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Many storylines in Big Sky men’s tournament
The Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament is a two-horse race between Montana and Weber State and the other five teams might as well warm up the bus right now.
Big Sky historians will tell you the host team has won the tournament championship – and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it – just six times in the past 10 years. Yes, Montana and Weber State have dominated the league’s regular season the past two campaigns, but that means little in the three-game slugfest that is the Big Sky postseason tournament, which begins Thursday at Dahlberg Arena.
Here’s a closer look at what to watch for over the next three days:
Can Weber State finally get past Montana in the postseason?
The Wildcats have had their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by the Griz in the past three seasons, twice in the championship game (2010, 2012) and once in the semifinals (2011). And you can take it back even further. The Griz are 5-0 in the postseason against Weber State since 1997, beating the Wildcats in the semifinals that season and the championship in 2005.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. The Wildcats must win two games and the Griz one before they can meet in this postseason, but let’s say they do.
The Griz should have more than 6,000 fans on their side trying to make up for the loss of leading scorer Mathias Ward to season-ending foot surgery. And three-time All-Big Sky pick Will Cherry is less than 100 percent after re-injuring the same foot he broke back in September. But the Griz do have league MVP Kareem Jamar, surging junior Spencer Coleman and a talented sophomore class that includes Keron DeShields, Jordan Gregory, Mike Weisner and Kevin Henderson.
Weber State, though, has the memory of a 24-point home win over the Griz when both Cherry and Ward were healthy. Center Kyle Tresnak and power forward Frank Otis ate the Griz up inside in that game.
The outcome of the potential showdown could boil down to whether Weber has enough gas left in the tank in its third game in three days.
Can the Griz add to their already remarkable two-year dominance in the Big Sky?
It’s going to be tough without Ward, but the Griz have the home floor working for them.
They’ve won 28 straight at home against Big Sky teams and are 36-2 in their last 38 games against league foes.
And the bye into Friday’s semifinals should keep the Griz a little fresher than their opponents.
Can North Dakota or Southern Utah make noise in their first season as members of the Big Sky Conference?
It’s one or the other, because the teams square off in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
UND got off to a tough start, losing its first eight games against Division I teams while waiting for all-conference forward Troy Huff to return from an injury. But the Green and White closed out the regular season by winning seven of its last 10 with one of the losses coming in overtime. Huff led UND in scoring in seven of those games, including a 34-point effort in a road win at Eastern Washington.
Southern Utah, behind high-scoring seniors Damon Heuir and Jackson Stevenett, was the surprise team of the early season, getting out to a 3-0 start in league play. But the T-birds dropped their final four of the regular season and seven of their last eight before backing into the tournament with some help from Sacramento State.
Can Northern Arizona go from the outhouse to the penthouse?
The Lumberjacks were picked to finish last one season after posting a 1-15 mark in the Big Sky during a tumultuous campaign that saw longtime coach Mike Adras fired just before the start of league play.
But the Jacks bounced back behind first-year coach Jack Murphy to go 8-12 in league. Three of those 12 losses came in overtime by a total of eight points. One of those overtime losses came at home to Weber State, the team NAU will face in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
NAU has a pair of prolific scorers in guards Gabe Rogers and DeWayne Russell and a capable big man in Max Jacobsen. How the Jacks match up against Weber’s Tresnak, Otis and Davion Berry will go a long way toward determining if the Jacks can pull the upset.
Can Northern Colorado continue its late-season surge?
The Bears were picked to finish third, but stumbled out of the gate by losing five of their first six league games. UNC rebounded to win six of its last eight to even its league mark at 10-10 and earn a spot in the 4-5 matchup against Montana State.
The Bears have a three-pronged attack led by undersized power forward Derrick Barden, who averaged a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) in league games. Guard Tate Unruh tied for the league high with 62 3-pointers on 45 percent shooting and point guard Tevin Svihovec (12.6 ppg) increased his efficiency during league games.
UNC will be facing a Montana State team without one of its senior leaders, Xavier Blount, who was lost to a season-ending injury just last week. Guard Antonio Biglow, though, could replace Blount as the X-factor for MSU.
They’re not here
Mathias Ward, senior forward, Montana. Ward led the Griz in scoring at 14.8 ppg before suffering a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 16. The Griz went 4-1 without Ward with the only loss coming in overtime at Davidson.
Xavier Blount, senior forward, Montana State. Blount started all but one of the games he played in this season before going down with an injury last week in practice. Blount averaged 10.5 points and 4.2 rebounds for the Cats, who swept NAU and Sac State last week without him.
Players to watch
Kareem Jamar, wing, Montana. The league MVP is a triple-double waiting to happen. Jamar averages 14.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game.
Will Cherry, guard, Montana. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a lock-down defender. He’s also one of the league’s most explosive players going to the rim.
Troy Huff, wing, North Dakota. The 6-5 junior never takes a play off. Many of his 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game come as the result of sheer hustle.
Gabe Rogers, guard, Northern Arizona. The senior led the league in scoring at 18.1 ppg overall, 20.1 in league games. He’s a threat to shoot as soon as he crosses center court.
Derrick Barden, forward, Northern Colorado. The junior transfer is listed generously at 6-foot-5, but whatever his actual size, he gets the most out of it. While he gets most of his work done around the rim, you can’t ignore him at the 3-point line. Barden averaged a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) in Big Sky games.
Davion Berry, wing, Weber State. The junior transfer, who is a cousin to UM’s Cherry, is an athletic 6-foot-4. He’s more than capable of getting to the rim and shot 48 percent from 3-point range in league play. He’s also a top-notch defender.
Scott Bamforth, guard, Weber State. The senior finished third in the league in 3-pointers made with 73 and shoots them in at 45 percent.
Jackson Stevenett, forward, Southern Utah. The senior finished second to Rogers in the scoring race at 17.7 ppg. He was also the T-birds’ leading rebounder (6.2 rpg).
Antonio Biglow, guard, Montana State. Biglow was moved back into the starting lineup last week after Blount was injured and scored 40 points in the Cats’ home sweep of NAU and Sac State.