Mar 12, 2014, 1:29 PM EDT
Weber State may be the nation’s unluckiest team. Over the course of the past five Big Sky conference tournaments, the Wildcats, which haven’t received lower than a three seed, have consistently lost to a team from Montana, and consequently found themselves outside of the bubble each of those five seasons. In fact, Randy Rahe’s squad hasn’t made the NCAA field since the 2006-07 season, but WSU is persistent, again reached the top of the Big Sky rankings, earning the top seed, an honor that means the team not only gets a first-round bye to then play the lowest-remaining seed for their first game, but also has home court advantage throughout the multi-day tournament. It would seem that Weber State would have a cake walk to the postseason, but the Wildcats may still miss out. This is arguably the closest league tournament field in recent years, and WSU could possibly face Montana or Northern Colorado, two teams who have beaten the Wildcats once this season, in their opening contest.
When: March 13 – 15
Where: Dee Events Center, Ogden, Utah
Final: March 15, 8 PM (ESPNU)
Favorite: Weber State
The Wildcats are stacked. Davion Berry was recently named the conference’s player of the year, sophomore center Joel Bolomboy was honored with a defensive player of the year nod, and Jeremy Senglin, who made 41 percent of his threes in his inaugural Wildcat season, was crowned the freshman of the year. Thanks to the squad’s proficiency from beyond the arc — other than Senglin, Berry and Jordan Richardson convert more than 35 of their attempts — Weber State’s effective field goal percentage tops the league. However, if the team is going to get through the tournament’s three days unscathed, their defense will have to propel them. It starts with Bolomboy, a 6-foot-9 big who needs to develop an offensive game before he can mentioned as one of the nation’s best forwards; Bolomboy has posted a stellar defensive rebounding percentage of 28 percent and when combined with his lack of fouls, it is very difficult to engineer additional possessions when Bolomboy is on the court. The rest of the team is equally as defensive minded — 1.03 OPPP, which leads the Big Sky.
And if they lose? Northern Colorado
The Bears are the team to watch during the Big Sky tournament. They beat Northern Arizona, the conference’s hottest team, twice during league play, have defeated Montana twice (once in overtime), and split with Weber State. They haven’t shown any propensity for defense — only Southern Utah has allowed more points per possession in league play — but BJ Hill’s team is fun to watch operate within the arc. UNC grabs a high rate of their own misses, and spend most offensive possessions converting twos, making 55 percent of their attempts.
- Montana: This squad isn’t reminiscent of Montana teams of yesteryear (they are uncharacteristically poor on defense), but the Grizzlies have to be included as a title candidate since Kareem Jamar is still on the squad. The senior’s last Big Sky tournament go-around, the guard again had an outstanding season, upping his offensive rating to 116 and drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than a year ago. Jamar will have to carry Montana if the team is to make a tourney run.
- Northern Arizona: Jack Murphy is easily the conference’s coach of the year. A year after finishing well below .500, the Lumberjacks posted a 15-16 record and garnered the Big Sky’s No. 3 seed. Some even consider NAU as the favorite to take the league’s title. The team has won their last four games, a streak which included victories over Weber State and Montana. Quinton Upshur, a transfer from VMI, has provided offensive balance to a team that lost both Gabe Rogers and Dewayne Russell after the 2013 season.
- Davion Berry, Weber State: After a strong junior year, the 6-foot-4 Berry needed to prove he could both run a team’s offense while still providing a scoring punch, and he succeeded in both areas, boosting his assist rate to nearly 30 percent and becoming more efficient within and beyond the arc while attempting fewer shots.
- Derrick Barden, Northern Colorado: Though he stands just 6-foot-5, Barden is UNC’s best frontcourt option. As an unabashed fan of undersized bigs, watching Barden dislodge larger opponents is enjoyable, and the ex-juco forward is skilled converting on the interior (61 percent around the bucket).
- Troy Huff, North Dakota: The senior rarely gets a break. He is such a high usage player, attempting more than 30 percent of the team’s shots in each of his four seasons, but what is most impressive about the 6-foot-5 Huff is his ability to get to the free throw stripe at a higher clip in 2014. He has attempted over 200 free throws, and is drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than last year.
- Kareem Jamar, Montana: A sentimental favorite. Jamar is still playing at a high level, and has been crucial to Montana’s past two NCAA tourney teams.
CBT Prediction: It’s a toss up between Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado, and unfortunately for fans of the Big Sky, the two teams play each other in the opening round. NoCo, though, has the offense and experience to earn the league’s automatic bid.
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