Idaho, MSU dominate pre-league women’s basketball power poll

GoGriz.com

The start of the conference schedule is just two days away for the Lady Griz, which means it’s time for the third annual gogriz.com Big Sky Conference pre-league women’s power poll.

A reminder before the gnashing of teeth commences: This list isn’t a prediction of where teams will be in early March or who will win the Big Sky tournament in Reno. This is a ranking based strictly on what teams have done to this point, a primer for the weeks ahead.

Some pre-poll notes:

* Idaho sits atop the poll for the second straight year. The Vandals tied for second last season and won the Big Sky tournament in Reno to make their third NCAA appearance in the last four years. Is it possible Jon Newlee is turning Idaho into the new Montana?

* Actually, the top three teams are the same in this year’s poll as they were in last year’s, with Idaho followed by Montana State and Idaho State. The Bobcats won the regular-season title last year but were upset in the quarterfinals of the tournament by ISU.

About that disappointing one-and-done tournament for Montana State and Idaho State’s run to the championship game as the No. 9 seed. Two clips from last year’s poll:

Midseason poll positions are one thing. Getting it done in the crucible of March is another. (Montana State coach Tricia) Binford’s teams have won just a single Big Sky tournament game the last five seasons. No pressure, but this team should be playing on championship Saturday. The poll makes that claim for no other team.

Make that one win in six seasons. And:

(Idaho State is) a well-coached team that took Montana to the wire in last year’s tournament quarterfinals in Missoula. Feels like the type of team that could thrive in the neutral-site setting of Reno.

The Bengals did just that, knocking off higher seeded Northern Colorado, Montana State and North Dakota before running out of gas in the championship game against Idaho.

One other note from last year’s rankings, this on Portland State, which was No. 12 in that poll and is a rapid riser to No. 5 this year.

It will all be about experience this year for (coach Lynn) Kennedy’s youngsters, who will be able to end their season at the Big Sky tournament, somewhere the Vikings haven’t been since hosting in 2011. Transfers from Washington State, Santa Clara and Southern Oregon, all 6-feet or taller, already are in the program and sitting out this season. Hunch: PSU is going to move up quickly under Kennedy.

True that.

Given Montana’s struggles this year following the season-ending losses of Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Sims, and an in-season hand injury to Mekayla Isaak, it was tempting to skip the poll rather than highlight the Lady Griz’ understandable slip in a league where they have long resided near the top.

But duty called. And more important, first-year coach Shannon Schweyen gave the poll (the idea of the poll, not the specific rankings that follow) her blessing. As she’s said, there is nothing to hide. Her team is young, inexperienced and a work in progress.

On to the poll.

  1. Idaho

Record: 4-6 (hosts Lewis-Clark State on Tuesday)

Coach: Jon Newlee (ninth year, 135-127)

2015-16 finish: 24-10, 13-5 BSC (t-2nd) … Defeated Weber State, Eastern Washington and Idaho State to win the Big Sky tournament … Lost to Baylor in first round of NCAAs.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 1/2

Revealing nonconference result: Idaho 74, Wyoming 71. The Vandals handed the Cowgirls, who won at No. 15 Colorado last week to hand the Buffaloes their first loss of the season, a rare defeat in Laramie. It’s the best out-of-conference win for the Big Sky this season.

Player to know: Sophomore guard Mikayla Ferenz. There will be no sophomore slump for Ferenz, who is averaging 17.0 points, up from 10.1 as a freshman. She dropped 34 on Wyoming.

The scoop: The Vandals may be 4-6, but the record is deceiving. Idaho has an RPI of 92, the best in the Big Sky after playing the league’s most challenging schedule, and has played just a single home game. In its most recent game, Idaho lost by three on the road at Oregon and had the game’s final possession.

Opens league: at Eastern Washington on Saturday.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Vandals continue to feel right at home inside the Reno Events Center. In three tournament games last year, Idaho went 35 for 74 (.473) from 3-point range and won their semifinal and championship games by a total of 27 points despite trailing at the half in both.

  1. Montana State

Record: 7-3

Coach: Tricia Binford (12th year, 178-163)

2015-16 finish: 21-10, 14-4 BSC (1st) … Lost in the Big Sky quarterfinals to No. 9 Idaho State after winning first outright regular-season title in program history … Sleepwalked through a 95-61 loss at Utah in the first round of the WNIT.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 3/1

Revealing nonconference result: Montana State 75, Seattle 56. Seniors Peyton Ferris and Riley Nordgaard, the league’s top one-two punch, combined to score 37 points against a team Idaho beat by four (though MSU got the Redhawks at home. Idaho faced them on the road.)

Player to know: Ferris. The preseason Big Sky MVP is playing like it. She ranks fourth in the league in scoring (16.1/g) on 50.4 percent shooting and is sixth in rebounding (7.1/g).

The scoop: The Bobcats are rolling, with six straight wins. With Nordgaard, who was voted preseason All-Big Sky, sitting the season’s first three games for a violation of team rules, the Bobcats opened 1-2. An eight-point loss at Big West leader UC Davis has been the only setback since her return.

Opens league: At Weber State and Idaho State this week.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Bobcats can finally get over that postseason hurdle. In last year’s tournament loss to Idaho State, Montana State let a nine-point lead slip away in the final 91 seconds. MSU ended the game going 1 for 6 from the line and a turnover.

  1. Idaho State

Record: 6-5

Coach: Seton Sobolewski (ninth year, 137-122)

2015-16 finish: 18-15, 8-10 BSC (t-8th) … As the No. 9 seed at the Big Sky tournament, ISU upset No. 8 Northern Colorado, No. 1 Montana State and No. 4 North Dakota before falling to No. 3 Idaho in the championship game.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 6/6

Revealing nonconference result: Idaho State 42, Wisconsin 35. With Robin Selvig retired, Sobolewski is the Big Sky’s top coach at creating disruptive defensive game plans. Proof: His team held the Badgers, who were playing at home, to 14 second-half points.

Player to know: Sophomore guard Grace Kenyon. After missing last season because of a knee injury, Kenyon is back and leads ISU in both scoring (11.5/g) and rebounding (7.3/g).

The scoop: Senior guard Brooke Blair was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in the team’s first game. That left Kenyon and a bunch of players you’ve never heard of. No matter. The league’s most underrated coaching staff has Idaho State on a four-game winning streak entering conference.

Opens league: At home hosting Montana and Montana State this week.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Bengals, for starters, finish in the top four and get a bye to the quarterfinals. As Idaho State proved last year, winning four games in six days is a lot to ask of a team.

  1. Northern Colorado

Record: 8-3

Coach: Kamie Ethridge (third year, 43-32)

2015-16 finish: 13-16, 8-10 BSC (t-8th) … Lost in the first round of the Big Sky tournament as the No. 8 seed to No. 9 Idaho State.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 9/9

Revealing nonconference result: Northern Colorado 71, Air Force 44. UNC’s seven Division I wins have come against teams that are a collective 17 games under .500. The overall record is good, the strength of schedule not so much.

Players to know: Don’t get confused, but the team’s three leading scorers are Savannah Smith (14.1/g), Savannah Scott (13.8/g) and Courtney Smith (11.9/g).

The scoop: Not much was expected this season of the Bears, who were picked ninth in the polls, but they enter league with the Big Sky’s best nonconference winning percentage and an impressive 4-2 road record. One of those road losses came at Colorado State, a game Northern Colorado led entering the fourth quarter.

Opens league: At home hosting Sacramento State and Portland State this week.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Bears continue winning the close ones, as games in Reno should be. Northern Colorado is 5-0 this season in games decided by seven points or fewer.

  1. Portland State

Record: 6-5

Coach: Lynn Kennedy (second year, 10-29)

2015-16 finish: 4-26, 2-16 BSC (t-10th) … Lost in the first round of the Big Sky tournament to No. 6 Weber State.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 10/10

Revealing nonconference result: Oklahoma 74, Portland State 60. The Vikings led the No. 20 Sooners by 10 at the half last week in Las Vegas and shot 50 percent for the game but couldn’t finish off the upset. No team has improved more from October to December than Portland State.

Players to know: Sophomores Sidney Rielly (Santa Clara) and Ashley Bolston (Washington State) are both making an impact in their first year after transferring into the program. Rielly leads the team in scoring (15.7/g), Bolston is second (14.2/g). Another transfer, Courtney West (Southern Oregon) is third.

The scoop: Portland State played a young lineup last season and took its lumps, winning just four games, but the Vikings are on the rise in year two under Kennedy, helped by a pair of high-scoring transfers. PSU is averaging 72.9 points on Big Sky-leading 43.8 percent shooting.

Opens league: With a ridiculous road trip. Portland State plays at Arizona on Tuesday, at North Dakota on Thursday and at Northern Colorado on Saturday. It’s nice to get the Wildcats on the schedule, but at what cost?

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Vikings’ young players keep getting better. Portland State’s top four scorers are underclassmen.

  1. North Dakota

Record: 5-6

Coach: Travis Brewster (fifth year, 74-62)

2015-16 finish: 19-14, 13-5 BSC (t-2nd) … As the No. 4 seed, defeated No. 5 Montana in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tournament before falling to No. 9 Idaho State in semifinals … Advanced to play in the WBI. Defeated Grand Canyon in the opening round before falling to Weber State.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 2/5

Revealing nonconference result: North Dakota 65, San Diego 61. The Fighting Hawks, in their last game before Christmas, got scoring from all nine players and shot 44.2 percent to hand the Toreros their only home loss of the season.

Player to know: Sophomore forward Lexi Klabo. The names Dyer and Szabla are more familiar — they lead the team in scoring — but Klabo contributes 10.5 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds.

The scoop: If last year is any indication, don’t sleep on the Fighting Hawks. They were No. 8 in this poll last December and opened league 1-4, but closed the season going 14-3. The three losses in that stretch were each by six points or fewer.

Opens league: At home this week against Portland State and Sacramento State.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Fighting Hawks tighten up their defense. North Dakota is allowing its opponents to shoot an uncharacteristic 42.5 percent, a weakness that is likely keeping Brewster up at night.

  1. Weber State

Record: 6-5

Coach: Bethann Ord (sixth year, 49-113)

2015-16 finish: 23-12, 11-7 BSC (6th) … Defeated No. 11 Portland State in the first round of the Big Sky tournament, then lost by three to eventual champion Idaho in the quarterfinals … Invited to play in the WBI … Defeated New Mexico, North Dakota and South Carolina-Upstate before losing at Louisiana-Lafayette by two in double overtime in the championship game.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): t-7/8

Revealing nonconference result: Cal State Northridge 89, Weber State 78. The Matadors played five Big Sky teams in the nonconference. They won at home over Portland State, on the road at Northern Arizona and WSU, and lost at home to Eastern Washington and Southern Utah, whatever that reveals.

Player to know: Freshman guard Emily Drake. The Wildcats stole Drake out of Pullman, Wash., and have been the beneficiaries. She leads the team in scoring (16.0/g) and is shooting 41 percent from the arc.

The scoop: The Wildcats were the surprise of the league last season, finishing a strong sixth, then making a run to the championship game of the WBI. Weber continued its winning ways to open the season, starting 6-1, but enter league on a four-game losing streak, during which it’s shot 32.8 percent.

Opens league: At home this week against Montana State and Montana.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: You can wait until next year. The Wildcats don’t have a senior on their roster and are only going to get better.

  1. Southern Utah

Record: 5-6

Coach: Chris Boettcher (third year, 22-46)

2015-16 finish: 5-25, 2-16 BSC (t-10th) … Lost 102-89 to No. 7 Sacramento State in the first round of the Big Sky tournament.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 12/11

Revealing nonconference result: Southern Utah 77, Cal State Northridge 71. Just when it looked like the Thunderbirds were regressing to their mean, with a six-game losing streak after a 3-0 start, they go and pick up a nice road win against the Matadors in their final game before league. Who are you, SUU?

Player to know: Senior forward Jessica Richardson, who was elevated to preseason All-Big Sky after Kayleigh Valley‘s season-ending knee injury opened up a spot back in October. She had 24 points and 10 rebounds in Southern Utah’s win at Cal State Northridge.

The scoop: The Thunderbirds have already matched last season’s win total of five and have had just enough success this year — a 70-54 win at Utah State, a 77-71 win at Cal State Northridge — to make you wonder if SUU is showing its first sign of life since coach JR Payne left after the 2013-14 season.

Opens league: At home on Saturday against Northern Arizona.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: No.

  1. Eastern Washington

Record: 5-6

Coach: Wendy Schuller (16th year, 203-225)

2015-16 finish: 20-12, 13-5 BSC (t-2nd) … Survived a 100-97 quarterfinal shootout against No. 7 Sacramento State at the Big Sky tournament, then lost by 15 to Idaho in the semifinals.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 5/4

Revealing nonconference result: Eastern Washington 88, Multnomah 30. The Eagles’ record isn’t as solid as it appears. There is the victory over the NAIA Lions and four Division I wins over teams a collective 19 games under .500. EWU has some proving to do.

Player to know: Junior forward Delaney Hodgins. She leads the league in scoring (19.2/g) and might be the Big Sky’s top player, but, like Montana’s Kayleigh Valley last year, she won’t be voted MVP unless the Eagles contend for the regular-season title.

The scoop: The Eagles will finish higher than ninth because 1) Schuller has built a legacy of producing very good teams out of rosters that most people tend to write off and 2) Hodgins will be the difference in some tight games.

Opens league: At home on Saturday against Idaho in one of the week’s most intriguing matchups. The Eagles swept the regular-season series last year, with the Vandals getting revenge in the tournament.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: You believe the league’s best player can lead her team to the title. It didn’t happen last year for Montana, behind Valley, or Montana State, behind MVP Jasmine Hommes.

  1. Northern Arizona

Record: 4-7

Interim Coach: Robyne Bostick (first year, 4-7)

2015-16 finish: 6-24, 2-16 BSC (t-10th) … Lost 78-63 to No. 5 Montana in the first round of the Big Sky tournament.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 11/12

Revealing nonconference result: Utah 78, Northern Arizona 65. The Utes moved to 11-0 last week with the win, but the Lumberjacks, who trailed by just four on the road entering the fourth quarter, had another solid showing in a partial season of them.

Player to know: Junior guard Olivia Lucero. In a season of early upheaval — coach and best player: gone — the transfer from Loyola Marymount has stepped in to lead the team in scoring (14.5/g).

The scoop: Last year’s best player and the Big Sky’s Outstanding Freshman, Alyssa Rader, bolted for South Florida in the offseason, and coach Sue Darling was let go in September. For the Lumberjacks to be sitting No. 10 in the poll means they have found some stability under Bostick and are overachieving.

Opens league: On the road Saturday at Southern Utah.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The team is told on its way to the tournament that Bostick will have her interim tag removed only if the Lumberjacks win the championship, and they win four games by a total of four points before the story is sold to Disney.

  1. Sacramento State

Record: 4-7

Coach: Bunky Harkleroad (fourth year, 54-52)

2015-16 finish: 14-17, 10-8 BSC (7th) … Defeated No. 10 Southern Utah in the opening round of the Big Sky tournament, then lost 100-97 in the quarterfinals to Eastern Washington.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): t-7/7

Revealing nonconference result: UC Davis 110, Sacramento State 78. The Hornets got the pace they wanted but allowed seven double-digit scorers for the Aggies on 61 percent shooting. Sac State ranks last in the nation in scoring defense (93.8/g) and field goal percentage defense (.515).

Player to know: Junior guard Maranne Johnson. She leads the team in scoring (17.0/g) and had a 37-point game in the Hornets’ 102-72 home win over Stanislaus State.

The scoop: The Hornets continue to be mostly a novelty under Harkleroad. Because of their unique style of play — they allowed Cal’s Kristine Anigwe to score 50 points, the most in the nation this season — the Hornets will always collect their share of wins and create preparation nightmares for their opponents, but will they ever have sustained success?

Opens league: On the road this week at Northern Colorado and North Dakota.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: The Hornets can get a first-round bye and have a three-game hot streak from the arc. Sac State lives and dies with the turnover and 3-point shot. Relying on that formula to win four games in six days isn’t good math, not with the number of good coaches in the league.

  1. Montana

Record: 3-8

Coach: Shannon Schweyen (first year, 3-8)

2015-16 finish: 20-11, 12-6 BSC (5th) … Defeated No. 12 Northern Arizona 78-63 in the first round of the Big Sky tournament, then lost 65-62 to No. 4 North Dakota in the quarterfinals.

2016-17 preseason polls (coaches/media): 4/3

Revealing nonconference result: Stephen F. Austin 54, Montana 46. The Lady Griz defended well enough to pick up a road win against the now 9-2 and Southland Conference-leading Ladyjacks, but 31 percent shooting was too much to overcome. Montana ranks last in the Big Sky in scoring (52.4/g) and field goal percentage (.322), and it’s proving costly.

Player to know: Redshirt freshman guard Taylor Goligoski. In the absence of Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Sims, who were lost for the season with knee injuries, Goligoski (12.0/g) has emerged as the team’s most consistent scorer.

The scoop: The wins this season have come against NAIA opponents Great Falls and Rocky Mountain, plus Incarnate Word, which is 1-9. But a competitive game against Mountain West Conference favorite Colorado State last week may signal Schweyen’s young roster is ready for the league battles ahead.

Opens league: On the road this week at Idaho State and Weber State.

They’ll cut down the nets in Reno if: Mekayla Isaak provides the necessary upperclassman leadership and the underclassmen use the next 10 weeks to gain more and more confidence. Or if there was a Christmas miracle and Valley and Sims both returned from the holiday break with fully healthy knees.