As we start cleaning up the confetti from the Minnesota Lynx championship parade, we also start counting down the hours to the beginning of women's college basketball.
With so many potential teams in the running to win it all, you have a smorgasbord of teams and players you can root for. So with that being said, allow me to introduce you to the Big Sky Conference.
The Big Sky Conference, while not a part of the Big 5 (ACC, Pac-12, Big 10, American Athletic, and SEC), are still a conference that deserves recognition. They are a conference draped in tradition; with the University of Montana acting as a smaller version of UConn (21 conference championships in the Big Sky's 33 years of existence).
So it comes as no surprise that they were chosen to finish number one in the conference by media and coaches again in the preseason rankings.
With a new season, however, comes new changes. Unlike the past years, where only the top eight teams made the Big Sky Conference Tournament, all twelve teams will now be playing for the right to become Big Sky champs.
Also, the theme for the season is "Road to Reno", because the conference tournament will be held in Reno, NV; in past seasons the tournament was held in the home of the first-place team at the end of the regular season.
In this conference preview, we'll be looking at each team in accordance to how they were ranked in the preseason polls by the media. Keep in mind the media and coaches have separate polls, which will be referenced.
1) MONTANA GRIZZLIES (1st - Coaches; 1st - Media)
Last year, Lady Grizzlies head coach Robin Selvig continued his reign of excellence in the Big Sky Conference. His team went 14-4 in the conference (24-9 overall) on their way to their 17th Big Sky conference championship and 21st overall NCAA tournament appearance since Selvig became coach in 1978.
This year, the Lady Grizzlies have a bit of a challenge on their road to repeating as conference champions. The team returns only two starters from last year's team, senior guard McCalle Feller and junior forward Kayleigh Valley. between the two, they averaged 22.5 points per game and were both voted preseason All-Big Sky first team.
Six of the remaining 12 players on the team have combined to start only THREE games, and the remaining six have NEVER played a collegiate game. The upside for the team: they do not play a single team that made the NCAA's last season. The downside; they have two teams that are breathing down their neck in the University of North Dakota and Sacramento State University.
2) UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA (T-2nd - Coaches; 2nd - Media)
Picked to finish second by the media (they were tied for second with Sac State in the coaches' poll), the University of North Dakota looks to make the 2015-26 season their return to prominence. After a banner season in 2013-14 (when they won the Big Sky and made it to the NCAA's for the first time), they slipped to a 9-9 conference record (17-15 overall) to finish tied for fifth.
This year's squad is headlined by preseason Big Sky MVP forward, Mia Loyd. Loyd, the only senior starter returning, led the Big Sky with 16 double-doubles last season. The team has eight other players returning this season, along with nine newcomers; the headliner among them being transfer sophomore Kaila Burroughs from Denver University.
North Dakota only plays two NCAA tournament teams this season (Montana and the University of Iowa), but the team will be tested in their pursuit to dethrone Montana.
3) SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS (T-2nd - Coaches; 3rd - Media)
The Sac State women's basketball team had a banner year last season, as they finished with their best record in team history. With an 18-16 overall record (18-5 in Big Sky), the Hornets not only made it to the Big Sky tournament for the first time, but they also made the Women's NIT.
Sac State also finished third in the NCAA in scoring with 85.6 ppg, a figure only topped by DePaul University and the University of Connecticut. They also finished first in the NCAA in 3-point field goals made (424, 12.5 per game average), steals and offensive rebounds.
This year's team lost three starters, including All-Big Sky guard Fantasia Hillard, who led the team with 13.1 ppg and 5.8 assists a game. However, the team does bring back 11 letter winners, highlighted by junior forward Gretchem Harrigan. Harrigan, who was named the 2014-15 Big Sky top reserve, averaged 45.5% from the field in her first season after transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College.
The strength of this team lies in its depth; last year coach Bunky Harkleroad used 31 starting lineups and executes substitutions like a hockey team, switching out players every other minute to keep them fresh. With their improved status also comes improved competition.
The Hornets will be playing 13 teams that made the postseason; highlighted by a home contest against UCLA, the 2015 Women's National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) champions. This game will also serve as the first time a Pac 12 team has visited The Nest since 2000 (USC).
4) MONTANA STATE BOBCATS (5th - Coaches; 4th - Media)
Montana State University Tricia Binford will be starting her 11th season, and this season looks to be one of her better seasons as the leader.
The Bobcats bring back nine players, including starters Jasmine Hommes, Alexa Dawkins and Lindsay Stockton. Hommes lead the team in scoring last season with 16.9 ppg and was named second-team All-Big Sky last season. Stockton, daughter of NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, led the team in assists last season with 4.3 per game.
Montana State, who finished seventh in the conference with a 9-9 conference record (15-15 overall), will be looking to win their first conference championship since 1993. Standing in their way, however, will be a tough non-conference schedule. The highlight of that schedule: Gonzaga University, who were five points away from making the Elite 8 last year.
5) IDAHO STATE BENGALS (7th - Coaches; 5th - Media)
Choosing Idaho State to finish fifth was a bold choice by the media; considering that the coaches has ranked them seventh. The coaches had every reason to do so: Idaho State has finished 8-10 in the conference the last two seasons, and though they've made the Big Sky Tournament twelve years running (winning three conference titles since 2000), they made it by the skin of their teeth the last two years.
However, this year the Bengals are looking to make a fool out of the coaches. Led by first-team All-Big Sky selection Apiphany Woods, Idaho State will face a grueling early-season schedule, going on the road against Big Ten powerhouses Northwestern University and Michigan State University. Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament last season, and Michigan State is one of the elite teams in women's basketball.
Woods, who was Big Sky Newcomer of the Year last year, is one of eight letter winners returning for the team. Leading the pack of new Bengals is point guard Isabel Vara de Rey from the Canary Islands. Vara de Rey spent last season with Ciudad de Los Adelantados of LF2, the second-highest women's basketball league in Spain.
6) EASTERN WASHINGTON (9th - Coaches; 6th - Media)
The Eastern Washington Eagles were a highly talented squad last season, going 12-6 in the conference (21-12 overall, tied for a school record) and finishing fourth. The Eagles even made it to the postseason for the first time, beating rival Washington State in the first round of the WNIT. But all that didn't seem to unite the coaches and the media, who voted the team sixth and ninth respectively.
Eastern Washington is looking to capitalize on last year's progress, as longtime head coach Wendy Schuller brings back four letter winners and two starters from last year's team.
Newcomer Ashli Payne, who transferred from Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, was named Northwest Athletic Conference Southern Region MVP as a freshman and sophomore.
The team also brings back sisters Delaney (sophomore) and Hayley (redshirt senior) Hodgins. Delaney won Big Sky Freshman of the Year, while Hayley was first-team All-Big Sky last year.
The Eagles, while being disrespected by their coaching and media peers, have caught the attention of bigger schools outside the Big Sky. Four of the team's non-conference games are against teams who made the NCAA Tournament last season: Boise State, CSUN (Cal State University - Northridge), Gonzaga and Northwestern.
In the next Big Sky breakdown, we'll look at teams seven through 12.