This weekend marks the turning point for Big Sky Conference men's basketball teams, the half-way pole when every team in the league has played every other one. The women, meanwhile, are a week behind, not having played any games in December. Nonetheless, the Idaho State men's and women's teams approach this critical weekend in dramatically different circumstances. The women are 4-1 in the league, unbeaten at home and with two road wins in their pockets. The men, meanwhile, are bringing up the rear, 1-5 with two very damaging home losses and road losses to two of the teams immediately above them in the standings.
Here's a little historical perspective on what each squad faces coming down the stretch:
Montana has won the women's title every year since the Big Sky Conference expanded to nine teams in 2006-2007. The Griz have averaged just over 14 conference wins a season and have not lost a home conference game during that time. Everyone acknowledged before the season that this was probably a rebuilding year for the Griz, who were picked to finish behind Portland State in both pre-season polls. Montana has indeed slipped, getting swept on the Portland-Eastern road trip (the one the Bengals will take this weekend), and losing their best player, freshman Katie Baker, to a knee injury in the process.
The Griz are still very much in the title hunt, however, having maintained the "Missoula mystique" with a 3-0 home mark. They are just two games back of Eastern Washington. The Eagles are certainly sitting in good shape with a 5-0 mark, including three road wins to date. The Bengals sit in second, 4-1 and plus-two in the road breakthrough category, with PSU and Montana each a game back in third. Needless to say, this weekend is a critical one for Andrea Videbeck (above) and her teammates' championship hopes. If they get swept, they could trail EWU by as much as three games with nine to play. A split puts them in decent shape, particularly if they get it by beating the Eagles. That would assure them nothing worse than being a game behind Eastern with six home games left for the Bengals. And a sweep? Well, that would really put ISU in the catbird seat with all those home games remaining.
The men, meanwhile, are staring up from a deep hole in their attempt to just make the top six and get into the Big Sky Conference's post-season tournament. Since the Big Sky went to nine teams, six has been the fewest wins needed to get into the tournament, and one year the Bengals were the last team in with an 8-8 mark. Assuming they'll need six this year, ISU must win five of their last 10 games, half of which are at home. Noting that ISU has already lost on the road to two teams (Sac State and NAU) that were considered among the weaker teams in the league before conference play, one has to assume that getting a road win, any road win, is going to be a chore from this point on. So the Bengal men need to win out at home, starting with a two-game stretch against EWU and Portland State in Reed Gym this weekend.
If you assume that the sixth place team will do better than six wins, now you're talking about the Bengals sweeping the remainder of their home games and somehow finding a way to get a road win in Montana, at Weber, or in Cheney or Portland, where Joe O'Brien has never won. The odds get a lot longer under that scenario, but the Bengals can't worry about things out of their control. They have to get wins, and Reed Gym has been extremely good to O'Brien and his ballclub. Let's hope that good fortune holds out this weekend.
Basketball -- Anybody?
Last Saturday night's crowd of just under 3,000 for the ISU-Weber State game was extremely disappointing to those who remember the "good, ole days" when the Wildcats used to attract over 6,000 fans to Holt Arena. The fact is, attendance is down significantly at Idaho State and around the Big Sky Conference this year. After 69 games, the league is well on its way to setting another all-time low for home attendance with an average of 2,111 fans for Big Sky home games. That would fall well below last year's previous record low of 2,298, although one can assume that more conference games will result in a jolt upward as the season goes along.
But the Big Sky has averaged fewer than 3,000 fans at its home games every year but one since the 1996-97 season, the first without Boise State and Idaho in the league. And with a few minor exceptions, those numbers keep going down every year.
Idaho State is not immune to the trend. The Bengals have drawn an average of 2,118 fans to six home contests this year. That's down from 2,755 last year, a season that got a real boost from having BYU, Utah and Utah State all come to Pocatello. Without those three in town, average attendance would have been worse than the 2,370 ISU drew in 2007-08, or the 2808 they attracted per game in 2006-07.
And the Bengals are not alone -- Boise State is averaging just 2,634 fans per contest in cavernous Taco Bell Arena, the University of Utah's Huntsman Center, which can accommodate 15,000, is drawing 8,694, the lowest mark since the facility opened 40 years ago, and BYU is attracting a little over 12,300 per game, down from the 13,300 mark of last year, and a far cry from the Danny Ainge-Fred Roberts days of the early 1980s when the Cougars routinely filled the 22,700-seat Marriott Center.
There are any number of theories as to why college basketball (regular season basketball, at least) is not drawing well outside of a few big conferences like the ACC and the Big Ten: too much basketball on television and via the Internet, competition from professional teams (the Jazz have certainly cut into Utah, BYU and Weber State crowds), loss of interest from the students, the economy, you name it. My personal theory is that a regular season basketball game at any level -- NBA, college or high school -- is simply not special any more. With a satellite dish and a DVR, you can literally watch basketball 24 hours a day, seven days a week from November through March -- and catch up on the "classic" games during the summer. Except in very special places like Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana, where attending basketball games is "an experience," the average fan has become so jaded, he or she is not willing to spend the money or exert the effort to go to just a regular-season basketball game.
For a basketball traditionalist like me who grew up watching high school games in packed gyms in small-town Illinois, that is a sad reality. Nobody can convince me that anybody was having any more fun than the 2,900 or so fans who showed up to watch Weber State's triple-overtime thriller over the Bengals Saturday night, whether you were wearing white or purple. But life has gotten a lot tougher for basketball marketing departments all over the Intermountain West.
Football Recruiting Notes
I ran into Bengal defensive coordinator Brian Strandley after the coaches' show Monday and he tells me ISU is getting very close to filling its upcoming recruting class. Strandley said ISU may take up to 20 recruits, depending on the grade situation of some candidates. He feels very good about the interior defensive linemen who have committed to date, and he's hopeful they'll greatly improve the pass rush for the Bengals by providing a good push up the middle. He said the Bengals are still in the market for an "edge rusher," but haven't gotten a commitment from that position yet.
Interesting Link from Bozeman
Montana State has added an "Ask the AD" feature to their web site. Their athletic director, Peter Fields, provides an interesting answer to the swirling speculation about the future of MSU and the Big Sky Conference. The Q-A hasn't been updated since mid-December, but there is some interesting discussion here.
And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.