Challenges of non-conference run deep for Big Sky men


Editor’s Note: This story is the fifth installment of a series spotlighting the trends in the Big Sky Conference, the challenges of playing in a mid-major league and profiling six of the premier guards in the conference. For the first installment on the league’s talented guard play, click here. For profile on Weber State senior Jeremy Senglin, click here. For a profile on North Dakota senior guard Quinton Hooker, click here.

The difference between playing on the road and at home leading up to the conference season in a mid-major men’s basketball league has been on stark display in the Big Sky Conference this winter.

The league’s 12 teams compiled a 52-88 record during the recently completed non-league schedule, including 32-88 against Division I opponents. Big Sky teams posted a 39-12 home record with Portland State, Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, Sacramento State and Idaho State all going undefeated.

With the exception of EWU and Montana State, the home games were fleeting. The league’s 12 teams posted a cumulative 10-60 record in true road games. Add in a 6-14 cumulative record on neutral courts and the Big Sky won exactly 16 percent of its away games during the non-conference.

Idaho State head coach Bill Evans/ photo courtesy of ISU athletics

Idaho State head coach Bill Evans/by ISU athletics

“We are part of that record since we haven’t won any road games,” said Idaho State head coach Bill Evans, who’s team won both its home games and lost 10 straight on the road. “I think one of the most important things we do is schedule and it’s very, very hard to schedule at this level. It’s really hard to gage how good we are, how bad we are.

“I don’t know what my team is about right now. I don’t think we are a team that is really together and that could be because of the schedule we’ve played. That’s one thing you have to worry about as a coach when you have to play all these guarantee games. When we get to the level (Big Sky) where we can win games, we don’t think we can win games.”

Sac State won all three of its home games, as did UNC; the teams combine for 11 road losses in 11 outings. Idaho State won both its home games but lost all 10 of its contests away from Pocatello. Portland State was the only team in the Big Sky with more than one road win, posting a 3-4 record on the road to bring a 7-4 record into Big Sky play, the best in terms of winning percentage in the league.

Portland State eighth-year head coach Ty Geving and assistant Jeff Hironaka, left, coaching last season/by Brooks Nuanez

Portland State eighth-year head coach Ty Geving and assistant Jeff Hironaka, left, coaching last season

“This is the same year in and year out after doing it,” Ty Geving, Portland State’s eighth-year head coach, earlier this month. “I looked the other day and our league is 4-47 on the road (as of this interview on December 12). And we have a few of them so I guess we are doing something right.

“It is a challenge. If you look at those 47 games, I bet you 30 or 35 of them are money games. I don’t think you can get too caught up in preseason records. There are a lot of good teams in our league that don’t have good records right now but then you look at their opponents and who they are playing and you think we’d probably all have that record if we were playing schedules like Weber or Montana.”

Compiling and navigating non-conference schedules for Big Sky men’s teams can play out in a variety of ways.

Perennial powers like Weber State and Montana want to use the non-conference as a way to test themselves against high-major teams. The Wildcats and the Grizzlies have reached a point as basketball programs where scheduling a slew of mid-majors to come to Ogden or Missoula is not beneficial in cost or competition. While WSU and UM have strong enough traditions, it’s unlikely Pac 12 or Big Ten teams will agree to come to the Dee Events Center or Dahlberg Arena.

The Grizzlies advanced to the Big Sky Tournament championship game in each of Travis DeCuire’s first two seasons. The competitive Montana mentor wanted his team to be tested to the maximum during the non-conference this season. UM won three of its four home games, the lone loss a one-point defeat to Wyoming, who the Grizzlies squared off with twice thanks to a home-and-home agreement. Montana is 1-5 away from Missoula and 1-2 on neutral courts.

UM senior point guard Walter Wright/ by Brooks Nuanez

UM senior point guard Walter Wright (5)

“We don’t really talk about how many wins we get in a season,” DeCuire said earlier this season. “There are a lot of coaches that schedule wins and are concerned about their records to keep their jobs. We are trying to get better for later on in the year.”

UM has losses to Southern Cal, North Carolina State, Washington State, Ole Miss and Oregon. USC is currently 12th in RPI, while Oregon (23), Mississippi (35) and NC State (38) all are in the top 40. Montana itself as an RPI of 159 with its 5-8 record.

“We are learning from our bruises and we refuse to lay down to anybody,” UM senior guard Walter Wright said earlier this season. “We did this last year with Kansas and Gonzaga. That taught us a lot.”

Weber State has advanced to the NCAA Tournament two of the last three seasons and are the favorite again this year. But the Wildcats have taken their lumps early on, winning just two of their seven games away from Ogden. Like Montana, WSU has played a brutal schedule that has included road games at Pepperdine, Stanford, BYU and at Utah State. Weber downed the Aggies 77-71 on December 21 for its first true road win.

“We spent the first two weeks on the road,” said 11th-year head coach Randy Rahe, who has led Weber to five Big Sky titles. “It would’ve been nice to come back with two or three home games but we didn’t have it so we had to battle through it, fight through it. Where you really get in a rhythm and get comfortable is when you play at home. We went on the road for two weeks, came home, played Denver and laid an egg. It’s as bad a performance as you could possibly have.”

Weber State head coach Randy Rahe/ by Brooks Nuanez

Weber State head coach Randy Rahe

After consecutive losses to Pepperdine and Stanford in California, the Wildcats played three games at the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage, beating UC Davis and losing to Iona and Buffalo. Weber played its first Division I home game on December 3 against Denver and lost, then lost in Provo to BYU. WSU’s second D-I home game didn’t come until a win over Utah Valley December 17 in the second-to-last game on Weber’s non-conference schedule.

“Ironically, the teams that have it even worse are the even better teams,” Sac State head coach Brian Katz said on December 12. “Weber, Montana, look at those schedules. They are so good, they can’t get home games. No one will go play them.”

Because the Big Sky Conference is solidified as a one-bid league when it comes to NCAA Tournament spots, Rahe and his Wildcats accept the reality that all the games played before the New Year serve a singular purpose: to sharpen Weber State to make a run through the Big Sky.

“Any time you run a mid-major, the challenges when you are in a one-bid league, you have to go win that tournament,” Rahe said. “It’s exciting but it’s tough to do. That’s a big challenge of being a one-bid league but it also adds to the excitement of the conference tournament.”

Only Eastern Washington and Montana State played more than five home games leading up to the opening of league competition on Thursday night. The Eagles won all seven of their games at Reese Court. EWU will play 16 home games this season counting the nine allotted by the league. It will mark the most home games EWU has played in 16 seasons. Eastern played one Division I home game in the non-conference last season.

Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford/ by Brooks Nuanez

Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford

“The state of mid-major basketball is hard,” EWU sixth-year head coach Jim Hayford said before the season. “Where the money is, where the power is. They call it the Power 5 for a reason. In mid-major basketball, it’s just really hard to get home games. The more home games you have, the more wins you have. The more wins you have, the higher your RPI. We are in a league where almost all of us are having to play to get money as opposed to the schools who have the money to give.”

Hayford’s team was not immune to money games, however. The Eagles played at Northwestern and at Texas to open the season before playing six of seven at home, winning all seven in a row. The non-conference concluded with a three-game road losing streak that included back-to-back losses to Xavier and Colorado in guaranteed money games. EWU brings an 8-5 record entering BSC play.

“We are a one-bid league so it is what it is: how good are you going to be in March. It’s the challenge of it because you are always fighting the man.”

In an effort to earn more home games, EWU and Sac State paired together to host a rotating tournament that includes two home games, a neutral court game and a road game each season. Eastern Washington hosted the tournament this season, beating Denver and San Francisco. Sac lost to both schools on EWU’s home court. Eastern and Sac will play at DU and USF in upcoming years. Sac will host the four schools next winter.

“If someone calls me up and says, ‘We will give you two home games, a neutral court game, one road game,’ I’ll do that,” Katz said.

“As coaches, we always commiserate when we run into each other. We always say, ‘Hey, look, the non-league doesn’t matter at this level in our conference. Look at our conference record. Nobody has home games. So we are trying to figure out ways to get more.”

Montana State played a league-high eight home games during the non-conference. MSU jumped out to a 5-2 start that included five consecutive home victories. But the Bobcats have lost six straight entering Big Sky play, including three in a row at home.

Montana State head coach Brian Fish's Bobcats played a league-high eight non-conference home games/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State head coach Brian Fish’s Bobcats played a league-high eight non-conference home games

MSU doubled its win total from seven in Brian Fish’s first season at the helm to 14 a year ago. In an effort to build momentum within the Bozeman community and show off prized sophomore guard Tyler Hall, Fish worked hard with new MSU athletic director Leon Costello to solidify a schedule that would provide the Bobcats 17 home games this winter.

“The previous two years, we haven’t played many home games and we’ve had two 12-day road trips,” said Fish, who is 26-48 at MSU as he enters his third Big Sky campaign. “That puts you behind the 8-ball academically, you don’t have your strength room to work out in, so many different things. This year with our home games, we are never gone for more than six or seven days.”

The Bobcats were competitive in both their guaranteed money games, playing down to the last possession in a 69-65 loss at Washington State to open the season and rallying late but falling short in a 92-84 loss at Utah. MSU has two wins over non-Division I schools (Rocky Mountain College, Arizona Christian). Montana State’s three Division I wins are over Louisiana Lafayette (298 in RPI), James Madison (341) and Delaware State (295). The Utah loss sparked the six-game losing streak that also includes home losses to Milwaukee (284), South Dakota (176) and Central Michigan (146) along with defeats at South Dakota and Omaha (83).

“Having been on both sides, I think one of the things is we don’t get D-I home games and that makes it hard,” said Fish, an assistant for Dana Altman at Oregon for four years before coming to MSU. “I will use the University of Oregon as an example. At that level, you get a chance to get ready for conference play by building up and gaining momentum. You hardly play anyone who is as good as teams in the Pac 12. Here, we can play possibly in our first 13 games all better teams than we play in our league so we have to be ready to play against very, very good teams.”

Idaho head coach Don Verlin/ by Brooks Nuanez

Idaho head coach Don Verlin

Idaho has as tough a time with non-conference scheduling as anyone in the league, both because the Vandals are fresh off a 21-win season and because Moscow is one of the hardest destinations to get to in the Northwest. Idaho played five home games this non-conference, beating South Dakota State in overtime and UC Davis by two points in its Division I contests. The Vandals also blasted non D-Is Corban and Northwest Nazarene but lost to San Jose State.

“The biggest challenge at the University of Idaho is scheduling,” UI head coach Don Verlin said before the season. “Both of our programs have been very, very good. It’s hard to get people to come in and play us and it’s hard to get regional games. Sometimes, we have to go to the Midwest or farther to get non-conference games.

“The Big Sky is a one-bid league. There’s always been conversation about this being more than a one-bid league but it’s hard to raise your RPI when people won’t play you. We have to get home games and get people to come here and play us.”

The Big Sky’s conference RPI is currently 30th among the 32 Division I leagues. The BSC ranks ahead of just Mid Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Big Sky is 0-23 against teams in the RPI top 100, 8-35 against teams ranked 101-200 and 24-30 against teams ranked 201 to 345.

A Big Sky team has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 12th-seeded Montana knocked off fifth-seeded Nevada in 2006. Since then, the Big Sky has received the following seeds: Weber State 15 in 2007, Portland State 16 in 2008, Portland State 13 in 2009, Montana 14 in 2010, Northern Colorado 11 in 2011, Montana 14 in 2012, Montana 13 in 2013, Weber State 16 in 2014, Eastern Washington 13 in 2015, Weber State 15 last March.

Quinton Hooker and Idaho State senior Ethan Telfair/ by Brooks Nuanez

Quinton Hooker and Idaho State senior Ethan Telfair/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I don’t know how to remedy it,” said Evans, who’s team played the hardest non-conference schedule according to the RPI of any Big Sky team with losses in guaranteed games at Texas Texas, Wisconsin, Boise State and BYU in the last month alone. “A lot of teams at this level have to play road games. They play guarantee games for a reason. If we didn’t have to play guarantee games, we could play way more home-and-home and get home games. I played two home games so far. We beat a good Lamar team. They went into Oregon State and won and we beat them pretty good. Getting home games is a hard thing but you can win if you get them.”

“I think it has an effect on the way your guys feel. My guys are just like anybody else’s. You struggle a little bit and they want to say the old coach has forgot what he used to know. But that’s just the way it is. You have to get through that. But I don’t have an answer unless somebody wants to donate a bunch of money to Idaho State or any of us to play more home games. It’s a simple solution: it’s all about money.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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