Conference tournament play in the Big Sky is just days away (Saturday) but there's some very important business to attend to before the six-team field is complete: decide the regular season champion. Montana (22-6, 14-1) and Weber State (23-4, 14-1) have been the class of the league, as expected, from start to finish and that should make for an entertaining affair in Missoula. Damian Lillard (24.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.1 apg) and company held serve on their home floor, and a win Tuesday night would not only give them the regular season title but also guarantee hosting the semifinals and title game of the Big Sky tournament.
Accomplishing that task will be far easier said than done for the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky, as Wayne Tinkle's Grizzlies are 13-2 at home this season. Montana may not have the nation's leading scorer but in senior Will Cherry (15.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg) they have one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. Lillard and Cherry will receive a great deal of attention given their skill sets and experience, but it would be wise to take a look at their respective partners in crime as well.
Alongside Lillard, who also does a good job of setting up his teammates for quality looks, is Scott Bamforth and he's averaging 15.2 points per game and shooting 44.1% from the field. Bamforth is one of the primary beneficiaries when Lillard is able to penetrate gaps in the defense, knocking down three-pointers at a 41.2% clip. Freshman Gelaun Wheelwright has improved his play as the season's worn on and received more minutes as a result while guard Jordan Richardson and forward Byron Fulton are also capable of knocking down open shots.
For Montana there's sophomore Kareem Jamar, whose versatility allows Cherry to do a variety of things on the offensive end of the floor. In addition to averaging 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, Jamar leads the Grizzlies in assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.81. Undersized forward Art Steward is shooting 41% from three and averaging 9.5 points per game while guard Shawn Stockton is called upon more for perimeter depth and defense than his scoring prowess.
The winner could ultimately be decided in the front court despite the quality guards, and this was where Weber State was able to distance themselves in the first meeting. Frank Otis, who would be lost for an extended period of time in the Wildcats' next game, scored seven points in his return from a knee injury and Darin Mahoney accounted for eight points and nine rebounds. Adding those numbers to the 12 and six rebounds put up by Kyle Tresnak ended up being too much for the Grizzlies to deal with as no players besides Cherry and Jamar reached double figures.
Mahoney may not be much of a scorer but the senior has no problem mixing it up on the glass, as he leads Weber State with an average of 6.2 rebounds per game. Neither team is a great rebounding team, and it would be fair to say that the Grizzles could be in trouble in this department. Montana grabs 1.1 fewer rebounds per game than their opponents and they allow 10.9 offensive rebounds per game (rate of 31.3%). If Derek Selvig and the other Montana big men don't take care of business on the glass Weber State, who is average as an offensive rebounding team, could end up with a few more possessions than expected.
Cherry and Jamar do a solid job of helping out Selvig and Steward on the boards, as Jamar ranks second on the team in rebounds per game. Weber State's been the better offensive team while Montana's been better on the defensive end in spite of their rebounding woes, which will make for a fun contest to watch. While the other four teams in the Big Sky tournament have the ability to knock either team off there's no reason to believe that the Wildcats and Grizzlies won't meet again with an NCAA berth on the line. The only question is where that game will take place, and we'll get the answer on Tuesday night.
Outside of the big game in the Big Sky and the beginning of the Horizon League tournament it's all about the bubble on Tuesday night, with Xavier's trip to Saint Louis being the contest that stands out. Few (if any) thought that the Musketeers would find themselves in their current spot before the season began but for whatever reason Chris Mack's team is in desperate need of wins. Saint Louis is in better position at this stage but the Billikens can ill-afford to rest on their laurels.
Rick Majerus' team has been solid defensively with Brian Conklin leading the way inside, and Kenny Frease has to hold his own with the senior of Xavier is to win. Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons are definitely talented but who steps up to provide the intangibles that have been missing all season long? Whether or not the Musketeers get an answer will ultimately determine whether or not they make the Big Dance.
Connecticut fell just short of a win over Syracuse on Saturday night, and they'd better be prepared both mentally and physically for their trip to Providence. The Friars may lack depth and they've had a tough first season under Ed Cooley, but the Vincent Council-led bunch can be dangerous especially in front of a raucous home crowd. Add in one of the Big East's best freshmen in LaDontae Henton and the Huskies stand the chance of getting picked off if they sleepwalk into The Dunk. Also of importance to the bubble is UCF's trip to Memphis, and with the Tigers looking like a lock to dance this a good opportunity for Donnie Jones' Knights.
Florida can lock up second place in the SEC with a win at Vanderbilt, but given the Gators' showing at Georgia on Saturday who knows which team will show up at Memorial Gymnasium. The Commodores put forth a good fight at Kentucky before falling, and this is a good opportunity for Kevin Stallings' team to pick up a quality win before the conference tournament. And in the Big Ten, Michigan State looks to seal the outright Big Ten title with a win at Indiana. Minnesota may have won at IU but that's the Hoosiers' lone home loss this season so we'll see what happens.
Top 25 Games
9:00 PM (3) Duke at Wake Forest (ESPNU)
7:00 PM (5) Michigan State at (20) Indiana (ESPN)
9:00 PM (13) Florida at Vanderbilt (ESPN)
8:00 PM Minnesota at (15) Wisconsin (BTN)
NCAA Division I Games
7:00 PM Ole Miss at Arkansas (ESPNU)
7:00 PM Kansas State at Texas A&M (ESPN3)
7:00 PM DePaul at West Virginia (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Wright State at Butler
7:00 PM Loyola (IL) at Detroit
7:00 PM Connecticut at Providence (ESPN3)
7:05 PM Green Bay at Youngstown State
8:00 PM Illinois-Chicago at Milwaukee
9:00 PM Xavier at Saint Louis
9:00 PM Weber State at Montana (Altitude)
9:00 PM UCF at Memphis
9:05 PM Idaho State at Eastern Washington
9:30 PM TCU at Wyoming (The Mtn.)
10:05 PM Northern Colorado at Portland State