.

Texas-El Paso transfer forward Antone Jarrell showed solid shooting against intra-city rival Portland, scoring 20 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, but has scored in double figures on only one other occasion.

The Vikings’ biggest win came at home to Portland, 74-55. However they also lost on the road against Portland, 60-53. Portland State has lost games at Washington, at Oregon and at Boise State by under ten points. After starting off 1-4, the Vikings are 5-3 in their last eight games. Portland State leads the conference in scoring defense, allowing only 63.8 points.

Portland State opens up conference play with a homestand against Montana State on Thursday and Montana on Saturday.

Last Week: In a road trip to the state of Tennessee, the Vikings came away with a split. They beat Tennessee State, 74-71, on December 30, receiving 41 points and seven rebounds from Walker. The Vikings lost at Tennessee-Martin on January 2, as the Skyhawks held Walker to fifteen points.

3. Montana State (8-5)

Preseason Analysis: The Bobcats are the surprise team of the preseason. And not because they somehow got Florida to schedule a game with them — you better believe they got a grip load of money out of that deal! Yes, I picked Montana State to finish last in the conference.

In my original conference preview, I said the Bobcats would win no more than two conference games. Not only did that turn out to be a very bold statement, but probably a very stupid one as well. I also said that Jason Erickson was a ridiculous choice for conference player of the year two seasons ago. I’ll stick to that statement, but will admit he has played extremely well this preseason. Erickson is second in the conference with 16.8 points, while leading the conference with 3.1 steals.

Point guard Frank Brown has teamed up with Erickson as one of the conference’s best backcourt duos. Brown averages 8.2 points and 4.6 assists. The Bobcats lead the conference in 3-point shooting percentage at 40.8 percent. They are also second in scoring offense, averaging 71.1 points per game.

The Bobcat frontcourt has been led by transfer center Matt Towsley (11.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks), Calvin Ento (8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Nick Dissly (10.6 points, 3.2 rebounds).

Montana State has won their last five games heading into Big Sky play, including their most recent win over Colorado State. Two of the team’s five losses have come by two points, while another came at Florida. The Bobcats have played nine home games and only four on the road. Montana State will open up their Big Sky schedule on the road against Portland State on Thursday and Eastern Washington on Saturday.

Last Week: The Bobcats defeated Colorado State on January 5, marking their fifth-straight win. Erickson led the way with 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while Dissly contributed seventeen points and nine rebounds. On December 29 the Bobcats defeated Morgan State, 81-57, on December 30 they defeated Western Carolina, 84-69, and on January 2 they defeated Rocky Mountains, 83-70. Erickson scored at least seventeen in each game.

4. Eastern Washington 4-9)

Preseason Analysis: After picking the Eagles to finish second in the conference, I was a little disappointed to see them start the season at 4-9. The season didn’t start off too bad, as they almost knocked off Oklahoma on the road. Then the Eagles went 2-8 in the month of December.

To their credit, Eastern Washington has had a brutal schedule, with losses at Oklahoma, at Washington, at Iowa, at Illinois-Chicago, at San Diego State and at Gonzaga. Eastern Washington has played four home games and nine on the road. Their only road win came at Santa Clara on January 3. They also beat Santa Clara at home on December 15.

The Eagles are led by senior guard Alvin Snow (14.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals), who most recently scored 28 points at Santa Clara. Washington transfer Josh Barnard shoots a blistering 54 percent from 3-point range, while senior guard Brandon Merritt averages a team-high 2.9 assists.

Junior forward Marc Axton has provided most of the frontcourt scoring, averaging 11.6 points. Freshman Matt Nelson has also been given plenty of playing time in a depleted frontcourt. The two Eagles who were expected to receive the bulk of playing time at the center position, Gregg Smith and Jeremy McCulloch, combine to average only seventeen minutes and 3.3 rebounds.

The Eagles are 2-6 in their last eight games, but have played only one home game since December 2. The team’s two biggest wins came against Santa Clara. Their worst loss was at Oklahoma, when they led the still-undefeated Sooners by thirteen points in the first half.

The Eagles are seventh in the eight-team conference in scoring, averaging only 64.4 points per game. They will open up conference play at home against Montana on Thursday and Montana State on Saturday.

Last Week: The Eagles defeated Santa Clara for the second time this season, this time on the road, on January 3, 65-54. Snow scored a season-high 28 points, while Axton scored fifteen and Nelson grabbed eleven rebounds. On December 31the Eagles lost at Gonzaga, 70-49. The Eagles shot 29 percent from the field.

5. Sacramento State (6-7)

Preseason Analysis: The Sacramento State Hornets may be the most athletic and talented team in the conference. Unfortunately, just about all of that talent is at the guard and swingman positions. Four of the Hornets’ top five scorers play either guard or small forward.

Shooting guard Joseth Dawson (12.2 points) and swingman Joel Jones (11.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists), who both red shirted last season, have led the offensive attack. Point guard DaShawn Freeman is second in the conference with 4.8 assists and fourth with 1.9 steals. Brandon Guyton is the Hornets sharp-shooter from outside, connecting on 38.7 percent of his 3-point attempts, while small forward Jameel Pugh has also been productive (8.2 points, 4.8 rebounds). Unfortunately, six players — including back up point guard E.J. Harris — at three positions doesn’t work, and all six have seen their playing time limited due to the backcourt depth.

While too much depth may be a problem for the Sac State backcourt, a lack of it has plagued the frontcourt. Starting center Tony Champion, who had a breakout year last season, hasn’t scored in double figures since early December. Power forward Chris Lange has struggled from the field, while his backup, senior Cedric Thompkins, who was one of the conference’s leading rebounders as a sophomore, is averaging only 4.4 boards this season.

The lone bright spot in the Hornet frontcourt may be freshman Alex Bausley, who is averaging 3.1 rebounds and connecting on 46 percent of his 3-point shots. The Hornets are second to last in rebounding margin, and are constantly overpowered upfront.

The Hornets have been a streaky team, winning three straight early on, then losing the next four. They have currently won three of the past five. Sac State’s biggest win came at Cal State Fullerton. They also lost at Oregon State by three points. The Hornets are 5-1 at home, where they will open up Big Sky play against Northern Arizona on Saturday.

Last Week: Sac State had a two-game winning streak snapped at San Francisco, 60-47. The team’s leading scorers on the season, Joseth Dawson and Joel Jones, combined to score just seven points while the team shot 32 percent. The Hornets beat Riverside at home, 66-55, on December 29.

6. Montana (3-9)

Preseason Analysis: The Grizzlies, who I originally picked to win the conference, have lost eight-straight games after opening up with a 3-1 record. All three of Montana’s wins have come at home.

Sophomore guard Kevin Criswell, who averaged 15.1 points last season, is averaging only 11.4 so far this season. The Grizzlies leading scorer is forward Kamarr Davis (12.9 points, five rebounds), a junior college transfer. Montana has seven players averaging between four and nine points.

Derrick Mansell has received the majority of minutes at the point, while junior college transfer Roy Booker has provided solid production off the bench. Mansell is the better assist man, averaging 3.5. Brent Cummings and Steve Horne have split time at the swing position.

The Grizzlies rank sixth in the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. They also average the most turnovers in the conference, coughing the ball up 18.8 times per game. The Grizzlies will open up conference play on the road at Eastern Washington on Thursday and Portland State on Saturday.

Last Week: Montana was spanked at Gonzaga, 88-67, on January 4. Davis led the scoring with thirteen points. The Grizzlies were outrebounded 40-19, with no player grabbing more than three. On December 30 Montana lost at UNLV, 86-67, and were led by Davis’ eighteen points. The Rebels shot 56.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3-point land and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

7. Northern Arizona (7-6)

Preseason Analysis: The Lumberjacks had a surprisingly good preseason last year and didn’t even make the conference tournament. So don’t get too excited Northern Arizona fans. This preseason’s big upset win came at UNLV, where the Lumberjacks won 74-73.

The Lumberjacks have been led by the 3-point shooting on their top three scorers — Aaron Bond (15.9 points, 39.5 percent from 3-point), Kelly Golob (13.4 points, 46.2 percent from 3-point) and Kodiak Yazzie 9.2 points, 38 percent from 3-point). Bond has scored over 20 points in each of his last three games. Golob has had games where he has made 4-of-7, 10-of-13, 6-of-7, 4-of-5 and 7-of-8 3-pointers.

Point guard Kyle Feuerback has led the Northern Arizona attack with 4.5 assists. With none of their top eight scorers over 6-foot-8, the Lumberjacks are a team who looks to run and find the open man on the perimeter. Senior forward Adrian Hayes is the Lumberjacks’ leading rebounded, averaging 5.1 boards.

Northern Arizona leads the conference in scoring offense, averaging 73.7 points. They are also second in 3-point percentage, connecting on 38.6 percent as a team. Northern Arizona has won four of their last five games. The Lumberjacks will open up conference play on the road at Sac State on Saturday.

Last Week: On January 3 Northern Arizona defeated Portland at home 81-73, led by Bond’s 23 points and Golob’s twenty. On December 30 they defeated Quinnipiac on the road, 79-70, as Bond led once again with 34 points.

8. Idaho State (4-10)

Preseason Analysis: It has been a preseason to forget in Pocatello, Idaho. In fact, before it even started, the Bengals lost shooting guard David Schroeder with a season -ending injury during Midnight Madness festivities. In his absence, Idaho State has beaten only two Division I teams.

The Bengals have won two-straight games, but both were against non-Division I teams. Senior point guard Marquise Poole (15.3 points, 5.4 assists), Schroeder’s replacement at shooting guard, Jeff Gardner (13.2 points) and forward Scot Henry (12.5 points, 5.9 rebounds) have kept Idaho State on life support. No other Bengal averages over six points.

And it’s all so sad, because the Bengals were a team on the rise last season, garnering a surprising No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Idaho State ranks last in scoring offense, averaging 63.3 points, and last in scoring defense, allowing 74.8 points. The Bengals will open up Big Sky play by hosting Weber State on January 10.

Last Week: The Bengals beat Western Montana 108-85 on January 6, and crushed Rocky Mountain 105-67 on January 3. Poole scored 24 points and dished out nine assists against Rocky Mountain. The Bengals lost to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 85-70, on December 30 and fell at BYU, 90-66, on January 29.

Player of the Week

I’m no fan of splitting awards like this. But all three of these players played extremely well this past week.

Aaron Bond: Averaged 28.5 points and seven rebounds in two games — both wins — for Northern Arizona.

Jason Erickson: Averaged 20.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in four games — all wins — for Montana State.

Blake Walker: Averaged 28 points and 7.5 rebounds as Portland State went 1-1.


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