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October 13, 2010

League preview: Big Sky

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

20. Big Sky

By Joe Rexrode

Up at the half and down just a point with 1:40 left -- despite falling victim to a 17-0 run early in the second half -- Montana was right there against New Mexico, on the verge of pulling a mammoth 3-14 upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Grizzlies couldn't quite get it done and now must make up for the loss of their catalyst, star guard Anthony Johnson.

Still, a 26-point, 13-rebound performance from center Brian Qvale against New Mexico may have been a sign of big things to come. Qvale and the Grizzlies once again should joust with Weber State for the Big Sky title.

Franklin Session's early departure knocks Weber State down a peg from "clear favorites" status. But conference player of the year Damian Lillard is back to try to get the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament a season after they fell to Cincinnati in the first round of the NIT. Weber State is hoping transfer Scott Bamforth provides some much-needed perimeter help for Lillard.

The rest of the pack isn't far behind. Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado return star guards in Devon Beitzel and Cameron Jones, respectively. B.J. Hill takes over at Northern Colorado after his boss, Tad Boyle, bolted for the Colorado job.

Eastern Washington could be this season's surprise team. Tremayne Johnson, a 6-7 forward and former Arizona recruiting target, should be ready to go after he was academically ineligible last season.

Portland State isn't eligible for the Big Sky tournament or any other postseason play because of poor APR performance.

ALL-LEAGUE FIRST TEAM
C Brian Qvale, Montana (7-0/260, Sr.)
F Bobby Howard, Montana State (6-7/225, Sr.)
G Devon Beitzel, N. Colorado (6-0/180, Sr.)
G Damian Lillard, Weber State (6-2/185, Jr.)
G Cameron Jones, N. Arizona (6-4/190, Sr.)
ALL-LEAGUE SECOND TEAM
F Kyle Bullinger, Weber State (6-6/215, Jr)
F Shane Johannsen, N. Arizona (6-7/235, Sr.)
F Phil Nelson, Portland State (6-7/220, Sr.)
G Will Cherry, Montana (6-1/177, Soph.)
G Glen Dean, E. Washington (5-10/170, Soph.)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Damian Lillard, Weber State
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: F Tremayne Johnson, Eastern Washington (6-7/200, Jr./redshirted last season for academic reasons after transferring from junior college)

ORDER OF FINISH
1. Weber State
2. Montana
3. Northern Arizona
4. Northern Colorado
5. Eastern Washington
6. Montana State
7. Portland State
8. Idaho State
9. Sacramento State

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: B.J. Hill at Northern Colorado (had been Northern Colorado assistant)
Regular-season winner last season: Weber State
Tourney winner last season: Montana
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 18th in 2009-10, 24th in 2008-09, 25th in 2007-08
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2006, Montana as a No. 12 seed in the first round
2011 conference tournament: March 5, 8, 9, campus sites



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