MISSOULA — The hottest team in the Big Sky Conference not named Montana resides in Ogden, Utah.
The Weber State Wildcats have won five consecutive games and eight of their last nine, sweeping the road trip at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona this past week.
Yes, there are actually Big Sky teams other than Montana having strong starts to league play. They’re just being overshadowed by the Grizzlies’ 11-game win streak — and they’re not all that far behind.
Weber State is the closest team to Montana, just 2.5 games back at 8-2. Idaho is right behind at 8-3; the Vandals beat Portland State and Sacramento State on the road this past week, are on a three-game winning streak, and have won six of their past seven games.
The Griz have yet to play either of those teams. They travel to Idaho on Feb. 17 for their last road trip and host Weber State on March 1 during their final home stand.
The Wildcats are led by 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Jerrick Harding, who has raised his scoring average from 9.3 points per game last season to 21.9 this year while taking over for Jeremy Senglin. Ryan Richardson is adding 13.6 points, up from 8.1 last year.
During league play, Weber State has shown an improvement rebounding the ball, which head coach Randy Rahe said was the team’s Achilles’ heel during non-conference play. They’re outrebounding their Big Sky opponents by 4.5 per game. That’s a six-rebound-per-game swing since the end of non-conference play, when they were being outrebounded by 1.5 per game.
Zach Braxton has been important rebounding the ball, grabbing 8.3 per game during conference play. He missed one game during the non-conference schedule, a six-point loss to BYU.
Brekkott Chapman, a Utah transfer, has been a big rebounder, too, averaging 6.3 per game during league play. He missed the final four games of non-conference play with a foot injury and came off the bench in the Big Sky opener, which the Wildcats lost to Idaho State, 62-60.
Since then, their only loss came at North Dakota, 89-79. In that game, Braxton and Chapman were limited to four and eight points. Braxton is averaging 12.2 during league play, and Chapman is at 6.8, which has dipped from the 14 he averaged in non-conference play.
In the game, the Wildcats committed 16 turnovers, their most in league play, and allowed North Dakota to shoot 54.4 percent from the field, their second-highest percentage against this season. They dropped to 0-6 when opposing teams shoot 50 percent or better.
Montana is the only Big Sky team to start the same starting five all season long. Idaho held that distinction until this past week, when the Vandals started Chad Sherwood over Perrion Callandret to bolster their bench scoring at Portland State and Sacramento State.
Victor Sanders, Brayon Blake, Nate Sherwood and Jordan Scott round out the starting five for the veteran-laden Vandals.
Sanders paces Idaho with 19.4 points per game during league play, the fifth-best mark. Blake is close behind at 17.3 points, eighth in the conference, to go with his league-leading nine rebounds per game. Callandret is adding 11 points per game.
The Vandals have lost twice to Northern Colorado, by four points on the road and 17 points at home. Their only other loss was a one-point defeat against Portland State on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Holland Woods.
Idaho ranks third in the conference in scoring margin (plus-6.2), behind Montana (plus-15.7) and Weber State (plus-11.8).
Griz move up to No. 14 in the Mid-Major Top-25 poll
Montana moved up two spots to No. 14 in the latest CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 Poll, released Monday afternoon. At 18-5 overall, 11-0 in conference play, the Griz received 372 votes.
They’re two spots behind UC Santa Barbara, a team they lost to, 83-70, on Nov. 21 at a neutral location. They’re two spots ahead of Georgia State, the only other mid-major team they lost to, dropping a 71-68 decision on the road after they erased a 17-point halftime deficit.
Montana is the only Big Sky team currently in the poll. Idaho and Weber State were in the category of others receiving votes, getting nine votes and one vote, respectively.
The Griz entered the Top 25 at No. 24 on Jan. 15, moved to No. 21 on Jan. 22 and were No. 16 on Jan. 29.
Player of the week: Northern Colorado’s Andre Spight
Bears senior guard Andre Spight was named the Big Sky Conference player of the week for the second time this season after a record-breaking week.
Spight averaged 36.5 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists in two games. He shot 46.9 percent (23 of 49) from the field, 41.9 percent (13 of 31) on 3-pointers and 87.5 percent (14 of 16) at the free-throw line.
The Arizona State transfer scored a career-high and Northern Colorado school-record 41 points in Saturday’s 86-63 win over Montana State. He tied the most points by a Big Sky player this season, matching the 41 points North Dakota’s Geno Crandall scored in the season-opening win against Troy.
Thursday, he scored 32 points in an 88-79 loss to still-undefeated Montana.
During conference play, Spight leads the league in scoring with 24.7 points per game and is third in assists with 4.2 per game. His 41 made 3-pointers and 3.7 makes per game are both tops during league play.
Spight earned his first conference player of the week award on Dec. 26.
Montana State reeling
The Bobcats dropped a pair of road games at North Dakota and Northern Colorado last week to fall to 5-6 in league play.
They’ve lost six of their past seven games after opening their conference schedule with four consecutive wins. Those losses have come by 19, 19, 15, 2, 1 and 23 points. They hung on for the one victory — three points against Southern Utah — despite making just one of their final 17 shot attempts in the final 12-plus minutes.
Against North Dakota, Tyler Hall was limited to six points on 1-of-11 shooting. He had 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting in the loss to Northern Colorado.
Game to watch: Eastern Washington at Idaho, 8:30 p.m. Friday
The third-place Vandals and fourth-place Eagles will meet for the second time during the regular season, this time in Idaho. It'll be a standalone game with no other Big Sky contest scheduled that night.
At 8-3 in league play, a Vandals win would separate the top three of Montana, Weber State and Idaho from the rest of the pack. If 7-4 Eastern Washington gets the win, the race for the top two seeds could likely be between just Montana and Weber State.
In the first meeting, Idaho erased an early 20-6 deficit to pull out a 58-51 win and get its first win in Cheney, Washington, since Dec. 6, 2012. Victor Sanders paced Idaho with 18 points and nine rebounds. Eastern Washington’s Bogdan Bliznyuk was limited to 14 points, and no other Eagle scored more than eight.