Sunday, November 16, 2014

Portland State Upsets USC, Other Weekend Notes

Eastern Washington got the Big Sky started with a win over Texas Southern on Friday morning, but there was just one win over another Division I team for the rest of the weekend.

That said, it was a pretty nice win, as Portland State went on the road and beat Pac-12 USC on Saturday night.

The Vikings led by seven at the half and never looked back, winning 76-68. In a turn from recent years, they won this game with defense. USC scored 0.96 PPP, and the Vikings forced 23 turnovers (while committing just four themselves), scoring 31 points off those turnovers. The Trojans shot the ball well (53% for the day), but were undone by the turnovers.

Forward Tiegbe Bamba was even better than advertised for the Vikings, and showed he will be one of the best newcomers in the conference. He scored 19 points - including shooting 3/3 from downtown - while also grabbing six rebounds and getting four steals. Combined with nice days from Braxton Tucker (16 points) and Bryce White (14), the Vikings have the newcomers up front to shore up what was a big weakness last season.

USC isn't going to be competing for a Pac-12 title, but anytime you go on the road and beat a team like that to open the year, it's encouraging. It's too early to make any definitive statements, but the Vikings appear to be real players in the Big Sky race.

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The favorite in the conference, Weber State, did not have such a great opening act.

The Wildcats led by 18 points at halftime, but remarkably turned that into a 72-61 loss, as they simply couldn't stop the bleeding in the seonc half against Utah State. After outscoring the Aggies 47-29 in the first half, the score was 43-14 in the second half.

Utah State played a 1-3-1 zone, and the Wildcats struggled to solve it. They were just 4/23 from the floor during the second half. Jeremy Senglin led the team with 14 points, but he also had eight turnovers compared to one assist. He is going to be their lead ball handler and needs to be able to make plays for others, but this game showed that is still a work in progress.

After the losses the last couple of years, we knew there would be some growing pains for the Wildcats. One of the potential weaknesses I talked about before the year was when Weber State needed a basket, who would be the guy to step up and get it? In the opener, that answer was: nobody.

It's a young season, but it's a rough way to start for Weber State.

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One other game that caught my eye was Northern Colorado going on the road to take on Wyoming. The Bears lost 78-70, but they were within four at the 3:55 mark, and generally played well on the road. Wyoming has been a solid team the past couple of years, but UNC was right there with them.

Offensively, they had no issues, scoring 1.19 PPP, shooting the ball well, and grabbing offensive rebounds. Newcomer Cam Michael scored 21 points to pace them (hitting five threes), while Cody McDavis scored an efficient 17. Offense was not a problem.

The defense, however, did struggle, as the Cowboys scored 1.32 PPP. They somehow shot 18/24 on two-pointers, and 8/18 from beyond the arc.

The Bears overall had a nice showing, one of the better ones of the weekend in the conference. However, they have to learn to be able to get a stop when they need it, and they still aren't there yet.

Anything else stick out over the weekend?

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Eastern Washington Wins the First Game in College Basketball

In the first game of the college basketball season, Eastern Washington got off to a slow start against Texas Southern, trailing 26-18 late in the first half. A quick flurry gave them a 32-30 lead at the break, but it had the look of a close, hard-fought game.

Then the Eagles came out in the second half and broke the game open, leading by as many as 30 points en route to an 86-62 season-opening win.

Eastern Washington turned often to its familiar friend, the three-point shot, draining 15 of them by the end of the game. The leader there was Tyler Harvey, who did not miss a beat from last season, as he hit seven threes in this game, finishing with 21 points. Backcourt mate Drew Brandon had his typical all-around game, finishing with 10 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, and four steals. The backcourt was in midseason form.

The real difference, however, was the play of Venky Jois in the second half. After a nightmare start, where he was 0/6 from the field with three turnovers in the first half, he finished with 22 points on 11/18 FG, also pitching in seven rebounds and three blocks. Jois was relentless in attacking the hoop, and while that got him into trouble early, TSU had no answers for him late.

It was not all roses for the Eagles… much of their early points came in transition on threes, as they struggled in halfcourt offense, turning it over 10 times in the first 20 minutes and struggling to find good shots. But the negatives were clearly far outweighed by the positives in this game, as they flashed the explosive offense that has many thinking they could win the Big Sky.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Most Comprehensive Big Sky Preview You'll Ever Read, 4.0

This is my fourth year of writing this preview (in case you are curious, last year's preview is here), and it's always a lot of fun to compile. As always, I write the preview with one major goal - if you know nothing about the Big Sky coming into the article, you'll leave knowing more about the conference than 99% of college basketball fans. Hopefully that goal will be accomplished here! This year's preview is just about 13,000 words, so take your time, print it out, and read it!

In many ways, this will be the most interesting season of the Big Sky in the four years I've been writing about the conference. Some past seasons have featured NBA level guards like Damian Lillard and Will Cherry which have helped to make the conference more relevant nationally, but have often caused the race for the conference title to be over or down to two teams by the middle of the conference year.

This season, I think you could make the case for up to seven teams having the chance to compete for the conference crown if everything broke right for them. There will be a ton parity and even games throughout the conference season. While there might not be a team that makes noise nationally, it will make for a fascinating conference season.

In 2014, 10 of the 11 Big Sky teams won at least 8 conference games, and an astounding 8 of 11 finished Big Sky play .500 or better. Eastern Washington won 10 conference games, and didn't qualify for the Big Sky tournament. The only thing that was missing was a veritable race for the regular season crown, as Weber State won the title fairly comfortably. In 2015, I think we'll be seeing three or four teams battling to win the regular season title, and then five or six more battling for the final conference tournament spots. It's going to be a wild, fun season, and I hope you'll join me to watch it.

On to the preview.

SCHEDULING NOTES
The first thing to talk about is scheduling, since it could play a role this year. For the past several years, everyone has played everyone else, making for a nice, balanced schedule. Last year, with 11 teams in the Big Sky, that meant each team played 20 conference games. This year, with the addition of Idaho, that would have been 22 conference games each if everyone played everyone, which wasn't very reasonable. So, each team will now play 18 Big Sky games, meaning that schedules are unbalanced.

With 18 games and 12 teams, that means each school will have four other schools that it plays only once. As you might well guess, that gives some teams and advantage over others, based on who they are or are not playing more than once. First, a listing of who each school will play just once:

Eastern Washington - North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah
Idaho - North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah
Idaho State - North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State
Montana - Northern Arizona, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah
Montana State - Northern Arizona, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah
North Dakota - Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Weber State
Northern Colorado - Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Weber State
Northern Arizona - Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Montana State
Portland State - Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Weber State
Sacramento State - Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Weber State
Southern Utah - Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Montana State
Weber State- North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State

If you have seen any polls (including mine to follow), you know that Weber State is predicted number one, while Southern Utah is projected last. It stands to reason then, that teams which play Weber State only once will be at an advantage, while teams that play Southern Utah only once will be at a disadvantage.

Thus, North Dakota/Northern Colorado/Portland State/Sacramento State all seem to benefit this year from the unbalanced schedule, as they play Weber State just once, but they do get Southern Utah twice on the docket.

To my eye, Eastern Washington and Idaho get the toughest draw... as the play Southern Utah and North Dakota (projected ninth) just once, while facing Weber twice. Montana and Montana State also only play Southern Utah once, but NAU/PSU/Sac State is a good trio to only have to play once, as all three of those teams figure to be strong.

Hopefully I haven't lost anyone already. In short, while the unbalanced schedule may not make a difference, it certainly has a chance too, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't factor it into breaking close ties for how I've seeded teams here in this preview.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Photo courtesy of Weber State
1. Weber State
Why they'll be good: During the preseason coaches conference call, I asked Idaho coach Don Verlin about the conference's seeming struggle to stop offenses, and he pointed out that Weber State hasn't had the same problems as everyone else, which is why they won the conference. We'll start there, as Randy Rahe has put together a nice system for the Wildcats which has made them the best defensive team in the Big Sky the past two seasons. They don't do it by forcing turnovers, but by simply not allowing teams to get off good looks from downtown, and not sending them to the foul line. Those who are familiar with popular basketball analytics can see the beauty of Weber State's defensive approach.

In 2013, just 23.4 percent of opponent's field goal attempts, which was the lowest mark in college basketball. Last season, they did even better, as only 22.6 percent of opponent's shots came from outside the arc. As Ken Pomeroy has discussed at length, teams don't necessarily have great control over the percentage that teams shoot from three-point range, but they definitely have control over how many shots opponents take from downtown. Weber State excels, and that is a big reason for their defensive success. That the Wildcats don't send opponents to the line at a high rate is a testament to their interior defense, with guys like Joel Bolomboy (and Kyle Tresnak before him) being able to block and contest shots without following.

Another reason why Weber State is picked first is that they have simply gotten better recruits the past few years than other teams. The Wildcats will start a frontcourt featuring Bolomboy, Kyndahl Hill, and Richaud Gittens. I'm not sure any other team in the Big Sky has three athletes like that, let alone starting together in the frontcourt (I'll talk more about the individual players later on in this preview). While there will be a lot of young guys getting minutes, their skill level combined with the proven system that the Wildcats have makes me confident that they can again be the best defensive team in the Big Sky. In a conference dominated by offense and shooters, that makes them the favorite.

Why they'll struggle: They are not a very experienced team, with just one senior (James Hajek) on the roster. That is not necessarily a problem (talent + youth is better than less talent but more experience), but it could cause some rough patches early going, and it wouldn't be a huge shock if they started conference play under .500 (though I don't think they will). Of their second unit, it's possible that three will be true freshmen, and one will be a first year juco transfer. They simply do not have experienced depth.

If they do experience early season struggles, I think they could come on the offensive end, as they lost Davion Berry (the POY in the Big Sky, and their leading scorer and best passer) along with two four-year players in Tresnak and Jordan Richardson. Much of the creating will fall on the shoulders of Jeremy Senglin and Gittens, who excelled as true freshmen but will need to show they are capable of getting baskets when defenses are keying on them. While Senglin was the primary ballhandler a lot of times last season, he didn't necessarily show himself to be an adept distributor (15.6 Assist Rate). Who will create shots for others, and how will WSU get easy baskets? That is the biggest question to me.

Final verdict: Last year, Weber State was the almost unanimous choice in the preseason, and they backed it up by winning both the regular season championship and conference tournament, punching their tickets to the Big Dance. This year, as we've talked about, you'd rather bet on the field than on Weber State, but they look like the most talented team in the conference to me. While it will take time to forge their identity, the individual talent should be able to be molded into a team that is good enough to win the conference, while preparing for even bigger things next season.

2. Sacramento State
Why they'll be good: Expectations are high in Sacramento, as Brian Katz has what should be the best team in school history. They are anchored by a senior backcourt of Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, two guys who are almost interchangeable in the spots they play, but much different in terms of how they attack defenses. Garrity is a four year starter that has to be one of the most accomplished players in the country. He is also one of the best shooters in the nation, as last year he made 48% of threes (and on 150 attempts, so it was not an empty percentage at all). Plus, you really have to guard him everywhere on the court! McKinney is better at getting to the rim and to the foul line, where he shot 82% on almost five attempts per game. Both guys are excellent passers who also take good care of the basketball. It is the best one-two punch in the backcourt in the Big Sky.

The backcourt propelled them to an offense that scored 1.12 PPP in Big Sky play last year, good for fourth in the conference. That number looks even better when you consider that they return eight of their top nine guys, including all five starters. Though they don't have a lot of experience on the biggest levels (last year's lone conference tournament game was the only time they've qualified for the Big Sky tournament recently), they are still a team full of guys with a ton of games under their belt.

Why they'll struggle: For all the positive things about the offense, there's still a lot of question marks about the defense, where they were ninth in the Big Sky last year (1.10 PPP allowed). They didn't force many turnovers, didn't rebound defensively very well, and opponents shot an unsustainably low percentage from three-point range against them. If the Hornets want to compete for the conference title, they need to be in the top half of the league defensively, and we don't know for sure if they are capable of that.

Another area to watch is in the frontcourt, where they struggled with production at times last season. One name to keep an eye on is Stuteville - but that is for two different guys. Older brother Eric Stuteville got better and better as last year went along, and as a sophomore will be relied on to be their best post threat. I think he'll be up to the task, but he has to prove it. Younger brother Mason Stuteville is a highly touted recruit - an athletic post man capable of playing inside and out. These two guys are wildcards for the Hornets, and their development could mean the difference between a conference title or a .500 record.

Final verdict: The Hornets seem to be ranked anywhere from one through four in the preseason, and that is about right. But let's take a minute to think about that relative to their history in DI basketball. Since they joined DI in the late 1980's, they have zero winning seasons. That is not a misprint. Coach Katz has rebuilt the program in a way that I didn't see coming a couple of seasons ago.

For the current team, one worry is this - the biggest leap for guys in college basketball comes the younger they are, ideally between the freshman and sophomore seasons. However, most of the main cogs on the team are upperclassmen, meaning they conceivably won't be any better than they were last season. That is why I think Eric and Mason Stuteville could be important - they represent the best chance for growth, and the best chance for variance on the roster. I think they're talented enough to propel the Hornets into the top two, with a very legitimate chance to win the title.

3. Northern Arizona
Why they'll be good: For all the talk about Weber State's defense, Northern Arizona was not far behind them last season, finishing second in the Big Sky at 1.06 PPP allowed. That was a big reason for them being a surprise 12-8 last season, a result that not many people were expecting. Unlike Weber State, their defense is anchored by the fact that opponents just don't get any good looks at the rim. NAU has the best block rate in the conference, and opponents shot just 48% on twos last year against them, second best in the conference. If opponents cool down a bit from outside, it's conceivable to think NAU could be the best defensive team in the league. They return almost everyone from that team, including their best interior defenders.

The discussion for best backcourt in the conference comes down to either Sac State or NAU, with the Jacks boasting three talented guys that all start. The best of them is Quinton Upshur, last year's Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. Upshur is a deadly shooter with tons of athletic ability. Aaseem Dixon and Kris Yanku join him in the backcourt. Dixon is a senior who is also a good outside shooter, while Yanku (a sophomore) is a more prototypical point guard.

They lose big man Max Jacobsen, but I like the trio they still have around up there. Ako Kaluna will be a sophomore, and I think he will be an all-league guy in time. I love his skill set. Jordyn Martin is just solid - Coach Jack Murphy calls him the best team defender on the squad. And then Len Springs is one of my favorite guys - he had almost two blocks per game last year... in 15 minutes per game.

Why they'll struggle: They were not a great offensive team last year, finishing 7th in the conference in scoring rate. Though the losses were minimal, the big one was Max Jacobsen, who was one of the best back-to-the-basket scorers in the Big Sky, shooting over 60% in the post last year. One issue is that they don't do a very good job at drawing fouls and getting to the foul line - only 19.6% of their points last year came at the stripe, lowest in the Big Sky. They rely a lot on the three-point shot, and struggle if it's not falling.

Another thing I worry about is that it seems like there will be a lot on Kris Yanku's shoulders. As a freshman, he was impressive - he hit game-winners, and always seemed to be cool and in command. However, he turned the ball over a bit too much (21.8 TO Rate), and struggled to consistently score the ball, shooting 38% on two-point shots. He is a very good player and going to be a great college player, but they need him to make that leap soon to win the Big Sky.

Final verdict: It seemed as though NAU was a year ahead of schedule last season - I expected a down year last season that would build toward this year. Instead, they finished 12-8 and are a bona fide contender coming into the year, even receiving some first-place votes. While I understand those first-place votes, I need to see a little more consistency from the offense before I put them up that high. However, I think the pieces are in place for a great season. Defensively, they will be up to the task, and they have the talent to be a top 4 offense. With Jack Murphy in place, it's a good time to be a Lumberjacks fan.

4. Eastern Washington
Why they'll be good: They were a very young team last season, with a lot of underclassmen getting big minutes and big roles, so it's normal to project that they will move into the top half of the conference with a lot of talent returning. The biggest reason for optimism is guard Tyler Harvey, who went from a nice story as a freshman to a star in his sophomore year. In leading the Big Sky in scoring, Harvey showed himself to be a great shooter whose efficiency did not wane with increased usage. He shot 43% from downtown (on over eight attempts per game), and 90% from the stripe, which he was adept at getting to. Simply put, good things happen when he has the ball.

As a whole, EWU's offense has many different weapons that can hurt you. They were fifth in the Big Sky at 1.11 PPP last year, and have built their team with tons of shooters and weapons. Often, Venky Jois is their only guy you don't have to worry about shooting a three ball - but you have to worry about him as one of the most skilled interior players in the conference. The Eagles play very fast and shoot a lot of threes, and it's easy to get sucked into that type of game as an opponent even if it's not your specialty. Opponents used an average of 17.3 seconds per possession last year, which was the fastest in the conference. Clearly EWU is succeeding at getting opponents to play fast.

Another encouraging sign is that the defense did show some growth in the second half of the season. While they allowed 1.11 PPP on the year, that was down to 1.09 PPP during conference play, good enough for sixth in the conference. Though they will miss Martin Seiferth down low, they should have enough talent to stay at least average on the defensive side of the floor, which would be good enough to win a lot of games with their offense.

Why they'll struggle: While it's easy to say that they have a lot of talent back so they will be obviously better, sometimes it doesn't always work like that. The idea that they are better depends on internal improvement, and that cannot always be assumed with upperclassmen. I think it's fair to look at guys like Harvey, Jois, Drew Brandon, and Parker Kelly and wonder how much better they can get - all will be seniors and juniors who are already very good players.

The other worry I have about them is depth, and getting enough contributions from the bench. Last year, the bench played just 19% of the team's minutes, which was in the bottom ten in the NCAA. Four guys played at least 80% of the team's minutes, including Tyler Harvey who played a whopping 94.2% of the minutes (sixth most in the country). Will the bench produce enough to allow Jim Hayford to feel comfortable enough with them, to help keep the starters from breaking down?

Final verdict: EWU was the surprise pick for a lot of people last year, and it didn't quite work out, as they finished 10-10 and missed the conference tournament due to tiebreakers. I was one who thought they'd be a top five team, and that may be a reason for my reluctance to slot them higher than fourth, as some people have. Offensively, they should be good enough, as they have a ton of firepower returning, including Tyler Harvey, a popular pick for POY. If they can show that their defensive improvement last year was not a fluke, and get a little more production from the bench, they can win the Big Sky title.

5. Montana
Why they'll be good: Last year was a down year for their standards, finishing just 17-13 and losing in the first round of the Big Sky tournament. However, they remained an excellent offensive team, finishing second in the Big Sky. They lose Kareem Jamar (more on him in a minute) and Keron DeShields, but return every other important offensive piece.

One way the offense thrives is by having a ton of great shooters, which should again be a strength. Jordan Gregory is a very good all-around offensive player, including shooting 37% from three. Role players like Mike Weisner and Brandon Gfeller (who should have an expanded role as a sophomore) are elite shooters that space the floor. The club should also see a boost in improvement by Mario Dunn, who was very impressive as a true freshman. He is improving as an offensive player, but his key strength is that he might already be the best backourt defender in the Big Sky. He is a future all-league guy.

In the past couple of years, Montana's weakness has been down low, where they haven't had a low post threat or rebounder. They hope that Martin Breunig is the answer to those problems, as the transfer from Washington has looked spectacular, including notching 16 and 6 in the last exhibition game. If the hype is accurate, he could be a first-team Big Sky player this year. If that does happen, it won't be quite as much of a down year as the coaches have predicted (when they picked Montana 8th).

Why they'll struggle: They suffered possibly the two biggest losses in the conference - do-everything Kareem Jamar to graduation, and coach Wayne Tinkle to the head job at Oregon State. That makes the end of a four-year stretch for Jamar which included 88 wins, three conference tournament title game appearances, and two NCAA tournament appearances. Travis DeCuire has a tough act to follow.

If the Grizzlies have a chance to improve, it will come via the defensive end and on the glass, where they were not good last year. Montana had the worst defensive rebounding rate in the conference last year, a product of (at times) playing four guards and a big man, or even four guards and Weisner (who is more of a natural 3). Again, they hope Breunig will help there, as well as improvement from Chris Kemp and potential contributions from freshman Fabijan Krslovic. Teams muscled Montana down low, and while they should be better, they still don't have much proven depth down there.

Final verdict: With the loss of Jamar and Tinkle, Montana is getting lost in the shuffle a bit, and I think they will use that as motivation. They have a very nice core with Jordan Gregory and Mario Dunn in the backcourt, and Martin Breunig up front. While I expect their offense to drop a little, I think they have a chance to be much better in the interior, which is why I don't have them dropping off like the coaches do. As strange as it might have seemed a year or two ago, I think Montana is a team that will surprise some people.

6. Northern Colorado
Why they'll be good: Despite losing two key contributors in Derrick Barden and Tate Unruh, the Bears should be a deep, balanced, and athletic team. If they are going to make the conference tournament, the strength of the team will be in the backcourt, where they will have a diverse set of weapons. The leader will be redshirt senior Tevin Svihovec, who seemed to find his niche last year playing off the ball after trying to handle PG duties his first two years. Svihovec is a crafty offensive player that is good at getting into the lane and drawing fouls. When UNC needs a basket, he will likely be the guy to take the shot.

One pleasant surprise last year was point guard Jordan Wilson, who was a solid contributor for them as a true freshman. He is as quick as they come in the Big Sky, and used that quickness to get into the lane, as well as to pressure full-court (Corey Spence is also able to do this). Transfer Cameron Michael should help make up for the loss of Unruh, as he is eligible after sitting out last season after coming over from Air Force. In limited minutes as a freshman, Michael was an offensive dynamo - making 18/40 from downtown, passing the ball well, and turning it over infrequently. Simply put, not many teams are adding a guy the caliber of Michael to their roster.

Up front, the Bears will have one of the most versatile and athletic front lines in the conference, led by senior Tim Huskisson. On his best days, Huskisson is an all-conference player, capable of hitting threes, dunking in transition, or getting to the rim. Too often he struggles through games and finds himself in the doghouse, but if he can bring his A-Game all year, UNC is a contender. Behind him is Dominique Lee, a guy that does everything well, including shooting over 65% last year. He is also capable of being a good defender. Not many teams have two athletes like those guys in the frontcourt.

Why they'll struggle: For the past three seasons, the Bears have been one of the best offensive teams in the Big Sky, but one of the worst on defense. Opponents were able to get anything they wanted inside, shooting 54.2% on twos last year. BJ Hill thinks that could be different, for a few reasons. One is that they will primarily play Cody McDavis and Jeremy Verhagen at the five spot. Both guys are athletic, and should be capable of providing better rim protection than they had for much of last year (McDavis played more as the season went along, but was still a role player, while Verhagen redshirted). Another reason is Dwight Smith, a transfer from Colorado State who Hill says is capable of defending four spots on the floor.

In short, there is reason to think they will be a better defensive team this year, with the ability to pressure the ball (with guys like Wilson and Spence), protect the rim (with guys like McDavis and Verhagen), and guard athletic wings (with someone like Dwight Smith), but we will have to see it to believe it. There was reason to think they could be one of the better defensive teams in the conference last year, and that didn't materialize.

Another concern is that they will miss Derrick Barden, who was a senior. Barden was not a perfect player, but he was a monster on the glass, and got a ton of easy baskets. Unless Huskisson finds consistency, the Bears might just be a team with a lot of good players but no great Big Sky player, and it's not easy to win a conference that way.

Final verdict: After eight conference games last year, UNC was 7-1 and looked like the cream of the crop in the Big Sky. They finished out the regular season by losing 8 of 12, seeing their defense collapse in the process. They dropped out of the consciousness of a lot of Big Sky follower after the disappointing finish and subsequent graduation of Barden and Unruh, but this is still a talented team that is very tough to beat at home. The Bears will be one of the more balanced teams in the Big Sky, with the athleticism to cause a lot of problems. Though I'm not sure they're in the top tier, they're clearly in the next rung of teams, and they could make some noise.

7. Portland State
Why they'll be good: They boasted one of the best backcourts in the Big Sky last season, and return many of those contributors. They'll be led by three seniors in the backcourt, in point guard Tim Douglas (a good outside shooter who played the most minutes on the team last year), Gary Winston (one of the best three-point shooters in the conference), and DaShaun Wiggins (who was one of the best sixth men in the conference last year, finishing in the top five nationally in his rate of drawing fouls). That's a nice trio to have as a foundation.

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism, however, is that they actually have some guys that can play up front this season. They were one of the smallest teams in the country last year, often playing four guards, and they won't need to do that this year. The most heralded up there is Tiegbe Bamba, a 6'6'' post who they hoped would contribute last year, but redshirted after he was not able to get healthy. Bamba can be one of the better rebounders in the conference, as well as providing some offense at the four. Braxton Tucker is similar, in that he is an undersized four who will do some different things for them. On the wing, they are excited about 6'5'' Bryce White, who is going to do a little bit of everything for them. In their exhibition game, he grabbed five rebounds and dished out six assists in 21 minutes. He is in the mold of many other skilled three men that the Big Sky has seen the past few years.

Finally, if you believe in momentum, Portland State should have it after last year. They won five of their last six in the regular season, including an impressive win over Weber State, before beating Montana in round one of the Big Sky tournament. After a down year in 2013, it was a nice end to the year for Tyler Geving.

Why they'll struggle: While they had a nice finish to the year, their underlying numbers weren't great. They finished ninth in the Big Sky offensively, and seventh defensively. They finished 3-1 in overtime games, including a triple overtime win over Montana. With a couple different breaks last year, they could have finished 9-11 and missed the conference tournament, dampening some of the enthusiasm heading into this season (in fairness, the margins were so tight that you could write that about most teams).

The other concern is if they can show their defensive improvement was for real. From 2010-2013, their best defensive performance was 317th in the country in efficiency, with other years being far worse than that. Last season, they just barely cracked the top 300, improving in conference play. With guys like Bamba, Tucker, White, and a guy like Collin Spickerman in the mix this year, they will have the length and athleticism to be at least average on that end of the floor, which could put them in the mix for being near the top of the conference. However, if they revert back closer to previous year's performance (granted, different players, but same staff and system in place), they will be fighting just to make the conference tournament. The margins are that small.

Final verdict: Of all teams, the Vikings are ones that I feel least confident about my slot. I perpetually underestimated them last season, and wrote them off before their season-ending run which ended in the Big Sky semifinals. I am wary that I am underestimating them again, as they have the potential (especially with the additions up front) to be a top four team in this conference. As it is, I'm worried we know the ceiling with their guard play, and that it will settle in around league average. If that is the case, and if their defense doesn't get better, I'll have slotted them just right. They will be an interesting team to watch this year.

8. Idaho
Why they'll be good: Though they weren't in the Big Sky, they were a prototypical Big Sky team last year - they finished third in the WAC offensively but last defensively. Though they lose do it all Stephen Madison, they should still have enough offensive firepower to be in the top half of offenses in the Big Sky. The focal point will be Connor Hill, a great shooter who must be accounted for at all times. He took over seven threes per game, and made 41% of them. On a team that won't have any other proven outside shooters returning, he will need to stretch defenses, and he will be up to the task.

Another strength will be guard Sekou Wiggs, who should be a top notch Big Sky player sooner rather than later. As a true freshmen, he was 26th in the nation in the number of fouls he drew per 40 minutes, making him a dangerous offensive player. He needs to tighten up his shot, but if he does that, he can be one of the better scorers in the conference. Hill and Wiggs will be joined in the backcourt by senior Mike Scott, who should be a solid distributor at point. He had a 22.4 Assist Rate compared to a 13.7 TO Rate last year, part of the reason why Idaho took such good care of the basketball.

Why they'll struggle: As I alluded to, they were not a good defensive team last year. They didn't force turnovers, and they had a tough time stopping people inside. Ty Egbert showed signs of being a rim protector as a freshman (4.1 Block percentage), but the Vandals will need more of that, as they have traditionally played a conservative defensive approach under Don Verlin.

Since this is their first year in the Big Sky, there could be some growing pains. They are new to everyone (well, within reason, as noted they have played Big Sky teams recently), and will have to learn the tendencies and personnel of 11 different teams. Meanwhile, everyone else in the Big Sky has to deal with just one new team. In theory, that would put Idaho at a disadvantage, but we will see if it works out that way.

The other question mark will be in the frontcourt. Bira Seck and Egbert were both valuable role players last season, but now they need to be counted on to play bigger minutes effectively. Newcomers like Jordan Scott and Nahshon George look talented, but we have to see it on the court. The backcourt should be good enough to take Idaho to the Big Sky tournament, but they are not good enough to do it without the frontcourt chipping in.

Final verdict: It will be Idaho's first year in the Big Sky, so it's a little bit of guesswork where they will fit in. They were 2-2 against Big Sky teams last season, losing twice to Montana but beating Portland State and Idaho State. Like a lot of others, I don't feel extremely comfortable ranking them as I am not nearly as familiar with the Vandals as other schools, but the sense I get is that they are good enough to make the conference tournament. As with many other teams in the conference, the key will be whether their defense can be at least league average. If it can, they'll be a dangerous team.

9. North Dakota
Why they'll be good: North Dakota got a big break when forward Jaron Nash was granted an extra year of eligibility, as he could be a focal point for them. He is a former transfer from Texas Tech with major conference athleticism. He can get a little too in love playing outside, but at his best he is a versatile scorer who scores well around the basket and rebounds fairly well. If he could just shoot a little better at the foul line (33% last year), it would make him much more dangerous.

Despite many key losses, UND will have decent experience thanks to some transfers. Estan Tyler sat out last year, but he averaged over 11 PPG two years ago at UMKC. As a freshman two years ago, Terrel de Rouen played a lot of minutes on a New Mexico State team that played in the NCAA Tournament. Cole Stefan is a senior who started his career at Green Bay. But the hopes of the UND backcourt may rest with true sophomore Quinton Hooker, who got valuable minutes last year, showing good maturity and a grasp on the college game as a true freshman on a team with a ton of upperclassmen. Brian Jones said he has really taken on a leadership role this year, and you get the sense they hope he becomes the face of the program. His development could determine whether UND is battling for a conference tournament spot, or battling to stay out of the cellar.

Why they'll struggle: As mentioned, though UND has guys that have played at the DI level, they are losing their identity from the past four seasons. It's impossible to succinctly state what they will miss with the graduation of guys like Troy Huff, Aaron Anderson, and Jamal Webb, but suffice to say the guys have a lot to prove.

First, they will need to figure out who they are defensively. In the past, they forged an identity as a team that would pressure the ball, take chances, and force turnovers. While it was not always successful, they had their style and had guys that could play that system. While Coach Jones has said the right things about focusing on creating an identity on defense, and how this year's team will be able to be a bit more physical, they will take their lumps on that end of the court.

Unlike the past, they may not be able to get over those lumps with offensive prowess. While Hooker had a nice freshman year, and guys like Tyler and de Rouen have had success at the collegiate level, I am not sure who will be able to consistently get shots in the halfcourt, either for themselves or for teammates. I could see things getting bogged down a bit when they are forced to play slower, and not be able to manufacture a lot of offense, which was a problem even with the talented guys they had.

Final verdict: North Dakota has had a successful two years so far in the Big Sky, with year one resulting in a conference tournament semifinals berth, followed by a conference tournament championship berth, both times losing to Weber State. Unfortunately, they were one of the oldest teams in the country last year, and lose five of their top seven guys. It will be a rebuilding year in Grand Forks. While you can envision a scenario whereby the newcomers can propel them to a conference tournament berth, I think a more likely scenario is that they fall just outside of postseason basketball for the first time in their short Big Sky history.

10. Idaho State
Why they'll be good: Bill Evans is a fine coach, and he is slowly turning around the Bengals program and getting the talent level up to the point where they are consistently competing in the Big Sky tournament. After just missing out last year, they will again be battling for one of the final spots.

One strength they will have is a solid frontcourt, filled with guys that have both experience and talent. The leader is Jeffrey Solarin, who is 6'4'' but plays like someone six inches taller. In his first year in Pocatello, he was one of the top 20 offensive rebounders in the nation, and got his share of easy putbacks. He knows his role as a tireless rebounder, and he is great at it. He is one of my favorite guys in the Big Sky. He will likely be joined in the starting lineup by intriguing senior Ajak Magot, who posted a 5.7 block percentage last year in limited minutes. If he can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, he can be a good rim protector for them.

They will also get an injection in talent from some newcomers. Nnamdi Ezenwa is a newcomer in the sense that he redshirted last year, but the senior did play two years ago and has looked great in the preseason. Marcus Bradley is a junior college transfer that has plenty of skills on the offensive end. Andre Slavik from Slovakia redshirted last season, but is a skilled forward who should provide some punch on the offensive end. In all, they should get nice production up front, which is uncommon for many teams in the conference.

Why they'll struggle: Bill Evans is an excellent defensive coach, but they have at times struggled to execute the 2-3 zone that he prefers. The main problem has been giving up too many good looks from the outside. 37.6% of opponent's points last year against ISU came from three-pointers, which was the highest percentage in the country. The Bengals must do a better job of closing out against shooters in the zone, because the Big Sky is full of great shooters.

Another area to watch is at PG, where they lost Tomas Sanchez, who was fourth in the NCAA last year in terms of percentage of his team's minutes that he played, Redshirt sophomore Ben Wilson will get the first crack at the job. The 6'6'' guard seems to be more of a wing man than a true point guard, but if all goes well he would be an intriguing option as a long-armed guard at the top of the zone. Behind him are two true freshmen who will be good players eventually, but Evans has to hope he doesn't have to find out how good they are right away. They relied heavily on Sanchez last year, so he will be tough to replace.

Final verdict: The Bengals were one of my favorite teams in the conference last year, because they seemed to be in every game (all of their conference losses were by 8 points or less), but never seemed to be able to catch a break. If they can get solid guard play next to Chris Hansen (one of the quickest releases in the Big Sky), they could be a couple breaks away from making the conference tournament this time around. One of these days they will make that breakthrough, but I'm not sure it will be this year.

11. Montana State
Why they'll be good: I really like new head coach Brian Fish, and I think he will have success in Bozeman. He has plenty of experience under Dana Altman, and will bring a faster style of play to MSU, which should fit the talent and help him build a good system there. He should have some good guards this year, which will allow them to push the pace and maybe sneak up on guys.

One guy to watch is Marcus Colbert, who will be starting for the third straight year at PG, and has really developed into one of the better lead guards in the Big Sky. He is a very good shooter, and showed improvement last year in his ability to find teammates, and to score more efficiently in the paint. They will need him to be a focal point, and I think he is good enough to handle that role. With Michael Dison (a senior), Terrell Brown, and Stephen Holm (a potential sharpshooter) also in the backcourt, MSU has some guards that can be solid players in the Big Sky.

Why they'll struggle: Simply put, they don't have the talent right now to compete at the highest levels of the Big Sky. While there is potential among those backcourt guys, it's too early to say whether any of them save Colbert is an above average starter.

One issue that they will work on early in the year is the frontcourt rotation, after the graduation of Paul Egwuonwu and Flavien Davis. Those guys provided a base that allowed them to be one of the better rebounding teams in the Big Sky, and surprisingly frisky defensively. They have a lot of intriguing guys in the frontcourt, but they will need to use the non-conference period to find out which of them are capable of contributing right now. Newcomers Zach Green and Quinn Price look like they will be long-term building blocks for Fish, but it might be a lot to ask them to play big minutes effectively right away.

Final verdict: It's often said it sports that either you're selling success or you're selling hope. For Montana State under first year coach, they're selling hope. This will be a young team, and they should play a fun brand of basketball. But the dividends from this year will come next year, and the year after, when the foundation has been built and Fish has players that will fit into the system that he wants to run. There will be trying times, but I think the fan base will embrace it this year, as they knew the Brad Huse era had gone stale. It won't always be a pretty year, but I think the future will be bright for the Bobcat program.

12. Southern Utah
Why they'll be good: There will be a lot of continuity, as almost every key piece returns, and many of them were freshmen last year. They were one of the youngest teams in the country last season, and gave a ton of times to bench guys, meaning they will return a lot of guys that just got their feet wet last year. As bad as things were, they found that in guys like AJ Hess, Casey Oliverson, John Marshall, and Trey Kennedy, they have players that look like they can be good players at the DI level. Coming off of a 2-27 season, that's about all you can hope for.

The other thing I will say about SUU is something I said all of last year - no matter how bad things got, or how deep the struggles, they were a team that always played hard for Nick Robinson, and I respect that. It would have been easy to give up, but they never took a game off even in the midst of a 26 game losing streak.

Why they'll struggle: They scored just 0.89 PPP last year, which was second to last in the NCAA. They couldn't get easy baskets, struggled to hit outside shots, and turned the ball over far too often. While I would expect improvement, they won't become even close to an average offensive team overnight.

Two guys with perhaps the highest ceilings and athletic gifts in the program are guards Trey Kennedy and Juwan Major, however both guys struggled as true freshmen. Kennedy showed flashes, but Major did not do many things well in his first year in Cedar City. In order for things to turn around, they need a couple of the current guys to become high-level Big Sky players, and while Kennedy might have that ceiling in theory, he didn't show it in his first year.

Defensively, they need to find a way to play without constantly sending opponents to the foul line. Fans of the Big Sky know that SUU games can be an exercise in torture, as games can become a parade to the free throw line. The Thunderbirds need to walk the line between being physical and hacking their opponents, and they never found that line last season.

Final verdict: Simply put, they could be massively improved and still comfortably finish last in the Big Sky - that is how bad things were last year, when they at times looked like they could be the worst offensive and defensive team in all of college basketball. While they bring back most of the squad and have some newcomers up front that should make an impact right away, it's a tall mountain to climb. We are still a year away from judging the rebuilding efforts, because most of this year's team should be returning next season as well.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT NOTES & PREDICTIONS
Format: The format is slightly different this season, to account for the one extra team in the conference. Last year, 7 of 11 teams made the Big Sky tournament. This year, 8 of 12 teams will make the tournament. This means that the top seed will not get a bye into the semifinals, which is what happened last year. The final change is that teams will not reseed after the first round, so round 2 could feature the top seed playing someone other than the lowest remaining seed, depending on who wins in round 1.

Location: Like past years, the location for the tournament will be the home gym of the regular season champion.

Predictions:
Rd 1 - Weber State over Idaho
Rd 1 - Eastern Washington over Montana
Rd 1 - Northern Arizona over Northern Colorado
Rd 1 - Sacramento State over Portland State

Semis - Weber State over Eastern Washington
Semis - Northern Arizona over Sacramento State

Championship - Weber State over Northern Arizona - I thought about picking NAU to win the conference tournament, with their experience, and potential defensively to go along with guards that will create offense. However, given that the top seed gets homecourt advantage, that is just such a large advantage that it is hard to pick against them. That is why I have, for the second straight year, Weber State advancing to the Big Dance.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAMS
(Side note: If the Big Sky can choose six players for their All-Conference first-team, then so can I!)
(Side note 2: I know it is semi-ridiculous to go six deep on all-conference teams, but it's a good way to give me a chance to talk about a lot of different guys and their games. If Player X from your favorite team is chosen on the fifth team rather than the fourth team, don't take it as a slight. It is a very inexact science.)

FIRST TEAM:
(*denotes Player of the Year)
- Joel Bolomboy* (Weber State) - I haven't seen him getting a ton of love as potential player of the year from other publications, but to me, he is the best player in the conference. If you could choose any player to build your team around this year, I think it would be him, and that is why he is my preseason choice for Player of the Year. In his first two seasons, he has established himself as one of the elite rebounders in the nation - last year he was in the top ten nationally in both offense and defensive rebounding rates. He was the Big Sky Defensive POY, and is an important defensive anchor for them. The part that everyone is waiting to see is if his offensive game develops, as he is not natural yet with the ball in his hands. In Weber's last exhibition, he scored 23 points on 9/11 FG, 4/4 FT, and even hit a three. I think the offensive game will be improved, which would make him the POY in the Big Sky, and maybe even a threat to go pro. I think he is that good.
- Quinton Upshur (Northern Arizona)  - Upshur is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table for the Lumberjacks. His best attribute is his shooting, where he made 38% of threes on about six attempts per game last season. Unlike other three-point specialists, he also does well to draw fouls, get to the line, and score inside the arc, which is what makes him such a weapon for Jack Murphy. On the other end, he can poke the ball or get in the passing lane. If NAU breaks through and wins the conference, he could be good enough to be the POY in the Big Sky.
- Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington) - Two years ago, Harvey was a walk-on freshman who got his shot near the end of the year due to injuries, and didn't make his first start until the fifth to the last game of the season. As an encore as a sophomore, he led the Big Sky in scoring, and did it quite efficiently. He is a great shooter that is not afraid to shoot at any time, but also was surprisingly good at getting to the foul line, where he is just about automatic. He has left everyone wondering what his ceiling is, as he is the type of player in the type of offense that could lead the nation in scoring.
- Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State) - All Garrity has done in his career is lead the Big Sky in assists twice, and then transform into an elite long-range shooter who hurts you from anywhere. He plays off the ball a bit more than he did earlier in his career, but if you had to pick one guy to make a three at the end of the game, Garrity would probably be your guy. If he had made 3 more threes last year, he would have been at 50% from downtown with 75 made. It's tough to process how good that is, especially for a guy who is more than just a shooting specialist.
- Mikh McKinney (Sacramento State) - I thought McKinney was the most improved player in the conference a year ago, which makes me excited to see what his senior year holds. He shares ballhandling duties with Garrity, which led to 4.6 APG and a 30.0 Assist Rate, in the top 100 in the nation. He is very good at getting to the line, and good at scoring when he does get in the paint. In all, he is an efficient scorer who keeps the defense from keying too much on him because of his equally good passing ability.
- Jeremy Senglin (Weber State) - The presence of Davion Berry helped Senglin in his freshman year, as he was able to play off the ball a bit, and showcase his skills as an excellent catch and shoot player. The challenge now will be to assume ballhanding duties, and create shots both for himself and others. It says here he will be up to the task, as he has loads of talent and a coaching staff with a strong track record with guards. His ceiling is such that he could be the best lead guard in the conference by the end of this season. He is that talented.

SECOND TEAM:
- Gary Winston (Portland State) - Winston has been a quality contributor for all three of his seasons at PSU, and is one of the better guards in the conference going into his senior year. He is a lethal shooter from three-point range... his 42% mark last year was actually down from a season prior, when he shot 47% from beyond the arc. He has also improved in the area of finding teammates (his assist rate has gone up every year) and taking care of the ball. He has had a great career for the Vikings.
- Jordan Gregory (Montana) - Gregory is a guy that has gotten better every year, and kept his great efficiency even as his usage as increased. Though a little undersized, he is in every other way a prototypical two guard who should finish in the top five in the Big Sky in points. He is strong enough to get in the lane, very comfortable shooting from the outside, and takes great care of the ball. I think he is one of the more underrated guys in the conference. The only question is that he has spent his entire career playing next to Kareem Jamar... how will he handle being the focal point of defenses?
- Richaud Gittens (Weber State) - A highlight reel waiting to happen, Gittens just scratched the surface of his potential as a freshman. You don't think of him as a jump shooter, but he made 15/31 from downtown last year, so defenses will have to respect his shot. He scored 12 points in the NCAA Tournament against Arizona. He is at his best in the open floor or finishing at the rim, but he was a surprisingly adept passer as well. If he can cut down the turnovers a bit and become a little better finisher, he will be a star.
- Tim Huskisson (Northern Colorado) - I talked a bit about him in my UNC section, but it seems like by the end of the year Huskisson could be a first teamer, or he could be coming off the Bears bench - with everything in between a possibility. He is probably the best dunker in the Big Sky, with elite athleticism for this level. He combines this with a smooth stroke and a knack for grabbing offensive boards. When things are clicking, there aren't many guys more fun to watch.
- Martin Breunig (Montana) - Watch this highlight video for a sneak peek at what he can do. He began his career at Washington before transferring to Montana, and drew rave reviews last year while he had to sit out due to transfer rules. There are few (if any) big men in the conference who combine his skill set with his athleticism. There are rumors of a reliable mid-range jumpshot in his arsenal as well. If that is true, he could be a first-team all-conference guy right away as the big man Montana has been missing the past couple of seasons.

THIRD TEAM:
- Mario Dunn (Montana) - Montana was 10-5 last year when Dunn was in the starting lineup, and 7-8 without him. Entering his sophomore year, Dunn has been working on improving his jump shot, which would help make him into a more complete offensive player. He still needs to show he can run an offense, but Dunn could already be a candidate for defensive POY. He will cause a lot of problems for other PGs in the Big Sky.
- Conner Hill (Idaho) - Hill will be one of the best scorers in the Big Sky, as a guy who is a great shooter, but not just a great shooter. He takes great care of the ball, with a turnover rate that ranked among the 25 best in the country. He has improved in creating his own shot, and could score 18 PPG this year as Idaho's main offensive threat.
- Tevin Svihovec (Northern Colorado) - Svihovec played the first two years of his career primarily at PG before moving off the ball last year, a role for which he was more suited. He is a physical guard that gets into the lane with savvy rather than quicks, and is good at getting to the free throw line. He is a streaky shooter at times, but good enough to keep defenses from being able to help much off of him.
- Jeffrey Solarin (Idaho State) - Solarin is not a guy that can you can give the ball to and tell him to score, but he is someone that knows his well and does it extremely well. There are few better rebounders in the Big Sky (especially on the offensive glass), as he always seems to know where the ball will bounce. He shot 58% from the floor last year with stat lines such as - 10/11 FG, 8/10 FG, 7/8 FG, 8/9 FG, 9/9 FG. He is one of my favorite players in the Big Sky.
- Venky Jois (Eastern Washington) - In terms of traditional averages, not many guys are more impressive than Venky Jois. As a freshman, he averaged 12.3 PPG/9.0 RPG/2.4 BPG, and then followed that up with 13.4 PPG/8.0 RPG/1.8 BPG last year. Though the raw numbers are somewhat inflated by EWU's fast pace, Jois is a skilled big man comfortable from the midrange in. Though not a traditional rim protector, he has good timing on shot blocks, making him one of the best in the Big Sky in that area. If he can get his FT percentages back up in the 70% range and continue to improve his shooting percentages, he has the potential to be a first-team Big Sky player.

FOURTH TEAM:
- Drew Brandon (Eastern Washington) - Brandon is a walking triple-double threat, as he is an excellent rebounder for a guard (14.7 DR%), and sporting a 26.8 Assist Rate. He is a good outside shooter, but needs to get more efficient inside, where he shot just 39% on twos. Improve that to 50% inside, and he is one of the best PGs in the Big Sky.
- Marcus Colbert (Montana State) - Entering his third year as a starter, Colbert showed typical freshman to sophomore season improvement, getting better in almost every area. In a faster paced system, he could show improvement once again, as a versatile offensive threat that can score in different ways.
- Kris Yanku (Northern Arizona) - I think that by the end of his career, it is conceivable that he could lead the conference in both assists and steals. Coming in, he was lauded by recruiting analysts for his toughness and moxie, and he showed both last year. He was 41st in the country in steal percentage, had a 22.7 Assist Rate, and showed capable of getting into the lane and to the line. As he becomes a better shooter, he will join guys like Jeremy Senglin and Mario Dunn in what is shaping up to be a great class of Big Sky point guards.
- DaShaun Wiggins (Portland State) - Wiggins played a little more than half of the team's minutes last season, and he shot over six free throws per game. Put another way, he drew 8.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which was the fourth best mark in the country. He attacks the basket well, and takes care of the rock at a better than average rate, especially for someone with his usage. He can get overlooked because he comes off the bench for them, but he is an important piece for the Vikings.
- Jaron Nash (North Dakota) - Nash shot 57% on two-pointers last year, showing an impressive finishing touch and ability around the basket. He has elite athleticism for the Big Sky level, and needs to use that to attack offensively and position himself well defensively. If he does that, he can average something like 15 and 7 this year for a North Dakota team that will desperately need his contributions.

FIFTH TEAM:
- Chris Hansen (Idaho State) - Hansen will be key for them this season, because he is their best offensive player with his shooting ability. He improved a lot as a junior, becoming far better inside the arc (and getting to the line more often), while shooting even better from outside it. He is not great at creating his own shot, so he will need to work on that with Tomas Sanchez graduated.
- Sekou Wiggs (Idaho) - Wiggs was dynamic with the ball in his hands, getting to the line and drawing fouls at an elite rate, especially for a true freshman. At 6'3'', he is not an outside shooter at all (3/11 from downtown on the year), but he can straight up score the ball and is difficult to defend off the bounce. I'm excited to see what his ceiling is, because there aren't a lot of guys like him in the Big Sky.
- Cameron Michael (Northern Colorado) - He is a redshirt sophomore this year, and will be expected to fill the Tate Unruh role as an excellent shooter in the Bears attack. He averaged 4.1 PPG as a freshman at Air Force, hitting 45% of his threes. If he can approach that mark with a larger role in UNC's offense, he will be one of the best newcomers in the Big Sky.
- Casey Oliverson (Southern Utah) - In his first year in Cedar City, Oliverson showed a knack on the glass, finishing with a top 200 offensive rebounding rate. He was also an efficient scorer, hitting 53% (though he struggled at the foul line). In a season without many bright spots, he was one of them for SUU - a legit Big Sky forward capable of putting up nice numbers.
- Eric Stuteville (Sacramento State) - He started his freshman year slowly, but was a reliable big man by the end of the season, scoring in double figures six times in conference play. For a team that could be guard-oriented, Stuteville offers the best chance of a consistent post threat, and a guy that defenses must account for down low. He is also a good rebounder, with a 9.9 OR% and 17.2 DR%. He could be a 12 and 6 guy, of which there aren't that many in the Big Sky.

SIXTH TEAM:
- Jordan Wilson (Northern Colorado) - At 5'7'' and lightning quick, he draws comparisons to Drew Lavender, who starred at Xavier a few years ago. as a true freshman, he was better offensively than I thought he would be, with a capable outside shot and taking pretty good care of the ball. If he can distribute a little more and continue to develop defensively (where he has the quickness to be a terror), he will be a star for the Bears.
- Quinton Hooker (North Dakota) - Hooker has all the intangibles you want from a point guard - he is a leader for UND, has big game experience, and didn't seem afraid of the moment as a true freshman on big stages. However, they need more from him this season. He was not a great scorer last year, in part because he didn't need to be - it wasn't something he was asked to do. This year, he needs to be able to keep defenses honest, and work to be a better playmaker for others.
- AJ Hess (Southern Utah) - He may never become a lead dog for the Thunderbirds, but Hess is an efficient offensive player who can help you on the glass as well. If he can get a little better off the bounce, he'll be a nice building block for them over the next two seasons. They need him to be a leader.
- Ako Kaluna (Northern Arizona) - At 6'7'', he is a brusing post that is capable of playing against anyone in the Big Sky. He was very good on the glass last year, especially offensively. While he struggled shooting from the outside, he has a good shot (71% free throws) and knows his way around the basket. Surprisingly skilled with the ball in his hands, Kaluna is a guy I think will have a breakout season.
- Tiegbe Bamba (Portland State) - PSU has had a ton of success in the past with undersized 4 men, and Bamba fits the prototype. He is athletic enough to step out and help on pick and rolls, and strong enough to grab 10 rebounds on any given night. On a team that lacked frontcourt depth last year, Bamba will be just what they need.

TOUGHEST OMISSIONS: Aaseem Dixon (Northern Arizona), Chris Golden (Weber State), Ognjen Miljkovic (Eastern Washington), Mike Scott (Idaho), Kyndahl Hill (Weber State), Gaellen Bewernick (Northern Arizona)

Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Newcomer of the Year: Martin Breunig (Montana)
Freshman of the Year: Zach Green (Montana State)

TOP NEWCOMERS
The order here is tough to predict, and I am sure to be laughably wrong on that. But again, this is more an opportunity to talk about some of the newcomers to the league, their games, and their potential impact.
1. Martin Breunig (Montana) - see notes from above
2. Cameron Michael (Northern Colorado) - see notes from above
3. Tiegbe Bamba (Portland State) - see notes from above
4. Bryce White (Portland State) - White will start from day one on the wing, and Coach Geving believes he could be an all-league player. He will do it all for them, from shooting the ball to guarding the other teams best wing player. In junior college last year, he scored 27 PPG. He is a big wildcard for the Vikings, because he has the talent to be their best player immediately.
5. Dwight Smith (Northern Colorado) - Smith comes from Colorado State, where he was an efficient (though bit) offensive player who didn't force things. More than anything, his value will likely come on the defensive end, where he will be one of the more versatile guys in the league.
6. Chris Golden (Weber State) - Golden is an excellent shooter who hit 35% from downtown last year in Junior College. He could start at the two spot for them, and will be an important cog in stretching the floor for guys like Senglin and Gittens. He has looked poised out there in the preseason.
7. Estan Tyler (North Dakota) - Two years ago, Tyler was an offensive threat for UMKC, averaging over 11 PPG. He is a great outside shooter that made 43% from downtown, and posted a nice assist rate of 22.3. He has to cut down on turnovers, but he will be a productive player that Brian Jones will be counting on for early offense.
8. Zach Green (Montana State) - Green broke his leg early in his senior year of high school, which may have helped MSU land a player of his caliber. He averaged 17 PPG as a junior. I picked him as my Freshman of the Year thanks to a combination of talent, and the ample opportunity that he should have for time.
9. Kyle Reid (Eastern Washington) - The Eagles are a deep team, but Reid is good enough that he could have a big role in what they do for his two years in Cheney. He was high school teammates and friends with Tyler Harvey, and Reid fills a role as an athletic, powerful frontcourt players. He averaged 15 and 10 last year, and grabbed 14 rebounds in their exhibition win.
10. Mason Stuteville (Sacramento State) - He is not a traditional big man, but an athletic guy that can play inside and out. I think at times he'll be able to hit an outside shot, or go inside defensively and block shots. Expectations are high for him.
11. Braxton Tucker (Portland State) - He is another guy who Coach Geving is excited about for the things he can do defensively. As an undersized four, he has the strength and quickness to guard different positions as well as rebounding effectively.
12. Josiah Coleman (North Dakota) - The JUCO transfer should get immediate time in UND's frontcourt, and will be a good shooter who can do a lot of things well. As we have talked about, there will be plenty of opportunity for newcomers in Grand Forks, and Coleman should grab a role immediately.
13. Jaelyn Johnson-Coston (Weber State) - He should begin the year as the Wildcats sixth man, kind of a jack of all trades that will score on the wing, rebound well, and defend bigger guards and small forwards. Hopes are high for him being a big part of the rotation.
14. Ben Wilson (Idaho State) - Wilson is a guy that does a little bit of everything, and will be asked to be a steady hand in the backcourt for the Bengals. If all he does is handle the ball well and make some plays defensively, he will be a bit asset for them.
15. Jermaine Edmonds (Montana) - Edmonds will have three years of eligibility, and is a bit of a poor man's Kareem Jamar in that he is skilled and contributes in many different ways. He is an excellent long-range shooter for them, and should be their best bench player before likely moving into the starting lineup next season.
16. Quinn Price (Montana State) - Price is a talented big man who should get some minutes right away in an unsettled frontcourt. He had six rebounds in their exhibition win, and is skilled enough offensively to put some points on the board as well.
17. Terrel de Rouen (North Dakota) - He is a guard that comes from New Mexico State, and should make an immediate impact defensively. He should also be able to handle some ballhanding duties, though he never stood out on that end of the floor.
18. Jaleni Neely (Northern Arizona) - Neely is a junior PG who should be a nice bench player for the Jacks. He does a little bit of everything, and will be a valuable backup behind Kris Yanku.
19. Carson Shanks (North Dakota) - Shanks will be eligible the second semester, and should get plenty of time at that point. He started his career at Utah State before transferring, and can play inside or even hit some threes. He should be a quality big in time for them.
20. Jordan Scott (Idaho) - Scott redshirted last year, but the freshman averaged 18 and 10 in his last year in high school. On an Idaho team that could be thin up front, expect to see him get minutes right away.

Guys that may not have a big impact this year or are redshirt candidates, but you should know for the future - Ryan Richardson (Weber State), Jeremiah Jefferson (Weber State), Zach Braxton (Weber State), Hayden Hunter (Weber State), Geno Crandall (North Dakota), Bogdan Bliznyuk (Eastern Washington), Bryce Cashman (North Dakota), Geno Luzcando (Idaho State), Ian Fox (Idaho State), Fabijan Krslovic (Montana), Joey Frenchwood (Montana State), Tate de Laveaga (Northern Arizona), Jiday Ugbaja (Sacramento State)

UNDER-APPRECIATED PLAYERS
In other words... other guys I didn't get the chance to talk about, but would like to! This section could probably also be called, "Glue Guys."
- James Hajek (Weber State) - He is a guy that almost every good team has - he doesn't need the ball, and is willing to do all the little things to help the team win. He is also perhaps the most respected guy in the locker. Going into a senior year, guys like Hajek are what makes college basketball so great.
- Mike Weisner (Montana) - He has played all over for the Grizzlies in the frontcourt, from the three (probably his most natural position) to the five. He is a great shooter that had a 66.9% true shooting percentage last season. Every team would love a guy like him as a role player for them.
- Brandon Gfeller (Montana) - At the beginning of his freshman year, Gfeller showed flashes that he could be a Weisner like sharpshooter from downtown, providing some instant offense off the bench. I'm excited to see how his game has grown.
- Jordyn Martin (Northern Arizona) - Martin is an excellent defender and rebounder, seemingly always in the right position. Though he won't be a focal point of the offense, he doesn't hurt you either, only taking very high percentage shots. He is a great part of the frontcourt rotation for the Jacks.
- Dominique Lee (Northern Colorado) - Lee was a guy who I thought was almost Derrick Barden Light last yeasr - he wasn't quite the athlete, but he did similar things. He is a very good offensive role player that takes what the defense gives him and doesn't force things. He is also an excellent rebounder, with a 14.1 OR% last year.
- Zach Mills (Sacramento State) - Mills is a bit of an undersized forward who does all the little things for the Hornets. He is a good stretch four as a shooter, making 40% of his threes. He also rebounds well, and always competes. If the Hornets fulfill their lofty potential, guys like Mills will be a big part of it, even if he doesn't get many accolades.
- Parker Kelly (Eastern Washington) - Kelly has slowly but surely gained more trust and a bigger part in Jim Hayford's rotation, as he is a reliable outside shooter and floor spacer. Mostly a catch and shoot guy, he is valuable insofar as he helps keep the lane open for guys like Harvey and Brandon.

FURTHER READING:
If you are thirsting for more Big Sky information, here are a few more directions to go.
- If you aren't yet tired of my writing, I posted team by team outlooks if you haven't read those yet, as well as a preview on ESPN.
- Raphielle Johnson of NBC Sports wrote his Big Sky preview a couple weeks ago. Simply put, Raphielle is my favorite college basketball writer, and you should read his preview.
- Brett Hein of Mid-Major Madness posted his preview of the conference last week. Brett is very active on twitter and one of the most well-versed followers of the Big Sky that I know.
- The Big Sky Prospectus is always chalk full of great information.

Thank you all for reading! If you have made it this far, you are a true gem. Writing this preview is a lot of work, but I hope that if you read it, you were able to learn a lot and get even more excited about the Big Sky season. If you enjoyed it, please consider supporting the site, as this is a one man job in my spare time.

As always, if you ever have any thoughts, questions, or comments, shoot me an email or a note on twitter, and I promise I will reply!

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Support This Site

First of all, thank you to my readers, who have made the experience of writing this blog a very fun one. This is my fourth Big Sky season, and sometime soon in the year I will reach my 1300th post. When I first started the site, I had no idea I would still be writing about the Big Sky a few years later, having met many great people and having had many great experiences.

It has also been a ton of work, and having a full-time job, I just do it in my spare time as a hobby. It is not expensive to run the blog, but there is definitely a high level of time investment. While I have made a little money from the site (mostly from a couple opportunities which have come as a result of the site), it has not been very much... I would be surprised if it worked out to even 50 cents per hour.

So, for the first time, I wanted to allow people to contribute and support the site, if they so wish, via a paypal option. If you enjoy the blog and feel like you want to contribute, I would be more than grateful for any support. If you choose not to or are not able to, I completely understand and respect that. Other than this post, I will place a button on the sidebar (linking to this post), and make a brief mention of it in my Big Sky preview (coming either Wednesday or Thursday, I have been frantically working on it the past few days), and then never mention this again. I am not sure if even creating this post is in bad form... if it is, I apologize!




Now, carry on, and thanks again for reading! I sincerely appreciate any feedback, comments, or questions you have at any time, either via twitter or my email.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Friday, November 7, 2014

Odds and Ends

The season is officially less than a week away from starting, so wanted to post a quick update on things here.

I am working on my long season preview which I post every year, and should have it out by the middle of the week, right before the start of things! Excited to see how it turns out.

I finished all of my team outlooks as a mini-primer for the year. They can be found here:

- Eastern Washington Outlook
- Idaho Outlook
- Idaho State Outlook
- Montana Outlook
- Montana State Outlook
- North Dakota Outlook
- Northern Arizona Outlook
- Northern Colorado Outlook
- Portland State Outlook
- Sacramento State Outlook
- Southern Utah Outlook
- Weber State Outlook

- Also, this past Thursday was the preseason coaches conference call. I wasn't able to get a post up here, but I posted a lot of notes on my twitter page.

- Brett Hein wrote up a nice Big Sky preview over at Mid Major Madness. You should go check that out, and give him a twitter follow.

- I know I am well behind on the verbal commits for this recruiting class. I will get to these eventually, I promise.

Thanks as always for reading the blog, and humoring me with this fun hobby. Finally, the season is almost upon us, and what a great year it will be!

Let me know of any thoughts/questions/complaints as we head into the season.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

Monday, November 3, 2014

Weber State Outlook

It's time to get ready for the Big Sky season again with some overviews of each team this month, and then eventually we'll get into more detailed looks at everything.

What They Lost: After falling just short the past few seasons, Weber State broke through and won the Big Sky last season. However, even though they are the preseason number one, it will be tough to repeat thanks to some big losses. The biggest loss is Davion Berry, who was the conference POY last season. He did it all for the Wildcats as their best scorer and passer. He did a little bit of everything and will be tough to replace. Kyle Tresnak was excellent inside, one of the best back to the basket scorers in the conference. He also improved defensively throughout his career and was a legitimate shot blocker by the end of his career. Also gone is guard Jordan Richardson, who was a nice four year player for them. He was a very good shooter, but could also handle the ball when needed.

They lost Royce Williams to transfer, who had been a guy I liked, but never got a ton of time. Williams was a proficient shooter but didn't do a ton of other things.

Who Returns: Down low, they bring back Joel Bolomboy, one of the best players in the conference. In his first two seasons, all Bolomboy has done is establish himself as one of the best rebounders in the nation, as well as an athletic and versatile defender. If he can improve offensively, he's the best player in the Big Sky and a future pro. James Hajek will be back up front as well, after missing much of last year with injury. He can be a rebounding and shot blocking big man for them. Kyndahl Hill could start at the four, and to me he is one of the more intriguing guys in the Big Sky. An incredible athlete, Hill just needs polish to be a unique weapon for Randy Rahe.

In the backcourt, Jeremy Senglin and Richaud Gittens got plenty of run as freshmen, and should be better served for it. Senglin will be the point guard, with an excellent outside shot (40% from downtown), and a smooth handle. We will see if he has the chops to be an above average distributor, but he will be a very good player no matter. Gittens is one of the more athletic wings in the conference, a slasher who can finish hard. He just needs to take care of the ball a bit better, but he is a dynamic playmaker.

Newcomers: Chris Golden started the last exhibition game at guard, and put up a team high 16 points, hitting two threes. The juco transfer averaged over 20 PPG last year and will hit a bunch of threes. Jaelyn Johnson-Coston is another juco guy that will contribute right away on the wing, and he is a guy that can do a bit of everything. He looks to be their top reserve as of now.

Among freshmen, Hayden Hunter could get the most minutes, and he had four assists versus no turnovers in the exhibition. He should be a nice pass-first guard off the bench for them. Jeremiah Jefferson and Ryan Richardson are both guys with bright futures that could get a lot of minutes at many schools, but we'll see how much they play as freshmen. Both are super athletic and excellent shooters (especially Richardson), but the minutes available could dictate whether at least one of them redshirts. Both have bright futures.

Zach Braxton is a freshman big man with a lot of potential, but again the first year impact will depend on minutes. He averaged 18 and 14 with four blocks per game last year, getting some interest from Mountain West teams. He is ready to play, but could be a redshirt candidate if they feel good about their current frontcourt rotation.

General Outlook: Weber State is again the preseason favorite, but this year, there are a lot more dissenting opinions. They need Senglin and Gittens to be able to create offense for themselves and others, or else they could have trouble getting baskets when they need them. Also, they'll be a young team - Hajek is the only senior, which is amazing for a team ranked preseason number one. They have done a great job recruiting, and they have more young talent and athleticism than anyone in the conference. How quickly those guys assume major roles will determine whether they can be back to back champions.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Southern Utah Outlook

It's time to get ready for the Big Sky season again with some overviews of each team this month, and then eventually we'll get into more detailed looks at everything.

What They Lost: It was a rough year last season for the Thunderbirds, as they waited until right before the end of the year to finally get their first DI win. One of the reasons for the struggles was how young the team was, playing lots of underclassmen. As such, the losses were limited.

The biggest is Jaren Jeffery, a big man who played about 45% of the team's minutes. He shot 52% inside the arc, and was a good rebounder as well. He could provide a little bit of rim protection also, with a nice block rate. Also gone is Jayson Cheesman, who was better as a junior than he was as a senior. He was always a negative offensively (despite being 6'11'', he shot 31% last season. Thirty one percent.), but at his best he was a good rebounder and shot blocker. Also gone is guard Chris Nsenki, but that may be addition by subtraction, and allow for more minutes to younger, more talented guys.

Who Returns: As you probably gathered, almost everyone is back, and they do have some nice building blocks. As a junior in his third year in the program, AJ Hess is an old hand in the program, and he is a nice player. At times he is a three-point shooting specialist, but he shoots 38% from deep which makes him a good option. He is a solid rebounder from the three spot, and takes care of the ball. A key will be whether he can become more of a number one option.

The backcourt got a lot of experience last year, and a guy I really like is PG John Marshall. As a true freshman, he posted a nice assist rate, and his TO rate was reasonable. He is not an outside shooter (two three-point attempts all year), but he showed an ability to get to the rim, and draw some fouls. If he can find a way to be a more efficient scorer, he will be a good floor leader. Trey Kennedy also got a lot of time, and at times was their top offensive option. Though his percentages don't look great, he was asked to do a lot last season, and showed the talent to create his own shot and get to the foul line. He probably has the highest ceiling of anyone in the program.

Juwan Major also got a lot of time as a freshman, but he struggled, shooting just 40% and turning the ball over at an alarmingly high rate. They thought highly of him, but he needs to show improvement to be considered a Big Sky caliber player. One other returner of note in the backcourt is Race Parsons, who could be a shooting specialist at the off guard spot.

Up front, my favorite guy is Casey Oliverson, who had a very nice debut season as a sophomore. He was an efficient scorer inside (though struggled at the foul line), and showed himself to be an above average rebounder on both ends. He is another building block. Cal Hanks and Eric Rippetoe will both be seniors. Hanks is in the Jayson Cheesman mold in that he can help you as long as he doesn't shoot too much, and focuses on rebounds and rim protection. Rippetoe is a capable outside shooter, though he did not bring much else.

Newcomers: One guy that should help a thin frontcourt is juco transfer Christian Thompson, who averaged 16 points and 6.5 rebounds last year. He is a 6'7'' combo forward that should get a lot of minutes for them, and looks like he should be able to contribute. Other possible frontcourt contributors are Sherron Wilson (6'6'' forward from Las Vegas who averaged 13 and 4 last year and got some interest from Air Force and Tulsa), Kyler Nielson (6'6'' forward from Cedar City), and Tyler Rawson (6'9'', athletic forward from American Fork who should be an above average starter at the four in time).

In the backcourt, Travon Langston enters as a junior college transfer, and should provide some more veteran stability with a lot of the minutes going to sophomores like Kennedy, Marshall, Major, and Parsons. I would expect him to have a role. Austin Waddoups is another guy from American Fork, who has returned to SUU after his Mormon mission. He projects as a solid shooter off the ball at 6'2'', as he made 42% of his threes in his senior year of high school.

General Outlook: SUU will still struggle this year - even though they are more experienced, they are still very young, with two seniors on the roster (who are role players). They took their lumps last year in playing a lot of freshman and sophomores, and there will be some lumps again this year. But the lumps will be less, and I think Nick Robinson is building the foundation for a nice program. They may again finish last in the Big Sky, but they will win a few games this year, and be in a few others that people don't expect, because they are always feisty under Robinson. It is fun to watch the program build.

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