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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Big Sky Tournament: How teams stack up before heading to Boise for chance at NCAA berth

Eastern Washington forward Angelo Allegri (13) faces off with Montana State guard Darius Brown II (10) during a NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Cheney, Wash.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Revi)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The new Big Sky Tournament format means that it’s a good deal to be a top-two seed.

While the old format afforded the top seeds a first-round bye, after that they had to win three games in three days to claim a championship.

But in this year’s bracket, with first-round games beginning Saturday for both the men’s and women’s teams in Boise, the path is paved all the clearer for the tournament favorites.

On the men’s side, No. 1 Eastern Washington and No. 2 Montana State will play their first games Sunday with the winners earning another day off on Monday. The semifinals are Tuesday night, followed by the title game on Wednesday. The women’s bracket follows the same schedule.

The No. 1 seed gets another advantage, presuming the seeds reflect team quality, because it awaits either the winner of the 9/10 matchup while the No. 2 seed gets the winner of the 7/8 game.

But that “win three in three” adage is still true for the third through sixth seeds. They don’t open until Monday (No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5), with the winners heading into the Tuesday semifinals.

Even under the old format, the past 11 Big Sky Men’s Tournament champions were either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Under the new format, that outcome seems even more likely.

Eastern Washington (No. 1)

Overall record (Big Sky): 22-9 (16-2)

Past six games: 4-2

Impact player: Steele Venters, sophomore, (15.1 ppg, 46.1 FG%, 38% 3s)

Chance they win it all: 45%

Discussion: The Eagles stumbled into the tournament with back-to-back losses, but the first came without starting guard Tyreese Davis, and the second came to No. 2 seed Montana State. It was a reality check for the Eagles, whose 18-game winning streak is no longer hanging over them.

Montana State (2)

Overall record (Big Sky): 22-9 (15-3)

Past six games: 5-1

Impact player: RaeQuan Battle, junior. (17.1 ppg, 47.2% FG, 33.1% 3s)

Chance they win it all: 35%

Discussion: The Bobcats have won five straight, the longest active streak in the conference. They showed they can beat the Eagles (79-74 on Monday) and they have the depth other challengers in the tournament lack. They are also the defending champions.

Weber State (3)

Overall record (Big Sky): 17-14 (12-6)

Past six games: 4-2

Impact player: Dillon Jones, soph., (16.6 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.8 apg)

Chance they win it all: 8%

Discussion: The Wildcats played EWU close twice and beat MSU once, so they certainly are potent enough. The question is whether they have the depth to beat both on back-to-back nights. They rely heavily on Jones and Steven Verplancken, who both average more than 34 minutes per game.

Montana (4)

Overall record (Big Sky): 16-13 (12-7)

Past six games: 5-1

Impact player: Josh Bannan, jr., (15.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg)

Chance they win it all: 7%

Discussion: The Grizzlies are on a roll, winning seven of eight. Four players average double digits in scoring, and their defense ranks second in the Big Sky in points allowed (67.5 per game). Their offense (68.7 ppg, eighth in Big Sky) has struggled at times to keep up.

Idaho State (5)

Overall record (Big Sky): 11-20 (8-10)

Past six games: 2-4

Impact player: Brock Mackenzie, senior, (12.9 ppg, 48.2 FG%, 39.9% 3s)

Chance they win it all: less than 1%

Discussion: The Bengals’ offense won’t overwhelm anyone (44.3% shooting), but they defend the 3 better than almost anyone in the conference. They beat Eastern Washington 71-63 on Feb. 25.

Sacramento State (6)

Overall record (Big Sky): 14-17 (7-11)

Past six games: 2-4

Impact player: Zach Chappell, sr., (13.5 ppg, 1 steal per game)

Chance they win it all: 2%

Discussion: The Hornets started conference play 4-1 but fizzled, especially during a 1-8 stretch from mid-January to mid-February. When 7-foot-1 center Callum McRae is on his game, as he was in a 24-point effort against Portland State last weekend, they can play inside out and give teams trouble.

Portland State (7)

Overall record (Big Sky): 12-18, 6-11

Past six games: 2-4

Impact player: Cameron Parker, sr., (18.0 ppg, 52.7% FG, 82.7 FT)

Chance they win it all: less than 1%

Discussion: With the frenetic defensive style the Vikings play, they are a dangerous draw. They force 16 turnovers a game, and they crash the boards (9.3 offensive rebounds a game). But their opponent field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage are in the bottom third of the conference.

Northern Colorado (8)

Overall record (Big Sky): 11-19 (6-12)

Past six games: 3-3

Impact player: Dalton Knecht, sr., (20.1 ppg, 47.9 FG%, 7.2 rpg)

Chance they win it all: less than 1%

Discussion: A preseason favorite to win the conference, the Bears didn’t get consistent enough contributions outside of their top trio of scorers: Knecht, Daylen Kountz and Matt Johnson II. Still, that trio can be dangerous. Just ask Weber State, which lost to UNC by 34 points on Feb. 6.

Northern Arizona (9)

Overall record (Big Sky): 9-22 (5-13)

Past six games: 3-3

Impact player: Jalen Cone, jr., (17.3 ppg, 39.7% 3s, 84.5% FT)

Chance they win it all: less than 1%

Discussion: There may be no one quicker or more electric in the conference than Cone, who scored at least 25 points in eight games this year, including his last two. Sophomore post Carson Towt can be great (like his 11-of-14 night against Montana), but he can also disappear as he did in his eight single-digit scoring games in Big Sky play.

Idaho (10)

Overall record (Big Sky): 10-21 (4-14)

Past six games: 1-5

Impact player: Divant’e Moffitt, sr., (18.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, 83.1% FT)

Chance they win it all: less than 1%

Discussion: There’s a chance that firing coach Zac Claus could loosen up the Vandals, who have star power players in Moffitt and Isaac Jones. If they beat the Lumberjacks, that could make them a dangerous opponent for the Eagles on Sunday, especially given how closely the Vandals played them in Moscow a couple of weeks ago.