Rising to the top

Idaho guard Taylor Pierce (14) celebrates with the Big Sky conference trophy after the Vandals beat Weber State, 86-78, in a Big Sky Conference game on March 8, 2019, at the Cowan Spectrum in Moscow.

The votes are in and the masses have spoken: Moscow is home to the best and worst teams in the Big Sky Conference in 2020-21, at least according to preseason polls by the league’s coaches and media.

The Idaho women’s basketball team was picked No. 1 by the media and tied for first with in-state rival Idaho State in the coaches’ poll, while the UI men landed at No. 11 in both polls as the 11-team conference’s preseason rankings were released Wednesday.

On the men’s side, reigning champion Eastern Washington took the top spot.

For Idaho, the rankings are reflective of two programs in vastly different positions. The Idaho women have been at or near the top of the conference for most of coach Jon Newlee’s 12 years with the Vandals.

The Idaho men, however, still are in the middle of a rebuild with second-year coach Zac Claus.

The second-seeded Idaho women were poised to take on top-seeded Montana State in the Big Sky tournament championship game in the spring when the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Idaho coach Jon Newlee has said he thought his team was poised to win the game and advance to his fourth NCAA tournament as UI’s bench boss. The Vandals return four starters from last year’s 22-9 team. The Idaho men finished 8-24.

“I think these polls are always a reflection of how last year went and who you lost,” Newlee said. “We lost a couple of really great seniors, but I think we also have gained some great new players as well.”

As usual, Newlee was hesitant to say the preseason polls mean much. Teams still have to play the games.

“Whether you are picked 1 or picked 10, you still have to go out and prove it on the floor,” he said. “So, you know that’s great, and it’s nice, but honestly, it’s where you finish in March, in Boise, that will tell you whether you had a successful season or not.”

Idaho’s four returning starters include two preseason all-league honorees in junior point guard Gina Marxen (13.3 points per game) and sophomore guard/post Beyonce Bea (12.6 points).

Also returning are physical senior post Natalie Klinker (6.5 points, 7.5 rebounds), role player Champney Pulliam (17 starts, 2.5 points, 14 minutes), and a collection of solid returners and newcomers. One such newcomer is graduate transfer Gabi Harrington, from Boise, who averaged a career-high 11.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during the 2018-19 season as a redshirt sophomore.

Idaho and Idaho State each received 91 points in the coaches’ poll.

The Vandals received four first-place votes in the coaches poll and pulled in 16 first-place votes and 221 points in the media poll. Idaho received the most first-place votes in both polls, but five teams received at least one first-place vote in the coaches’ poll, and four in the media poll.

On the men’s side, Idaho must replace the league’s second-leading scorer, Trevon Allen (21.6 points), who is playing professionally in Poland.

The Vandals’ top returner is senior center Scott Blakney (8.2 points, 4.4 rrebounds), but the team is a bit of a wild card with eight players who have yet to play a game in black and gold.

The Idaho women open Dec. 3 against Sacramento State at Memorial Gym, and the men commence the same day against the Hornets in Sacramento.

Stephan Wiebe can be reached at swiebe@dnews.com, (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter @StephanSports.

BIg Sky women’s basketball preseason polls

Media

1. Idaho (16) 222

2. Idaho State (2) 206

3. Northern Arizona 180

4. Montana State (2) 173

5. Northern Colorado (1) 135

6. Portland State 127

7. Montana 122

8. Southern Utah 73

9. Eastern Washington 65

10. Sacramento State 54

11. Weber State 29

Coaches

T1. Idaho (4) 91

T1. Idaho State (2) 91

3. Northern Arizona (3) 80

4. Montana State (1) 77

5. Northern Colorado (1) 64

6. Montana 53

7. Portland State 50

8. Southern Utah 36

9. Sacramento State 26

10. Eastern Washington 23

11. Weber State 14

Big Sky men’s basketball preseason polls

Media

1. Eastern Washington (24) 304

2. Montana (2) 250

3. Northern Colorado (2) 222

4. Montana State 200

5. Weber State 183

6. Southern Utah 173

7. Portland State 147

8. Northern Arizona 143

9. Sacramento State 93

10. Idaho State 86

11. Idaho 50

Coaches

1. Eastern Washington (9) 99

2. Montana (1) 86

3. Weber State 73

4. Portland State (1) 67

5. Northern Colorado 65

6. Montana State 60

7. Southern Utah 56

8. Northern Arizona 34

9. Sacramento State 31

10. Idaho State 24

11. Idaho 10

— First-place votes in parentheses

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