Blanchette: Long way to go before Sky hits the limit

Here’s how bad it got for Eastern Washington during the low moments Saturday night at Reese Court:

An earnest student heckler, doing his best to stay in the heads of visiting Montana even as the score was getting away from the Eagles, badgered Will Cherry of the Grizzlies by name nonstop coming out of timeout – 20, 30 seconds of chirping critique as he dribbled the ball in front of the student wing of Eastern’s “house.”

“Cherry … Cherry … you’re weak … Cherry …”

Except that the dribbler was Keron DeShields. Cherry had taken a seat on the Montana bench across the way during the timeout.

So a tough night all the way around for the Eagles.

Their most reliable player sidelined with an ankle sprain, a 0-19 reversal after an adrenalized start and, in the end, a 65-46 loss to a team that EWU coach Jim Hayford praised as “not just a buzzsaw going through our league, but a bulldozer.”

Sure enough. The Grizzlies have won 25 in a row against Big Sky Conference opponents, a record even if the league office chooses to disregard the two from last year’s conference tournament. A sweep at home this week will give them the record one way or the other, so it’s all just accounting.

That would seem to make the Grizzlies pretty special.

“I think we’ve had a lot of off nights, to be honest,” said UM coach Wayne Tinkle. “People might say I’m crazy, but we’re not playing our best basketball.”

Hmm. That would seem to make the Big Sky not very special at the moment.

The alarms that began to sound about five years ago over the state of Big Sky basketball are pretty much at DEFCON 1. The league celebrated its 50th year of existence with the worst nonconference showing in history, winning just 15 games against Division I schools, and that with two new lodge brothers (there are BracketBuster opportunities still to come). The Sky’s collective Ratings Percentage Index ranking is 29 out of 32 conferences. Just four years ago, it was 18.

Exactly one of the those nonconference wins – Weber State beating Dayton – came against an opponent currently in the upper half of the 347 Division I schools.

For the coaches in midseason mind-lock scrounging the nuts and berries for survival in the standings, big-picture navel gazing is not just depressing but a needless trifling. Which doesn’t mean that Hayford and Tinkle don’t fret about the state of the Sky.

“It is a concern,” Tinkle said. “We win two games at home a few weeks ago and we drop 25 points (in the RPI).

“The answer to that is simple: The rest of the teams in the league need to win more D-I games in the nonleague. But it’s easier said than done. When some schools are asked to play four and maybe five guarantee games for money, they can’t get opponents at home that they should beat. It starts there.”

It is getting a little frightful. Portland State and Northern Colorado had one Division I home game in the preseason; Idaho State had none. Northern Arizona has played five teams in the RPI’s top 40 – and lost all of them, on the road, by an average of 32 points a game.

Hayford is realistic about his current circumstance.

“Everybody in Division I is either a ‘high-major’ or a ‘midmajor,’ ” he joked. “Somebody’s got to be a low-major, so I’ll admit it – that’s where we are right now. Montana’s a midmajor. They have a base, a history that fits that.”

The program-building he envisions – recruiting more freshmen, growing them over four years, winning games like this one and filling more seats – would presumably bring Eastern out of that. Unless the whole league gets pulled down.

Like this year, when the Sky is looking at the very real possibility of being in one of those NCAA tournament play-in games for the first time.

“That might be the commissioner’s nightmare,” Hayford cracked, “but it would be my dream come true.”

The shame is all cosmetic: You play on a Tuesday before most fans get a bracket filled out for the office pool. And the fact is, you have a better chance at notching an NCAA victory than in the dreaded 1-vs.-16-seed game. But there’s no denying it’s a humbling direction for a conference that, while always a one-bid endeavor, once played significantly better ball, as when Tinkle himself was in uniform at Montana.

“You look at some leagues that four or five years ago were one-bid league,” he said, “and now they’re getting multiple teams in every year. That’s what you want to be. For us, it’s a little bit of a dream, right?”

No kidding. Big Sky basketball at the moment? You wouldn’t recognize it.

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