Oct. 17, 2012
How loaded are the best women's basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference? The top five teams in the preseason coaches' poll have 21 of 25 starters returning, with no team returning fewer than four, so it's no wonder the poll largely reflects last year's finish.
The Big Sky announced the 2012-13 preseason coaches' poll Wednesday, and Idaho State, which went 14-2 in league games last winter and won the regular-season title by three games over runner-up Northern Colorado, was picked to repeat, but it wasn't unanimous. UNC, which was picked second, and Montana, voted third, both received first-place votes.
Montana State and Portland State were picked fourth and fifth. And since this year's tournament has been expanded to seven teams, newcomer North Dakota was picked sixth and last season's late-season darling, Sacramento State, was voted seventh.
"Based on last year's results and what each team has returning, that makes sense," 35th-year coach Robin Selvig says, hinting but not saying, "Let's just wait and see what happens this year. It's the ranking at the end of the season I'm more interested in."
Selvig can rest comfortably tonight, because he knows how much, or how little, the poll actually means. He remembers that the team atop last year's poll, Portland State, failed to make the six-team postseason tournament, and that the team picked fifth, Idaho State, won the regular-season and tournament titles both.
That's not to say Idaho State isn't worthy of receiving the preseason nod this year. ISU lost first-team All-Big Sky guard Chelsea Pickering but returns everybody else, including point guard Kaela Oakes, who joined Pickering on last year's six-player first team, and honorable-mention selection Ashleigh Vella.
Idaho State lived a charmed life last season, highlighted by the Bengals 7-0 league record in tight games, which for this article's purposes are games decided by seven points or fewer.
Two of those were against Montana. ISU's 59-58 win at Montana State and 58-51 win at Missoula in early January set the early tone, and ISU's follow-up 54-48 victory over the Lady Griz at Pocatello in early February confirmed that the Bengals were last year's team to beat.
It almost certainly won't be a three-game lead atop the final standings this year, not with Northern Colorado and Montana returning such strong teams.
The Bears have a stacked group of four returning starters. The team's lone loss? Mad 3-point bomber Kaisha Brown. Headlining the returners: D'shara Strange and Lauren Oosdyke.
Strange was a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection last year after averaging 14.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game during league play. She was also the Big Sky's Defensive Player of the Year, making her the league's most dynamic player and putting her atop the short list of likely MVP candidates.
Oosdyke, who enters her final season already with more than 1,000 career points, was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore but only honorable mention last winter.
Montana hasn't won a regular-season championship since 2008-09, a dry spell of considerable length for a program with 22 championships since the early 80s. With five returning starters and nine returning letterwinners who accounted for all but 22 points and 11 rebounds a year ago, the Lady Griz have the team to end the championship drought this winter.
Senior forward Katie Baker, a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection last season after averaging a team-leading 15.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, is back with a vengeance, as is senior guard Kenzie De Boer, an honorable-mention performer as a junior.
The three big keys for the Lady Griz this winter? Shooting ranks first, then shooting, followed by shooting. It's no secret that last year's team was the worst shooting squad (.368) of the first 34 Selvig has sent out on the court.
The shooting was particularly rough against good defensive teams, of which Idaho State, Northern Colorado and Montana form a triumvirate. In last season's four losses to the Bengals and Bears, the Lady Griz averaged 48.8 points on 31.4 percent shooting, far from contender numbers.
Lurking behind the top three in the poll is a very good Montana State team that returns four starters. The high-scoring Katie Bussey is gone, but senior forward Rachel Semansky and junior forward Ashley (Albert) Brumwell return after ranking second and third in scoring last season.
Montana swept Montana State last season, by seven points at Bozeman and by 18 at Missoula, but the Bobcats won the third meeting, when the teams met in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tournament, 68-59. That happiness was short-lived, however. MSU scored just 43 points the next night to lose to Northern Colorado by eight in the semifinals.
At the risk of offending Montana's Torry Hill and Kenzie De Boer, Portland State has the Big Sky's top backcourt in Courtney VanBrocklin and Kate Lanz. Last season those two teamed up with 2011 Big Sky MVP Eryn Jones to give the Vikings a solid perimeter. But without anything in the middle, PSU imploded down the stretch, going 4-9 to finish the season and allowing Sac State to grab the final tournament spot.
Portland State coach Sherri Murrell is back for her sixth year, but this will be her first year without top lieutenant Peg Swadener at her side. Swadener left in June to take over at Willamette University.
North Dakota, picked sixth, is new to the Big Sky Conference and is under first-year coach Travis Brewster, but they are no strangers to Missoula. UND played in the Lady Griz Holiday Classic the last two winters, and Brewster was the associate head coach on those teams.
Sacramento State, the undersized fun bunch that plays end line to end line in coach Jamie Craighead's unique system, was picked seventh despite having four starters back and finishing as strongly as any team in the Big Sky last winter.
The Hornets won their final four regular-season games last season, including two gotta-have-em head-to-head meetings with Portland State, to grab the No. 6 seed to the tournament. Once there Sac State beat No. 3 Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals by 10 and led No. 1 Idaho State at the half in the semifinals before losing 70-57.
Eastern Washington, picked eighth, suffered the biggest personnel losses from last season in Brianne Ryan and Chene Cooper. Ryan, first-team All-Big Sky, led the league in scoring (19.3/g), while Cooper, second-team All-Big Sky, led the league in assists (6.9/g).
Attempting to fill Cooper's shoes will be Lexie Nelson, who played for the Lady Griz in 2010-11 before transferring.
Northern Arizona, under first-year coach Sue Darling and set to enjoy the final year of Amy Patton's career, was picked ninth; Weber State, with a preseason roster of 16 but with only one returning starter, was voted 10th; and Southern Utah, which returns five starters from last year's 6-23 squad, was picked 11th.
The fun begins on Thursday, Dec. 20, when the Big Sky Conference schedule kicks off with five games.
2012-13 Big Sky Conference preseason coaches' poll
1. Idaho State (8 first-place votes) ... 97
2. Northern Colorado (1) ... 88
3. Montana (2) ... 77
4. Montana State ... 72
5. Portland State ... 63
6. North Dakota ... 53
7. Sacramento State ... 50
8. Eastern Washington ... 40
9. Northern Arizona ... 28
10. Weber State ... 17
11. Southern Utah ... 13
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