Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Predicting the Big Sky -- How'd We Do?

I'm a big believer in personal accountability, so when I make predictions, I like to revisit them -- even when that review confirms that I am clueless. So with the end of the men's regular basketball season in the Big Sky Tuesday night, I figured it was time to look back at my pre-season and mid-season prognostications. Here they are, team-by-team, according to how the Big Sky squads actually finished the season:

1. Weber State. I have to admit, I never bought into Weber as the best team in the league. I picked them sixth in the pre-season, based on the fact they didn't return a single double-figure scorer. At mid-season, I still had them sixth, based on a very nondescript pre-season in which they beat the teams they should, and endured predictable losses to BYU and Utah State. I completely missed one clue -- when they lost by only six at Arizona near end of the non-conference slate.

But the Wildcats shocked the league by sweeping the Eastern-Portland State road trip the first weekend of the season and they never relented. Weber finished unbeaten on the road, and suffered only a home hiccup to Montana State. They head into the post-season on a 12-game win streak, and yet there are still doubters out there who don't see dominating personnel. I'm one of them. I think the Wildcats can be had in the tournament, but you can see what kind of credibility I have after picking Weber to finish sixth -- twice.

2. Portland State. Just as I was stubborn when it came to Weber, I refused to give up on Portland State. I picked the Vikings to win the league twice, and after they beat Gonzaga in Spokane near the end of the non-conference, who wouldn't have? But PSU, despite being one of four Big Sky teams to go 7-1 at home, turned out to be a dicey road club, just breaking even. PSU really lacked an inside game and, even though they could shoot anybody out of the gym when the threes were falling, they could just as easily shoot themselves out of the game. Oh, don't kid yourself, nobody wants to play these guys in the tournament, but everybody in the tournament knows the Vikings can be beaten.

3. Montana. This was a team I bailed on at mid-season. I picked the Griz to finish second in my pre-season poll, but after they got off to a 6-7 start, including blowout losses to Portland State and Washington and the loss of their starting point guard, I buried them at No. 7. But who knew Anthony Johnson was going to emerge as the best player in the league, literally carrying the Griz on his back in the second half of league play? I'm still not sold on Montana as conference contenders, however, but they should blow out Montana State in their first-round matchup Saturday night in Missoula.

4. Idaho State. I picked the Bengals third in the league in the pre-season poll, then dropped them to fourth in my mid-season predictions, based on their staggering offense. Bingo. The good news, of course, is that the Bengals made some offensive adjustments in the last seven games of the conference and won five of those -- four at home. ISU has a tough first-round game with an emerging Northern Colorado on Saturday, but you certainly could not ask for the Bengals to be going into the tournament with any more momentum.

5. Northern Colorado. I picked the Bears fourth in the pre-season, and adjusted them down one spot in my mid-season rankings, based on the mid-season transfer of forward Jefferson Mason and the lack of a signature win. The Bears did finish fifth, but they would have been a top four team if not for blowing two close games at PSU and EWU in the season's penultimate weekend. The Bears looked great in dispatching Montana and Montana State last weekend. They will give the Bengals all they want on Saturday night.

6. Montana State. A total miscalculation here. I had the Bobcats at No. 7 in my pre-season rankings, but moved them up to No. 3 based on three preseason road wins, including one over Colorado, and an overtime road loss to Oregon State. MSU actually looked like they might live up to that higher rating when they stunned Weber State in Ogden, but they quickly deflated those outsized hopes when ISU held them to 12 first-half points two nights later. MSU looks like a quick out in the Big Sky tourney.

7. Eastern Washington. I really over-reached here. too I originally picked the Eagles to finish eighth in the pre-season, then moved them way up to second in my mid-season review, based on road wins over UC-Irvine and Portland, and a home win by 10 over a decent Idaho team. But the Eagles suffered a disasterous five-game mid-season losing streak (four of those on the road), then finished the season losing four out of five.

8. Northern Arizona. The Axers represented my best "recalculation," after I dropped them from No. 5 in the pre-season to No. 8 in my mid-season review. I dropped NAU based on the fact that they were winless on the road, and blew a 10-point second half lead in their first Big Sky game in Greeley. That turned out to be a trend -- the Axers coughed up four double-figure leads in Big Sky games and never recovered.

9. Sacramento State. This was an easy one -- the Hornets had a new coach, lost the Big Sky Freshman of the Year to transfer, and have a long history of bad basketball. I picked them last both times, and they lived down to all those expectations, finishing 2-27 overall, and winning a single conference game.

--Brad B.

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

I Spell Coach of the Year with a Couple of Ss....

So as we get ready for the men's basketball All-Big Sky team to get announced, it occurs to me that ISU probably won't have an individual winner on the men's side. However, I'm starting to think there will be one on the women's side, because I can't stop thinking that Seton Sobolewski is the Big Sky Coach of the Year. How can he not be? The award will be voted on by the coaches, and here is their preseason poll....
Coaches Poll
Team, (1st place votes) Total Points
1. Montana (8) 64
2. Portland State (1) 56
3. Montana State 50
4. Northern Colorado 41
5. Northern Arizona 35
6. Weber State 30
7. Idaho State 19
8. Sacramento State 18
9. Eastern Washington 11

First of all, there was a clear break between the six teams that folks thought would make it, and the three that wouldn't, and obviously, ISU fell into the "wouldn't make the tournament" category. Montana and Portland State are playing for first place on Saturday, and with it being Senior Day in Missoula, well, you would think Montana will win that one, but either way, those two teams are where they are. Right now MSU is third, but they are just 7-7, and probably will finish 8-8 since they play PSU, and yes, they beat PSU earlier this year, but still, MSU is right where they should be.

The one team that isn't is Idaho State. A win over Weber State and the women's team will be 8-8 this season. The last two years with Natalie Doma and Andrea Lightfoot, the team went 11-5 in 2007 and 12-4 in 2008. I don't see Nat or Lightfoot out there this year. Seton basically lost those two starters, and then lost Andrea Videbeck, Cara Lambert, Chelsea Pickering, Kayla Gromme, and Andrea Blodgett. The roster is currently seven scholarship players....three guards, four forwards/centers. The only backup guard is walk-on Kari Green, who has been great in filling in for a few minutes here and there.

Show me a better job in the conference? Eastern looked like a lock to make the tournament, but they have to win a game this weekend at the Montana schools, and that is a tough task. Maybe Sacramento State, but ISU swept them and will finish ahead of them in the standings.

I can see a vote for the league champion coach, who will almost assuredly go 15-1, but my argument is they were supposed to do that. It's not a shock....ISU in fourth, maybe at 8-8? Four conference road wins? ISU might get as many wins as players on the team, which is one thing when you have 15, but with eight? Case closed me thinks....

Sad Days in the Football Office
If you get the chance to meet ISU's new defensive line assistant coach Joe Cullen, welcome him to Pocatello, and then give the guy a hug. I'm sure most of you are aware that the Coast Guard has called off the search for the two missing NFL players. What most folks don't realize is Cullen spent the last three years coaching one of the missing men, Corey Smith, for the last three years with Detroit, and is pretty distraught. Our thoughts and prayers from ISU go out to all those affected by this terrible accident.

Clark Impresses at Pro Day
Of all the guys to do workouts at ISU's Pro Day on Monday (including Eddie Thompson, Evan Dietrich-Smith, and Trevor Messersmith, among others), the most impressive was D.J. Clark, at least according to Gil Brandt's official NFL blog, which has all the pertinent numbers.

Who is Matt Dunsmoor?
He apparently plays for Northern Colorado, and he started the last two games. If Will Figures and Devon Bietzel are both out, he might start again.

Yeah Pat Forde
ESPN's Pat Forde thinks ISU could be a sleeper. Yeah Pat!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Perfect Ending

Sometimes good deeds are rewarded in spades. The Idaho State athletic department took some heat last year when it announced it was moving the Bengals' last two home basketball games this season to Reed Gym in order to accommodate the State High School Wrestling Tournament at Holt Arena. It was the right thing to do for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to accommodate the many hotels and restaraunts that donate to the athletic department, but be that as it may, some folks felt it was wrong to give up ISU's season-long home court advantage at a critical time in the season.

But after two raucus crowds created the best home atmosphere for Bengal basketball all season long in wins over Sacramento State and Northern Arizona this weekend, some folks were actually proposing that Idaho State move back to Reed Gym permanently. That won't happen, and also for very good reasons, but it was nice to see the athletic department repaid for making the right decision for the right reasons.

Saturday's night win over NAU was an awesome performance in an awesome atmosphere. The two Bengal seniors, Matt Stucki (above) and Lucas Steijn, played memorable games in front of their families. (As Frank noted in his senior night script -- Steijn's flew all the way from the Netherlands to be there for this week's games, while Stucki"s two-month-old son "drove all the way from married housing." That's why I love Frank -- you gotta have a sense of humor to make it in life!) I watched Steijn's mom and dad sitting on the front row across me Saturday night, beaming while Lucas recorded his first double-double ever, a 13-point, 10-rebound effort.

And what a sight it was to see the entire eastern Idaho wing of the Stucki clan gathered in the bleachers under the basket after the game for a group photo. Matt rewarded his family with a tremendous weekend, too -- he recorded 15 assists and no turnovers in the two wins.

Wayne Booker, the Bengals' "Memphis connection" who hooked up Bengal Coach Joe O'Brien with Amorrow Morgan and Sherrod Baldwin, was sitting in the front row Saturday night, too, and he couldn't help but be pleased with the way his homies were enjoying basketball Idaho style. Eric Segert, the Bengals' only recruit last fall, was on the other side of the gym with his family, here "all the way from Florida," and they couldn't have helped but be excited about what the young shooting guard has to look forward to next season, either.

Former Bengal stars David Schroeder and Logan Kinghorn, both Idaho natives, also cheered on their former teammates Saturday night, and to cap off a perfect evening, the crowd was able to root on from afar the ISU women's team, who completed a road sweep with a hair-raising win over NAU in Flagstaff, thereby clinching a berth in the Big Sky women's tournament.

Sometimes things just come together, and you have to think that ISU's decision to defer to the high school wrestling tournament, allow the local high school fans to enjoy the tournament in their backyards, and repay a number of athletic department sponsors contributed to the "karma" of Saturday night.

So Why Not Reed Permanently?

When ISU first moved into Reed, I was one of the more boisterous supporters of the move. I love the intimate feel of it, and when the Bengals are playing well, the place just rocks. But I got married in 2001, and I have learned a lot of things from that experience. Some of them happen to pertain to ISU athletics and to Reed Gym, in particular. No. 1: the parking there is lousy, and it's gotten worse with the construction project. My wife is one of many Pocatellans who likes to arrive fashionably late for games -- like right at the tip-off, and she had to park several blocks away from Reed Saturday night.

No. 2--there aren't enough floor seats at Reed to accommodate all the season ticket holders -- my wife and our family had to sit in the balcony for the Sac State and NAU games, while they normally have floor seats at Holt.

No. 3--the seating at Reed, especially upstairs where there are no chair backs, is very narrow and somewhat uncomfortable -- especially for taller people.

No. 4--Reed doesn't have great bathroom or concession accommodations.

Finally, as I noted in a blog earlier this basketball season, all of the above resulted in ISU seeing a drop in attendance for those years that they played in Reed Gym. Bengal fans spoke, and what they said was, "Back to Holt!"

The good thing is that if/when the Bengals get booted out of Holt on occasion in the future, fans will have this weekend's memories to remind them that Reed can still provide a tremendous college basketball experience under the right circumstances.

Big Changes Coming to Big Sky Athletics

It was only a matter of time until the current economic crisis started to impact athletics in the Big Sky Conference, and it appears the time has arrived. Largely prompted by Northern Arizona, which is experiencing even more dramatic belt-tightening than Idaho State, the league is considering a number of cost-cutting moves. Among them: reducing both the men's and women's post-season basketball tournaments to four teams each; playing a double-round robin league schedule in women's soccer and eliminating the post-season tournament; reducing the women's volleyball post-season tournament to four teams; and reducing the maximum number of people who can travel with the men's basketball teams from 21 to 18.

The league's athletics directors voted in favor of all of those proposals several weeks ago. They will go before the league's presidents for final consideration at the Big Sky meetings in May. I would hate to see the Big Sky reduce its post-season basketball tournaments to just four teams -- it would eliminate several teams from consideration earlier in the season, and make a lot of teams' seasons irrelevant much sooner. But these are drastic times and they are starting to call for drastic measures.

--Brad B.

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