After a shocking semifinal upset of heavy tournament favorites Weber State, the only thing holding the Portland State Vikings back from a return to the NCAA tournament are the number 6 seed Montana State Bobcats. Then again, the Bobcats just did what the Vikings couldnâ€™t for the second time this season– beat Weber State. The Bobcats have a fairly young lineup aside from Mbunga and could easily challenge at next seasonâ€™s Big Sky regular season crown if they can find an inside scoring presence.
MSU: Divaldo Mbunga PSU: Jamie Jones
As one of the top players in the conference, Mbunga has been heavily lauded. Aside from the game against Portland State in Bozeman, he seems to be a road dog. Again, aside from the game against Portland State, he has been great away from Bozeman. Somethingâ€™s gotta give. Away from Bozeman and against Portland State seems like a wash. However, the Bobcats are going to need everything Divo has if theyâ€™re going to get to the dance with their less than spectacular squad. Look for him to get into double figures in points and rebounds, as well as block a couple shots in this one. He goes up against Portland Stateâ€™s finesse â€œbig manâ€ Jamie Jones. At 6â€™7â€, Jones doesnâ€™t really offer the type of size a coach wants in a center. He does, however, have the type of inside offensive game that helps spread out a defense, which is exactly what the Vikings to play their game. Jones is averaging only 6 points and 3 rebounds against the Bobcatsâ€™ big man. Expect more than that, but not enough to counteract Mbunga.
MSU: Branden Johnson PSU: Kyle Coston
Johnson did nothing against Portland State in Bozeman, going scoreless in 12 minutes. However, he scored 9 points in Portland and appears ready to do more after a 16 point performance in the semifinal game against Weber State. That said, Kyle Coston, not the most productive offensive player in the world, has outplayed Johnson in both match-ups. Can Coston do it again? That may be difficult given that he is shooting just 33% at Dee Events Center, and went 0 for 4 against Idaho State. As has been pointed out many times this season, all the team needs from the 4 is a couple three balls and some defensive energy. Thereâ€™s no doubt thatâ€™s gonna happen.
MSU: Erik Rush PSU: Phil Nelson
Rush presents an interesting match-up for the Vikings who play a traditional lineup. Last season, a guard/forward would have been no issue as the Viks had Deonte Huff and Dupree Lucas to fit that role. With a new year comes new talent. Phil Nelson has been every bit as spectacular as advertised coming in. Though not an offensive dynamo on a nightly basis, he provides prototypical small forward size that gives most Big Sky teams fits. Back to the match-up. Nelson played a solid first half against Idaho Stateâ€™s Amorrow Morgan in the semis, but gave it up late. If he can keep up with Rush, this match-up should be no different. Thereâ€™s no doubt that Nelson is the more physically talented player. The question is motivation. If Rush can get around screens quickly, that should neutralize Nelson, who tends to get rid of the ball quickly. If not, expect a big night from Phil.
MSU: Will Bynum PSU: Andre Murray
Will Bynum can be a very dangerous player for the Bobcats. In two games against Portland State, the junior has averaged 20 points and 4 rebounds. He also added an amazing 7 steals in Bozeman. If that happens again, donâ€™t be surprised to see the Bobcats cutting down the nets. He matches up with Andre Murray, a player who averaged just 9 points in two games against Montana State. Why would any person in their right mind think this might turn out differently this time around? â€œDraenoâ€ scored 21 points and carried the Vikings to victory in a game they seemed destined to lose from the time the second half started. The senior has also scored in double figures 19 times this season, including a 24 point effort on the road. Expect this to be the best match-up on the court, regardless of how much offense results.
MSU: Marquis Navarre PSU: Jeremiah Dominguez
Navarre has played okay against the Vikings considering he is being compared with two of the Big Skyâ€™s best point guards in Dominic Waters and Jeremiah Dominguez. If he can produce another 10 points, like he did in Bozeman, the Bobcats may have a shot going down the stretch. However, that all depends on what they can get out of Bynum and Mbunga. Jeremiah Dominguez has finally reached the end of the road in the Big Sky Conference. After picking up the conferenceâ€™s Most Valuable Player award last season, Dominguez persevered through injury to take a place on the first team all-conference squad this time around. Regardless of Wednesday nightâ€™s outcome, JD will always have a place in Viking fansâ€™ hearts, as he was the one to finally get them to the NCAA tournament, and knock off a top-10 opponent.
Dom Waters has been great at times this season (41 points at Northern Arizona), and fairly putrid at others (0 at Cal Poly). Although the reason for this inconsistency is unknown, Waters seems to find his confidence every time he steps out on to the court, something the Vikings will need next year with Dominguezâ€™ departure. Along with Julius Thomas and Tyrell Mara, he makes up one of the better benches in the conference. They match up with Bobby Howard and Austin Brown, two solid rebounders with an ability to score the basketball if need be. I wouldnâ€™t bet on much coming from the benches scoring wise in this one given the magnitude of the game. In all likelihood, this is the last time either team will have a chance at winning this season.
Ultimately, I canâ€™t go against the Vikings if they arenâ€™t playing Weber State. No team has looked better than the Vikings since they lost on the road at Baylor, something theyâ€™ll have to deal with if they play any more games this season. As long as Jamie Jones and Julius Thomas can produce a couple points inside, there should be plenty of room for the Viking marksmen to gun away. Donâ€™t expect it to be pretty, but Boneâ€™s boys should get it done. Nobody wants to see a team with only 14 wins in the Big Dance.
Prediction: PSU 71 MSU 66