Lady Griz Picked Second in Preseason Coaches’ Poll

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team was picked second in the 2014-15 Big Sky Conference preseason coaches’ poll that was released Wednesday. North Dakota topped a poll that featured four teams receiving first-place votes.

UND, the 2013-14 regular-season co-champion and host and winner of last year’s tournament, received seven first-place votes. Montana and Idaho, picked second and third, each collected two first-place votes. Fourth-place Northern Colorado received the other.

The Lady Griz, 23-11 last season, went 14-6 in the Big Sky to finish third, a game behind 15-5 North Dakota and Southern Utah. It was the fourth time in the last five years that three or more teams finished within two games of the top spot.

Which makes for a thin line between first or not and staying at home or traveling in March.

UM Lady Griz Head Coach Robin Selvig

UM Lady Griz Head Coach Robin Selvig. Photo by ©Austin Smith for Make itMissoula.

Consider: Five of North Dakota’s 15 Big Sky Conference wins last winter were by five points or fewer. Winning those tight games allowed UND to earn the tiebreaker over Southern Utah and host the tournament, where the team rolled to victories over Idaho State and Montana by a combined 42 points.

And that was a good thing for North Dakota, because a week earlier UND lost at Southern Utah 73-53. And if one of North Dakota’s tight wins had gone the other way and SUU, which also defeated Montana by 20 points at Cedar City, had hosted the tournament, who knows how things would have played out.

It’s a thin line indeed, which explains 37th-year Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig’s reaction when shown the poll results Wednesday morning. “Don’t make me think about it yet. It’s going to be a bugger.”

North Dakota topped the poll with more than half the first-place votes, but it is far from an overwhelming favorite. UND has to replace the league’s most versatile player in Madi Buck, who earned league MVP honors last year after averaging 16.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Three starters return, headlined by junior forward Mia Loyd, the 2014 tournament MVP who led the league in rebounding (9.0/g) despite being just 5-11.

Montana also returns three starters, including senior point guard Kellie Cole Rubel, who was voted first-team All-Big Sky Conference last season as a 2 guard.

Big Sky Conference newcomer Idaho was picked third. The Vandals were the watered-down Western Athletic Conference’s NCAA tournament representative the last two seasons and have four starters back. A name to remember: senior guard Stacey Barr, the 2014 WAC Player of the Year.

Northern Colorado received the other first-place vote and was picked fourth. The Bears either tied for first or finished second three straight seasons before placing eighth in 2013-14 and missing the tournament.

With Jaime White now at Fresno State, UNC has a new coaching staff. It will have the benefit of working with one of the league’s top inside-out tandems in senior center Stephanie Lee and redshirt senior guard D’shara Strange.

Lee finished second in the Big Sky in scoring last season at 19.0 points per game, and Strange is back after missing last season with a knee injury. She was first-team All-Big Sky and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in both 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Good teams, all, and those are just the four that earned first-place votes in this year’s poll. Yet to be mentioned are Eastern Washington, Montana State, Southern Utah and Idaho State, three of which have won an outright title or shared a regular-season championship since 2010.

“It’s been like that for a while now, and all we did was throw one more good team (in Idaho) into the mix,” said Selvig.

“There are a number of teams that wouldn’t surprise me if they were the one that ended up on top. I don’t see any team looking like it’s going to be dominant over everybody else.”

Eastern Washington, which has finished in the top four the last three seasons, was picked fifth. The Eagles return one of the Big Sky’s top backcourts in senior Lexie Nelson, a two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection, and junior Hayley Hodgins.

Montana State, which returns four of five starters, was picked sixth.

Southern Utah, almost inarguably the Big Sky’s top team in 2013-14 — SUU had 20-point wins over both North Dakota and Montana and lost each of its five league games by eight points or fewer — was picked seventh after a disruptive offseason.

Coach JR Payne decamped for Santa Clara, and forward Lori Parkinson followed. The Thunderbirds return first-team All-Big Sky senior guard Hailey Mandelko, picked first by four out of five coaches if the players of the Big Sky were pooled together for a pick-up game, but lost three of their top four scorers.

Idaho State, which hasn’t missed the Big Sky tournament since 2002-03 but enters the season with 11 underclassmen and without a single household name on its roster, was picked eighth.

Sacramento State, the talk of the league in January before losing seven of its last 10, was pegged ninth as second-year coach Bunky Harkleroad brings in nine newcomers to learn his 3-point-heavy, frenetic style.

Northern Arizona, Portland State and Weber State, all teams that have missed the last three Big Sky tournaments, were picked 10th, 11th and 12th.

The 2014-15 Big Sky Conference schedule will open Jan. 1 with five games, including a pair of delightful matchups.

Montana will play at Northern Colorado, and Idaho coach Jon Newlee will take his team to Idaho State. Newlee, in his seventh year with the Vandals, spent six seasons at ISU before moving north to Moscow and left few bridges unburned on his way out of Pocatello.

The Big Sky tournament will be hosted by the regular-season champion March 12-14. New this year will be an eight-team field, meaning the tournament champion, no matter the seed, will have to win three games in three days.

2014-15 Big Sky Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll
1. North Dakota (115 points/7 first-place votes)
2. Montana (106/2)
3. Idaho (97/2)
4. Northern Colorado (77/1)
5. Eastern Washington (76)
6. Montana State (71)
7. Southern Utah (64)
8. Idaho State (57)
9. Sacramento State (54)
10. Northern Arizona (37)
11. Portland State (25)
12. Weber State (13)

Montana Sports Information