Big Sky Tournament Preview: Can Anybody Take Down Montana?

Big Sky Tournament Preview: Can Anybody Take Down Montana? article feature image
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© Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

I know the ACC tournament will get most of the national coverage, but don’t forget about the Big Sky tournament, which also tips today in Reno. This year’s tourney has the potential for absolute madness from the opening tip to the cutting of the net strings.

2018 Big Sky Tournament Overview

All 12 league teams participate in the Big Sky postseason tourney, with the top  four seeds receiving a bye. All four first round games will be played today (starting in the early afternoon). Tourney action will pick back up after a day off on Thursday with all four quarterfinal games.

Montana is listed as the odds on favorite to win the Big Sky tourney at +142, but the league has some really intriguing other options.

Let’s jump into the bracket to locate any potential futures value and then finish up with ATS predictions for today.

Who Should Win

Montana +142

The Grizzlies won the Big Sky regular season title by two games. They have by far and away the league’s best defense. Montana limited Big Sky opponents to just .94 points per possession (ppp) in the regular season. In fact, Montana was the only team in league play to hold offenses under 1 ppp. Head coach Travis DeCuire made a fundamental switch in his defense this year, shifting from a pack line scheme to a more aggressive half court ball pressure man to man. Montana guard Mike Oguine (pictured above) thrived in that switch to take home Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Offensively, Montana has a true post in big man Jamar Akoh to balance out the solid backcourt of Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie. Montana isn’t a strong perimeter shooting team, as its heavy reliance on the rim dictated that it shot the three at the 17th lowest rate in the country. Thus, the Grizz have struggled against zones this year, grading out in just the 12th percentile nationally, per Synergy.

Montana will face the winner of the 8/9 game between North Dakota and Montana State. UND is the defending Big Sky Tournament champs, but the loss of guard Quinton Hooker (last year’s tourney MVP) has been too much to overcome for head coach Brian Jones’ squad. That said, UND still has a very capable offense, thanks to guard Geno Crandall (16.5 ppg). UND will have the advantage of playing a Montana State team that has been a major disappointment this season. Many expected the Bobcats to contend for a league crown, but they followed a 4-0 Big Sky start with a brutal 2-12 stretch. MSU does feature the electric backcourt of Tyler Hall and Harry Frey, but the Bobcats’ defense allowed a league worst 1.12 ppp,

MSU can’t defend dribble penetration and it lacks a rim protector to erase those perimeter mistakes. That’s bad news against attack heavy UND, which actually has a lot of the same defensive problems. North Dakota allowed the 6th highest FG% at the rim nationally, while Montana State allowed the 16th, per hoop-math.com. Neither poses a real threat to Montana with that kind of rim defense. Montana went 4-0 against MSU and ND in the regular season. In one of those four wins, they defeated UND by 30, scoring an obscene 109 points on 1.38 ppp.

If Not Montana, Then….

Idaho +330

The Vandals claimed the No. 2 seed thanks to the league’s most efficient offense, scoring 1.13 ppp in Big Sky games. Idaho is the conference’s most difficult scheme matchup on both ends of the floor, which could pay huge dividends in a tournament setting.

Offensively, Idaho uses the great Stew Morrill’s motion playbook, as Don Verlin was a longtime assistant under Morrill at Utah State. The Vandals hit threes at the fourth highest mark in the country out of that offense this year. Defensively, they switch between a pack line and an amoeba zone, forcing teams to beat them with jumpers. Idaho is led by fantastic senior guard Vic Sanders (19.0 ppg) and floor-stretching forward Brayon Blake (45.5% from deep). However, the Vandals will be shorthanded, as they won’t have the services of senior guard Perrion Callandret (9.6 ppg). Callandret served as one of Verlin’s primary ball handlers and was a reliable perimeter shooter.

Similar to Montana, Idaho has a potential in-state rivalry game in the second round, as it will play the winner of No. 7 seed Idaho State and No. 10 seed Southern Utah. ISU is a potentially troublesome matchup for the Vandals, simply because the Bengals can put several shooters on the floor in guards Jared Stutzman, Brandon Boyd, and Balint Mocsan. Unfortunately for head coach Bill Evans, Idaho State will be missing its most lethal shooter in Gary Chivichyan (44.3% from outside the arc). In ISU’s home win over the Vandals, the Bengals hit 16-27 from deep.

ISU will first have to get past Evans’ old team in Southern Utah. Evans was somewhat of a legend in Cedar City. His infamous 1-1-3 zone was copied by Homer Drew, and Scott Drew uses it frequently at Baylor to this day. SUU’s frontcourt of Jamal Aytes and Dwayne Morgan could give ISU issues at the rim, where ISU has struggled defensively.

Potential Sleeper(s)

Eastern Washington +515 and Weber State +725

EWU heads to Reno on a six game winning streak, with wins over Montana and at Weber State in that stretch. It also helps to have the league’s best player in 6’6 swiss army knife Bogdan Bliznyuk. EWU is extremely reliant on the three pointer, so an off shooting night on a neutral floor could spell trouble. However, with so many lethal shooters spreading the floor, Aussie forward Mason Peatling is often left with wide open looks at the rim. As a result, the Eagles impressively paired the league’s highest 3PT attempt rate with the Big Sky’s most efficient two point offense.

EWU will face the winner of No. 6 seed Portland State and No. 11 seed Sacramento State. PSU is interesting simply because first year head coach Barret Peery immediately installed a relentless full court pressure defense. (No team in the country presses at a higher rate, per Synergy). PSU’s speed and athleticism gave the slower Eagles defense issues in a season series split

However, PSU will have to beat Sacramento State for the first time this season, as half of the Hornets’ Big Sky wins came against the Vikings. Sacramento State even won when PSU still had the now departed senior guard Deontae North (21.1 ppg) in the lineup. Sacramento State really only has one shot maker in Justin Strings, but he went 16-18 from the field in one contest alone against PSU. Amazingly, Sacramento State had the league’s lowest turnover rate despite playing with its third string point guard for most of the season. The Hornets however head to Reno down two regulars in the backcourt, which is not ideal against PSU’s press.

No. 4 seed Weber State comes into this tourney on a sour streak, having lost three of its last four. Those three losses came at the hands of the Montana, Idaho, and EWU. Weber actually didn’t tally a single win against the Big Sky’s top three seeds. Head coach Randy Rahe completely switched his offensive philosophy this year, scrapping his two big offense and embracing the stretch 4 revolution with former 4-star recruit Brekkott Chapman (Utah transfer). Chapman had an up and down (mostly down) season, but sophomore guard Jerrick Harding proved to be an elite scorer in his sophomore season. Harding finished the regular season with a 46 point outburst against Montana State. Defensively, Weber single covers the post and doesn’t over-help on penetration, as Rahe prefers to completely take away the three point line.

The Wildcats have a potentially tough quarterfinal matchup against No. 5 seed Northern Colorado. The Bears should’ve swept Weber, but blew double digits leads in both games (including a five point lead with 30 seconds left). UNC is a tough matchup for Weber because it doesn’t rely on the three. Also, its backcourt duo of Andre Spigt and Jordan Davis can expose WSU’s questionable pick and roll defense. Few offenses in the country ran pick and roll at a higher rate than UNC.

Tuesday ATS Predictions

North Dakota -1.5 (top ATS prediction)

Northern Colorado -12.5

Southern Utah +3.5

Sacramento State +6.5

Big Sky Final Prediction

Montana over Eastern Washington

 

Photo via Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports