(SportsNetwork.com) - As the top seed in the 39th annual Big Sky Conference Tournament, the Weber State Wildcats have their sights set on returning to the championship game for the third straight year and the fifth time since 2010.
That said, the team will have to wait until Friday to find out which team will be the opponent in the semifinals.
By virtue of claiming the outright regular-season title in the Big Sky, the Wildcats were rewarded with having this event played in their home arena (Dee Events Center), not to mention earning a bye through the quarterfinal round which takes place on Thursday. While there are currently 11 member schools playing men's basketball in the Big Sky, the bottom four finishers in the standings (Eastern Washington, Montana State, Idaho State and Southern Utah) were not extended invitations to the tourney, something other conferences might consider in the future in order to reward quality play.
Another unique aspect of this tournament has teams re-seeding after the quarterfinals, another benefit for the top program from the regular season which will be ensured of matching up against what is supposed to be the weakest competition based on wins and losses.
In recent years the tournament has been dominated by both Weber State and Montana, the pair meeting in the title game the last two seasons, with the Grizzlies claiming the crown each time. Because of those results, Montana now owns a league-high nine championships, while the Wildcats are just one off the pace with eight, the last of those coming in 2007. No other current member school has more than a pair of trophies from this tourney.
Getting the event off and running on Thursday afternoon will be a meeting between seventh-seeded Sacramento State and second-seeded North Dakota.
The Hornets (14-15, 10-10) pride themselves on being an unselfish group, resulting in 13.5 assists per game which was tied for the league high with Portland State. But while the team performs well in that area, what it lacks is a real strong presence in the paint at the defensive end, having registered a mere 1.4 blocked shots per contest which was not only last in the Big Sky, but also one of the lowest numbers in the country.
Offensively, Sacramento State was paced by Mikh McKinney, one of three players to have started all 29 outings, as he dropped in 16.3 ppg and also handed out 131 assists to lead the program in both categories. Dylan Garrity checked in with 13.0 ppg and another 105 dishes, the pair also combining for 108 3- pointers, so you shouldn't have any trouble figuring out where the points will be coming from.
Over on the other side, North Dakota (15-15, 12-8), which continues to operate without a nickname until next year, had some major issues during the non- conference portion of the schedule, but turned it around once the competition became somewhat more familiar. For a team that finished with so much success in league play, it might be surprising to find that UND ranked last in the Big Sky in both free-throw shooting (.679) and field goal percentage defense (.489).
Then again, this was a program that has been enjoying the exploits of Troy Huff for several years now. One of the all-time leading scorers at UND, Huff accounted for 19.6 ppg in 2013-14 and was tops on the glass with 7.0 rpg, not to mention picking more than a few pockets with 70 steals. Jaron Nash and Aaron Anderson didn't claim nearly as much of the spotlight, but putting up 10.8 and 10.7 ppg, respectively, had a huge impact for North Dakota.
Once a winner has been determined in the first game, sixth-seeded Northern Colorado and third-seeded Northern Arizona will take to the hardwood.
The Bears from UNC (17-12, 11-9), winners of this tournament just a few years back, appeared to be well on their way to challenging for the top spot in the standings again this season, but then it all fell apart. The program opened league play with four straight wins and seven through the first eight before a run of bad luck/poor play sent the group reeling. There were a pair of four- game slides over the last six weeks or so and no time left to recover.
The downward spiral was hard to comprehend at times, considering the Bears have one of the top players in the conference in Derrick Barden who averaged 13.7 ppg and 8.0 rpg to pace the team in both categories. Barden made good on an impressive 57.9 percent of his field goal attempts, lifting the entire team to 49.3 percent from the floor, resulting in 74.8 ppg. Tate Unruh (12.7 ppg) is the perimeter specialist, having converted 70-of-170 (.412) tries from beyond the arc.
As for the Lumberjacks (15-16, 12-8), a team which played in the title game of this tournament three straight years (2006-08) but came up empty each time, they have two championships to their credit, but the last of those came in 2000 versus a Cal State Northridge program that is no longer in the league. Like so many of the teams in the Big Sky who challenge themselves with some real non-conference tests early on, NAU also took the bait and suffered because of it. Once the 'Jacks got back on track, they were able to assert themselves as a tough out in almost every matchup.
Northern Arizona closed the campaign with four straight wins, one each against Montana and Weber State mixed in, so clearly the team can rise to the occasion when needed. Just ask Quinton Upshur and Max Jacobsen who averaged 15.8 and 12.1 ppg, respectively, the former hitting on a team-best 73 3-pointers and the latter converting 58.8 percent from the floor overall. Toss in Aaseem Dixon (10.9 ppg) and you have a formidable group of scorers to contend with.
The third and final matchup of the first day sees fifth-seeded Portland State clashing with two-time defending champion Montana.
The fourth-seeded Grizzlies (17-12, 12-8) also got off to a rough start to 2013-14, bowing in four of their first five games, but when it counted the most the team stepped up and took care of business. However, it should be noted that Montana split the two regular-season meetings with PSU, going to overtime in each decision and losing after three extra sessions on the road back on Jan. 11 (81-78).
As the only player to have started every game for Montana, it only seems fitting that Kareem Jamar would also be the leading scorer with his 18.8 ppg. But more than that, Jamar also paced the group in the passing department with 117 assists, against 64 turnovers, and was tops on the glass with 5.6 rpg, a rare feat for any college player these days. However, the fact remains that Montana was not the greatest of Big Sky squads on the boards, losing that battle by 5.7 rpg on the average.
Jordan Gregory and Keron Deshields also found themselves as focal points on offense as they generated 13.6 and 12.0 ppg, respectively. A part-time starter who averaged just under 25 minutes per game, Mike Weisner (8.1 ppg) is someone the Vikings need to keep an eye on after he connected on 47.1 percent of his 3-point tries.
Speaking of Portland State (16-13, 11-9), a program which won the tourney title in back-to-back years (2008-09), they have just as much momentum as any school heading into play on Thursday, thanks to three straight wins and five in the last six outings on the schedule. Perhaps the most promising aspect of the last three victories was that PSU had a different leading scorer each time out, lending credibility to some measure of offensive balance.
Granted, you're not going to find a superstar on the Vikings roster, but what you will find is a part-time starter (DaShaun Wiggins) who led the team in scoring with 12.7 ppg, and a player in Tim Douglas who not only started every single game, but he played more than 35 minutes per outing as he tallied 12.3 ppg and led the way with 97 assists. Gary Winston (11.5 ppg) and Andre Winston (9.9 ppg) helped fill the void left by Aaron Moore (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) who was dismissed from the team in early January for disciplinary issues.
All six teams competing in the quarterfinals of the tourney believe they can make it to the NCAA Tournament, courtesy of the automatic bid that goes along with winning the championship, but they'll have to bring their "A" game in order to keep up with Weber State.
Granted, the season didn't exactly start off as planned for the Wildcats (17-11, 14-6) as they dropped three straight right out of the chute, but playing up against the rest of the Big Sky is where it really counts and it was there that the team lost only a handful of games. As if there was any doubt, Davion Berry was named the league's most valuable player by the coaches as he ranked third in the conference in scoring with 19.2 ppg and was also responsible for 4.5 rpg and 4.0 apg, en route to being a unanimous All-Big Sky First Team selection.
Accolades were also bestowed upon Kyle Tresnak (11.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) as he was named to the All-Big Sky Second Team, while Joel Bolomboy saw all of his unselfish play pay off by being recognized as the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. Bolomboy (8.8 ppg) often sacrificed his own offense in order to provide the team with a huge presence in the paint (10.9 rpg). Picking up Freshman of the Year honors was Jeremy Senglin (11.3 ppg) who shot 40.7 percent behind the 3-point line.