Returning senior point guard Torry Hill
Oct. 16, 2013
If there was ever a year to ask the Big Sky Conference women's basketball coaches to hold off voting on the predicted order of finish of the league's 11 teams, 2013-14 would be it. It won't be until Christmas until most of the coaches get a feel for their own teams, much less their Big Sky counterparts.
Last year at this time, the top five teams picked atop in the preseason coaches' poll had 21 of 25 starters back. This season is the year-after corollary. Nine of the 11 first- and second-team All-Big Sky Conference performers from a season ago graduated, and only one of those two returners is playing this season.
Montana coach Robin Selvig, entering his 36th season with the Lady Griz, rightly predicted a year ago that last season was going to be a dog fight, but at least everyone had a pretty good idea which coaches had the biggest dogs in the fight.
He expects the same type of battle this year, but this time around he has no idea what teams will be near the top of the standings once the calendar gets to late February.
"There are not as many established returners as there have been the last couple of years, so there are a lot more unknowns," Selvig said. "I don't ever put much credence in the poll, but it's probably even less this season.
"It wouldn't surprise me if somebody who was picked eighth or ninth finished near the top."
So without much to go on for this year's poll, the coaches picked the one team that met two important criteria: it did well last year and has almost everybody back. And that put Eastern Washington at the top.
The Eagles, who finished third last season, two games behind Montana, picked up six of 11 first-place votes in the coaches' poll, which was released Wednesday. Second-place Montana collected three and third-place Northern Colorado the other two.
Montana State and Idaho State were picked fourth and fifth.
Eastern Washington junior guard Lexie Nelson, who finished fourth in the league in scoring (14.0/g) last winter, is the only first- or second-team All-Big Sky selection from a year ago who will be in uniform this season.
But it's not just Nelson that put EWU on the top line. Three other starters return. Nelson's backcourt running mate, junior Kylie Huerta, who finished first in the league last season in assist-to-turnover ratio, is back, as are senior Aubrey Ashenfelter and 2012-13 Outstanding Freshman Hayley Hodgins.
"Eastern returns a lot of players from a good team, so you'd expect they'll be good," Selvig said.
Of course, if recent history is any sort of guide, being picked No. 1 might be the worst thing that could have happened to the Eagles.
Since the dominant Montana teams -- those led by Mandy Morales, Britney Lohman and Sonya Rogers -- graduated following the 2008-09 season, the polls have been wildly inaccurate and never kind to the preseason favorite.
None of the last four predicted winners has won the regular-season title. In fact the average finish of those four teams has been lower than fifth. And the actual regular-season champions? None has come from the top two picks in the poll, and more than half have come from much farther down than that.
In 2009-10 it was Eastern Washington, picked seventh, that rose up and won the league by two games. In 2010-11, Northern Colorado, picked eighth, shared the title with Portland State, which was predicted third. In 2011-12 it was Idaho State, projected fifth, that won the regular-season title by three games.
Last year Montana was picked third and won by a game over Northern Colorado, which was voted second. Preseason favorite Idaho State finished in a tie for fourth.
The Lady Griz have as many questions as anybody, but when a program has won 23 regular-season championships since the early 80s, been to 20 NCAA tournaments and is led by a 20-time conference coach of the year who is two wins shy of 800 for his career, it tends to get the benefit of the doubt.
Montana has holes to fill for sure. Most notably, 2012-13 Big Sky MVP Katie Baker and first-team All-Big Sky selection Kenzie De Boer are gone, as is more than half of the team's scoring from a year ago.
Back are two experienced returning starters in seniors Torry Hill and forward Jordan Sullivan, and if a team is only going to have two starters back, point guard is the most optimal position to have locked down.
Northern Colorado received two first-place votes, which begs the question: Would the Bears have gotten those votes if all 11 coaches knew D'shara Strange, like Nelson a first-team All-Big Sky performer a year ago, was redshirting this season? Probably not.
Strange, who would have been a senior, injured her knee in Northern Colorado's WNIT win at Wyoming last March. She played on it throughout the summer and finally opted to have season-canceling surgery earlier this month.
Northern Colorado's other two returning starters, Lindsay Mallon and Kim Lockridge, combined to score 8.1 points per game last season.
The next five teams in the poll -- Montana State, Idaho State, Southern Utah, Portland State and North Dakota -- all return either two or three starters, most with names that make the casual fan ask, Who?
Unknowns? From those five teams, only three players return that were even honorable-mention All-Big Sky last year: North Dakota's Madi Buck, Portland State's Angela Misa and Southern Utah's Hailey Mandelko.
Sacramento State was picked ninth by the coaches, and the Hornets put the "wild" in wild card.
Jamie Craighead, who coached Sac State for four seasons and to three Big Sky tournaments, left the team in mid-September to take over at San Jose State. For Craighead's replacement, Sacramento State went with Bunky Harkleroad, whose team will play like Craighead's did, just at video-game pace.
Harkleroad spent the last four seasons at Glenville (W.V.) State, and the Pioneers led NCAA Division II in scoring each of those years. Last year Glenville State averaged 95.3 points per game while going 27-4 and took nearly 50 percent (48.6) of its shots for the season from 3-point range.
Harkleroad has three returning guards -- seniors Alle Moreno and Se'nyce Parrish and junior Fantasia Hilliard -- who will have no trouble adapting to Harkleroad's new system. Moreno and Hilliard were both honorable mention All-Big Sky selections last season.
The final two teams in the poll, Northern Arizona in 10th and Weber State in 11th, are in various modes of rebuilding.
At NAU, second-year coach Sue Darling lost alpha female Amy Patton, plus Patton's 1,938 points and equal amount of weighty baggage. With only senior guard Amanda Frost on the list of the team's returning starters, Darling went with Extreme Makeover: Lineup Edition.
Of the Lumberjacks' 13 players on its preseason roster, 10 are either incoming freshmen (eight) or transfers (two). Frost and junior forwards Erikka Banks and Raven Anderson are the only two players on the roster who have played a game for Northern Arizona.
At Weber State, a Big Sky-high five starters return, but they make up the core group of a team that went 0-29 last season, so that's not necessarily a good thing. The Wildcats have lost their last 48 games and have gone more than two seasons since winning their last Big Sky Conference game.
In an attempt to end that losing streak, Weber State scheduled NAIA Walla Walls University for its home opener on Nov. 8.
2013-14 Big Sky Conference preseason coaches' poll
1. Eastern Washington (6 first-place votes) ... 94 points
2. Montana (3) ... 84
3. Northern Colorado (3) ... 81
4. Montana State ... 74
5. Idaho State ... 56
6. Southern Utah ... 52
7. Portland State ... 45
8. North Dakota ... 44
9. Sacramento State ... 41
10. Northern Arizona ... 19
11. Weber State ... 15
2013-14 Big Sky Conference preseason media poll
1. Eastern Washington (20) ... 308
2. Montana (2) ... 280
3. Northern Colorado (4) ... 268
4. Montana State ... 222
5. Idaho State (4) ... 208
6. Sacramento State ... 186
7. Portland State ... 154
8. Southern Utah ... 128
9. North Dakota ... 120
10. Northern Arizona ... 62
11. Weber State ... 44
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