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WSU goal: to win Big Sky bid

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OGDEN — Weber State's pre-Big Sky schedule featured some highs and lows.

The Wildcats upset BYU but got drilled by Utah. They lost one of their best players to a suspension and had him stranded in Serbia for five weeks.

But none of that matters now as the Wildcats open conference play at home Thursday against Montana State and also host Montana on Saturday.

For the Weber State players and coach Joe Cravens, the only way to the NCAA Tournament is by receiving the Big Sky's automatic bid.

"We don't have the luxury of taking third place in the Mountain West Conference, getting 18 or 19 wins and backing our way in," Cravens said.

To host the Big Sky tournament, the Wildcats need to win the regular season championship. To do that, the Wildcats will need to start the season better than they did last season where they lost their first two Big Sky games at home to Montana and Montana State.

"We didn't play as hard or as well as we should have," Cravens said. "Hopefully we learned from the hole it dug us in."

The preseason coaches and media polls showed that many believed Weber State would be Eastern Washington's biggest challenge for the conference title.

"Before the season I thought Eastern Washington and Weber State were a little better than everyone else and I still think that's true," Idaho State coach Doug Oliver said. "We got physically manhandled by BYU last Saturday, and to know that Weber State had already beat them was pretty impressive."

Weber State's conference title hopes rest mostly on the shoulders of Jermaine Boyette, who leads the Big Sky in scoring with 21.8 points per game. Boyette is the one the team turns to when the Wildcats need a big shot or a free throw and he's also the team's defensive stopper. No other player in the Big Sky means as much to his team as Boyette does to the Wildcats.

"He's a good player, and he's taken the step up that you want all of your seniors to take," Cravens said.

Slobodan Ocokoljic will also play a key role for the Wildcats. He's still getting his feel for the game back after serving an eight-game suspension and missing five weeks of practice while taking care of a military obligation in Serbia. Ocokoljic could be a monster in the middle for the Wildcats in conference play once he gets back to 100 percent.

"I'm still getting my legs back, and that's the hardest part (of missing weeks of practice)," Ocokoljic said.

A team-by-team look at the rest of the Big Sky:

EASTERN WASHINGTON (10-6, 2-0): The Eagles were the preseason favorites to win the Big Sky and have already put pressure on the rest of the league by winning road games at Montana and Montana State last weekend.

"We're off to a good start, now it's what do we do with it?" Eagles coach Ray Giacoletti said.

The Eagles are a veteran club led by Alvin Snow, who has much of the same leadership role with his team that Boyette has with the Wildcats. He leads the Eagles with 14.9 points and 3.7 assists per game.

"When he's good, we're good," Giacoletti said. "When he focuses his energy on the defensive end, the rest of his game blossoms."

NORTHERN ARIZONA (9-5, 0-1): The Lumberjacks have had an up-and-down season already. Northern Arizona upset UCLA at Pauley Pavilion early in the year but became the first team in Big Sky history to lose at home to Sacramento State since the Hornets joined the conference in the 1996-97 season.

With their "recruit to shoot" philosophy, the Lumberjacks have yet another 3-point sharpshooter in freshman Kelly Golob, who's averaging 16 points per game and making 52 percent of his shots from 3-point range.

"When we evaluate kids, they have to have the ability to shoot," Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras said.

Ryan McDade, who averages 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, leads the Lumberjacks on the inside.

IDAHO STATE (7-6, 0-0): Mountain View High's Scott Henry has been a big contributor for the Bengals this season with 13 points and nine rebounds per game.

"He's a consistent player that brings a maturity to our team," Oliver said. "He just plays and makes things happen because he's not that physical and not a great shooter."

MONTANA STATE (7-8, 1-1): Pete Conway leads the Bobcats with 14.5 points per game. But Montana State will be playing an angry Weber State team when the two play on Thursday.

"When they beat us here last year they celebrated like they just won the national championship," Weber State's Brad Barton said. "We don't do that."

SACRAMENTO STATE (7-8, 1-1): After his team broke their 48-game road conference losing streak against Northern Arizona, Hornets coach Jerome Jenkins has high hopes for the Big Sky season.

"It's exciting for our program," Jenkins said.

Freshman DeShawn Freeman, who Jenkins said he personally recruited, has emerged as the team's leader after three players were ruled ineligible for the season. Freeman leads the Big Sky in steals with three per game.

MONTANA (7-10, 1-1): The Grizzlies are the defending conference champions and have probably the most impressive non-conference win for the Big Sky this season after winning at Stanford. Montana should be considered dangerous with coach Pat Kennedy, who has coached at DePaul and Florida State.

The Grizzlies also have solid athletes with David Bell, who averages 16.3 points per game, and Kevin Criswell, who averages 13.8 points per game.

PORTLAND STATE (3-12, 1-2): There probably aren't many teams in the nation that have had as much adversity to deal with as the Vikings, who lost two starters to injuries and had two other players quit the team. With only eight players on its active roster, Portland State has had a hard time practicing. But that's not entirely a bad thing.

"We haven't had one practice where our whole roster was able to practice together," Vikings coach Heath Schroyer said. "But my coaches are getting in better shape."

E-MAIL: aaragon@desnews.com