Big Sky Tournament 2013: Montana, Weber State clear favorites for Big Sky's NCAA berth

Ronald Martinez

Reigning champion Montana and reigning runner-up Weber State seem to have the upper hand in this year's Big Sky tournament.

The Big Sky tournament, unique in its reduced number of teams and top-heaviness, kicks off Thursday with three games. But even if you think you can predict the Montana Grizzlies and the Weber State Wildcats into the title game, remember: It's March.

Still, by all measures, those are the two elite teams in the Big Sky, and the compact nature of the tournament -- three games in three days to all teams except Montana, which received a first-round bye -- seems to favor the conference powers.

But even if it makes it to that point, pitting the two favorites against each other for an NCAA tournament bid for the second-straight year, it's anyone's guess as to what would happen next. Again: It's March.

What, Who, When

The Big Sky tournament runs from March 14-16 at the Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont.

Format

Not each Big Sky conference member qualified for the conference tournament. The conference stands at 11 members, but only seven qualified; that's up from nine conference members last year and six conference-tournament participants. The top seven seeds made the tournament, and No.1 Montana received a bye to the semifinals round. The entire tournament will be played on Montana's home floor; that right was won with the Big Sky regular-season championship.

The tournament will be re-seeded after the first round, so that the lowest remaining seed will play No. 1 Montana in the semifinals.

Thursday: No. 2 Weber State vs. No. 7 Northern Arizona, No. 3 North Dakota vs. No. 6 Southern Utah, No. 4 Montana State vs. No. 5 Northern Colorado.

Friday: No. 1 Montana vs. lowest remaining seed; second semifinal will feature the two remaining middle seeds

Saturday: Final.

Who the Numbers Like

Weber State. The Wildcats finished second in the regular-season standings at 18-2, one game behind Montana. But KenPom.com has Weber State ranked 90th, more than 50 spots over the next-highest team, No. 148 Montana (the next highest team is No. 248 Northern Colorado).

But KenPom.com put the two teams with nearly even odds of winning the tournament in his log5 predictions; he put Weber State at a 48.5-percent chance of winning the conference tournament and Montana at a 46.2-percent chance of earning the Big Sky's automatic bid.

Who the Eyeballs Like

Montana. This time of year, postseason experience seems to mean more than can be quantified, and the Grizzlies have it. They won last year's Big Sky tournament and played impressively in the NCAA tournament, earning a No. 13 seed and losing, 73-49, in the first round to No. 4 Wisconsin. And the Grizzlies are playing at home, too.

Dark Horse

Northern Colorado. You'd need a pretty bright flashlight to scan and find a dark horse in a very dark room. So let's go with Northern Colorado, the team KenPom.com likes next best. The Bears would still be quite a long shot -- KenPom.com's log5 puts their odds of winning the Big Sky tournament at 2.5 percent, and they're the next highest after Montana and Weber State. They've won three games in a row leading up to the conference tournament, which is a start.

Best Possible Title Game

Montana vs. Weber State. The numbers say it pretty well. In all likelihood, this is going to be the title game, and one of these teams will win the Big Sky's automatic berth to the Big Dance. Frankly, it's difficult to argue why any other two teams would make it to this point.

Players to Watch

Kareem Jamar, Montana. The junior swingman was named MVP of the Big Sky conference this season, averaging 14.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He didn't lead the conference in any of those categories, and indeed he didn't finish in the top two in any. But his value lies in his ability to do just about everything with a fair level of proficiency, especially with a season-ending injury to Montana's Mathias Ward, who led the Grizzlies with 14.8 points per game.

Davion Berry, Weber State. Berry scored 15.1 points per game this season and was named KenPom.com's Big Sky player of the year. He's in his first year at Weber State after transferring from Cal State Monterey Bay, and he's helped the Wildcats keep their footing in their first year without Damian Lillard, now of the Portland Trailblazers, on the floor. He shot 49.8 percent from the floor this season and 43.5 percent from 3-point range.

Will Cherry, Montana. Cherry will be interesting to watch because not only is he the Big Sky defensive player of the year and as important to the Grizzlies' success as anyone, but he's battling an injury in his foot. Cherry thought he had re-broken his foot, but Montana coach Wayne Tinkle told CBSsports.com's Jeff Goodman that the team thinks it's just scar tissue acting up, and that they expect Cherry will play for the Grizzlies. Cherry averages 13.3 points per game for Montana.

Troy Huff, North Dakota. If anyone not on Montana or Weber State has a chance to make noise in this tournament, it's Huff. He averaged 19.2 points per game this season, a 6'5 swingman who shot 44.1 percent from the field. Huff was one of two unanimous Big Sky first-team selections; the other was Jamar.

More in College Basketball:

The latest Bracketology

Tracking March Madness automatic bids

Full coverage of the Big East Tournament

Richard Pitino makes his own name

Projecting the bracket with Easy Bubble Solver

Full coverage of the Big Ten Tournament

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