College Basketball Betting Preview for Big Sky: Will Montana, Others Knock Off Southern Utah?

College Basketball Betting Preview for Big Sky: Will Montana, Others Knock Off Southern Utah? article feature image

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  • Southern Utah won 20 games last year and is once again the favorite in the Big Sky this season.
  • Weber State and Montana have the next shortest odds in the league.
  • Keg breaks down the conference from top-to-bottom.

Significant changes in the Big Sky won't begin until next season, but there are still a few this year.

Even though neither would be described as new to their program, there are two new head coaches in the league.

Eastern Washington promoted David Riley after Shantay Legans left to become the head coach at Portland. At the same time, Jase Coburn was also promoted at Portland State after Barrett Perry left to become an assistant at Texas Tech.

Southern Utah — which is leaving for the WAC next year — is projected as the favorite to win the conference by multiple outlets and books, including BetMGM.

Does anyone else have a chance to ruin the Thunderbirds' last dance before they become just a spirit in the Big Sky?

Southern Utah Thunderbirds

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+250
2020-21 Overall Record 20-4
2020-21 Record ATS13-6
2020-21 O/U13-6

Last year, the Thunderbirds led the league in scoring offense and scoring margin.

They went into the conference tournament with only two losses in league play and were considered the best team in the Big Sky. It wasn't even particularly close.

But conference tournaments are where the automatic-bid dreams of mid-major elites go to die. Montana State upset the Thunderbirds in the semifinals and to make matters worse, the best season for the Thunderbirds in almost 20 years was finished due to the NIT field being reduced.

Head coach Todd Simon was rumored to possibly leave the program after last season. When he announced he was staying in Cedar City, his best players agreed to join him in what will be a Last Dance-esque season.

Southern Utah returns 92% of its minutes from last year, mostly from four starters. It will be NCAA Tournament or bust for the Thunderbirds.

But this season will be quite a challenge. Like most lower-tier conferences, the Big Sky has dramatically benefited — both talent and experience-wise — from the NCAA's free year of eligibility.

Weber State Wildcats

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+250
2020-21 Overall Record 17-6
2020-21 Record ATS14-6
2020-21 O/U11-9

The biggest challenger to Southern Utah lies across the Beehive State in Ogden.

Randy Rahe has coached more basketball games than anyone else in the Big Sky during his 15 years at Weber State. He's not just there for the scenery, either, as Rahe is the Big Sky's all-time leader in victories (295).

Rahe was previously running a slow, methodical system at Weber State, but that all changed in 2018. Since then, the Wildcats have finished inside the top-50 nationally in tempo.

Last year, Rahe signed seven transfers. As a result, Weber had its highest winning percentage since 2015-16 (.743).

In what is even better news for the Wildcats, they return most of their talent in 2021-22.

With one more regular-season title, Rahe will have more than any coach in conference history. Also, just one more league tournament crown would put him tied for the Big Sky's all-time lead.

If Rahe can pair the returning starters' familiarity with the incoming talent, the Wildcats could win their first league title in six years. This team has all the makings of a Big Sky contender.

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Montana Grizzlies

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+350
2020-21 Overall Record 15-13
2020-21 Record ATS7-16
2020-21 O/U11-12

Montana always needs to be included in the conference championship conversation. The Grizzlies have won 13 regular-season league titles and 11 tournaments in the Big Sky.

Last year was an outlier compared to what the Grizzlies have done historically. They posted their lowest win total and win percentage since 2007-08, while finishing below .500 in conference play for the first time since 2004.

Head coach Travis DeCuire swung and missed with four Division I transfers, as they failed to mesh as a cohesive unit. Only one of those transfers returns to the Grizzlies this year.

Last year, DeCuire's team was one of the youngest in the nation, as Montana ranked 340th in experience, per KenPom. Returning four starters and 89.6% of their minutes should be huge for this team.

Josh Bannan, Robby Beasley III and Brandon Whitney account for a large portion of those returning minutes. The trio combined for 37.9% of the Grizzlies' scoring while logging more than 2,000 minutes in 2020-21. No other team in D-I had three true freshmen simultaneously averaging 25 minutes per game.

The Grizzlies won't be picked by many, if anyone, to win the Big Sky, but don't count them out. They are returning a young core that is still learning as players, which is huge for a coach as seasoned as DeCuire.

I expect the Grizzlies to be dangerous against inexperienced opponents and if Southern Utah and Weber State run into trouble, don't be surprised if the Grizzlies find themselves at the top.

Montana State Bobcats

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+600
2020-21 Overall Record 13-10
2020-21 Record ATS8-12
2020-21 O/U14-7

Last season, Montana State reached the conference tournament finals, upsetting regular-season champ Southern Utah in overtime of the semifinals.

Few saw it coming from a team that hadn't been to the Big Dance in 25 years and was projected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky.

The Bobcats were pleasantly surprised in the offseason. Super seniors Xavier Bishop, Abdul Mohamed and Amin Adamu all elected to return, using their extra year of eligibility. However, head coach Danny Sprinkle had already used his 13 scholarships, signing six freshmen.

Thankfully, a fundraising drive by Sprinkle & Co. raised enough money to pay for the trio's tuition for this academic year.

All three were starters last season and should once again be critical factors for the Bobcats.

While you have to love a feel-good story for those three players, the Bobcats' best talent is likely junior Jubrile Belo (14.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG).

Don't fall in love with the Bobcats just yet, though. Three of their two-game series' were canceled last season due to COVID-19 protocols. All of those games were against the top three teams in the Big Sky, including Southern Utah and Montana. That makes it hard to know how they will match up against the conference's elite.

With an alma mater coach and returning players who have proven they can win, Montana State is in a position most mid-majors dream of. Throw in the feel-good tuition story, and we're just a few songs away from a Disney Channel movie.

I am in a wait-and-see position with Montana State. They can be good. I think they can compete in the Big Sky, but I want to see how they match up against the top of the league before I buy in on them.

Northern Colorado Bears

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+900
2020-21 Overall Record 11-11
2020-21 Record ATS9-9
2020-21 O/U8-10

The Bears' .500 finish last season in head coach Steve Smiley's first year at the program can be considered an achievement, especially with what felt like almost constant COVID issues.

If Northern Colorado can avoid those issues this year, it may raise some eyebrows, as it has one of the best players in the league.

Bodie Hume, the Bears' top scorer, should be the favorite for Big Sky Player of the Year. Hume (15.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG) has earned conference honors in the last three seasons and was named Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2018-19. He ranked sixth in the conference in scoring and rebounding last season and topped 1,000 career points.

His right-hand man should be Dalton Knecht (23.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.0 APG). The 6-foot-6 sophomore scored nearly 900 points in his two seasons at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, Hume's hometown.

Knecht, a Second Team NJCAA All-American last season, also ranked second nationally in scoring.

The Bears led the Big Sky in 3-point shooting percentage allowed (.297) for the second straight campaign. The Bears ranked 22nd nationally in 3P% last season and considering the array of weapons present, that could potentially rise even higher.

This team has all the ingredients of a championship contender, as this is one of the best rosters the Bears have had in a long time.

With one of the Big Sky's best players in Hume, a slew of proven returnees, depth and two newcomers who should make immediate impacts, I expect the Bears to break away from the bottom of the Big Sky.

Portland State Vikings

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+1200
2020-21 Overall Record 9-13
2020-21 Record ATS8-9-1
2020-21 O/U5-13

Some people love college basketball for the big names, the pageantry and the blue bloods. I love college basketball because of people like first-year head coach Jase Coburn.

Coburn still drives the same 2003 Chevy Tahoe that brought him to Portland State in 2013. However, now that he is a head coach, the Tahoe seems to be going in the opposite direction, as Coburn reported the A/C and heat no longer work.

Last season, Portland State had nine newcomers — five of which arrived via the transfer portal.

Amidst the coaching change, the Vikings only remaining transfer from the 2020 crop is 6-foot-10 senior Khalid Thomas (11.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG). He ranked second on the team in scoring and tied for the team lead in rebounding last season, while also being dangerous outside the arc.

With the pandemic disrupting both practices and the schedule, the Vikings had an unfamiliar roster that struggled to mesh. Scoring, specifically, was a nightmare. Portland State was last in the Big Sky in three shooting categories: 3P%, 2P% and FT%.

The Vikings bring in more talent via the portal again this year, but it's still yet to be seen if they can mesh better than last year's squad. The Vikings have the ability to compete, but we will need to see if they can play as a team first.

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Idaho State Bengals

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+1400
2020-21 Overall Record 13-11
2020-21 Record ATS9-9-1
2020-21 O/U5-14

You may notice a theme here, but Idaho State returns more than anyone else in the Big Sky thanks to the NCAA's free year of eligibility.

The Bengals were able to bring back all five starters and their regular rotation off the bench. Statistically, they will return 99% of their scoring, rebounding and minutes played.

Head coach Ryan Looney couldn't be happier about reloading last year's squad, as they finished in a tie for fourth. That was their best finish since 2016 and just the third-winning season for the Bengals in 20 years.

One of the biggest returnees will be Tarik Cooper (14.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.3 APG). In the Big Sky, he ranked second in total minutes and fourth in minutes per game. However, he also led the league in turnovers.

Similar to Montana State, it's essential to read between the lines on the Bengals. They also avoided three of the top-five best teams in the league last year due to game cancellations.

If Idaho State can compete with the elite teams in the conference, I still see them fighting for positioning in the middle of the pack. If not, it may be a fall far from grace for the Bengals.

Eastern Washington Eagles

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+3300
2020-21 Overall Record 16-8
2020-21 Record ATS16-7
2020-21 O/U13-10

After his first year as head coach at Eastern Washington, Riley has a tough act to follow. Last year, the 2020-21 Eagles made their third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.

While Riley isn't new to Eastern, almost everyone else on this Eagles team in 2021-22 will be.

Riley's fellow assistants followed Legans to Portland, along with three recruits and members of the rotation. Four other Eagles also transferred. That leaves only six players from last year's team that have returned. Only two of those players saw significant playing time. Also, only seven other programs return fewer minutes than the Eagles.

Two sophomores, Ellis Magnuson and Casson Rouse, are Eastern's most experienced returnees. Magnuson (3.6 PPG) saw his stat line dip last season — including a 33% fall in minutes — which was due in some part to COVID-19 protocols.

Likewise, Rouse (2.9 PPG) made roughly half the statistical impact last season as he did in his redshirt freshman campaign.

Two talents join the Eagles via the transfer portal. Angelo Allegri (7.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, .324 3PT) comes from UNC Greensboro, where he started 27 of 30 games last season. He's a 6-foot-7 junior, whose shooting ability stands out to his new coach.

Rylan Bergersen (16.9 PPG, 4.8 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG) comes to Eastern after consecutive Third Team All-Southland Conference seasons at Central Arkansas. He posted double figures in 50 of 54 career appearances while leading the Southland in minutes last season (34.5).

He's joined in Cheney by his father, former Boise State standout Roberto Bergersen, who is one of the newly-hired assistants on Riley's bench.

With so many changes for the Eagles, a repeat as conference champions seems all but impossible. However, I expect Eastern Washington to compete to be in the top five.

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Sacramento State Hornets

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+5000
2020-21 Overall Record 8-12
2020-21 Record ATS10-8
2020-21 O/U10-8

Editor's Note: Head coach Brian Katz is retiring due to health reasons. Associate head coach Brandon Laird will serve as interim head coach during this upcoming season.

Last year Sacramento State played fewer games than anyone else in the league, finishing 8-12.

However, the Hornets got the short end of the stick, playing their entire schedule against teams that finished with winning records — with one exception, Idaho.

They lost Ethan Esposito to the transfer portal. Esposito had the second-highest scoring average in the program's history.

Fortunately, Bryce Fowler (13.5 PPG), William FitzPatrick (9.9 PPG, .415 3PT) and Zach Chappell (7.2 PPG) enter this season as an experienced trio.

Fowler is a First Team All-Big Sky candidate, but this team will take some time to mesh. With so many other programs in the conference returning strong talent, it will likely be a fight to stay away from the bottom for the Hornets.

Northern Arizona Lumberjacks

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+6600
2020-21 Overall Record 6-16
2020-21 Record ATS11-10
2020-21 O/U11-11

Last year, the Lumberjacks posted their fourth single-digit win total in six seasons and finished next to last in the Big Sky. But they ended the year on a high note, upsetting Portland State in the opening round of the Big Sky Tournament for the program's first win in the event in six years.

Only Eastern Washington suffered more impactful losses in the offseason than Northern Arizona, which had its top two players transfer out of the program.

But a new roster might not be the worst thing for the Lumberjacks, as they had one of the worst 2P% defenses in college basketball.

Four transfers join the Lumberjacks squad with three coming from Division I programs.

One of the biggest names is Jalen Cone (9.2 PPG), a sophomore who played 47 games at Virginia Tech. Cone finished his time there with 19 double-figure scoring performances, while shooting 45.7% from 3, which led the ACC and ranked in the top-10 nationwide.

He looks to make a name for himself at the mid-major level, similar to what Max Abmas is doing at Oral Roberts. We've seen high-scoring point guards thrive in this league in the past, including perennial NBA All-Star Damian Lillard.

Head coach Shane Burcar thinks this roster has better depth than any other team he's had at Northern Arizona.

With that said, several squads are bringing back loaded rosters in the Big Sky, and it will be a hard battle for the Lumberjacks to compete. A top-half finish would be an achievement and another step in the right direction for this program, which hasn't won more than 10 games in the past five years.

Idaho Vandals

Odds to Win Big Sky via BetMGM+8000
2020-21 Overall Record 1-21
2020-21 Record ATS8-14
2020-21 O/U10-12

There's nowhere to go but up for Idaho. The Vandals tied for the fewest wins in team history last season, posting the lowest winning percentage in program history. That resulted in a last-place finish in the Big Sky for a third consecutive season.

Head coach Zac Claus responded by upgrading his talent and experience level on the team. Unfortunately, for the head coach with no relation to Father Christmas, the talent level across the entire Big Sky is maybe the highest it's ever been.

Anything other than a last-place finish would be huge for the Vandals, as they've gone 14-72 overall and 7-51 in conference play over the previous three seasons.

Betting Insight

Like most low-tier mid-majors, a listed future will be hard to find preseason, but I expect Southern Utah to win the conference.

As the widely-accepted favorite, I doubt there will be much value, though.

If Montana is outside the top three from an odds perspective, they would be a small play for me.

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May 27, 2024 UTC