OGDEN — With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, the Big Sky's version of the final four takes place tonight and Wednesday at the Dee Events Center.
Weber State opens its bid for a berth at the big dance with a semifinal game against sixth-place Sacramento State at approximately 7:30 p.m., after Eastern Washington and Idaho State tip off at 5 p.m. The championship game is Wednesday at 7 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN2.
After winning 15 straight games and having an RPI of 44, one would think the Wildcats wouldn't need an automatic bid to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But an at-large bid from the Big Sky is almost unheard of, and the Wildcats don't want to take any chances.
"I think we would deserve one," Weber State coach Joe Cravens said. "But I don't think we would get one. The entire staff and team feel like we need to win the conference to get in."
So the Wildcats are looking at the tournament games as must-wins. Weber State looks like it might have caught a break by getting Sacramento State, a team it has a 16-0 lifetime record against, in the semifinals. But Cravens doesn't see it that way.
"I'm very apprehensive about playing them," Cravens said.
Indeed, this isn't a typical Sacramento State team. Prior to this season, the Hornets had never won a conference game on the road and had never qualified for the Big Sky tournament. The Hornets won two regular-season games on the road this season and beat Montana 88-75 on Saturday in the tourney's first round.
But rust may be more of a problem for Weber State tonight than Sacramento State. The Wildcats haven't played in 10 days. Cravens, who was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) District 13 Coach of the Year on Monday, said he thinks his six seniors will keep his team focused.
"I hope our experience will help us avert a letdown," Cravens said. "Ten days is a long time to be off. (The players) have kept a pretty good perspective and focused on one game at a time all season long."
Cravens' biggest concern is how much he'll have senior Brad Barton for today and possibly tomorrow. Barton had a diabetic seizure on Sunday and wasn't 100 percent on Monday. Cravens is concerned about Barton's stamina, especially if Slobodan Ocokoljic gets in foul trouble.
"(The seizure) is not conducive to playing two games in 48 hours," Cravens said.
Eastern Washington, the tournament's No. 2 seed, plays No. 4 seed Idaho State in tonight's first game. The Eagles, the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky, are stumbling into the conference semifinals after losing to the Wildcats and the Bengals in the last week of the Big Sky regular season.
Eastern Washington coach Ray Giacoletti, whose team was swept by Idaho State, said he isn't too concerned about the Eagles' two losses to close the regular season, since they had already wrapped up a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
"It's up to us, nothing has changed," Giacoletti said. "We are the ones who will determine what our state of mind is and how accountable we are toward things."