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Big Sky First Round Preview

March 9, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Big Sky Conference First Round Preview

Preview by Nicholas Lozito

Heading into the final weekend of conference play, only one game separated second-through-last place in the conference standings. The Eastern Washington Eagles, sitting all alone in first place, watched as every other team in the conference — Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, Sacramento State Hornets, Weber State Wildcats, Idaho State Bengals, Portland State Vikings, Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats — fought for their tournament berths. In the end, Northern Arizona (7-7 in Big Sky, No. 2 seed), Idaho State (7-7, No. 3 seed), Sacramento State (7-7, No. 4 seed), Weber State (7-7, No. 5 seed) and Montana (6-8, No. 6 seed) advanced to the tournament. Montana State (6-8) and Portland State (5-9) both failed to qualify.

The tie-breaker between the four 7-7 teams was determined by their respective records against each other. Northern Arizona defeated Montana in overtime on Saturday to secure their No. 2 seed, while Idaho State pulled off a dramatic double-overtime win over Eastern Washington, 91-90. Sunday’s lone-and-final regular season game featured a battle for the final tournament seed between Montana State and Sacramento State. The winner took the No. 4 seed, the loser went home. The Hornets rallied back from a fourteen-point deficit to win 80-74.

Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona will both receive byes into the semifinals, which, along with the finals, will be held on Eastern Washington’s home court in Cheney, Washington. The Hornets will host their first ever tournament game against the Wildcats while the Bengals will host the Grizzlies in the two quarterfinal match-ups. The lowest remaining seed after the quarterfinal round will face eastern Washington in the semifinals.

No. 3-seed Idaho State versus No. 6-seed Montana
Montana swept the home-and-home series with Idaho State, winning at home 91-76 and on the road 88-85. The game in Pocatello, Idaho was determined at the free throw line where Montana converted 26-of-38 attempts, compared to Idaho State’s 12-of-21 shooting. Grizzly guard Kevin Criswell, a pure scorer who looks to get his shot off the dribble, and forward Kamarr Davis, one of the conference’s strongest players, combined to score at least 40 points in both games. The Grizzlies shot a combined 28 more free throws than the Bengals in the two games, with Criswell and Davis accounting for 39 attempts.

The Bengals are led by point guard Marquise Poole, a lanky slasher who leads the league in assists (6.3) and scoring (18.8). Poole averaged 20.5 points and 10.5 assists in the two games against Montana. In the frontcourt, the Bengals will look to forward Scott Henry for scoring and rebounding. Henry possesses an array of post moves, and should have enough quickness to get the bigger Davis off balance.

Montana lost seven of their first nine conference games, with lone wins against Idaho State and Eastern Washington. They have since bounced back by winning four of their last five, with their only loss coming in their most recent game against Northern Arizona at home. Eastern Washington has won their last two games — both at home — against Eastern Washington and Portland State. Prior to the homestand, the Bengals had lost their last four games.

Bottom Line: The Bengals biggest weakness is their depth — they rely heavily on Poole and Henry for scoring. But given a week off, expect these two stars to avenge the two losses earlier in the season to the Grizzlies.

Prediction: Idaho State 88, Montana 81

No. 4-seed Sacramento State versus No. 5-seed Weber State
1,200-seat Hornet Gym will play host to it’s first ever Big Sky Tournament game as the Hornets take on the Wildcats. The two teams split their home-and home series, with the Hornets winning 64-61 in Sacramento and the Grizzlies winning 65-54 in Ogden, Utah. Joseth Dawson exploded for 32 points in the Hornets’ win, contributing half of the team’s scoring. The only other Hornet to record double figures in scoring against the Wildcats in either of the two games was Joel Jones, who put up fourteen points in the Hornets’ road loss. Shooting guard John Hamilton had fifteen points in each game, while forward Nic Sparrow had sixteen in the Wildcats’ road loss.

A plethora of swingmen carry the Hornets on offense, led by Dawson and Jones. Both players can score in the paint or beyond the arc. Shooting guard Brandon Guyton is a 3-point specialist, while forward Jameel Pugh scored a career-high 24 points in the Hornets’ tournament-clinching win at Montana State. Head coach Jerome Jenkins will likely start sophomore DaShawn Freeman at the point, but will rotate both E.J. Harris and James Payne into the game. In the frontcourt, the Hornets rely heavily on Cedric Thompkins for rebounding.

The Wildcats distinct advantage comes in the frontcourt, where power forward Slobadan Ocokoljic possesses the ability to take over a game. The Hornets held the Ohio State transfer scoreless in their first half of their win in Sacramento. The Wildcats have struggled to find a consistent backcourt scorer since the loss of reigning conference MVP Jermaine Boyette to graduation.

The Hornets have won six of their last nine games, including an overall 10-3 record at Hornet Gym. The Wildcats have won their last three games, including an upset win over Eastern Washington. The Wildcats also knocked the Hornets off in the semifinals of the conference tournament last season en route to making the NCAA Tournament.

Bottom Line: If the Hornets can push the tempo and connect from long range, they could blow away the defending conference champs. If the Wildcats can control the half-court set with big men Ocokoljic, Sparrow and Lance Allred, it could be a slow scoring win for the Wildcats. Look for the Hornets to feed off their home crowd.

Prediction: Sacramento State 74, Weber State 69

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