Over the last seven seasons, five different schools have represented the Big Sky in March Madness (there wasn’t one in 2020 due to Covid). There are some familiar faces sitting at the top of the conference once again, and the top five schools are within a few games of each other. The conference games that have been played have been one or two possession games for the most part, so the battle for the automatic bid is for the taking. Here is my breakdown of the Big Sky Conference and my predictions for the seeding come conference tournament time. Note: All stats and records are as of 1/29.
1) Eastern Washington (16-7 Overall, 10-0 Conference)
Overview: After starting the season 0-3, the Eagles have been on a tear by winning 16 of their last 20 games. In conference, they are a perfect 10-0 with a couple of very impressive wins over the top three teams in the conference. Their conference success has been attributed to their performance offensively in conference play, averaging 73.5 ppg. The Eagles can beat teams offensively with just about anyone, as four starters are averaging double figures and five different players leading each of the five major statistical categories. If there’s one guy that has played a key role in Eastern Washington’s offense, it is sophomore guard Steele Vetters. On the year, Vetters has averaged 15.2 ppg, and teams do not want to foul him because he is shooting a phenomenal 92.3% from the free throw line (48 of 52). With the well-balanced attack on both sides of the ball, and the depth that the Eagles have, it is going to take a lot for any team in the conference to hand them a loss. For that reason, Eastern Washington is my pick to win the Big Sky regular season and conference tournament.
2) Montana State (15-8 Overall, 8-2 Conference)
Overview: The Bobcats were the Big Sky’s conference tournament winner a season ago, and they have found themselves on top of the conference again this season. A tough loss to Eastern Washington and a bad loss to Idaho is going to make it difficult for the Bobcats to get the one seed. However, they absolutely can give Eastern Washington and the rest of the conference a run for their money this season. Montana State is the best school in the conference defensively giving up only 66.8 ppg (88th in NCAA). They also are one of the top teams of the conference offensively, scoring 70.3 ppg. The one-two tandem of guard RaeQuan Battle and forward Jubrile Belo have been the keys to the Bobcats offense this season, as the duo averages 17.1 and 12.7 ppg respectively. They also have a solid guard in Darius Brown II who is third in the conference in assists per game (4.6) and is the conference leader in steals per game (1.8). Although they may not get the one seed, the Bobcats are going to go into the conference tournament out to prove that they deserve the automatic bid for March Madness for the second year in a row.
3) Idaho State (8-14 Overall, 5-4 Conference)
Overview: Despite the rough out of conference record that the Bengals have this season, Idaho State has played very close in some of their out of conference games this year. They lost to BYU by 4, Utah by 12 and Grand Canyon by 2, all on the road. Despite their non-conference play,they have played solid in conference thus far and have big wins over Sacramento State and Weber State to give them an early head-to-head lead on both of those squads. Although the Bengals have not been very good offensively this season (averaging a mere 69.0 ppg), their starters are dangerous on offense, with three starters averaging double digits. Guards Brock Mackenzie and Miguel Tomley and center Brayden Parker have each contributed on the offensive end, averaging 13.0, 12.1 and 11.1 ppg respectively. Mackenzie had a massive performance in their last game in the Bengals OT win over Idaho, where he put up 30 points. If the Bengals can continue to compete and finish close games this season, while also minimizing their blowouts, they could very well make a deep run in the conference tournament.
4) Weber State (11-11 Overall, 6-3 Conference)
Overview: Weber State has the talent to be the top team in the Big Sky and have their way with any team that they want. The only problem is that they cannot seem to find a consistent string of wins in the conference. A big factor for the lack of their consistency is the lack of offensive output that the Wildcats have produced. They are only scoring 65.1 ppg, which is the worst in the Big Sky and is 311th in all of college basketball. However, if there is one thing that is keeping the Wildcats on top of the Big Sky, it is sophomore forward Dillon James. Just how good has James been this season? He is leading the team in points (15.1 – 7th in conference), rebounds (10.9 – leads conference), assists (3.9 – 4th in conference), and steals (1.5 – 3rd in conference). He not only is a candidate for Big Sky POY but also he will be a force to be reckoned with in the conference for several more seasons to come. James is helping lead the Wildcats at the top of the conference, and they likely will stay there through the conference tournament. However, if James does not get some help, they could get upset early and have their season get cut way shorter than they would have wanted.
5) Sacramento State (12-10 Overall, 5-4 Conference)
Overview: Despite their respectable 5-4 conference record, the Hornets have only beaten teams in the lower half of the conference and all four of their conference losses have come to the teams mentioned above. Sacramento State simply has not beaten a good team in the conference thus far this season. The Hornets also have not looked great in their wins in the conference with three of their five conference wins coming by four points or less. Things need to improve for the Hornets for them to see success in the postseason. However, one thing to compliment Sacramento State on is the guard-big man one two punch that they have leading their offense. Guard Zach Campbell (15.0 ppg, 39.3% 3 pt) and center Callum McRae (12.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg) have been key to Sacramento State’s success this season, and they are the reason that the Hornets have a winning record in conference play. It has been said already, but I think it needs to be emphasized once more: If the Hornets cannot find a way to win against a good Big Sky opponent, they will very easily see a first round exit in the conference tournament.
6) Montana (10-12 Overall, 4-6 Conference)
Overview: Most teams above Montana have a really solid record in the conference and an average record out-of-conference. The Grizzlies are the exception to this trend with a 6-6 record out of conference and only a 4-6 record in conference. They do have some solid wins out of conference of South Dakota State and North Dakota State of the Summit League. However, the Grizzlies need to find a way to get wins in the conference if they want a chance at the automatic bid. Having weapons on the offensive end is not an issue for the Grizzlies, as three starters are averaging double figures offensively. You do not have to look far to find the MVP for the team this season: Junior forward Josh Bannan. Bannan has played the biggest role for the Grizzlies success this season, leading the team in points (15.4), rebounds (8.5 – 3rd in conference), and assists (3.6). There is a lot of time left until the end of the season, and if Montana can have some of their out of conference success translate to conference play, they could make a run in the tournament and surprise some teams.
7) Portland State (9-13 Overall, 3-6 Conference)
Overview: To say that Portland State has had the oddest season of all of the schools in the Big Sky would be the understatement. The stats are there for the Vikings to have a ton of success in the conference, and the personnel is there for a deep run in the conference tournament. The Vikings have been the best offense in the Big Sky this year, averaging 72.2 ppg (127th in CBB). They have three starting guards in Cameron Parker, Jorrell Saterfield, and Hunter Woods all averaging double figures with 15.5, 13.3 and 10.8 ppg respectively. The trio are also all very solid behind the arc by shooting 38.7%, 34.8% and 37.5% from behind the arc. They can score with just about anybody in the conference offensively. However, they are very poor defensively this season, giving up 77.2 ppg (31st worst in CBB). Even some of the bottom teams in the conference have scored a lot of points on this Vikings defense (example: Northern Arizona scored 74). Things have to improve on the offensive end for Portland State to even have a shot at making a run in the conference tournament.
8) Idaho (8-15 Overall, 2-8 Conference)
Overview: Between the last three teams in the conference, they all very well could swap places come conference tournament time. However, I put Idaho in the 8 seed slot for one simple reason: They have two of the top three scorers in the Big Sky on their team. Junior forward Isaac Jones has the slight edge of the leading scorer, as the big man is averaging 19.1 ppg (2nd in conference) and 7.5 rpg (5th in conference). Trailing not far behind him is senior guard Divant’e Moffit with 18.6 ppg (3rd in conference) and 5.2 apg (2nd in conference). A lot of one-two combos has been mentioned in the article thus far, but none of those one-two combos has been as dominant this season as Jones and Moffit have been. The reason that the Vandals are one of the worst teams in the conference is their defense, giving up 75.0 ppg (287th in the country). Jones and Moffitt could very well give the Vandals a couple more wins this season, but they have to tighten up on defense if they want to have a remote shot at a run in the postseason.
9) Northern Arizona (6-16 Overall, 2-7 Conference)
Overview: The Lumberjacks have been a disappointment this season, as they have the potential for a really good squad. Unfortunately, that potential has not translated to wins or even close wis for that matter. Of Northern Arizona’s 16 losses, nine of them have come by double digits. However, despite the poor record for the Lumberjacks, there have been some bright spots for them this season. Junior guard Jalen Cone has impressed teams across the conference this year, averaging 17.8 ppg while shooting 38.5% from behind the arc. The future is also very bright for sophomore big man Carson Towt, who is averaging 9.1 ppg and 8.0 rpg (4th in the conference). Like many of the teams in the bottom of the conference, defense is the reason for the season the Lumberjacks have had, giving up 77.8 ppg (27th worst in the country). Although Northern Arizona may get a win or two against a bottom of the conference team this season, it would take a really poor performance from a high seed for them to get a win in the conference tournament.
10) Northern Colorado (7-14 Overall, 2-7 Conference)
Overview: Finally at the bottom of the conference, we have Northern Colorado. Much like Idaho, the Bears have a one-two combo that is very solid offensively. The leading scorer in the Big Sky is the Bear’s senior guard, Dalton Knecht. Knecht is averaging 20.8 ppg, hauling in 7.3 rpg, while also shooting a very impressive 40.3% from behind the arc. His backcourt mate, senior guard Daylen Kountz, is also having a very solid season, averaging 16.4 ppg and 3.4 apg. The two have been the bread and butter for the Bears offense this season. What would the reason for their bad record for this season be? Northern Colorado is not only the worst defense in the conference but also the worst defense in the entire country. The Bears are giving up an average of 79.3 ppg, which is the 15th worst mark in the NCAA. In all of their losses in the Big Sky, the Bears have given up 72 points or more. It is going to take a bad scoring performance by a high seed and a phenomenal game out of both Knecht and Kountz for the Bears to get any more wins for the remainder of the season.
Although it appears that the Big Sky is a top-heavy conference, the top teams are going to make things very interesting in the postseason. I did predict for Eastern Washington’s run to continue, but I think that any of the top four could represent the Big Sky in the March Madness Tournament. The winner will likely get a very low seed in the tournament, but I would recommend keeping an eye on how the winner has done down the stretch. If the conference winner played really well in the conference tournament and ends the season on a hot streak, they could bust some brackets in March and make some bettors lose some money too!