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Just like last season, the Big Sky is anyone’s conference to win

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Seven of the Big Sky’s 11 teams received first-place votes in the preseason polls, and there’s been a different tournament champion in each of the last six seasons. Whose turn will it be this year?

Portland State’s Desirae Hansen shoots over Eastern Washington’s Bella Cravens during the 2019 Big Sky Championship final, which Portland State won 61-59.
Courtesy of Portland State Athletics via Twitter

Near the end of last season, the Portland State Vikings had a chance to catapult from fourth place in the Big Sky all the way up to a three-way tie for first if just one night of games went in their favor.

The Vikes got the win, but the gymnastics of their possible first-place finish didn’t land that night. However, they did eventually get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after playing above their four-seed to become the sixth unique team in six seasons to win the Big Sky tournament.

If the 2019-20 preseason polls are any indication, that streak could finally end this season. Montana State (the 2017 champion) was selected in both the media and coaches’ polls to win the conference, 2016 champion Idaho came in second and 2019 champion Portland State is in third.

But so many other teams are in the picture, too, and that’s the beauty of this conference. Seven teams received first-place votes in the media poll: Montana State, Idaho, Portland State, Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Montana. Of these teams, if Idaho State or Eastern Washington collected a title in 2020, that would make seven different champions in the past seven seasons.

Let’s take a quick team-by-team look at this season’s seven unofficial contenders (2018-19 conference records and regular-season standings in parentheses):

Montana State Bobcats (11-9, 5th)

Oliana Squires
Courtesy of Montana State Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 3

Preseason All-Big Sky picks: Fallyn Freije (MVP), Oliana Squires

Out for revenge against: Portland State (0-3 last season)

The Cats struggled with inconsistency last season, the final iteration of which led to their third close loss to Portland State of the season in the first round of the Big Sky tournament. They’ll wish they could have another season with Claire Lundberg, the senior who suffered a season-ending knee injury in February, but getting used to their young rotation to close out the year should help them this season. Having the conference preseason MVP in Fallyn Freije will help, too — even though, being a recently-eligible transfer from North Dakota, she’s never played a game in a Cats uniform.

Idaho Vandals (16-4, 1st)

Courtesy of Idaho Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 3

Preseason All-Big Sky pick: Gina Marxen

Out for revenge against: Northern Colorado (0-2 last season)

Despite losing their two biggest scorers to graduation — Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce averaged a combined 41 points per game, more than half the team’s scoring — the Vandals look to reinvigorate their offense as Gina Marxen enters her sophomore season. Marxen averaged 8.6 points and led the team in assists and steals while playing the most minutes of any returner. Idaho’s 2018-19 ended in the third round of the WNIT, where they fell to eventual champion Arizona.

Portland State Vikings (14-6, 4th)

Kylie Jimenez
Courtesy of Portland State Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 2

Preseason All-Big Sky pick: Kylie Jimenez

Out for revenge against: Idaho State (0-2 last season)

Even though three of their top four scorers have moved on, Kylie Jimenez and Jordan Stotler are back, along with super-sub Desirae Hansen. Two of Hansen’s four points in the Big Sky championship game came in the form of the game-winning jumper seconds after being subbed in late in the fourth. The Vikes were summarily bounced from the NCAA Tournament by eventual Final Four team Oregon, but getting there in the first place was the season’s real high point.

Idaho State Bengals (15-5, 3rd)

Estefania Ors
Courtesy of Idaho State Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 2

Preseason All-Big Sky pick: Estefania Ors

Out for revenge against: Northern Colorado (0-2 last season)

Estefania Ors is a fine player to rebuild around, even if she is entering her final season in the program. One of the Bengals’ most consistent scorers last season, Ors averaged a team-high 41.1 percent from three-point range (tied for second in the conference with Idaho’s Marxen) and 12.8 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting. Like their in-state counterparts, the Bengals also fell to eventual champions Arizona in the WNIT, but in the first round of the tournament.

Northern Colorado Bears (15-5, 2nd)

Courtesy of Northern Colorado Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 3

Preseason All-Big Sky picks: None

Out for revenge against: Eastern Washington (1-2 last season)

The Bears suffered perhaps the biggest loss in the conference in Savannah Smith, the program’s all-time leading scorer and the conference’s top scorer last season at 22.8 points per game. But before that, they suffered another loss in Bridget Hintz, who played in and started 18 games before sitting out due to injury. That loss will be reversed, though, as Hintz takes the court this season. Northern Colorado lost three of its last four games last season, ending with a first-round WNIT loss to Wyoming.

Eastern Washington Eagles (9-11, 6th)

Bella Cravens
Courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 3

Preseason All-Big Sky picks: None

Out for revenge against: Portland State (0-3 last season), Idaho (0-2 last season)

EWU’s second-leading-scorer Grace Kirscher returns for her sophomore season after being named All-Big Sky Honorable Mention in 2018-19. Despite only returning three true starters — Kirscher, along with Brittany Klaman (the team leader in assists) and Bella Cravens (the team’s best shot blocker) — two more players started 10 or more games last season, meaning a wealth of experience is still congregating in Cheney this season.

Montana Lady Griz (9-11, 7th)

McKenzie Johnston
Courtesy of Montana Athletics via Twitter

Returning starters: 3

Preseason All-Big Sky pick: McKenzie Johnston

Out for revenge against: Montana State especially (0-2 last season), but the Lady Griz were also swept by Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado

The Big Sky coaches clearly think this team can make a jump this year, voting the Lady Griz fifth in their preseason poll. But the media weren’t as convinced, giving them two first-place votes but matching last season’s seventh place overall. Still, the Lady Griz are a sleeper pick to take the conference. Their depth starts with all-around star McKenzie Johnston and is bolstered by the conference’s only 2019 top-100 HoopGurlz recruit in Jamie Pickens.