Big Sky Conference

Southern Utah bursts to league title, enters wide open tournament on top


Southern Utah has been the bracket buster at the Big Sky Tournament since the league moved its post-season to a neutral site in March of 2016. 

SUU sputtered out in the first neutral site tournament but the second year in Reno, the last-seeded Thunderbirds took a talented Montana State team led by Big Sky career scoring champion Tyler Hall to triple overtime and ended up beating the Bobcats, 108-105, behind a tournament single-game record 43 points from Randy Onwuasor. 

The final year in Reno, SUU knocked off second-seeded Idaho, eliminating a Vandals squad led by stars like Vic Sanders and B.J. Blake before they got a shot at rival and eventual tournament champion Montana. 

The first year in Boise, the seventh-seeded Thunderbirds dispatched the No. 2 seed again, drilling a Northern Colorado team led by league MVP Jordan Davis 83-64 in the quarterfinals. 

Only Montana and Eastern Washington have won more in Reno and Boise than Southern Utah’s 6-3 record. 

Now the Thunderbirds will be the favorites. 

The Big Sky Tournament begins Wednesday. And after Southern Utah’s 73-54 win at Portland State, the Thunderbirds enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed. The title is the first for SUU since joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012. Southern Utah will officially join the Western Athletic Conference in 2022. 

“We’re so competitive that I just wanted to finish the game strong, but then I started to just feel grateful,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said in an athletic department press release. “So many people have been part of this journey. Former players, former staff, everyone that’s had a hand in building this. This is five years in the making, and so many people have been part of making it happen.”  

Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

The conference title marks the first by Southern Utah since the program shared the Mid-Continental Conference in 2000-2001. The Thunderbirds last won an outright conference championship in 1995. 

SUU finished its league slate with a 12-2 record to finish ahead of Weber State and Eastern Washington, who each finished 12-3. Southern Utah enters the tournament with a 19-3 record overall. 

“This group is mature, we have a formula that if we follow we know we’ll be special,” Simon said. “The character of the group is so strong that we know if we play the right way the outcome will be in our favor. This group was confident.”

Just five seasons ago, the Thunderbirds won only six contests and had a winning percentage of .182. As the years progressed, Simon was able to pull the Thunderbirds to their first winning season since 2006-07 in 2019-20 and now to a Big Sky trophy.

Eastern Washington, who entered the season as the reigning league champions, won nine games in a row to enter the final weekend of league play with a chance to sew up the No. 1 seed. Instead, the Eagles fell 68-63 to Idaho State on Thursday. The Eagles will take the No. 2 seed into the tournament. 

Eastern Washington senior forward Tanner Groves vs. Montana State in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

Weber State hung on for a one-point win over Northern Colorado on Thursday, then had Saturday’s game called off because of Covid-19 precautions. WSU will take the No. 3 seed into the tournament. 

Montana State split with Sacramento State over the weekend. The Bobcats and Idaho State both finished 8-6 in league play. The two teams will play at 2 p.m. on Thursday in the tournament quarterfinals. 

Montana finished 7-9 and takes the No. 6 seed into next week. The Griz will play Idaho, a team it has not played before, at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. 

Wednesday Big Sky Conference schedule

No. 8 Portland State vs. No. 9 Sacramento State 9 a.m. 

No. 7 Northern Colorado vs No. 10 Northern Arizona, Noon

No. 6 Montana vs. No. 11 Idaho, 3 p.m. 

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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