Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Re-Racking the Big Sky

For Idaho State, the preliminaries are out of the way (except for that irritating non-con with Kansas State on Saturday -- whose idea was THAT, with a conference road trip coming up next week?). Big Sky Conference play begins Thursday afternoon with Northern Colorado, who won its BSC opener in comeback fashion over Northern Arizona Monday night. With the focus now clearly on Big Sky play, it's time to re-rack the league. First, here's how I voted in the pre-season poll:

1. Portland State
2. Montana
3. Idaho State
4. Northern Colorado
5. Northern Arizona
6. Weber State
7. Montana State
8. Eastern Washington
9. Sacramento State

How I would vote today and why:

1. Portland State. The Vikings are clearly the most talented team in the league, and they didn't need to beat Gonzaga on the road to prove it -- but they did, anyway. They are also the most dominating team at home, having won 14 straight in Portland venues over league teams. It bears repeating -- 9 of the last 10 Big Sky regular season champions have lost one or fewer league games at home.

2. Eastern Washington. The Eagles have been the surprise team of pre-season, getting road wins over UC -Irvine and Portland, beating a decent Idaho team by 10, and then holding off Montana State in their league opener -- all that without two projected starters, G Adris DeLeon and 6-6 F Chris Busch, who are eligible in the second semester. And don't forget, EWU will have the benefit of being PSU's travel partner, which means they are going to be getting some worn down teams on the back side. Transfer PG Benny Valentine leads the Big Sky in scoring, and Fs Brandon Moore and Andy Genao rank 2 and 6, respectively, in rebounding.

3. Montana State. The Bobcats have that tenacious underdog look about them, as evidenced by two early-season road performances -- an overtime win over Colorado, and an overtime loss to Oregon State. They dropped their conference opener at EWU, but that's going to happen to a lot of ballclubs. MSU is 4-1 at home and 3-3 on the road. Fs Bobby Howard and Divaldo Mbunga are in the top 10 in the league in scoring and guard Will Bynum has emerged as a third option.

4. Idaho State. The Bengals drop a notch because of their inconsistency on offense. Every game they seem to suffer at least one extended lapse (Monday night against Idaho, they went the last 11 minutes of the first half with just one field goal), and those will get you beat in tight conference contests. The Bengals are also one of three league teams without a road win this year. And I still worry about how ISU will match up with quick PGs who tend to dominate once league play gets under way -- Dominguez, Valentine, McCoy, etc. The Bengals are going to go as far as their "big three" -- Stucki, Morgan and Carson -- can carry them.

5. Northern Colorado. The Bears came back from a 10-point half-time deficit to win their conference opener over NAU at home last night. Devon Beitzel (above) is one of the emerging stars of the league, putting up 32 on the Axers, and posting four 20-plus point games in a row. The Bears have lost starting F Jefferson Mason, who transferred in mid-December, and that has made them a much more guard-oriented team. They lack a statement win so far.
6. Weber State. The Wildcats have pretty much stuck to script, beating the teams they should, and not really competing against good teams like BYU and Utah State. The one exception was a 6-point loss at Arizona last night, but that is a bit misleading because U of A was playing without its leading scorer and rebounder.

7. Montana. The Griz are perplexing. They are 5-1 at home, and have a good road win at Fresno State, but they were blown out by PSU in the league opener, and followed that up with big losses to Utah Valley and Washington. The status of PG Ceylon Elgin-Taylor, who has been suspended since being arrested for a DUI in early December, will be a key in determining whether the Grizzlies can live up to their pre-season ranking. Right now, I'm betting they don't.

8. Northern Arizona. The Axers are another team that hasn't offered up many surprises -- they are winless on the road, and coughed up that big lead in Greeley last night. NAU could be eliminated from the league title race as early as this weekend, if they can't defend homecourt against EWU and PSU.

9. Sacramento State. With their only win against UC Davis, the Hornets are living down to all the pre-season expectations of a bad team with a new coach.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Rebuilding Women's Hoops

I finally got to spend some time with new ISU women's basketball coach Seton Sobolewski during our coach's show last Monday night. He strikes me as a bright, energetic young man -- and he's going to have to be, because he's got a major rebuilding job ahead of him.

Sobolewski (above) inherited a highly successful program when Jon Newlee departed for the University of Idaho, but just about everything that can happen to upset a smooth transition has happened to Seton and his new staff. It started with the season-ending illness of PG Andrea Videbeck and the decisions of PF Ally Sissel and G Bianca Cheever to follow Newlee to northern Idaho. Then junior college transfer PG Andrea Blodgett was declared ineligible and incoming freshman F Kayla Gromme was suspended. Sobolewski told me Monday night that Gromme has left the program and Blodgett will not be eligible the remainer of the season.

It's never a surprise when there is a major roster shakeup under a new coach, but even under those circumstances the extent of this fallout is fairly extreme. As a result, Sobolewski has had to ask a roster of largely role players to assume leading lady status. Michelle Grohs, Oana Iacovita, Jenna Brown and Devin Diehl have all played 29 minutes or more per game. More importantly, they are the Bengals' primary offensive weapons after being third or fourth options in the Natalie Doma-Andrea Lightfoot era -- all the while playing significantly more minutes.

The results so far have been entirely predictable. The Bengals are 3-9 on the season, heading into Tuesday night's final non-conference game against Colorado. They've competed hard for the most part, but they just simply don't have the athletes or the depth to win on a consistent basis. It will take a coach-of-the-year performance from Sobolewski to sneak this team into the Big Sky Conference post-season tournament.

Things don't any easier next season, either. The Bengals lose Grohs, their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, and Brown, their assist leader and No. 3 scorer. Sobolewski has signed four freshmen -- 6-1 F Ashleigh Vella, 5-11 G Morgan Wohltman, 6-3 F Shannon Byrne, and 5-5 PG Kaela Oakes -- for next season, and he hopes to add a couple of more players in the spring signing period. He'll also return top rebounder Iacovita, sophomore G Chelsea Pickering and talented freshmen G Sheila Adams next season.

But the reality of the situation is that it's probably going to take a couple of years for Sobolewski, through no fault of his own, to get the Bengal women's program back up to the level it was when Newlee was in charge. And unfortunately, attendance is already taking a hit. The Bengals are averaging only 688 fans a game this year, down significantly from the 1225 ISU drew last year. Hopefully the Bengal women will remain competitive throughout Big Sky play and avoid further erosion in the fan base.

--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.