Non-conference games are in the books and 10 of 11 Big Sky men's basketball teams open their 20-game conference slate Saturday, Dec. 29.
Montana, as expected, has been the class of the conference so far with Weber State and Northern Colorado comprising a fairly clear top three. But the conference has struggled compared to last year. Ken Pomeroy rated the Big Sky as the 17th best (of 32) conference last season. This season: 26th.
Here's a rundown of how Big Sky teams fared in non-conference play, in order of their Ken Pomeroy ranking.
1. MONTANA (Record: 7-4, KenPom: 108)
Montana returned nearly everybody from last year's Big Sky title team (11th most experienced team in the country) and bookended its non-conference schedule with impressive wins.
The Griz defeated Georgia Southern at home to start the season, a team that would currently rate second in the Big Sky. Then Saturday, they ended South Dakota State's 26-game home winning streak and claimed a top-100 road win.
You know the names that lead Montana in scoring: Ahmaad Rorie (14.9 points per game), Michael Oguine (14.3), Jamar Akoh (13.3) and Sayeed Pridgett (12.5). The Griz are efficient offensively and played a top-50 schedule out of conference.
2. WEBER STATE (6-5, 170)
Despite a three-game losing streak, Weber State performed fairly well — about like you'd expect of a team playing four true freshman in the rotation (experience rank: 220).
San Diego is part of a surging group of WCC teams and four straight games against highly rated teams in BYU (77), Fresno State (56), Utah State (50) and Utah Valley (140) created some heartburn. The Wildcats swung above their weight class with a win over BYU but dropped one they'd like back in a home loss to UVU.
The Wildcats create problems with their tempo and knack for getting to the free-throw line. They have four players averaging double-digit scoring: Jerrick Harding (21.2 points per game), Cody John (16.1), Brekkott Chapman (11.3) and Zach Braxton (10.2). Chapman is tied for 40th nationally with 2.09 blocks per game.
3. NORTHERN COLORADO (6-5, 182)
The Bears seemed to be a step ahead of Weber State with road wins at Denver and Wyoming. Even consecutive road losses to San Diego and New Mexico State, both top-100 teams, didn't change that. But Northern Colorado followed those losses with two neutral-site defeats to Rider and SIU Edwardsville, the latter a bottom-25 team nationally.
A 6-1 start gave way to a 6-5 finish. Still, the Bears have Big Sky Russell Westbrook in Jordan Davis. As of now, he's distanced himself from Harding as the league's top scorer at 24 points per game while adding 5.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per contest.
UNCo shoots well enough from 3 and is an excellent rebounding team.
4. SACRAMENTO STATE (6-3, 222)
As of now, this is where the conference really begins to separate from a top-three and everyone else.
Record-wise, the Hornets came through non-conference play on top. But three of their six wins came against non-Division I teams (most Big Sky schools play two).
Sac State is not very good offensively but is definitely good defensively. In raw numbers, the Hornets lead the league by allowing 62.3 points per game. Advanced stats that account for quality of opponent still like Sac State's defense: they limit opponents' 3-point attempts and hold them to a low percentage while being 15th-best nationally in forcing turnovers.
Marcus Graves leads Sac State in scoring at 15 points per game.
5. SOUTHERN UTAH (5-4, 244)
Southern Utah's best win was on the road at Seattle, its only above-200 win of the season.
The T-Birds had two common opponents with Weber State: WSU beat San Jose State by eight, SUU did the same by seven; and WSU defeated Central Michigan by two while SUU lost to CMU by nine. A feel-good home win at Pepperdine gave way to a 42-point loss at USC (similarly rated to San Diego, a team WSU lost to by 17).
Cameron Oluyitan, a transfer from Boise State, leads SUU in scoring in his first active season with the program at 12.9 points per game. Former UNLV player Dwayne Morgan is back and averages 13 points per game, but has only played in four games.
6. IDAHO STATE (4-5, 264)
The Bengals grabbed an early road win at Boise State but has struggled to find consistency since, losing by 15 to Pepperdine and 19 to UC Santa Barbara while eking by non-DI foe Montana Western by eight.
Brandon Boyd averages 15.6 points per game for ISU while Gary Chivichyan is shooting 54 percent from 3 off the bench.
7. EASTERN WASHINGTON (2-9, 269)
Perhaps somewhat of a surprise in its struggles, Eastern Washington beat UMKC in overtime and defeated a non-DI team for its two wins.
The Eagles score only 65.5 points per game and, even with a tough schedule, KenPom rates EWU's offense poorly.
Still, the story is their schedule, ranked 13th toughest nationally. EWU played four top-50 teams on the road. The Eagles might fare a touch better in conference play, especially with some injured players now returning.
8. PORTLAND STATE (5-6, 283)
Last year's non-conference darlings had a tougher go this season. The Vikings took three wins against non-DI opponents and their other two victories were rated below 250.
Against DI opponents, PSU is dead last nationally in 3-point shooting (21.4 percent) but first in offensive rebound percentage.
9. IDAHO (3-8, 299)
Idaho graduated an entire starting lineup and sixth man, going from the second-most experience team in the country to bottom 15 — and it shows. The Vandals went 1-8 against a below-average Division I schedule and struggle with defensive efficiency.
With the likes of Vic Sanders and crew gone, Trevon Allen leads Idaho in scoring at 13.6 points per game.
10. MONTANA STATE (3-7, 306)
Even with Tyler Hall averaging 19.1 points per game, third-best in the conference, the Bobcats struggled to a 3-7 mark. They played a respectable schedule but, defensively, give up a ton of 3-point attempts and allow a high percentage of makes from deep.
11. NORTHERN ARIZONA (2-8, 309)
After going 19-75 in the last three seasons, the Lumberjacks seem to be back for more under head coach Jack Murphy. A middling schedule with no non-DI opponents had the 'Jacks start 2-1 but NAU limped to conference play with seven straight losses.
NAU ranks bottom three in the Big Sky in both scoring offense and defense. The main culprit of its struggles is defensively as opponents shoot very well against the Lumberjacks. Carlos Hines leads NAU at 13 points per game.