After much research, thought, deliberation and angst — where, or where, do you slot the Lady Griz? — the fourth annual GoGriz.com Big Sky Conference pre-league power poll has been completed.
Don’t be fooled by the knockoffs, those that mostly mirror the current standings, which is the lazy man’s method of ranking teams. You’re here because you are a seeker of truth, of honesty, of depth and quality.
The annual reminder: This is not a prediction of where teams will be in the standings come early March. This is a real-time look at what they’ve done to this point and where those bodies of work rank them.
It’s no surprise that preseason favorite Northern Colorado tops the poll — but only by a hair over the No. 2 team — or that Southern Utah, picked last in both coaches’ and media polls in October, comes in at No. 12.
The poll is high on Idaho State and Northern Arizona, recognizes that Portland State is coming on with the return of Ashley Bolston and wonders what will become of Eastern Washington when its seven-year run on Hodgins sisters comes to an end.
Use this as a starting point, a primer to prepare yourself for the upcoming league schedule, which kicks off on Thursday night.
To get things rolling, North Dakota and Northern Colorado visit Idaho and Eastern Washington (delicious), Montana hosts those dangerous Lumberjacks (delightful), and Montana State seeks to win its 30th consecutive game at home when it plays Southern Utah (historical).
And it’s not even January. Let the games — and the fun — begin.
1. Northern Colorado
Coach: Kamie Ethridge (4th year)
2016-17 finish: 22-8, 14-4 BSC (3rd) … Lost in quarterfinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 1/1
Revealing result: Northern Colorado 94, No. 20 DePaul 88. The Bears went to Chicago and used a big third quarter to pick up the best win of the nonconference schedule for the league.
Telling number: 15.6 — the percentage Northern Colorado shot from 3-point range in its three losses, including a 1-for-26 showing in its 48-33 setback at Fordham, so the Bears do have some weaknesses.
Player to know: Senior guard Savannah Scott. The early favorite for Big Sky Player of the Year opened the season putting 35 points on DePaul and closed UNC’s nonconference with 26 against Liberty.
The skinny: With five starters back from last year’s 22-win team and three players each capable of going off for 20-plus points, Northern Colorado is what everyone thought it would be. Three times the Big Sky tournament runner-up the last six years, the Bears are looking to finally get over the hump.
2. Idaho State
Coach: Seton Sobolewski (10th year)
2016-17 finish: 19-14, 10-8 BSC (6th) … Lost in championship game of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 8/7
Revealing result: Idaho State 74, Seattle 69. The Bengals, who would win at Washington by 20 two days later, won on the road against the team that swept a Montana-Idaho road trip earlier this month.
Telling number: 12-13-11 — the points-rebounds-assists triple-double recorded by Grace Kenyon in Idaho State’s 70-58 win at Utah State, when the Bengals had 27 assists on 27 made field goals.
Player to know: Sophomore forward Sai Tapasa. Give her the Big Sky’s Most Improved Player award now. She is averaging 10.6 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting an efficient 53.2 percent.
The skinny: With zero recruiting advantages, zero scheduling advantages and zero travel advantages, Seton Sobolewski, the Big Sky’s best (yet still underrated) coach, continues to perform wonders in Pocatello. Once again his team is better than the sum of its parts, which is the essence of good coaching.
3. North Dakota
Coach: Travis Brewster (6th year)
2016-17 finish: 20-11, 15-3 BSC (t-1st) … Lost in quarterfinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 2/2
Revealing result: North Dakota 79, North Dakota State 68. Fallyn Freije’s big game (26 points, 12 rebounds) helped the Fighting Hawks defeat the Bison for the eighth consecutive time.
Telling number: 37 — the number of wins this season by the four teams who have defeated the Fighting Hawks (Oregon State, South Dakota State, Baylor, South Dakota, all played on the road).
Player to know: Junior forward Lexi Klabo. The 6-foot-2 Klabo has five double-doubles in 11 games and at 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds could very well average a double-double for the season.
The skinny: With Klabo and the 6-foot Freije giving Brewster his preferred inside-out lineup, there is a reason North Dakota trailed by one in the fourth quarter at Oregon State, by five in the fourth quarter at South Dakota State and had an 18-point lead at South Dakota on Thursday. It’s a style that works.
4. Portland State
Coach: Lynn Kennedy (3rd year)
2016-17 finish: 16-17, 8-10 BSC (7th) … Lost in semifinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 6/8
Revealing result: Portland State 94, Mississippi 79. The Vikings went into the Christmas break with a convincing win over an SEC team that is 9-3.
Telling number: 3 — the number of games now played by Ashley Bolston, which matches Portland State’s current winning streak. The preseason All-Big Sky selection put up 32 against Mississippi.
Player to know: Junior guard Sidney Rielly. Bolston may get more attention but Rielly does it without the bad body language. She had 30 in the Vikings’ win at UC Irvine, 28 in a win at San Jose State.
The skinny: Portland State had a strong finish to the 2016-17 season and returned four starters. The Vikings, who are essentially playing neutral-site home games this season without the Stott Center, were without Bolston for the first eight games but have picked up some momentum in her return.
5. Weber State
Coach: Bethann Ord (7th year)
2016-17 finish: 13-18, 6-12 BSC (t-8th) … Lost in quarterfinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 10/9
Revealing result: Fresno State 81, Weber State 78. Playing one of their few quality nonconference opponents in their final game before league, the Wildcats couldn’t overcome 38.9 percent shooting.
Telling number: 17 — the number of 3-pointers made on 34 attempts in Weber State’s 114-87 loss at Oregon in early December. The Wildcats have five times made 10 or more triples in a game this season.
Player to know: Senior guard Larryn Brooks. She played two years at Indiana, one at Texas Tech before settling at Weber State. She is averaging 19.9 points and has made the Wildcats better than expected.
The skinny: The resume is paper-thin, but the Wildcats have six Division I wins, five of them by 10 or more points. And the addition of Brooks gives Weber State the type of dangerous scorer who can win the 50-50 games that are within a possession late in the fourth quarter, which many league games are.
6. Northern Arizona
Coach: Loree Payne (1st year)
2016-17 finish: 9-21, 5-13 BSC (10th) … Lost in first round of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 11/11
Revealing result: Northern Arizona 62, Boise State 60. The Lumberjacks rallied from 15 down in the fourth quarter against the Mountain West Conference favorite in Hawaii for Payne’s first win at NAU.
Telling number: 5 — the number of Northern Arizona’s losses that have come by 10 points or fewer. Three have come by a total of 10 points.
Player to know: Senior guard Olivia Lucero. She leads the team in scoring (16.6/g) and assists (5.2/g), making her the ideal player to have the ball in her hands most of the time in Payne’s up-tempo style.
The skinny: Northern Arizona, which owns an 84-66 win over Arizona, is the team on this list slotted farthest from its record. The Lumberjacks are one of the Big Sky’s best offensive teams, averaging well more than a point per possession (1.14) and are holding teams to 38.0 percent shooting. NAU is good.
Coach: Jon Newlee (10th year)
2016-17 finish: 19-15, 11-7 BSC (5th) … Lost in quarterfinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 5/4
Revealing result: Arizona State 77, Idaho 33. The Vandals are powered by three players (Ferenz, McCorkell, Pierce). Neutralize all three, as the Sun Devils did, and Idaho has nowhere else to turn.
Telling number: 18 — the number of 3-pointers Idaho hit in its 83-69 win at Colorado State, with the Big 3 of Mikayla Ferenz, Geraldine McCorkell and Taylor Pierce going 14 for 27 from the arc.
Player to know: Junior guard Mikayla Ferenz. She was first-team All-Big Sky last season and voted preseason all-league in the fall. She had 30 in a loss to Wyoming and is averaging 20.4 points.
The skinny: No other Big Sky team has three players averaging 14.8 or more points per game, as Ferenz, McCorkell and Pierce are, which is good. But no one else on the roster is going to beat you either, which isn’t good. Idaho goes as its Big 3 is able to produce.
8. Montana State
Coach: Tricia Binford (13th year)
2016-17 finish: 25-7, 15-3 BSC (t-1st) … Won Big Sky tournament, advanced to NCAA tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 4/3
Revealing result: Montana State 50, Wyoming 46. Yes, the game was ugly, but the Bobcats have been the only Big Sky team to defeat Wyoming, something Montana, Idaho State and Idaho could not do.
Telling number: 1/12 — Montana State ranks first in the Big Sky in scoring defense (60.5/g) but also last in scoring offense (59.1/g). This isn’t the team that averaged better than 72 points the last two seasons.
Player to know: Senior guard Hannah Caudill. A distributor for a higher-scoring team the last two seasons, she’s had to look to score more this year. She leads the team in scoring (12.5/g).
The skinny: Montana State had the last two Big Sky MVPs in Jasmine Hommes and Peyton Ferris, and was the tournament’s No. 1 seed both years. Without them, MSU has understandably taken a step back. They have two wins this year against NAIA opponents, two more against Division I teams who are 4-19.
Coach: Shannon Schweyen (2nd year)
2016-17 finish: 7-23, 4-14 BSC (11th) … Lost in first round of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 3/5
Revealing result: Kentucky 71, Montana 54. The Lady Griz looked sharp in playing the Wildcats to a 27-27 halftime tie. Then the offense went cold, a common hindrance that is holding this team back.
Telling number: 659 — the number of days since Montana last won a game away from Dahlberg Arena, dating back to the 2016 Big Sky tournament in Reno. The streak is now up to 20 consecutive losses.
Player to know: Junior forward Jace Henderson. A role player her first two years, she has come on strong her third year, averaging 9.4 points on 48.8 percent shooting and 7.7 rebounds.
The skinny: Without Kayleigh Valley and Alicia Harris for the season and missing Taylor Goligoski for much of October and November, Montana was playing without 40 points per game. Goligoski is back and Caitlin Lonergan, a strong, athletic, 6-foot-2 forward, will be eligible any day now.
10. Eastern Washington
Coach: Wendy Schuller (16th year)
2016-17 finish: 19-14, 12-6 BSC (4th) … Lost in semifinals of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 7/6
Revealing result: Fresno State 81, Eastern Washington 56. The Bulldogs went 3-0 against the Big Sky this season. None of the wins came as easily as this one. Fresno shot 52.5 percent and forced 26 turnovers.
Telling number: 78 — the number of turnovers the Eagles have this year more than assists, a big reason they are averaging less than 60 points per game.
Player to know: Senior forward Delaney Hodgins. In the seventh straight year of having a Hodgins sister on the roster, she is averaging 19.1 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds. She is doing it all.
The skinny: The Eagles, who are heavily reliant on Hodgins, the team’s leading scorer 11 times in 12 games this season, have four Division I wins, none against a team that is above .500. But Schuller’s teams have been in this position before, and they always seem to do better than expected.
11. Sacramento State
Coach: Bunky Harkleroad (5th year)
2016-17 finish: 10-20, 6-12 BSC (t-8th) … Lost in first round of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 9/10
Revealing result: Sacramento State 99, UC Riverside 72. In the Hornets’ lone win against a Division I opponent, they were up to their usual havoc, going +12 in turnovers and +17 at the free throw line.
Telling number: 343 — rank, out of 345 Division I teams, for Sacramento State in field goal percentage defense, at .465. The Hornets are shooting 35.9 percent.
Player to know: Sophomore guard Hannah Friend. The first-year transfer from Delaware is leading Sacramento State in scoring (18.5/g) and already owns a pair of 30-point scoring games.
The skinny: Sacramento State has just one Division I win and its losses have come by an average of 24.4 points. The Hornets, who are averaging just 71.5 points, low for their style of play, will get a few league wins, but they don’t have their normal scoring punch, especially from 3-point range, even with Friend.
12. Southern Utah
Coach: Chris Boettcher (4th year)
2016-17 finish: 7-23, 2-16 BSC (12th) … Lost in first round of Big Sky tournament
2017-18 preseason polls (coaches/media): 12/12
Revealing result: Southern Utah 70, Utah State 67. The Thunderbirds’ lone win came against the now 2-9 Aggies. SUU shot 34.3 percent and allowed 43.1 but won by forcing 24 turnovers.
Telling number: 7 — the number of Southern Utah’s 10 losses that have come by eight points or fewer, including overtime losses at BYU and Arizona.
Player to know: Senior center Whitney Johnson. A bright spot for a program that continues to struggle in the post-JR Payne era. Johnson is averaging 11.0 points on 44.3 percent shooting and 6.6 rebounds.
The skinny: Southern Utah has been in a majority of its games, but the Thunderbirds have one of the nation’s worst shooting percentages (.346) and have just once this season shot better than 38 percent in a game. Add in a defense that is allowing nearly 72 points per game and you end up No. 12 in this poll.