Monday, February 2, 2009

The Big Sky: It's All About the Guards

If you follow Big Sky basketball at all, you've probably heard it said more than once: "The Big Sky is a guard's league." But what does that mean? Well, you could have seen no better object lesson than the Weber State-Idaho State series completed last weekend. The Wildcats won both games with great guard play. Exhibit A:

Kellen McCoy, 5-foot-4 inches tall (above), had 14 rebounds in the two games for the Wildcats. David Busma, 7-feet-tall, and Lucas Steijn, 6-foot-11, combined for seven rebounds for the Bengals.

McCoy best embodied the athleticism, quickness and mental toughness that gave Weber State the advantage over the Bengals from the beginning of the second half of game one all the way through game two of the series. The little junior college transfer from Norman, Okla. executed the two signature plays of each game. In the first, he stole a potential offensive rebound from Demetrius Monroe that could have resulted in a tied game in overtime, and led a fast-break the other way to give the Wildcats a two-possession lead that broke ISU's will. In game two, with ISU having clawed back into the game and down by three with four minutes to go, McCoy rose up over two Bengal defenders to drain a three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring. That led Weber on a 20-point run that put the game away.

In addition to those 14 rebounds, McCoy accumulated 26 points, 6 assists and 6 steals in the two games, while he and his fellow Weber guard mates drove their Bengal counterparts crazy with their aggressive, in your face defense. Damian Lillard, a true freshman, finished the two-game set with 32 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. Daviian Davis, the jumping-jack small forward/off guard, came off the bench to combine for 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals.

The Weber double-dip simply reinforced what most Big Sky basketball observers have known for years -- it's great to recruit the occasional "impact" big man if you can find one, but guards win games in the Big Sky Conference.

You probably all remember last year when the Bengal coaching staff talked about the need to get a "true center" -- and then went out and got the 7-foot Busma. The coaches even talked about the possibility of playing both Busma and Steijn together at times, creating a real "twin towers" set-up. But here the Bengals were in the final minutes of regulation and overtime against Weber State Thursday night, and who was on the floor? Felix Caspari and Monroe, two 6-6 small forwards, and three guards. Busma had been banished since the three minute mark of the first half and Steijn was once again a victim of foul problems.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, were getting big plays from their three guards/wings and Kyle Bullinger, a 6-6 SF.

College basketball has long been a "guard's game," but nowhere is that more in evidence than in the Big Sky. Take a look at the top 10 scorers in the league -- eight of them are guards or small forwards. Who was last year's Most Valuable Player? That would be 5-foot-6 Jeremiah Dominguez of Portland State. Who will likely be this year's MVP? My early bet is the diminutive McCoy, who tops the league-leading Wildcats in scoring and ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring, assists and steals.

Even the best "big men" in the league are players like Divaldo Mbunga of Montana State and Jabril Banks of Northern Colorado, two post players in the athletic, 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 mold. And a team like Idaho State, which actually has some size at its disposal, hasn't found a way to fully utilize it. Busma, who has made 58 percent of his field goal attempts, has attempted only 90 shots -- which ranks him sixth on the team, behind four guards and Monroe. Steijn, who is shooting 50 percent from the floor, has attempted only 68 shots.

When I talk to the opposing coaches in the league, they all marvel over Idaho State's "length" and "size." But ask them who they are going to focus their defense on, and it's two guards -- Amorrow Morgan and Matt Stucki. It's true, their 6-5 and 6-6 size gives them a decided advantage over many of the guards in the league, but even with Idaho State, it all starts at the guard line.

--Brad B.

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

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