Pre-League Women’s Big Sky Conference Power Poll


With the start of the Big Sky Conference schedule just four days away, it felt like the perfect time to take the pulse of the league. Our findings: Grand Forks should start prepping to host another Big Sky tournament. Of course, it’s still December, and that’s why they play the games.

1. North Dakota

Coach: Travis Brewster (3rd year, 41-32)

Record: 8-4

Preseason poll pick: 1

Trending: Holding steady … North Dakota was 7-1 earlier this month but has dropped three of four going into league. In those setbacks, UND lost at home to 11-1 Minnesota, by five on the road at Clemson and by five on the road at 9-2 South Dakota. In other words: no reason to jump off the bandwagon.

Telling result: North Dakota 90, North Dakota State 87 (ot) … UND scored 90 points on the road against the Bison without making a 3-pointer (and only attempting seven). There is good reason North Dakota leads the Big Sky in shooting percentage (.455) and has been to the line 45 more times than anyone else in the league.

Telling statistic: North Dakota outrebounds its opponents by more than 10 per game and is once again among the nation’s leaders in that category.

Player to watch: Junior forward Mia Loyd. She ranks fourth in the league in scoring (17.1/g) on 56.0 percent shooting and leads the Big Sky in rebounding (10.4/g) despite being only 5-11. She earns her scholarship in the paint.

Tweet it: Brew’s crew is tougher and stronger than every other Big Sky team and plays a style that travels well. #MarchInGrandForks

2. Montana

Coach: Robin Selvig (37th year, 828-270)

Record: 7-4

Preseason poll pick: 2

Trending: Up … After dropping to 2-4 with an ugly home loss to Wyoming in early December, Montana has won five straight, including a road sweep of Portland and Seattle and never-in-doubt wins at the Lady Griz Classic over Utah Valley and Austin Peay.

Telling result: Montana 69, Portland 55 … The Lady Griz shot 48.1 percent in the second half on the road and came back from eight down with 18 minutes left with a blend of hot shooting and stifling defense. Don’t expect that to become routine with this team, but it has proved it can do it away from Dahlberg Arena.

Telling statistic: Montana is allowing its opponents to shoot 33.7 percent, the 19th-best percentage in the country, and leads the nation in blocked shots at 7.8 per game. That’s the only way a team that shoots 36.8 percent itself could earn the No. 2 spot in the poll.

Player to watch: Sophomore forward Kayleigh Valley. During Montana’s five-game winning streak she is shooting 53.7 percent and has had scoring games of — in this order — 12, 13, 16, 17 and 23. The last two came while earning Lady Griz Classic MVP honors.

Tweet it: They are only two of 18 league games, but Montana opens its Big Sky schedule this week at Northern Colorado and North Dakota. #ProveIt

3. Eastern Washington

Coach: Wendy Schuller (14th year, 184-211)

Record: 7-4

Preseason poll pick: 5

Trending: Up … The Eagles have won four of five and entered the Christmas break with a tournament title at the Florida Gator Holiday Classic behind seven 3-pointers and 28 points from Lexie Nelson.

Telling result: Eastern Washington 86, Wichita State 58 … Lexie Nelson and Hayley Hodgins went 22 for 33 and combined for 59 points. When the pair is rolling, there isn’t a better guard tandem in the Big Sky.

Telling statistic: Eastern Washington has four players (Lexie Nelson, 17.3/g; Hayley Hodgins, 15.7/g; Delaney Hodgins, 10.3/g; Melissa Williams, 10.2/g) averaging at least 10 points per game. No other Big Sky team has that level of double-figure point distribution.

Player to watch: Redshirt senior guard Lexie Nelson. She has been voted first-team All-Big Sky the last two years, but can Nelson finally come through in the postseason? In Eastern’s last two Big Sky tournament games, both losses, she shot 30 percent with nine turnovers. This March will determine her legacy.

Tweet it: EWU has been one of the better teams in the league the last decade but has won just two tournament games since 2004. #MoreOfTheSame?

4. Northern Colorado

Coach: Kamie Ethridge (1st year, 6-5)

Record: 6-5

Preseason poll pick: 4

Trending: Slightly down … The Bears have lost four of five, but they’ve seen a steady lineup of really good opponents: South Dakota State (8-4), South Florida (9-3) and Florida Gulf Coast (10-2) — the last two on the road — have all defeated UNC since Dec. 6.

Telling result: Nebraska 63, Northern Colorado 56 … The Bears fell behind 22-2 on the road against a team currently 10-1 and got seven combined points from Stephanie Lee and D’Shara Strange in the loss. And yet it was a 38-35 game at the half and a two-point difference with two minutes to play.

Telling statistic: Behind two-time Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year D’Shara Strange, the Bears are allowing a league-low 56.5 points per game.

Player to watch: Redshirt senior guard D’Shara Strange. After missing last season to recover from a knee injury, Strange is back and averaging 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, like she didn’t miss a beat.

Tweet it: Strange and Stephanie Lee are two of the best in the Big Sky, but it will take more depth than that to challenge the top three. #HelpWanted

5. Idaho

Coach: Jon Newlee (7th year, 99-101)

Record: 6-5

Preseason poll pick: 3

Trending: Slightly up … The Vandals played a strong game in losing 88-70 at No. 9 Baylor on Dec. 10, and the Vandals enter league play with back-to-back wins over Southeast Missouri State and Lewis-Clark State.

Telling result: Idaho 77, Wyoming 66 … The Vandals raced out to an 11-2 lead on the road and never trailed against the Cowgirls in a facility where it’s tough to pick up wins. Big Sky MVP candidate Stacey Barr had 23 points and nine rebounds.

Telling statistic: With four of five starters back from a team that went to NCAA tournaments out of the WAC in 2013 and ’14, the Vandals have yet to put together more than two consecutive wins this season.

Player to watch: Senior guard Stacey Barr. The Australian leads the Big Sky Conference in scoring (20.5/g) and is fifth in rebounding (8.0/g).

Tweet it: For a veteran team picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll, with two first-place votes, a little more was expected. #ThisIsn’tTheWAC

6. Southern Utah

Coach: Chris Boettcher (1st year, 6-2)

Record: 6-2

Preseason poll pick: 7

Trending: Holding steady … The Thunderbirds have the Big Sky’s top nonconference winning percentage but the weakest body of work among the top teams in the league. Half of their wins have come against Westminster (NAIA) New Mexico Highlands (NCAA Division II) and 1-10 Air Force.

Telling result: Southern Utah 66, Boise State 64 … The Broncos are currently 8-3 and tied atop the Mountain West Conference standings. How did the Thunderbirds do it? The usual suspect: Hailey Mandelko scored 29 points.

Telling statistic: Southern Utah is 4-0 at home this season and 16-1 at Centrum Arena dating back to the start of last season.

Player to watch: Redshirt senior guard Desiree Jackson. After losing three of the team’s top four scorers from last year’s Big Sky co-champion, a returner like Jackson needed to step up and help fill the void. So far she is averaging more than 15 points per game.

Tweet it: With JR Payne now at Santa Clara, Chris Boettcher gets his shot as a college head coach after two decades as an assistant. #LongTimeComing

7. Montana State

Coach: Tricia Binford (10th year, 141-139)

Record: 6-5

Preseason poll pick: 6

Trending: Slightly up … The Bobcats won four straight to get to 6-4 before getting knocked around 82-61 at Washington State as they headed into their break. During its win streak, Montana State whipped Wyoming 79-52, two days after the Cowgirls won at Missoula.

Telling result: Washington State 82, Montana State 61 … Jasmine Hommes led the Bobcats with 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting. The other four starters: 16 combined points on 5-of-25 shooting. Hommes is the real deal, but she needs more support.

Telling statistic: In 11 games this season, Jasmine Hommes has led the Bobcats in scoring 11 times. She is averaging 19.6 for the season. Nobody else is in double figures.

Player to watch: Senior guard Kalli Durham. She averaged 10.7 points last season but is struggling at 5.0 points on 30.0 percent shooting this year. Durham had 13 points and 14 rebounds against MSU Billings, then went scoreless with three boards in MSU’s next game at Washington State.

Tweet it: The Bobcats have finished between third and sixth place in the Big Sky seven of the last eight years. #AlwaysGoodNeverGreat

8. Sacramento State

Coach: Bunky Harkleroad (2nd year, 20-19)

Record: 2-9

Preseason poll pick: 9

Trending: Down … Remember last year, when Sacramento State was 11-1 and on its way to revolutionizing women’s basketball in the Big Sky Conference with its fun-and-gun offense? The Hornets are 9-20 since and are allowing an NCAA-high 96.1 points per game this season.

Telling result: Sacramento State 102, Utah State 92 … Only the Hornets could allow their opponent to shoot 70.7 percent and still win. They forced 29 turnovers and went 20 for 57 from 3-point range.

Telling statistic: Sacramento State is 0-8 away from The Nest this season and has dropped its last 14 away from home. The fun-and-gun may wreak havoc at home, but it’s proving to not travel so well.

Player to watch: Senior guard Fantasia Hilliard. Hilliard is the ideal point guard for Harkleroad’s system. She can score it (14.5/g), dish it (Big Sky leading 5.0 assists per game), swipe it (2.7 steals per game) and hit the three (.400).

Tweet it: Will the Hornets and their unique style ever make the jump from novelty to contender? It is only year two under Harkleroad. #GiveHimTime

9. Idaho State

Coach: Seton Sobolewski (7th year, 104-91)

Record: 4-6

Preseason poll pick: 8

Trending: Slightly up … There have been some ugly losses for a team made up mostly of underclassmen (84-34 at Washington State, 86-62 at home to Boise State), but ISU defeated Utah Valley on Dec. 13 and won 63-55 at Seattle last Sunday to take a two-game winning streak into the Christmas break.

Telling result: Idaho State 68, Utah Valley 67 … Sobolewski is one of the league’s top coaches, and this game showed why. The Bengals fell behind 16-2 at home and still trailed by 14 early in the second half. Sobolewski kept his team in it, and it completed the comeback on a pair of free throws with eight seconds left. It was ISU’s only lead of the game.

Telling statistic: Idaho State has made the last 11 Big Sky Conference tournaments. That’s a feat matched only by Montana.

Player to watch: Junior guard Apiphany Woods. The transfer from State Fair Community College in Missouri is averaging a team-leading 12.3 points in her first season in Pocatello.

Tweet it: Sobolewski and Reed Gym should be enough to get a young ISU team to its 12th straight Big Sky tournament. #SmallVictories

10. Northern Arizona

Coach: Sue Darling (3rd year, 21-48)

Record: 4-7

Preseason poll pick: 10

Trending: Down. The Lumberjacks enter their league schedule on a four-game losing streak but still have some impressive wins on their schedule: by 31 over UC Irvine and by 18 over UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount.

Telling result: New Mexico 56, Northern Arizona 37 … A year after allowing nearly 80 points per game, the Lumberjacks have decided to start defending. NAU lost on the road last Sunday to the Lobos, but it marked the sixth time in 11 games Northern Arizona has allowed fewer than 60 points this season.

Telling statistic: A year after averaging 72.8 points per game, NAU is averaging just 60.7. The team’s improved defense has been neutralized by a regression on the offensive end, which is why it ranks No. 10 on this list.

Player to watch: Sophomore guard Brittani Lusain. Last year’s Big Sky Conference Outstanding Freshman is averaging 10.4 points and more than four assists per game.

Tweet it: The Lumberjacks are allowing nearly 20 fewer points this season than last, but the offense isn’t what it was. #WishFrostWasStillAround

11. Weber State

Coach: Bethann Ord (4th year, 14-84)

Record: 5-6

Preseason poll pick: 12

Trending: Too hard to tell. The Wildcats opened the season with wins over Montana-Western and Bristol and have Division I wins over Air Force, New Mexico State and Denver, three teams that are a combined 8-27, so there isn’t a signature victory on the schedule, but Weber also played 9-1 Oklahoma State to a six-point game on Dec. 18.

Telling result: Utah Valley 61, Weber State 40 … The Wolverines lost games to Big Sky opponents Eastern Washington, Southern Utah, Idaho State and Montana but had little trouble taking out the Wildcats.

Telling statistic: After winning just two games total in Ord’s first two years, the Wildcats won seven times last season, including a victory over Montana, and could surpass that total this year. Only WSU AD Jerry Bovee knows how many is enough.

Player to watch: Junior forward Jalen Carpenter. She averages 12.0 points on .472 shooting and 6.5 rebounds and put up 14 points and six rebounds against Oklahoma State.

Tweet it: Weber State opens league at home with Eastern Washington and Idaho and on the road at Montana and Montana State. #MurderersRow

12. Portland State

Coach: Sherri Murrell (8th year, 120-107)

Record: 2-9

Preseason poll pick: 11

Trending: Down … Yes, Princeton is 13-0 and the No. 2-ranked mid-major team in the nation behind Wisconsin-Green Bay, but 104-33? Against the Tigers last week, Portland State got outscored 57-17 in the first half and 47-16 in the second. For the game: four assists, 30 turnovers.

Telling result: Corban 74, Portland State 64 … The Warriors, who have losses this season to MSU Northern, Great Falls and Carroll, never trailed in the second half while winning at the Stott Center.

Telling statistic: Portland State ranks 314th in the nation in scoring at 55.4 points per game.

Player to watch: Cara Olden. She has only played in three games and a total of 11 minutes this season, but she’s earned a shout-out by being the only player on the team with more assists (2) than turnovers (1).

Tweet it: Portland State hasn’t made the Big Sky tournament since 2011, and a new AD is arriving soon on the Park Blocks. #ExpectChanges


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