Open prairie, beautiful sunsets and Sacramento. The Big Sky Conference in a nutshell. Featuring 11 teams, the Big Sky will expand to 12 next season when Idaho joins its flat-landed brethren. Competing as an FCS football conference, the basketball programs are some of the smaller schools in Division I.
Spread out in the western half of the United States, the Big Sky has a rural flair. Towns like Cheney, Wash. and Greeley, Colo. are paired with larger cities like Portland and Sacramento. None of the schools in the conference were founded before the 1880s, with the United States' westward expansion taking up most of the 19th century. That's your history lesson for the day, how about some geography?
With a hat tip to Wikipedia for the map, here are the states with Big Sky teams. What did Nevada do wrong to not garner a team? Bad Nevada.
The Best Team: Weber State has clinched the regular-season title, holding off Northern Colorado and North Dakota down the stretch. But with no chance at an at-large bid, the conference tournament will be the only avenue for entry into the Big Dance. As the regular season champion, Weber State will get to host the annual seven-team tournament. The Wildcats will also receive a first-round bye, slotting them automatically into the semifinals. If they can eke out two wins, the Wildcats will tie Montana with the most Big Sky Tournament wins, with nine.
The Contenders: Though they are well behind in the standings, Ken Pomeroy lists Montana as the second-best team in the Big Sky. The Bobcats can shoot, currently 25th in the country in field goal percentage. Northern Colorado and North Dakota have also played well, but are a combined 1-3 against Weber State. The road to the NCAA Tournament goes through Ogden, Utah.
The Best Players: Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey is the league's leading scorer, averaging 21.8 points per game. Harvey is a sharpshooter, shooting over 45 percent from behind the arc on over 230 attempts. The Torrance, Calif. native is just a sophomore, and may have the inside track on winning multiple conference player of the year awards. Joining him in the backcourt is Drew Brandon, a junior who leads the Big Sky in assists. Drew also has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference.
The Best Upcoming Games:
Both remaining games for Southern Utah. If the Thunderbirds lose out, they will finish 0-20 in Big Sky play and 1-28 overall. Their only win? Their opener against Arizona Christian, who are an NAIA team. They only won by seven.
The Mascots: What fun is analyzing a non-BCS conference without ranking their mascots?
North Dakota: No mascot. Bold move, Dakota. Like turning in a blank piece of paper in lieu of an essay. A+
Northern Arizona Lumberjacks: Working-class mascots are my favorite. Wish NAU was in the Pac-12 so the mascot could take care of this creeper.
Montana State Bobcats: It's a shame the NBA Bobcats are pretty good now. Years ago this blurb would be chock-full of jokes about how a Big Sky team could take Charlotte. Oh well. Moving on.
Weber State Wildcats: The wildcat is an overused mascot, but the alliteration sets it apart. Pronounced "WE-bur", not "WEBB-ur."
Idaho State Bengals: Another fierce beast, but what about Idaho screams "big cat?"
Portland State Vikings: The Norse were the first Europeans to reach North America, but they were just looking for timber in the North Atlantic. If only they'd found Portland. As for their logo? Picture the New England Patriots meets the Hartford Whalers.
Northern Colorado Bears: Way to be specific.
Eastern Washington Eagles: The state of Washington is a breeding ground for Bald Eagles. Or Eagles in bad toupees.
How have Horizon teams fared in the NCAA Tournament?
The Big Sky has failed to come up big in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Persistently seeded in the double digits, these mid-majors find wins hard to come by. The last win by a Big Sky team in the NCAAs was a classic "12-5 upset" that Montana pulled off against Nevada. That happened in 2006, when Justin Bieber was in sixth grade. Before that, it was Weber State who upset a No. 3-seeded North Carolina team in 1999 that featured Brendan Haywood. Hey, that's when I was in sixth grade.
Current NBA players from the Big Sky:
An All-Star guard who hasn't yet reached his ceiling, Lillard was once a standout at Weber State. He won conference player of the year twice and finished as Weber State's second all-time leading scorer. He averaged 24.5 points in his final season there.
Before Stuckey was a double-digit scoring combo guard in the NBA, he spent two seasons in his home state attending Eastern Washington. The current Detroit Piston had nine 30-point games in his final season as an Eagle. In 2009, his alma mater retired his #3 jersey.