Wednesday , Mar , 01 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Ralph Lauro, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Opening round at campus sites. Semifinals and
Championship Game at J.L. Walkup Skydome (16,230) – Flagstaff, Arizona. Dates:
March 4-8. Annual: 31st. Television: ESPN2 (Championship Game). Defending
Champion: Montana.

OUTLOOK: With the final regular season game complete, the pairings are now set
for the 2006 Big Sky Conference Tournament, which will be held at campus sites
in the opening round and at the Summit Center in Flagstaff, Arizona for the
semifinals and championship game. After missing out on the league tournament a
year ago, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks rebounded by winning the BSC
regular season title with a 12-2 leage mark. The Montana Grizzlies claimed the
second seed with a 10-4 league ledger and will be gunning for their second
straight BSC Tournament crown. The Eastern Washington Eagles, at 9-5, grabbed
the third seed, while the Montana State Bobcats will be seeded fifth after
their 7-7 finish in league play. The Sacramento State Hornets and the Portland
State Vikings each posted a 5-9 mark in league play and fill out the rest of
the field with the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. The Idaho State
Bengals missed the tournament for the second straight season, while the Weber
State Wildcats failed to qualify for this event for the first time since 1981.
The top two teams in the tournament receive a bye, while the other four battle
it out in an opening-round game. The winner receives an automatic bid to play
in the NCAA Tournament.

Northern Arizona tore through the SBC this season, losing just twice in 14
league games. The Lumberjacks, who failed to qualify for the this event last
season, will be making their 16th tournament appearance. NAU won titles in
1998 and 2000. The Lumberjacks also have the luxury of hosting the tournament
and that is a big deal considering they went 12-1 at home during the regular
season, including a perfect 7-0 against league foes. NAU will play the lowest
remaining seed in the semifinal-round on Tuesday.

Montana will also begin its title defense in the semis, as it earned an
opening-round bye with a second-place BSC finish during the regular season.
The Grizzlies posted the league’s top overall mark, going 21-6. This is
Montana’s seventh straight and 27th overall appearance in the tourney.

The event kicks off on Saturday with fourth-seeded Montana State hosting
fifth-seeded Sacramento State. The Bobcats posted a 12-3 mark at home during
the regular season and swept a two-game series from the Hornets, including a
75-70 triumph in the regular season finale on Monday. Sacramento State is
making its fourth straight appearance in this event and has advanced each of
last four years. The team, however, has never made it to the championship
game.

The second and final opening-round game features third-seeded Eastern
Washington against sixth-seeded Portland State. The Eagles appeared in four
straight title games from 2001-04, winning their lone crown in that final
year. This is EWU’s ninth straight appearance in this event. Portland State,
the 2004-05 BSC regular season champ, is in the field for the fifth time since
joining the league in 1996-97. The Vikings slipped gained postseason
eligibility by winning their last four games.

In terms of the Big Sky Tournament’s history, Weber State has claimed seven
titles, posting a 31-22 mark overall. Montana, last year’s champion, has won
five titles and has finished runner-up six times since 1990. Montana State has
two championships to its credit, as does Idaho State, which last won it in
1987. Northern Arizona won its second tourney title in 2000, while Eastern
Washington claimed its only crown in ’04. Portland State and Sacramento State
have yet to win a title and are a combined 2-7 all-time in the event.

NAU took a giant step this season and claimed the top seed after missing out
on the fun last season. The Lumberjacks possess a great deal of balance, and
playing the tournament on their homecourt should give them the edge they need.
Montana could challenge NAU, but expect the Lumberjacks to come out on top.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Northern Arizona