The 'Road to Reno' is officially upon us.
For the first time in the history of the Big Sky Conference, all twelve teams will be playing for the Big Sky conference championship. For the first time, the conference tournament will be held at a neutral site instead of the regular season champion. And for the first time in many years, this conference looks wide open (http://www.bigskyconf.com/standings.aspx?standings=58).
No. 1 Montana State, who finished last season sixth in the conference, took the Big Sky by surprise, going 14-4 in conference play this year en route to a 21-8 overall record. The Bobcats helped themselves by winning their first six conference games, and didn't sustain a losing streak of two games or more until the final two games of the regular season. The Bobcats led the conference in assists per game (18.0), and also had the conference leader in sophomore Hannah Caudill (160, 5.5/g).
Eastern Washington (19-11, 13-5 Big Sky), behind the scoring prowess of the Hodgins sisters, Delaney and Hayley (finished sixth and second respectively in the conference in scoring), finished second in the Big Sky after being chosen to finish sixth in the preseason polls. This season saw the Eagles win their first seven conference games, and actually finished in a three-way tie with Idaho and North Dakota. However, due to their season series sweep over Idaho, the Eagles got the nod.
Idaho (21-9, 13-5 Big Sky), who came back into the Big Sky last season after eight years in the Western Athletic Conference, finished third in the conference. Despite only averaging 74.7 points a game, their defense was stellar; conference opponents only averaged 63 points against them, with no team scoring more than 89 during the season. This season was more of a team effort than individual; their leading scorer (sophomore Geraldine McCorkell, who averaged 12.3 ppg) was ranked 16th in the conference, but the team ranked second in three pointers per game and was second in defensive rebounds and blocks.
North Dakota (17-12, 13-5 Big Sky) undeniably comes into the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team in the conference, finishing the season winning 12 out of their last 13 games. Surprisingly, the Fighting Hawks clinched the fourth seed despite allowing more points per game than they scored (1,905 to their 1,863). If history has taught us anything in sports, however, it's that it doesn't matter who finishes first...it only matters who has the best finish. For the Fighting Hawks, winners of three NCAA Div. II championships (the only team in the Big Sky who can claim the honor), momentum could be all they need.
Montana (19-10, 12-6 Big Sky), who has won seven Big Sky championships since 2003, finished a surprising 5th after being chosen to finish first in the preseason polls. However, it helped the Lady Grizzlies that they had two of the top three scorers in the Big Sky (junior Kayleigh Valley and senior McCalle Feller, who finished first and third with 21.6 and 16.5 respectively). A four-game in the middle of January had put Montana in a tough position, fortunately the Lady Grizzlies would win seven of their last eight in a late-season push to clinch the no. 5 spot.
Weber State (19-10, 11-7 Big Sky), originally picked in the preseason polls to finish 10th, surprised everyone by taking the no. 6 spot. For the second year in a row, their defense was their strength; the Wildcats finished second in the conference both individually and teamwise (senior Brittney Dunbar led the team with 86 steals). If the Wildcats are going to win the Big Sky tournament, though, scoring will need to be at the forefront; the team finished sixth in the conference, only averaging 68.5 points a game.
After a 2015 season that was the best in program history, Sacramento State (13-16, 10-8 Big Sky) finished seventh in the conference after being chosen to finish second in the preseason polls. The Hornets had one of the most productive seasons in Big Sky history, finishing first in points (2,514) and points per game (86.4, third in NCAA Div. I), steals (12.8, first in Div. I), turnover margin, offensive rebounds per game (19.8, first in Div. I), and three-pointers made per game (12.3, first in Div. I). For the Hornets to finish atop the Big Sky, though, they'll have to do it without their top three-point shooter and second-leading scorer in junior Brianna Burgos, who went down with a torn ACL and meniscus in their Feb. 27 loss to North Dakota.
The eighth and ninth place teams, Northern Colorado (13-15, 8-10 Big Sky) and Idaho State (15-14, 8-10 in Big Sky) tied as far as the conference record, but Northern Colorado won the higher slot due to winning the season series in a sweep. Both teams will get a chance to meet again in the first round of the tournament. Idaho State is three years removed from their last Big Sky championship, and will be depending on senior Apiphany Woods and her 12.9 ppg to propel them back to the top.
The last three teams in the conference (Southern Utah, Portland State and Northern Arizona) all struggled this season, with each team going 2-16 in the conference.
This year's tournament is different; whereas it used to be the top eight teams got into the tournament, now all 12 teams get a shot at glory. The top four teams get a first-round bye; giving them much earned rest and extra time to scout the competition.
Here's a breakdown of the schedule for the Big Sky Tournament (including times of games):
MONDAY, MARCH 7
#9 Idaho State vs. #8 Northern Colorado 12 p.m.
#12 Northern Arizona vs. #5 Montana 2:30 p.m.
#10 Southern Utah vs. #7 Sacramento State 5:30 p.m.
#11 Portland State vs. #6 Weber State 8 p.m.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9 (QUARTERFINALS)
winner of ISU/NCU vs. #1 Montana State 12 p.m.
winner of NAU/UM vs. #4 North Dakota 2:30 p.m.
winner of SUU/SAC vs. #2 Eastern Washington 5:30 p.m.
winner of PSU/WSU vs. #3 Idaho 8 p.m.
FRIDAY, MARCH 11 (SEMIFINALS)
winner of March 9 12 p.m. game vs. winner of March 9 2:30 p.m. game (Game 1)
winner of March 9 5:30 p.m. game vs. winner of March 9 8 p.m. game (Game 2)
SATURDAY, MARCH 12
Winner of Game 1 vs. winner of Game 2 12:05 p.m.
All games for the tournament are available for streaming via http://eversport.tv/big-sky/basketball-womens.