Alright everybody, are you ready? It is time for Big Sky basketball. Though this game is only a tease into the conference season, it should be a good gauge in how they might fare the rest of the season.
Saturday marks the first shot a Big Sky team has had against the Eastern Washington Eagles in the post-Rodney Stuckey era. All signs indicate that opponents will like what they see. They are 3-1 at home, but the teams they beat in those three games have won a combined 6 D-I games all year. The Eagles are lead by senior Kellen Williams, who averages an astonishing 35 minutes per game. In the first game last year, the Vikings lost 88-70 at home to a strong team led by Stuckey and senior Paul Butorac, and beat the same team 92-88 in Cheney later in the season.
So far this season the Vikings are 3-4 on the road. Tuesday’s defeat against the Washington Huskies made the Vikings 0-3 against the Pac-10, but on the positive side, exposed them to the style of game they’ll have to play if they get to the NCAA tournament in March. It also provoked some questions from fans about the coaching decisions of Ken Bone. There will always be more questions when the team is losing, but concerns that Scott Morrison isn’t seeing enough time definitely appear valid. Along with Jeremiah Dominguez, he is the guy that makes the offense work. Even when he’s not scoring, he forces the defense to focus on him, opening up the perimeter for the rest of the team. From now on the Viks play a schedule full of games they can win, many of which they will be favored in. The January 13 game at Idaho State will be available on ESPN Full Court.
EWU: Brandon Moore PSU: Scott Morrison
After a lackluster performance at U-Dub, Morrison will look to rebound. Moore will present a challenge on the boards for Scott because he is a strong player inside. Though Kellen Williams leads the team in rebounds, the Eagles will depend on Moore to pick up some big ones inside if they want to win. Neither player is an explosive scorer, but I’ll give the edge to Morrison who leads in all statistical categories and should be able to use his height to get some put back opportunities. The other option the Eagles have used at center is Matt Brunell, but he is a smaller guy who has produced less, so Moore should get the start.
EWU: Kellen Williams PSU: Tyrell Mara
Mara had a tough night on Tuesday trying to cover Jon Brockman. Unlike that match-up, Mara won’t be at a major physical disadvantage in this one. As a smaller team, the Eagles may be forced to try to use the fast break against the Vikings. If they do, it is at their own peril. Both Mara and Tiefenthaler excel in that system, and outside of Morrison and JR Moore, it benefits every player’s game. Williams is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Eagles, and will not be taken lightly by the Vikings. I expect that they’ll try to really apply pressure with Mara, and when he tires, using Tief. If the Vikings really focus their effort here, they may not win the power forward point battle, but it will be hard for the Eagles to win. Besides Williams and DeLeon, they don’t really have another scoring option, which means bad nights for them almost always equates to a loss.
EWU: Marcus Hinton PSU: Deonte Huff
Hinton isn’t much of a scoring threat, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make a huge impact on the game. Huff has been the Vikings’ most consistent player offensively, even when he’s not shooting well from the outside. If Hinton is able to slow him down while staying out of foul trouble, it could go a long way in keeping the Eagles in this game late. If he can’t it’s tough to see how they could win. The Vikings have too many advantages on the rest of the floor. As for Huff, he’s really moved into a leadership role by example. He gives great effort every night while performing at a high level, and a great example is the massive improvement in free throw percentage, even though he has played more minutes. I expect him to beat Hinton in every category, but I think Hinton will be able to slow him down enough to keep it close near the end.
EWU: Trey Gross/Milan Stenojevic PSU: Dupree Lucas/Andre Murray
The starter for each team is the more consistent performer. The backups are explosive scorers who can shoot the lights out from the outside. Lucas did a great job along with Dominguez on Justin Dentmon, and has really become a more consistent, if scoring less than before. Murray has developed into a potent weapon for the Vikings as the season has gone on, which has helped the team win some tough games like the one against Utah Valley State. Gross is a pretty good player for the Eagles, but nothing special. Stenovic, the junior newcomer is a different story. Though his effect depends entirely on his shooting, he can really torch an opponent. Even though he is new to the team, the seem ready to delegate a large number of shots to him in tough contests. In games against Wazzu, U-Dub Santa Clara, and Portland, he averaged 9 shots per game and over 11 points. Neither option had any success defensively against Nik Raivio, so the Viks will hope that they can outscore the duo.
EWU: Gary Gibson/Adris DeLeon PSU: Jeremiah Dominguez/Mickey Polis
After a tough stretch early in the season, definitely warrants mention as a semi-starter. Though he isn’t the most effective running the offense, and he isn’t as quick as Dominguez, his ability to shoot the 3 ball make him an important piece of the Vikings’ arsenal. After the game off JD came back with a strong effort against the Huskies. If the Viks’ two point guards duplicate their performance from that game, there is no team with a better combination in the Big Sky. The Eagles boast a strong pair themselves. Sophomore Gary Gibson isn’t the prototypical pass first point guard, but he plays a very effective game. He has the ability to score in bunches at times, as the big total against Idaho speaks to. The real star of the team may be Bronx native and future candidate for All Big Sky Adris DeLeon. He is the team’s best passer and third best rebounder. If need be, he can carry the team on his shoulders offensively (22 points @Washington, 24 @ Kansas.) If the Viks are able to shut down Williams, and Stenojevic has an off-shooting night, look for DeLeon to pick it up.
Even though they had a tough night on Tuesday, there is still reason to believe in the Viking bench. There is a lot of talent as players have exhibited all year, but a major lack of consistency outside of Murray recently, and Thomas on the boards. This may point out that the lack of confidence that coaches have had in players has had an effect. I look for this trend to continue in this one. Maybe Hammond, Tiefenthaler, or Coston will come back with a strong game. It’s hard to tell who it is going to be at any given time. The Eagles have a bench led by the strong play of DeLeon and Stenojevic. If they have good games, it could help keep an otherwise mediocre offensive team in the game. The advantage goes to the depth of the Vikings, no matter how inconsistent.
The first conference game, especially on the road, should be a thrill for the new guys. Nobody else has played yet, so the winner gets the top spot in Big Sky rankings for the coming week. If the Eagles are able to come out with a strong shooting game and get some production out of their two bench stars they could win this game at home. Unfortunately, I don’t think they can put together a full team effort yet, and even a semi-solid performance from the Viks should get it done. Hopefully, Coach Bone will give Morrison some more minutes to utilize his advantage.
Prediction: PSU 68-61