One bid in the NCAA Tournament is up for grabs in the Big Sky Conference. The tournament starts on March 11 at the CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho. Last year was the first year at that venue and Montana beat Eastern Washington for the title and the berth. There was one major upset, as #7 Southern Utah knocked off #2 Northern Colorado in blowout fashion. We’ll see if we get anything of the sort this year.
Upsets can most definitely happen in these low-major conferences, like we saw with Hampton making a big run in the Big South Conference this past week. These teams are generally not super consistent and one or two players can dominate a conference. If those players are off, upsets can happen. We could see some craziness in Boise this week.
Of course, we could also see status quo and see the top teams hold up. This is a conference with some noteworthy home court advantages because of altitude and travel, but the teams go to Boise and stay in Boise until they go home.
Here are the teams, seeds, standings, and odds from Circa Sports for the 2020 Big Sky Tournament:
- Eastern Washington 23-8 (16-4) +330
- Northern Colorado 22-9 (15-5) +165
- Montana 18-13 (14-6) +400
- Portland State 18-14 (12-8) +715
- Montana State 16-15 (10-10) (H2H tiebreaker) +3000
- Northern Arizona 16-13 (10-10) +4200
- Southern Utah 16-15 (9-11) +1600
- Weber State 12-19 (8-12) (record vs. Montana) +8000
- Sacramento State 15-14 (8-12) +2000
- Idaho 8-23 (4-16) (record vs. Portland State) +10000
- Idaho State 7-22 (4-16) +30000
The Big Sky Conference ranks 18th out of the 32 conferences for Bart Torvik. It is a little bit more advanced defensively than offensively, but it is a league with a trio of really good teams and then a lot of mediocrity in the middle before the bottom falls out at the Idaho schools.
Eastern Washington looks like something of a weak #1, as the Eagles don’t rank in the top three in either offensive or defensive efficiency. Northern Colorado, who is looking to make amends from last season’s early exit, is #1 in offense and Southern Utah is #1 in defense. Montana is the only team in the top three in both.
Here is the schedule for the 2020 Big Sky Conference Tournament:
Wednesday March 11
9:30 a.m. MT: 9 Sacramento State vs. 8 Weber State
12 p.m. MT: 10 Idaho vs. 7 Southern Utah
2:30 p.m. MT: 11 Idaho State vs. 6 Northern Arizona
Thursday March 12
12 p.m. MT: 9/8 winner vs. 1 Eastern Washington
2:30 p.m. MT: 5 Montana State vs. 4 Portland State
5:30 p.m. MT: 10/7 winner vs. 2 Northern Colorado
8 p.m. MT: 11/6 winner vs. 3 Montana
Friday March 13
5:30 p.m. MT: 9/8/1 winner vs. 5/4 winner
8 p.m. MT: 10/7/2 winner vs. 11/6/3 winner
Saturday March 14
6 p.m. MT: Championship Game
Whoo boy. 9:30 a.m. MT. That is early and not any fun. The top five seeds get a bye to the quarterfinals, so there are three first-round games with all 11 teams in the field. The goal here is to look for the best path and draw. The top seeds all seem to have decent paths. Eastern Washington lost to Montana twice and inexplicable lost to Idaho and Idaho State, which does showcase the top seed’s ability to play really badly in what should be a very winnable game. EWU did need overtime for home wins over Southern Utah and Northern Colorado.
That should be a quarterfinal matchup with Northern Colorado looking for revenge. Jeff Linder’s team swept the regular season series, but got bounced in the conference tournament by SUU last season. The wins were by 8 and by just 2 at home, so that game is no gimme for the Bears.
Speaking of bears, the Montana Grizzlies lost three of their last four down the stretch to Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, and Southern Utah. They actually got swept by Northern Colorado and also had a loss to Portland State on their ledger. If Northern Arizona holds up against lowly Idaho State, Montana is going to draw a rematch in the quarterfinals. The first meeting was a 79-72 win.
There is a lot to like about Northern Colorado here. They take care of the basketball better than anybody else in the conference and make a lot of shots. Their defense was a little bit suspect on the interior, but the Bears allowed the lowest 3P% at 29.4% in conference play. Northern Colorado does struggle at the free throw line, which could be a kiss of death.
This is a conference in which most of the teams take really good care of the basketball. What makes Montana so dangerous is that they are one of three teams with a TO% of better than 20% on defense. With a pretty potent offense that ranked second in 2P% and first in 3P%, those extra possessions came in real handy.
As far as the best draw, Eastern Washington has a tough quarterfinal game against the Montana State and Portland State winner. Portland State rebounds really well and actually had the second-highest TO% on defense. Montana State would be the preferred matchup there.
Northern Colorado draws the conference’s best defense in Southern Utah in all likelihood, but the Thunderbirds cannot score. That is what Northern Colorado does best.
Montana draws Northern Arizona, who is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. That gives us a likely Northern Colorado vs. Montana matchup in the semifinals. Eastern Washington certainly has an easier path to the title game, but does not have the ceiling of either of the top two teams on the bottom of the bracket.
That is the hard part about a conference tournament like this. There is a well-defined drop-off beyond the top three teams. Two of those three teams have to play each other, so if you are looking to go against Eastern Washington, you have to do so by picking which team you like more out of Northern Colorado or Montana and hoping that they win.
In that respect, we’re sort of flipping coins. Northern Colorado was -6 at home and +2.5 on the road, so they should be a mild favorite in a neutral setting here. The setup was exactly the same in the games against Eastern Washington. That means that the Bears are power-rated the highest in this conference. So, all things being equal, they’re a neutral-site favorite over everybody and getting the plus money price is good enough to take the Bears here, in spite of the tough draw.
Pick: Northern Colorado +165