Big Sky ShootAround: Looking for more March luck

Updated: August 26, 2008

AP Photo/Ingrid Barrentine

Montana and senior Jordan Hasquet are searching for the magic of 2006.

A Grizzly turnaround in sight?

In the sports lore of Missoula, Mont., March 16, 2006 is a date as big as the wide-open spaces that inspired a conference name. Five hundred miles due south of campus in Salt Lake City, the No. 12-seeded Big Sky champion Montana toppled No. 5 Nevada in a literal rendition of the David-Goliath legend. Although the team topped out at 6-foot-9 (barely), the Grizzlies won in convincing 87-79 fashion, overcoming the WAC double-champion Wolf Pack and three post players standing 6-11 or taller.

"It came out of the blue," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, an assistant from 2001-06 before being promoted. "We'd had some down years, and the stars just aligned for us in 2005 and 2006. But it wasn't like anything miraculous happened, it's just that we got some breaks, we had some good kids who showed real leadership and a great coaching staff."

In two seasons under Larry Krystkowiak, the Grizzlies went 42-20 and won the Big Sky tourney title twice. When Krystkowiak left after the 2005-06 season to become an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks (he was fired in April after one season as head coach), Montana couldn't keep its momentum going.

"It's a small town, and expectations were high after that," said Tinkle, who was one of the Big Sky's best rebounders in the late 1980s. "It was like, 'We're going to do this every year now.' We lost some great coaches, we lost our best players, and we weren't able to keep functioning at that level."

We've learned how not to do things, and now we've got to do it the right way. We've got to play our tails off and think more about the process than getting to the end result right away.

--Wayne Tinkle, Montana coach

In Tinkle's first year, the Grizzles collapsed under the weight of expectations, finishing 17-15 and more than doubling the loss total from the 24-7 glory year. Montana stunningly slipped back even further in 2007-08, returning to the land below .500 where it spent most of the 1990s.

And the tangible reminders of that Nevada shocker are disappearing from the court. As the Grizzlies head into the 2008-09 season, only two players remain from an undersized bunch that busted the bracket and earned the Big Sky's first NCAA win since 1999 (Weber State over 3rd-seeded UNC).

One of those returners is Jordan Hasquet, Montana's returning leading scorer and rebounder at 13.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg. The 6-9 local product and tallest member of that 2005-06 team was a sophomore that day against Nevada and scored 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting.

"It'll be interesting to see how Jordan responds," Tinkle said of Hasquet, who will play his final season as a Grizzly. "He didn't have a great second half of the season last year. He was played out of position because we were piecemealing things together. But he's real motivated. He's put on about 20 pounds and is excited to go back to playing that power forward spot. The other guys are going to really look to him in terms of how we set our work ethic and approach."

A lot of those other guys will be new. Only five Grizzlies return from last season's team, and a pair of transfers, Jack McGillis (Oregon State) and Michael Taylor (Eastern Washington), will be asked for shoe-filling contributions.

But the most recognizable new name is one that stirs basketball memories throughout the Mountain time zone. Shawn Stockton, the nephew of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton, is a 6-1 Spokane native from Ferris High, the same school that Tinkle attended.

"Aside from the obvious allure of the Stockton name, I've been trying to get a Ferris kid for a long time," Tinkle said. "We're excited about what he brings as a competitor and a leader. He went undefeated in his junior and senior years, and was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Washington. We haven't had a prototypical point guard in some time here."

Stockton, Hasquet and the rest of the Grizzlies will rebuild toward the heights they scaled two years ago, and the third-year coach feels he's learned some lessons in following up sudden success.

"We've properly set the bar for expectations," Tinkle said. "We've learned how not to do things, and now we've got to do it the right way. We've got to play our tails off and think more about the process than getting to the end result right away."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Mexico, prison and the rest of the story
Portland State dominated the Big Sky, winning the regular season by three games and storming to a pair of double-digit victories at the conference tourney. Paced by mighty-mite 5-6 point guard Jeremiah Dominguez (14.2 ppg, 4.1 apg), named the conference newcomer and player of the year, the Vikings won 23 games overall in addition to their championships.

After losing to eventual national champion Kansas in the NCAA first round, Dominguez and outgoing senior Scott Morrison, a 6-11 center who earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors, were involved in a bizarre bind. During a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the Viking teammates were arrested when police accused them of beating a 23-year-old Michigan man and breaking his jaw. It was a sensational story that flashed across American wire services.

The victim told police he couldn't identify his assailants. And neither of the players had hand wounds, according to an Associated Press reporter who visited the prison. Finally, after spending a night in a Mexican jail, Dominguez and Morrison were freed with no charges filed.

"The story just died," said Portland State coach Ken Bone. "It went nowhere. I never heard anything else. The charges were dropped after 36 hours and they were let free, and they were back here and in school right away. I haven't seen one thing that's been written about it since then. If you knew them as people, like I do, you'd say there was no way they could have done something like that."

The other UNC
In Northern Colorado's first year of full Big Sky eligibility, the Bears didn't make the nine-team conference's six-team tournament. The program still made plenty of strides, though, more than tripling its 2006-07 win total. Northern Colorado went from four wins to 13, which represents more wins than the Bears had in any of the previous three seasons.

A key element in the Bears' improvement was their increased toughness at home. After going 3-9 in 2005-06 at the recently renovated Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion, the team won nine games against four losses there last season. This season, coach Tad Boyle's club will host two Mountain West teams, San Diego State and Air Force. A win against either or even both would go a long way in establishing the program as more than "the other UNC."

Sacked
A 4-24 record was the final straw for Sacramento State, the Big Sky sad-sack that has missed the league tournament eight times in 12 Big Sky seasons. Head Hornet Jerome Jenkins was relieved of his duties after eight seasons, and the school didn't need to hire a search service. The Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that 102 coaches from across the country applied for the position.

After a month-long consideration, the school hired Brian Katz in early April. Katz was previously the coach at San Joaquin Delta College, where he won 70 percent of his games. He also received his bachelor's from Sac State, so he's familiar with the program and its challenges. His first order of business will be to figure out how to draw fans to the Hornets' Nest, one of the smallest arenas in Division I.

"It's definitely a very unique building," said Katz. "But this is Division I, and we should be able to fill 1,200 seats at this level. When we finally start winning games, we shouldn't have a problem selling the place out."

Toughening up
Over the past decade, the Big Sky has bounced between the high teens and the high twenties in the Ratings Percentage Index. Last year was a down season for the league as a whole, as the league registered just 35 nonconference victories among its nine members and finished at No. 25 out of 31 conferences in the RPI table. That was a key reason why that 23-win Portland State team was given the tall task of competing out of a No. 16 seed, only the third bottom seed the Big Sky has received in the past 15 years.

The Big Sky is making a concerted effort to toughen up its schedules in order to prevent any more not-so-sweet 16s. The conference now penalizes teams with fines if their nonconference strength of schedule dips below 160, but the league might not be competitively ready for that yet.

"I think our league's dropped a little bit in the last couple of years," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle. "I think if anybody other than Portland State had won our conference tournament, we would have been in the play-in game. On one hand, [tougher schedules] are a good thing as far as exposure goes. But boy, if we limp into conference play with .500 records and then beat up on each other … I don't think that's going to help us in the committee's mind for the postseason."


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Kyle Whelliston
ESPN.com
Big Sky
Eastern WashingtonEastern Washington
For the second straight season, the Eagles fell short of the six-team Big Sky tournament, finishing 6-10 in league play. But fans were probably too busy watching early exit Rodney Stuckey excel for the Detroit Pistons as a rookie, or getting "Rick Rolled" while watching the EWU women play. Second-year coach Kirk Earlywine wishes he could tell Kellen Williams he was "never gonna give you up," but the 6-4 guard has moved on, along with nearly 20 percent of the team's shots and 27 percent of the rebounds. In come eight new faces, as the rebuilding begins in earnest.

Idaho StateIdaho State
Donnie Carson, a 6-2 junior guard from Detroit, has the potential of developing into the Bengals' heart and soul in the next two seasons. Folks in Pocatello credit his fearless, explosive dunk in a blowout loss against then-No. 6 Washington State as the wake-up call that turned the season around. After losing 10 of their 11 Division I games, Idaho State went 9-9 the rest of the way and reached the Big Sky semifinals. Carson cracked the starting lineup in January, quadrupled his scoring output to 6.2 ppg and contributed double-figure scoring in four of the team's last six games.

MontanaMontana
Shawn Stockton isn't the only newcomer hoping to make an instant impact for the Griz. Big Sky fans should get used to pronouncing the name Nyandigisi Moikobu (in-DIG'-ih-see MOY'-koh-boo), unless they just want to call him "Digs." The wiry 6-7 forward drew interest from mid-major powers San Diego and Old Dominion, but he decided to make his home in Missoula. Also arriving is thick-armed, 6-7 Mathias Ward, who put up 56 points and 23 rebounds in a high school game this January. All three are from the state of Washington.

Montana StateMontana State
In Brad Huse's second season at the helm, the Bobcats reached an important progress milestone in 2007-08. Montana State compiled a 15-15 overall record, its first .500 campaign since 2004-05. The upcoming season might mark a very uncelebrated anniversary: The team hasn't won a conference tournament game since March of 1999. Three of the team's four top scorers walked this past spring, but 6-9 senior Divaldo Mbunga (12.0 ppg, team-leading 5.5 rpg) will do everything he can to make sure the March losing streak stops at 10.

Northern ArizonaNorthern Arizona
The Lumberjacks will miss the 17.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 58 percent shooting of 6-9 graduate Kyle Landry. This season's team will likely be a return to the fast, guard-heavy, 3-point-shooting look of previous years, as Mike Adras has signed two touted prospects at the 2-guard position. Zack Zaragosa brings his outside shot in from Orange County, and Shayar Lee is a Phoenix-area product who occasionally goes by the And 1 streetball-style nickname of "Lord of the Rings."

Northern ColoradoNorthern Colorado
As the Bears enter their third season in the Big Sky, they'll do so without guard Sean Taibi, who was the team's best all-around player during the program's tough transition years. The torch is passed to 6-7 senior Jabril Banks, who joined the team as a junior college transfer last year and made an instant impact with 13.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg, both team highs. Coach Tad Boyle's commitment to discovering skilled size continues with the addition of prep power forward Michael Proctor, a 6-8 Arizona native.

Portland  StatePortland State
Ken Bone has pulled in some talented transfers from the higher conferences. Phil Nelson, a 6-7 small forward, was stuck on Washington's bench as a freshman before transferring and sitting out last season. Local-product shooting Dominic Waters came back home to play for PSU after two seasons at Hawaii, averaging 6.3 ppg as a sophomore. Also, incoming freshman Wendell Wright is a 6-5 wing from L.A. who was on the radar of schools such as UNLV and Gonzaga. He was released from a commitment to Loyola Marymount after this spring's coaching change there, and now he'll venture up Interstate 5 to play for the Vikings.

Sacramento StateSacramento State
Brian Katz, like Idaho State coach Joe O'Brien, was a highly successful junior college coach before taking flight to the Big Sky. And his familiarity with the Golden State juco circuit should pay off with a six-man influx, all chosen from two-year schools. Any and all types of college-level experience are welcome for a program that won just two conference tilts last season, ended its season with an eight-game losing streak and dropped 24 games by an average of 14 points.

Weber StateWeber State
A season after the school earned its 14th NCAA autobid since 1968, Weber took several steps back, finishing with a 16-14 (10-6 Big Sky) record and bowing out in the semis. Turned out the 2007-08 version really missed the likes of rangy shooter and 2007 league POY David Patten, while shooting guard Juan Pablo Silveira's output shrank from 11.1 ppg to 6.1 ppg as a sophomore. Look for freshman point guard Damian Lillard to make immediate contributions to the Wildcats' offense. The Bay Area native was ranked as the 33rd best point guard in the national class by Scouts Inc.

If I were the Big Sky commish …

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

According to Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, the Big Sky has a $10,000 fine for member teams if they play nonconference opponents with an RPI worse than 160. The Big Sky isn't going to get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament, so the harsh penalty might be excessive. I'm not sure how that will help the situation, as Big Sky teams have trouble scheduling quality nonconference games. Some of the better rivalries in the league -- notably the Montana-Montana State rivalry -- should be highlighted as much as possible. The game should also be held in each city only when the students are in school. This season, Montana will host Montana State when the students are away on winter break.

2007-08 Big Sky Standings

Overall record Big Sky record
Portland State* 23-10 14-2
Northern Arizona 21-11 11-5
Weber State 16-14 10-6
Montana 14-16 8-8
Idaho State 12-19 8-8
Montana State 15-15 7-9
Northern Colorado 13-16 6-10
Eastern Washington 11-19 6-10
Sacramento State 4-24 2-14
*NCAA tournament

For all the Big Sky news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Jeremiah Dominguez, Portland State, Sr. 14.2
Jordan Hasquet, Montana, Sr. 13.7
Jabril Banks, Northern Colorado, Jr. 13.2
Loren Leath, Sacramento State, Sr. 13.1
Adris DeLeon, Eastern Washington, Sr. 12.5

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Jordan Hasquet, Montana, Sr. 7.2
Jabril Banks, Northern Colorado, Jr. 5.8
Brandon Moore, Eastern Washington, Jr. 5.8
Robert Palacios, Northern Colorado, Jr. 5.7
Divaldo Mbunga, Montana State, Jr. 5.5
Jefferson Mason, Northern Colorado, Soph. 5.5

Final Shot

• Which Big Sky team ranks the highest since the start of the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• Can Portland State make it two NCAA tourneys in a row? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.