MISSOULA — The general consensus is it's harder than ever to win the Big Sky Conference women's basketball race.
That's not meant to be a jab at previous champions. It's more like a salute to what the league has become.
"The coaching has gotten better and the level of play has gotten better," said Idaho State skipper Seton Sobolewski, whose Bengals have reached the Big Sky tourney final the past two seasons. "I try to follow the conference RPIs and we're ahead of the Big West right now. We're way ahead of the WAC."
Montana's Shannon Schweyen, who has coached in the Big Sky for 26 years, including the last two as a head coach, is impressed with the talent level across the board. The days when one ringer could consistently make the rest of the conference look bad — think Mandy Morales or Natalie Doma — seem to be gone.
"Then we’re seeing more and more transferring," noted Schweyen, whose team will host Northern Arizona in its Big Sky opener Thursday night. "It always happened in the men’s game but it’s becoming so much more common with the women’s game.
"There’s beginning to be many more marquee players in these smaller programs. It makes each program better. Then the addition of all the foreigners. There’s quite a few programs that are going 50- or 60-percent foreign, so it has changed for sure."
Some Big Sky teams have taken to scheduling much tougher non-league games. Montana, for one, has played two teams previously ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 in Kentucky and Marquette.
"I like to see our teams doing that, so whoever wins the Big Sky hopefully won't get a 16 seed," said Idaho coach Jon Newlee, whose troops won the league tourney two years ago only to draw a first-round NCAA tourney game at top-seeded Baylor.
"It would be nice if everyone did that. I liked to see Northern Colorado beat DePaul and LSU (in November). It really helps our league a ton. Everyone should get on board with scheduling the way some of us do."
The Bears' wins over the Blue Demons (8-4) and Tigers (7-3) make them the team to beat heading into league play. That and the fact they're 8-3, return all five starters from a 22-win unit and boast three shooters capable of going off for 20-plus points.
The Lady Griz (4-7) return everyone except Rachel Staudacher (and technically Kayleigh Valley, whose hasn't played for two seasons but hasn't ruled out coming back in October). They're a physical bunch bent on bettering an 11th-place finish in the Big Sky standings.
"We’re definitely a lot more prepared this year," said guard Madi Schoening, one of four UM players that started a good number games as a freshman last winter. "I guess we’ll see how we compete.
"I’m confident in us. Defense has been what we fall back on. Then to pair that with us actually executing the offense."
Montana's Achilles' heel has been shooting. That needs to change for the team to finish in the upper echelon of the league and end its string of 660 days without a road win.
Not that shooting is the only key to success. Last season Montana State won the regular season and tourney titles with a group that ranked No. 1 in the Big Sky defensively and No. 5 in shooting consistency.
"The real key is how well you do on the road," Newlee offered. "You have to be able to win on the road and endure the travel and the adversity that can sometimes hit you with the weather and the travel and all that stuff.
"And you have to have a physical basketball team. This league is definitely a physical league. Coming from the WAC, which wasn't at all, I certainly saw that. We're doing a better job recruiting now of getting more physical kids in. Then you have to be able to shoot the basketball. It sounds simple but you have to score to win."
Idaho State (7-3) had the best road record among Big Sky teams in November and December, winning five of right games away from Pocatello. Northern Colorado (8-3) was the only other league team to put together a winning road mark at 3-2.
"You have to grind out some games," Sobolewski said on the topic of road success. "You're not always going to light it up and kill people and score 100 points. You have to find other ways of winning."
Schweyen says it's tough to pick a league favorite because there's so much parity. Then winning the regular season doesn't guarantee anything when the Big Sky tourney is held in March in Reno, Nevada.
"Idaho State I believe was a 9 seed that made it to the championship one year," Schweyen said of the 2015-16 season. "It will be interesting to see how it all pans out this year. I don’t really feel there’s any clear-cut favorite that’s that much better than everybody right now."