Torry Hill and the Lady Griz play at Northern Arizona and Sacramento State next week
Dec. 27, 2013
The Big Sky Conference women's basketball league schedule opened with two games last week and gets into full gear next week. With the Big Sky's nonconference games mostly concluded, it felt like time to take stock of the situation.
1. Sacramento State (7-1, 0-0 BSC)
Under previous coach Jamie Craighead, the high-scoring Hornets felt more like a curiosity than a contender. No longer. First-year coach Bunky Harkleroad has taken Craighead's system and made it even more high-octane, and the results have been impressive. Consider: 1) The only blemish on the Hornets' record has been a loss at Oregon State, and 2) Oregon and St. Mary's have a combined record of 18-3. Two of those losses -- one for each team -- have come against Sac State. The Hornets have yet to score fewer than 80 points in a game, their season scoring average of 93.1 ranks fourth nationally, and five of their seven wins have been by five points or fewer, meaning Harkleroad's system is not just high scoring, it's effective in crunch time. Could the Big Sky tournament be headed to the Hornets Nest for the first time?
2. Southern Utah (7-2, 1-0 BSC)
Looking for Montana in the No. 2 spot? The Thunderbirds have played a weaker schedule than the Lady Griz, but a season-opening win at Boise State and a 75-63 victory at Northern Colorado last week in SUU's Big Sky Conference opener give SUU the slight edge. Southern Utah, at 75.1, is the second-highest scoring team in the Big Sky behind Sac State, and the Thunderbirds rank second to North Dakota in rebounding margin at +8.1, a winning combination. Southern Utah, which starts four seniors, has six players averaging between 7.0 and 12.0 points per game. Senior forward Carli Moreland had 25 points and nine rebounds against the Bears.
3. Montana (6-3, 0-0 BSC)
If they Lady Griz could shoot just 40 percent (*) every league game this winter, Montana would probably go 17-3 or 18-2 if not better and be a lock to win its second straight regular-season championship, but that's been a tough number for this team to reach. In fact Montana has shot better than 38 percent just twice through its first nine games, and those have been lopsided wins: 84-58 at Denver and 71-48 over UC Irvine. Four times this season Montana has failed to shoot 35 percent and predictably the team's three losses have been the result. But the defense is as solid as ever. The Lady Griz lead the Big Sky in both scoring defense (58.8/g) and field goal percentage defense (.357). (*) For comparison: 167 of the nation's 343 Division I programs are averaging 40 percent shooting or better this season, so it's not like 40 percent should be out of the question.
4. North Dakota (6-3, 1-0 BSC)
Nobody has beaten Iowa State (9-0) this season, including North Dakota, which lost 84-55 at Ames to open the season. Other than that, UND is a few plays away from being 8-1. North Dakota followed its season-opening loss at Iowa State with a 61-56 loss at Northern Iowa and three weeks ago almost pulled off an upset that would have rivaled anything Sac State has done. North Dakota led at Minnesota, a team currently 10-3, by 13 at the half before falling on a shot at the buzzer. Second-year coach Travis Brewster has two new assistant coaches, and senior forward Madi Buck (17.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is playing like an MVP candidate.
5. Eastern Washington (4-5, 0-0 BSC)
Eastern Washington, the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite with four returning starters, opened the season 0-5, which wasn't a total surprise considering only one of those games was at home and two of the four games away from Cheney were against Gonzaga (10-2) and Iowa State (9-0). A four-game homestand righted things for the Eagles, who won all four, with a buzzer-beating win over Idaho and a solid 81-66 victory over Boise State just before the Christmas break. Junior guard Lexie Nelson (16.3 ppg) is playing like a returning first-team All-Big Sky selection, and she's getting interior scoring help from senior center Laura Hughes (16.4 ppg). The Eagles, at 44.6 percent, are far and away the Big Sky's best shooting team.
6. Montana State (5-4, 0-0 BSC)
Like Montana, the Bobcats played a challenging nonconference schedule and took some losses. MSU lost by 10 at Wyoming and also lost to Villanova, Seattle and Washington away from home. Montana State, which returned starters Kalli Durham, Ashley Brumwell and Emily Allen plus got Ausha Cole back from a redshirt season, is perhaps the Big Sky's biggest question mark heading into league play. The Bobcats, who were flying high at 8-1 in league play at one point last winter before flaming out late in the season, are as nondescript as their record. The Bobcats rank close to the middle of the Big Sky in nearly every statistical category.
7. Weber State (4-5, 0-0 BSC)
The Wildcats snapped the 48-game losing streak they carried into the season with a 107-25 victory over Walla Walla University to open the year and also have wins over Montana-Western, Air Force (1-9) and Utah Valley (2-10), but it's WSU's losses that have done a better job showing that this Weber team isn't the Weber team of the last few seasons. The Wildcats held a 24-point second-half lead on BYU (10-1) before falling apart late and lost 59-54 at Colorado State (8-3) last Sunday. Weber has gone more than two seasons without winning a league game. That's a streak that will likely come to an end next week when WSU hosts Portland State.
8. Northern Colorado (5-5, 0-2 BSC)
The Bears, who opened Big Sky play last week with home losses to Southern Utah and North Dakota, are an example of the difference one player can make, especially when her absence wasn't able to be covered in recruiting. D'shara Strange, first-team All-Big Sky last season, had offseason knee surgery that cost her what would have been her senior season. With her, the Bears were a top-three team. Without her, UNC will be playing all season with a goal of just staying within reach of the No. 7 and final Big Sky tournament spot. Junior center Stephanie Lee, who averaged 7.7 points per game last season, is averaging a Big Sky-leading 21.7 points through 10 games this season. She's had six 20-plus-point scoring games.
9. Idaho State (2-7, 0-0 BSC)
Sure, Idaho State is shooting 33.1 percent for the season and averaging a hard-to-watch 58.4 points per game, but you try playing nine straight road games and going nearly two months between home games and see how you do. That was the Bengals' challenge after opening the season with home wins over Black Hills State and Carroll. There have been some tight losses (72-70 at Boise State, 59-56 at Utah Valley) and some blowouts (95-47 at Iowa), but the next road win will be the first of the season. Idaho State opens league play next week at Portland State and Eastern Washington before making a long-awaited return home to face North Dakota on Jan. 9.
10. Northern Arizona (3-5, 0-0 BSC)
The Lumberjacks have not had a signature win yet this season, but with 10 of the 13 players on the NAU roster either freshmen or transfers, Northern Arizona's best basketball was going to come later in the season if it was going to come at all.
11. Portland State (2-7, 0-0 BSC)
The Vikings, who made the NCAA tournament in 2010 and hosted the 2011 Big Sky Conference tournament, are going the wrong direction, and fast. PSU's lone wins this season have come against Corban and Columbia. The team's seven losses have all been by double digits. The last four -- to Gonzaga, Oregon, Georgia Tech and Portland -- have come by a total of 161 points. Portland State is allowing an average of 84.9 points per game and getting outscored this season by 21.0 points.
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