By JOEL CARLSON
The Big Sky Conference women’s basketball schedule opens Thursday with four league games: Northern Arizona at Montana, Southern Utah at Montana State, Northern Colorado at Eastern Washington and North Dakota at Idaho.
The dust won’t settle until Friday, March 4, when all 12 teams play their final regular-season games in a lead-up to the following week’s tournament at Reno, Nev., which this season will include every team.
The league office is calling the next 10 weeks the Road to Reno, though with every team invited, nobody will be taking the early exit marked Mathematically Eliminated from the Postseason, which will take something away from the regular season.
The only drama prior to championship week then will be which teams earn the top four spots in the final standings. Those teams won’t have to play tournament games until the quarterfinal round on Wednesday, March 9. The bottom eight teams will play first-round games on Monday, March 7.
Semifinals will be played on Friday, March 11, the championship game on Saturday, March 12.
You know what the nonconference standings indicate, but those are not necessarily reflective of the true hierarchy of the Big Sky entering Thursday. The second annual pre-league power poll should clear things up.
Coach: Jon Newlee (eighth year, 115-115)
Preseason poll selection: 6th
Synopsis: The Vandals enter Big Sky play having lost three of four (combined record of the three teams that beat Idaho: 26-6), but they start league atop the poll because they put together the Big Sky’s best nonconference body of work: a six-point loss to Duke, a 32-point win over Iowa State, a victory over Wyoming, a 56-point win over Cal State Northridge (a team that has a victory over Penn State). Idaho has excellent offensive balance, is a dangerous 3-point shooting team and is holding its opponents to a lower field goal percentage (.359) than Montana, which is saying something.
Telling result: Idaho 61, Wyoming 57. The Vandals were the last team to knock off the surging Cowgirls, who since losing in Moscow have posted wins over Denver, Montana, Montana State and Colorado.
Player to watch: Guard Taylor Pierce. The freshman from Carlsbad, Calif., averages just 18 minutes per game off the bench, but she is third on the team in scoring (10.1/g) and has the potential to be a game-changer from the arc. Just ask Iowa State, which she lit up for 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting from three in Riviera Maya, Mexico, over Thanksgiving in Idaho’s eye-opening 97-65 win.
The skinny: Idaho doesn’t have to make the Montana-Montana State road trip this season, which might just be the difference in what should be a tight battle atop the standings heading deep into February.
Coach: Tricia Binford (11th year, 157-153)
Preseason poll selection: 5th
Synopsis: This might be the best Bobcat team Binford has had in 11 years at Montana State. It starts with MVP candidate Jasmine Hommes and includes junior forward Peyton Ferris, who is enjoying a breakout season, and sophomore point guard Hannah Caudill, the league’s top playmaker. In all MSU has eight players averaging five or more points, though Montana State has always scored well under Binford. This year the Bobcats are getting it done defensively as well. Their defensive field goal percentage (.329) ranks 10th nationally.
Telling number: 34-14. That’s the record of the teams that have defeated Montana State this season: San Diego (11-1), Cal Poly (6-6), Gonzaga (10-4) and Wyoming (7-3). None has been lopsided.
Player to watch: Junior forward Riley Nordgaard, a transfer from NCAA Division II Augustana, who has been an excellent addition to a team already with a solid group of returners. Nordgaard is averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds, and is the team’s top 3-point threat.
The skinny: Midseason poll positions are one thing. Getting it done in the crucible of March is another. Binford’s teams have won just a single Big Sky tournament game the last five seasons. No pressure, but this team should be playing on championship Saturday. The poll makes that claim for no other team.
Coach: Seton Sobolewski (eighth year, 119-106)
Preseason poll selection: 7th
Synopsis: Since taking their lumps leading up to Thanksgiving, with losses at Northwestern, Michigan State and Texas Tech, the Bengals have been rolling, with five wins in their last six games. That includes something the No. 4 team in the poll doesn’t have: a sweet road win. It’s left ISU with an RPI of 44, higher than mid-major heavyweights South Dakota State and Gonzaga, and more than 50 spots better than any other team in the Big Sky. Senior guard Apiphany Woods is playing like a preseason All-Big Sky selection, and ISU has done its best to overcome the season-ending knee injury suffered by Grace Kenyon in early October.
Telling result: Idaho State 80, Boise State 77. One of the best nonconference wins of the season for the Big Sky, a road victory over a team that made the NCAA tournament last season and is 7-4 this year.
Player to watch: Junior guard Brooke Blair, a transfer from Northeastern (Colo.) Junior College, who is averaging 13.2 points per game. She had a season-high 27 in ISU’s win at Boise State and has helped the team overcome the loss of Kenyon.
The skinny: A well-coached team that took Montana to the wire in last year’s Big Sky tournament quarterfinals in Missoula. Feels like the type of team that could thrive in the neutral-site setting of Reno.
Coach: Robin Selvig (38th year, 852-279)
Preseason poll selection: 1st
Synopsis: A mostly inexperienced team that not surprisingly had some inconsistent performances in the early going got on track just before Christmas with convincing wins over Florida Atlantic and Utah State at the Lady Griz Classic. Junior forward Kayleigh Valley (17.8/g) and senior guard McCalle Feller (17.1/g) both were named preseason All-Big Sky, and both are playing like it. If the team can start shooting in the 40-plus percent range and not the sub-25-percent it struggled with in losses to Seattle and Colorado State, Montana will springboard up the list.
Telling number: 0-3. That’s Montana’s record in road games this season, including ugly losses at Lehigh and Colorado State. The Lady Griz played well at Wyoming in their last road game and could have won had they kept the Cowgirls off the line, so maybe things are trending up.
Player to watch: Senior McCalle Feller. The shooting guard is rolling after putting together a shooting performance for the ages at the Lady Griz Classic. She scored 66 points in two games, going 24 for 38 from the field, 12 of 20 from 3-point range.
The skinny: If Montana never had to leave Dahlberg Arena, the Lady Griz would be atop this list instead of sitting at No. 4. With the tournament at a neutral site, that could be trouble for this team, unless it starts earning some confidence away from Missoula. Road games at Sacramento State, Idaho, Eastern Washington and Montana State in January will reveal much.
Coach: Bunky Harkleroad (third year, 39-35)
Preseason poll selection: 3rd
Synopsis: The Hornets could be really good, maybe one of the top teams in this poll. Or they could be what their record says they are. It’s just so hard to tell with Sacramento State, which plays in such a way that results are difficult to gauge in relation to every other team on this list. The Hornets rank dead last in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.537) but No. 1 in steals and 3-point field goals attempted, and that’s fine with them. Just know this: Sac State’s seven losses have come to teams all currently holding records better than .500. In fact those teams are collectively 29 games over .500.
Telling result: Sacramento State 126, UC Irvine 78. So typical of the Hornets, who scored 75 points in the second half and set a new Big Sky single-game scoring record with their win last Tuesday. It’s not often (and maybe it’s never happened) that a team shoots 50 percent, as the Anteaters did, and loses by 48 points. Sac State got the tradeoff it wanted: 38 turnovers.
Player to watch: All of them, because they come at you in waves, with no one playing more than 22 minutes per game. Sac State averages a Big Sky-leading 85.6 points per game but does not have a single player in the top 13 in individual scoring. Death by paper cuts (and your own turnovers).
The skinny: The Hornets are who they are, and they won’t change their breakneck style of play for anyone or any situation. Which gets to the critical point. If they don’t finish in the top four in the final standings, they’ll have to win four games in six days in Reno to claim the tournament championship. That would be a tough task for anyone, even more so for a team that likes to run and is conditioned to playing two games per week.
Coach: Bethann Ord (fifth year, 27-99)
Preseason poll selection: 10th
Synopsis: The surprising Wildcats have the Big Sky’s best nonconference winning percentage but a mostly ho-hum body of work. Their six wins against NCAA Division I opponents have been against teams with a combined 23-48 record. But there are signs that Weber State is improving under Ord. WSU was within five in the fourth quarter of its home loss to BYU and fought back from a 27-point second-half deficit to pull within 11 in the fourth quarter at Washington. Things are trending slightly up for a team that was 0-20 in league just three years ago.
Telling number: 57.5. That’s the Wildcats’ scoring average, which is better than only Southern Utah’s in the Big Sky statistics. Take away WSU’s 86 points scored in its season-opening win over Bethesda, and Weber State hasn’t totaled more than 61 points in its last nine games. That puts a lot of pressure on a team’s defense.
Player to watch: Senior guard Regina Okoye leads the Wildcats, who have not had an All-Big Sky selection since 2007-08, in scoring (14.7/g).
The skinny: As is the case with a lot of teams outside of the top four on this list, nonconference results can only tell us so much. The Wildcats open league with road games at Idaho State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado. That will tell us a lot. But no matter where Weber State finishes, it will be playing in its first Big Sky tournament since the 2006-07 season.
Coach: Wendy Schuller (15th year, 204-225)
Preseason poll selection: 9th
Synopsis: The Eagles suffered mass defections off last year’s team, with nine players (only two of whom were seniors) leaving the program. Seven newcomers — six freshmen, one junior-college transfer — joined just four returners who played last season. All of that combined to make EWU a true wildcard entering the season. Schuller’s team has exceeded expectations by getting off to a 6-6 start, with three of those losses by six points or fewer. It helped that the program’s building blocks were Hayley and Delaney Hodgins, the former a preseason All-Big Sky pick, the latter last season’s Outstanding Freshman.
Telling result: Northwestern 74, Eastern Washington 70. The Eagles were in a one-possession game with the ball with one minute remaining in Cedar Park, Texas, against a Wildcat team currently 11-1 and ranked No. 14 in the nation.
Player to watch: Junior forward Ashli Payne, another impact transfer in the Big Sky this season. The Hodgins sisters are averaging nearly 35 points per game between them. Payne is adding 11.0 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds.
The skinny: The Eagles weren’t expected to be a tournament threat at season’s start, but that prognosis could be changing. With so many newcomers, EWU should only get better between now and March, and a player like Hayley Hodgins could carry a team to a win or two in Reno.
Coach: Travis Brewster (fourth year, 54-50)
Preseason poll selection: 2nd
Synopsis: The Fighting Hawks are the team with the largest gap between preseason pick (2nd) and pre-league power poll spot (8th), which either means the Fighting Hawks have underachieved or are waiting quietly in the wings for Big Sky play to arrive after a difficult nonconference schedule. Similar to Sac State, North Dakota’s seven losses have come to teams a combined 38 games over .500. With preseason Big Sky MVP Mia Loyd averaging 13.8 points and a league-leading 9.7 rebounds and UND doing UND things (+8.5 rebounding margin), the guess is the Fighting Hawks will be heard from.
Telling result: Minnesota 57, North Dakota 47. Like much of the nonconference, the Fighting Hawks’ problems have been self-made. They out-rebounded the Gophers 46-34 and held Minnesota to 35.5 percent shooting, but UND couldn’t overcome 28 turnovers, 19 by its starters.
Player to watch: Junior guard Makailah Dyer, who ranks second in scoring to steady double-double machine Loyd but is nowhere near as reliable. Seven times in 11 games she has shot less than 30 percent, and her 42 turnovers are too many for a point guard. As Dyer goes, so will go UND.
The skinny: North Dakota made the NCAA tournament two seasons ago and was still on a high at this time last year. In fact, UND sat atop this very power poll last December, earning (a now regrettable) hashtag #MarchInGrandForks. The Fighting Hawks lost eight of their last nine games to close out the season and have yet to find their misplaced mojo. Perhaps Madi Buck was even more valuable than anyone knew when she was voted MVP in 2013-14.
Coach: Kamie Ethridge (second year, 27-18)
Preseason poll selection: 4th
Synopsis: The Bears continue to transition to life after D’Shara Strange and Stephanie Lee, both first-team All-Big Sky performers last winter who led UNC to a 22-win season and the third round of the WNIT. Northern Colorado owns a nice 74-60 home win over Utah State and has gone 3-3 away from Greeley, always a positive sign. One season after Strange and Lee combined for nearly 34 points per game, the Bears are getting a more balanced attack this season. Six players average between 7.7 and 10.5 points per game.
Telling result: South Dakota State 66, Northern Colorado 62. The Bears don’t have a signature win to their credit through the nonconference, but this road loss to the Jackrabbits, the No. 2 team this week in ESPN’s mid-major poll, is noteworthy.
Player to watch: Senior guard Kyleigh Hiser, who leads the team in scoring at 10.5 per game. She is the only senior among the team’s top six scorers.
The skinny: The Bears will be tested early in their league schedule: at Eastern Washington and Idaho this week, home for Idaho State and Weber State, at Montana and Montana State. UNC has the feel of a team that won’t go to Reno as a favorite, but coaching should make the Bears a tough out.
Coach: Sue Darling (fourth year, 21-48)
Preseason poll selection: 8th
Synopsis: The Lumberjacks continue to have an identity crisis. They score it okay but give up too many points. They out-rebound their opponents but are careless with the ball. Their wins have come against New Mexico Highlands and Dixie State, plus Division I wins over 3-7 Lamar and 3-9 UC Irvine. Just try making sense of their last few weeks: First a 68-66 home win over Dixie State, then they go on the road and build a nine-point halftime lead at now 9-2 Nebraska before getting blown out 53-21 in the second half, then they’re within three at Iowa State entering the fourth quarter in what turns out to be a 79-63 loss.
Telling result: Northern Arizona 71, UC Irvine 55. This seems to be what you’re going to get out of the Lumberjacks this season. The good and the bad, all within the same game. They jumped out to a 20-10 lead after one quarter, got outscored 34-23 over the second and third quarters, then posted a 28-point fourth quarter to win easily behind a pair of 20-point scorers.
Player to watch: Freshman forward Alyssa Rader leads the Lumberjacks in scoring (14.5/g) and rebounding (9.4/g).
The skinny: Maddeningly inconsistent, but overlook them at your own peril. They’ll beat some teams this year they shouldn’t.
Coach: Chris Boettcher (second year, 16-23)
Preseason poll selection: 11th
Synopsis: The Thunderbirds lost four starters off last year’s team and have almost no connection now — either in personnel or level of play — to the 2013-14 squad that tied for the regular-season Big Sky championship and had SUU trending seriously upward. Southern Utah has wins this season over 2-9 Cal State Northridge and 0-11 Air Force, plus Monday’s night 99-37 victory over a winless Bristol team that lost 89-41 to The Master’s College. Somehow that counts in the standings. On a side note, former coach JR Payne has Santa Clara sitting 11-2 and tied atop the West Coast Conference standings with Gonzaga.
Telling number: .325. That was the Thunderbirds’ shooting percentage this season going into Monday’s game, which isn’t going to be recognized for the matter of this poll. That percentage ranked 336th out of 344 NCAA Division I teams.
Player to watch: Junior forward Jessica Richardson. The leading returning scorer from last year’s team is averaging 13.4 points and 8.0 rebounds, both team highs. Subtract Richardson’s numbers, and her teammates are shooting 29.6 percent for the season.
The skinny: Five of the team’s top seven scorers are upperclassmen, so it’s hard to get excited about the present or the future.
Coach: Lynn Kennedy (first year, 2-9)
Preseason poll selection: 12th
Synopsis: Kennedy, who spent the previous 10 seasons at Southern Oregon, is the only first-year coach in the Big Sky, and he’s doing his best with what he inherited and was able to bring in after being hired last spring to replace Sherri Murrell, who was let go before last year’s 4-25 season was even completed. The Vikings enter league with wins over Corban and Cal State Northridge, and are building from the ground up, meaning with youth. They’ll lose a lot more than they’ll win this season, but the benefits will show up down the road.
Telling number: 4. The number of true freshmen Kennedy uses in his starting lineup. Plus a sophomore.
Player to watch: Point guard Michaela Kay. The true freshman from Spokane leads the Vikings in scoring (10.8), assists (34) and 3-pointers (26).
The skinny: It will all be about experience this year for Kennedy’s youngsters, who will be able to end their season at the Big Sky tournament, somewhere the Vikings haven’t been since hosting in 2011. Transfers from Washington State, Santa Clara and Southern Oregon, all 6-feet or taller, already are in the program and sitting out this season. Hunch: PSU is going to move up quickly under Kennedy.
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