Big Sky, big hopes

The final weekend of the Big Sky regular season brought some clarity to who will be playing whom when Portland State hosts its first ever conference championship tournament next week at Memorial Coliseum.

Going into Saturday night’s game at Montana, the Viks had already clinched the top seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament, but 32 possibilities still existed for how the rest of the six-team field would fill out. After Saturday night’s four conference games everything is set but the lowest seed.

Two nights after PSU ended their hopes of hosting the tournament with an 88-82 overtime defeat, Montana State handled the Eastern Washington Eagles 85-61 to lock up the number two seed and the other first-round bye. The easy victory ended a string of three consecutive conference losses and prevented MSU (14-13, 9-5 Big Sky) from falling into third place after spending the entire season in first or second.

Montana’s 79-65 victory over PSU Saturday night locked the Griz into the third seed. Because of a scheduling quirk, Montana (14-12, 8-5) closes out the regular season Monday night (after press time) in Flagstaff, Ariz. against Northern Arizona (11-16, 4-9) in a game that will determine who their first round opponent is. If Montana wins, Eastern Washington (8-19, 5-9) gets the six seed and a quarterfinal match-up Saturday, March 5 in Missoula, Mont. If NAU wins they take Eastern’s spot. Montana swept the season series from Eastern Washington and looked to do the same to NAU Monday night.

Sacramento State (12-15, 8-6) will host the other quarterfinal thanks to a buzzer-beating three-pointer that gave them a one-point victory over NAU Saturday night. The Hornets will look for some revenge against the fifth-seeded Weber State Wildcats (12-15, 7-7). As time ran out in their second match-up the Wildcats beat Sac State 57-55 on a lay-up that Hornets coach Jerome Jenkins and many courtside observers thought came after the buzzer had sounded. Jenkins was later suspended for one game by the league for complaining about the referees’ decision to allow the basket. The Hornets won the team’s other match-up 78-72 and are tough to beat in the Hornets Nest, going 6-1 with their only loss coming against PSU.

The lowest seeded team remaining after Saturday’s two quarterfinals will tip off against PSU Tuesday, March 8, at approximately 8:15 p.m. The higher seeded victor will play Montana State at 6 p.m. The winners of Tuesday’s games will battle for the tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament at 6 p.m. Wednesday in a game to be televised nationally on ESPN2.

What it means

The Vikings have to be happy with how the conference tournament is shaping up.

Regardless of how the rest of the field shaped up, the Viks likely took comfort in the fact that the last two, and seven of the last 10, top seeds went on to win the tournament.

That said, the way the tournament brackets set up over the last weekend of the regular season bodes well for the Viks to advance past the semifinals and play for a shot at the big time next Wednesday night.

Had the Viks beaten Montana on Saturday they likely would have knocked the Griz into the fourth seed and set up a potential rematch in the first round. As a three seed, there is no way Montana can play PSU in the semifinals. While Sac State, Weber State and the two contenders for the sixth spot present unique challenges, none is as difficult a foe as Montana. Two of their five conference losses came when their top scorer, Kamarr Davis (14.5 points/game, 5.8 rebounds/game), was suspended due to academic problems. With him back and in shape (for a 6-foot-7 250-plus pound big man) they are as formidable a foe as the Viks will face and should be heavily favored against whomever they play in the quarterfinals.

A Montana victory in the quarterfinals would pit PSU against the winner of the Sac State-Weber State game and either match up would present intriguing storylines. Sacramento State’s raw athleticism could pose the most difficult match ups for PSU’s talented team, while Weber State is one of three Big Sky teams to have beaten PSU.

The Hornets are small and quick with a deep bench and the personnel to keep up with PSU’s transition-oriented offense, as indicated by the 47 turnovers they forced in the teams’ two contests. Unlike Weber, Eastern Washington and Montana, the Hornets’ strength is in their backcourt where senior guard Jameel Pugh (15.2 points/game) has shown the promise that had scouts drooling when he headed to UMass as a freshman.

The Wildcats on the other hand are all about one man – the nation’s leading rebounder and the Big Sky’s second leading scorer – Lance Allred (18 points/game, 12.1 rebounds/game). At seven feet and an easy 240 pounds, Allred could generate his own gravitational pull, fitting since the Wildcats’ game plan revolves around him. The Viks held Allred to 20 points and 11 rebounds in their win over Weber Jan. 1 but he beat them for 26 points and 19 rebounds in their Jan. 20 loss.

Despite presenting more difficult match ups, the Hornets are a notoriously woeful road team (1-12) and don’t have the winning tradition or coaching that help a school like Weber State win games they shouldn’t based on talent. Weber State head coach has the highest winning percentage of all Big Sky coaches (.564 winning percentage in Big Sky games) while Sac State coach Jerome Jenkins has the lowest (.338).

That said, Sac State plays like a different, more confident team in the Stott Center-like Hornets Nest and should take advantage of the Wildcats’ inferior backcourt to beat Weber State Saturday. Then, assuming the six seed doesn’t pull off a miracle against Montana, look for PSU to take care of the road Hornets Tuesday.

We’ll have a full breakdown of the game next Tuesday no matter who the Viks play and a look back at the best season of Vikings basketball since dunking became commonplace.