MISSOULA — Portland State’s Barret Peery doesn’t have a catchy name for the defensive style that’s helped his Vikings dominate the non-conference schedule.
“We haven’t given it a name,” he told 406mtsports.com over the phone. “We’re too humble for that. We’re just trying to win every week.”
But what the first-year men's basketball coach does have is a long-winded descriptor of his pressure defense, which has allowed Portland State to beat two Pac-12 teams and start the season 10-3.
“I would best describe it as a hybrid of West Virginia and some of (Rick) Pitino’s teams as well as when Shaka (Smart) was at VCU, a little bit of a version of when Mike Anderson was at Missouri and Bruce Pearl was at Tennessee,” he said.
“We want to play fast at both ends of the floor. We want to have the pace of the game, want to go up and down. We fly to the glass on the offensive glass and pressure the ball.”
The Vikings have been the surprise of non-conference play after they went 15-16 overall and 7-11 in the Big Sky last season, and were selected to finish eighth by the coaches and ninth by the media in this year's conference preseason polls. Their emergence, in addition to the predicted frontrunners and other surprising teams, has led to what’s expected to be a deeper conference.
Peery, 46, is in his first year as a Division I head coach. He’s run the same defensive system at his two previous stops as a head coach, both on the junior college level: College of Southern Idaho and Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. Indian Hills was the 2014 NJCAA runner-up, CSI finished fourth in 2007 and his teams led the nation in scoring three out of six years.
The Vikings have picked up his system quickly while playing 10 of their 13 games away from home. They have the highest RPI in the conference at 47, won on the road at Stanford by nine points and embarrassed Cal in a 25-point road win. They played then-No. 1 Duke close throughout the second half, lost to Butler by two points and fell at Oregon by 11 points.
They lead all of Division I in steals (12.9) and are second in turnover margin (plus-9.8). By creating extra possessions for themselves, they rank third in the country in the scoring (93.6), sixth in assists (19.5) and 12th in 3-pointers made per game (11.2).
“I think they’re absolutely terrific,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said. “They’re the real deal. They’re as good as anybody in our league, if not better than everybody. They’ve got all their guys back and now you’ve got a new coach in there who has re-energized them.”
Senior guard Deontae North ranks second in the conference at 20.3 points per game; he's averaging 2.3 3-pointers per game and 3.2 assists. He also impacts the other end of the court and is fifth with 1.8 steals.
Senior Bryce Canda is a similarly high-scoring, outside-shooting guard and ranks fourth in the Big Sky at 18.1 points with 2.8 3-pointers per game. He’s second in the conference with 2.5 steals, fourth with 6.8 rebounds and is adding 3.0 assists.
Freshman guard Holland Woods has played the role of facilitator and leads the conference with 6.0 assists per game while also ranking first in field goal percentage (62.7). He’s fourth with 2.1 steals and is adding 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Junior guard Deante Strickland is shooting 46.3 percent on 3-pointers, sixth in the Big Sky among qualified players.
Senior 7-foot-1 center Ryan Edwards, a Kalispell native and Gonzaga transfer, is tied for the conference lead with 2.0 blocks per game.
“Portland State is the biggest surprise,” North Dakota coach Brian Jones said. “They’ve always had talent. It’s never been a talent issue. Those guys are doing something right because they’re winning games and playing a tough schedule.”
They’ve won game without starting 6-foot-8 post player Traylin Farris, who’s played just six games while dealing with injuries. Brendan Rumel, a 6-foot-10 backup, has played just eight games while dealing with injuries.
To be able to continue their strong play throughout conference play and try to make their first NCAA tournament since 2009, their focus is to improve in the offensive and defensive half courts by executing clean possessions and guarding deep into the shot clock.
The Big Sky Conference begins league play with 74 wins, tying its most non-conference victories in 55 years. That number includes five Power Five wins: Stanford (twice), California, Washington State and Pitt.
The league also posted a winning record in non-conference play for the first time since 2005-06. Seven teams finished above .500, the most since 1993-94.
In addition to Portland State, Southern Utah is an early surprise as is Northern Colorado, to a lesser degree.
Southern Utah was selected to finish last in the Big Sky in both the media and coaches' preseason polls. The Thunderbirds are off to a 6-5 start, with wins over Central Michigan and Long Beach State, while playing a tough schedule. Their RPI of 89 is the second-highest in the Big Sky.
Northern Colorado was selected seventh by the media but fourth by the coaches. The Golden Bears redshirted seniors last year since they were ineligible for the postseason, and that veteran squad is now 9-4 with an RPI of 120, has road wins at South Dakota and Wyoming, and came within three points of beating UNLV.
Add in bluebloods like Montana — which Big Sky coaches had high praise for — and Weber State, the reigning champs in North Dakota, and other anticipated contenders like Idaho, Montana State and Eastern Washington, and several teams appear capable of making a run to the title.
“We’ve been in (the Big Sky) the last six years, and I think it’s the deepest it’s been from top to bottom because it’s older,” Jones said. “You’re going to see a league that four or five losses will probably still win you the league. Some years, that’s nowhere near good enough. It’s that talented, that deep.”
“I’m trying to figure out if we can even compete in this damn thing,” Rahe added. “We’re young, and it’s going to be hard for us. It’s going to be a heck of a season. I think there’s going to be seven or eight teams that you could potentially look up and say, ‘Yeah, I see why they won it.’”