Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Hope that you all have (or did have) a Happy New Year!

My wife and I are celebrating New Year's in Times Square, which is either the best or worst decision of our lives! So, it will be one more quiet week at the site. When I get back, conference play should be starting to get into full force, and things will accordingly pick up here!

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Northern Colorado Makes Big Statement in Victory Over North Dakota

Northern Colorado has had an impressive season so far, knocking off Kansas State on the road, and giving New Mexico State and Colorado State all they could handle on the road. But their most impressive game of the season came on Sunday in the Big Sky opener, as they took down North Dakota 84-66.

It was an impressive effort that saw UNC take care of business in all facets of the game. They shot 60% from the floor while holding UND to 39% shooting. They outrebounded UND by 16. At one point in the first half, they turned an 11-7 deficit into a 32-11 lead thanks to a 25-0 run. Their gameplan was sound, and they executed it perfectly.

North Dakota came into the game allowing opponents to shoot 57% on two-pointers, and they showed today that was not a fluke. They constantly took chances defensively (and to their credit, they did force 20 turnovers), but when they didn't cause a steal, it would often result in open lanes for the Bears, who got a ton of easy looks. At times, North Dakota looked hopeless on help defense, and guys would drive from the three-point line all the way in for an open layup, which simply shouldn't happen. The Bears shot 22/36 inside the arc.

On the contrary, Northern Colorado played excellent defense all day, holding the powerful duo of Aaron Anderson and Troy Huff to 20 points on 5/21 FG. They switched all ball screens, which is a luxury BJ Hill has with big men as agile as Derrick Barden and Dominique Lee, who were both outstanding. North Dakota got some open looks outside, but they are at their best when they are able to attack the rim and score in transition, and the Bears packed things in so that UND wasn't able to get to the rim often. It was a great defensive performance, and at times UND simply had no answers in the half-court offense.

Another nice thing that UNC showed was a three-quarter court trapping press, similar to one that Montana uses. While they didn't really force a lot of turnovers, it really slowed North Dakota down and made them take a lot of time to get into their sets.

Derrick Barden was the star of the day, with 18 points and 14 rebounds, five of them offensive. He made great decisions all day, and was just relentless on the glass, as always. A guy his size should not be able to rebound the way that he does, but he is a special player at the Big Sky level.

One bright spot for North Dakota was the play of Jaron Nash, who consistently finished well at the rim, as he was able to create angles using his athleticism. He finished with 22 points on 10/14 shooting.

North Dakota will have better days than this for sure, but for one day at the start of the conference season, Northern Colorado looked every bit the conference title contender that the non-conference season showed that they could be. It's back to the drawing board for UND, especially defensively, but for now, Northern Colorado will wake up on Monday morning as the Big Sky leaders.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Northern Arizona Might Be Better Than You Think

Most observers of the Big Sky know two things about Northern Arizona. One is that leading scorer DeWayne Russell transferred from the program right before the start of the season. Two is that the team is 3-8 heading into conference play. Based on those things, it would be reasonable to assume that the Lumberjacks will be closer to the bottom of the conference than competing for a conference tournament spot.

However, they are a team that could be right in the thick of things for the number six seed.

Like Weber State, most of their losses have come against quality competition, and they have not looked terrible against that competition. Among their losses:

- A four point road loss to USC (KenPom ranking: 100) in a game they led by 10 at the half.
- A 12 point road loss to Loyola Marymount (142), who is 8-4. This was also a tight game throughout.
- A four point road loss at Fresno State (142) in overtime, in a game that they also led heading into the final ten minutes.
- A 10 point home loss to Hawaii (113) in a game that was tied at the half. Hawaii just beat St. Mary's and Oregon State.

Obviously, it would have been nice if they could have won a couple of these games. But, they are staying in close games against solid competition, often on the road. That could be a positive harbinger for a better than expected conference season, because eventually some of the luck is going to go their way.

They are still finding their offense (0.96 PPP against DI competition), but their defense has been surprisingly okay. They are allowing 1.05 PPP, which is actually fourth best in the Big Sky. They are especially doing a good job of forcing turnovers, with an 18.8% turnover rate forced.

They have an excellent inside scorer in Max Jacobsen, who continues to shoot over 60% in the post. Junior guard Quinton Upshur has struggled with his outside shot, but he can be a dynamic weapon if his jumper gets a little more consistent. Guys like Aaseem Dixon and Gaellen Bewernick are talented as well.

NAU's record at 3-8 is not where they would want it to be, obviously. They have a lot to figure out still, especially on the offensive end. But don't sleep on the Lumberjacks, because they are better than you think, and they just might be a Big Sky tournament team once again, which would be a nice feat for Jack Murphy in a rebuilding program.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Look At The Big Sky Title Contenders

With conference play almost upon us, it looks like there is a clear divide between the top five teams in the conference and the rest. With that being the case, let's take a look at those five teams, and compare the case for them and the case against them.

The case for: When they are on, they might have the most explosive offense in the conference. Tyler Harvey has taken the next step in the backcourt, and Venky Jois is still one of the most productive big men in the Big Sky. Last year they had so many PG struggles after Justin Crogsile left, but Drew Brandon has stabilized that position nicely so far this year. They have shot the three-pointer well so far, and when guys like Harvey are shooting well, they can beat anyone.

The case against: Despite that offensive power, they really haven't been consistently excellent on that end of the floor. They only shoot 61% from the FT line, and they don't get their very often with their style of play. Their two-point shooting has been average. They rely heavily on the three-point shot, which is not a bad strategy necessarily, but leaves them vulnerable if they have an off night or play a team that can take that away. Defensively, they have given up 1.06 PPP in DI games, 223rd in the nation. They have been poor at forcing turnovers. They are still a young team (only three members of the rotation are juniors, and none are seniors), so they are still growing a lot from game to game.

The case for: This is the same as we thought in the preseason - they have the best player and the best coach in the conference. Over the past two seasons, they literally have not lost a Big Sky game that they shouldn't have. When they are supposed to win a game, they do, and no other team can say that. Also, Kareem Jamar is playing the best basketball of his career, and so far looks like the conference POY again.

The case against: It's still hard to say where the interior production comes from. Among the five guys that get the most minutes for the Grizzlies, Michael Weisner is the only one over 6'5'', and he is more of a three-point specialist than inside player. They don't get offensive rebound and they don't get easy baskets off post play. Defensively, they haven't forced turnovers (14.5 Turnover % forced - 336th in the country), and teams have shot the ball very well against them. We'll have to see is that regresses to the mean, but so far they have missed Will Cherry more defensively than offensively.

The case for: Athletically, they still match up favorably to everyone in the conference. That is why they have to be included in this list even though they only have one win against DI competition. They have played a tough schedule and not really been up to the task, but they are still contenders. Troy Huff has been his usual self, and looks like the second best player in the conference after Jamar. Defensively, they do a good job of using pressure to force some turnovers, with guys like Huff (5.0 Steal %), Jaron Nash (4.1%) and Jamal Webb (3.6%) all excellent at forcing turnovers.

The case against: The easiest case against them comes from checking out their numbers defending at the rim against two-pointers. Opposing teams are shooting 57.3% percent on two-pointers against UND, one of the worst rates in the country. On twitter, I have seen it described that once you get past UND's first line of defense, it's like a layup line. They are struggling to find consistency in terms of the frontcourt playing alongside Jaron Nash (another big concern), and it is showing up here. The other secret is that despite all of their talent and athletes, they haven't been a great offensive team the last few years. They score 1.01 PPP against DI teams so far, and even though that is a big improvement over their last few years, I'm still not sure that's good enough to win the conference.

The case for: So far, they have looked like the most impressive Big Sky team. For the past couple of years, they have struggled at the PG spot and with depth on the wing, but their signing of guys like Corey Spence and Jordan Wilson killed two birds with one stone, as Tevin Svihovec has thrived moving from the PG to SG. Their biggest strength is still Derrick Barden, who is among the biggest game-changers in the conference. He is one of the handful of guys that can take over a game. UNC is one of the most talented, balanced, and deep teams in the Big Sky.

The case against: Corey Spence was supposed to answer their PG questions, but he has mostly struggled, and Jordan Wilson got the start last game. Spence has the potential to be a really solid PG, but he has to cut down on turnovers and make some more shots (he is shooting under 39% this year) or the move to Wilson will be permanent. At the five spot, Connor Osborne has struggled majorly - he is shooting 37% from the line, and his offensive rebounding numbers are a little bit down, and that is the best part of his game. Dominique Lee should continue to grab more minutes there. Also, over the past couple of years, UNC has been very inconsistent, and there are some signs of that this year, with some harder than they should have been wins over Bethune Cookman, Prairie View A&M, and UC Riverside. But if they can bring it every night (and they should be able to - they are a very veteran team), they absolutely can win the Big Sky.

The case for: They have been the most disappointing team so far due to their lack of a big non-conference win (their best win is against San Jose State), but that can be partly due to a tough schedule, and still figuring things out in the backcourt. The reason for optimism is the same as it was before the year - they are, on paper, the most talented team in the Big Sky, and they have a track record of winning. Davion Berry playing well again, and taking up some of the distributing role. Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy have been a little up and down, but they are still the most imposing frontcourt duo in the conference. As the young guys continue to mature (Jeremy Senglin, Bolomboy, Richaud Gittens, Kyndahl Hill), the team should get better and better as the conference season goes along.

The case against: For the past three years, we have been talking about all of the talent for Weber State, but they haven't broken through and won the conference. A 2-5 start is distressing for any team, and they might be feeling a bit of pressure heading into conference play. The biggest issue, I think, it's that it's starting to be fair to wonder if Jordan Richardson will be able to transition to the off guard. He has continued to struggle... he has only taken nine two-pointers this year, and is shooting just 23.5% from downtown. It might be just a shooting slump, but they need him to play like they thought he would this year. Defensively, most of their struggles have come from not forcing turnovers (which has never been their strength), and not rebounding the ball well, which is a surprise. Opponents are rebounding almost 36% of their misses - last year they were a top 10 team in the nation in this mark.

Thoughts? Who is the favorite heading into conference play?

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Hope you all have a great holiday!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Under the Radar Big Sky Players

Sometimes I find myself talking about a lot of the same players on this blog. So, I wanted to take a post to talk about some of the more "under the radar" guys on a few clubs, and take a look at their games. No real rhyme or reason, just some guys that don't get a lot of mentions, but could be interesting to take a look at.

- Tim Huskisson (Northern Colorado) - After starting the first two years of his career, he is unexpectedly UNC's sixth man so far this year, but has responded by playing his best per-minute basketball so far. Huskisson has always been a big talent, with some of the best athleticism in the Big Sky, along with a good outside stroke. He has always been efficient inside the arc, but this year he is 25/37, shooting 68% on twos. One aspect to his game that he has added is the ability to get steals, as he has a 4.5 Steal percentage, third in the Big Sky. He also has the best assist rate, and lowest turnover rate of his career. He is really developing in an all-around solid player, and that is a big reason why UNC has to be considered contenders this year. The key for him, as always, is consistency, but when he is playing well, he can be one of the best players in the Big Sky.

- Casey Oliverson (Southern Utah) - Oliverson is a sophomore in his first year with the Thunderbirds, and should have a nice career as a rotation guy for them. So far, his best skill is his offensive rebounding, with a 9.9% OR%, ninth in the conference. He has also flashed a little bit of skill as a shot-blocker, as he had three blocks against UC Riverside. He hasn't been a huge offensive threat so far (though he had a career-high ten points against Northridge), but he could be a nice fit for them as a rebounder.

- Brandon Gfeller (Montana) - He was too good for Montana to redshirt this year, and he is proving himself to be a reliable weapon off the bench. At this point in his career, he is just a shooter - but that is valuable for them right now. Gfeller is 11/24 from three-point range so far this year. He has only taken three twos (made all three), and he doesn't get many assists or add much defensively, but his range will be a nice asset for them this season.

- Max Jacobsen (Northern Arizona) - Don't look now, but Jacobsen has been the best post scorer in the Big Sky. He was one of the most improved players in the conference last season, and is showing that that improvement was no fluke. He has shot an astounding 63% on two-pointers (and it's not a sample size fluke - he is averaging almost 10 attempts per game), up from an already excellent 59% last year. He is not a great rebounder or defender, but if you get him the ball, he'll get you buckets. In a league without a lot of post scorers, that is huge.

- Andre Hatchett (Idaho State) - Hatchett is a guy that simply slots in for the Bengals wherever he is needed. In past years, he played a lot at the four spot. This year, he has been able to play a little more naturally at the three thanks to the addition of Jeffrey Solarin. While he has struggled this year offensively (only shooting about 40%), he has been a great defensive rebounder, which has been key for a team that struggled in that area last year. Still, like Gaellen Bewernick from NAU two years ago, I have a soft spot for undersized who do whatever the team needs. Hatchett is that guy.

- Cody Demps (Sacramento State) - Demps is an interesting player. He is 6'4'', but starts at the three spot for the Hornets, and does a lot of the little things for them. He rebounds 17.2% of available defensive rebounds, which is 11th in the Big Sky, and best on the team among guys that play at least 40% of the team's minutes. He is a solid passer and defender. However, there are still a lot of holes in his game. He turns the ball over way too much, with a 29.4 TO Rate. He is also still finding his way offensively. He is 14/28 on two-point attempts, but 4/15 from downtown, meaning he takes over two threes a game. For someone that is 9/35 in his career, that is way too many threes to take. He is a talented guy that can do some things, but until he finds a way to take better shots and take better care of the basketball, he is really holding the Hornets offense down.

- Terrell Brown (Montana State) - Brown has quietly been one of the better newcomers in the conference this year. While he is not shooting the three ball well so far this year, he has otherwise been efficient offensively. He has made 24/27 FTs, and 50% on two-point attempts. He doesn't turn the ball over. While he could be a better rebounder, if his outside shooting improves (and I think it will), he is an excellent complementary offensive weapon for the Bobcats.

Anyone else deserve a mention that doesn't get talked about much?

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Friday, December 13, 2013

North Dakota's Continued Defensive Struggles

Back in November, when North Dakota beat North Dakota State, it looked like they might be the best team in the Big Sky. Three weeks and five losses later, they don't look right now like they are a top 4 team in the Big Sky.

While they are having some offensive issues (namely with ball movement and outside shooting), I think the biggest concern has to be with their interior defense. While they have been able to pressure guards and force some turnovers (12.0 steal percentage, 25th in the nation), once offenses get past that first line of defense, things have just been too easy.

Against DI opponents, teams playing North Dakota are shooting 58.4% on two-point attempts, which is 346th in the nation. UND does not have anyone that can challenge shots down low, as they have a 4.5 block percentage, 333rd in the country. They have 17 blocked shots through eight games, so opponents know that if they take it to the rim, they are not going to meet a challenge from UND.

A lot of this is partially due to the fact that they play a lot of small ball. Of the five guys leading them in minutes played, only Jaron Nash (6'8'') and Troy Huff (6'5'') are taller than 6'1''. While that small lineup makes them hard to match up against because of all the quickness they can put on the floor, they are obviously having a hard time matching up against opponents.

What is the answer? I am sure Brian Jones and staff are hard at work figuring that out. It seems as though they need to find at least one of their big men that they can trust - among Alonzo Traylor, Chad Calcaterra, and Ryan Salmonsen - and give them more minutes. Of the three, Calcaterra has played the most, but that has been about 1/3 of the team's minutes. Perhaps they will need to scale back the attacking style as well - they have played at the ninth fastest pace in the country so far.

North Dakota has played a tough schedule, the fact that they sit at 2-6 is not really the issue here. The issue is that they haven't even been all that close to winning a game in the last few weeks, and that their defense resembles a sieve at the moment. That can change - they literally have the talent to win the Big Sky - but they need to find some answers before the start of conference play.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Look at Tim Douglas For Portland State

Tim Douglas for Portland State sat out last season after transferring from Portland, but is playing a big role for this year's Vikings team, so I thought it would be good to take a little closer look at his game and what he brings to PSU.

Douglas plays the most minutes on the team, and has played 91.1% of the team's minutes so far this year, the 19th highest rate in the country. During his two years for Portland, he got a lot of assists but also turned the ball over too much - both of those rates are down this year. He has an assist rate of 23.3 (which is solid but not great for a PG), and a turnover rate of 20.5 (which is ok for a PG). While the assists are down, that TO rate has been cut by a third from what it was earlier in his career.

In a small sample size, he has shown an improved outside shot, as he had made 14/31 threes, or 45%. As a freshman he shot 36.5%, and that was down to 28% as a sophomore. He is shooting just 38% on twos, but that should get better, as he shot almost 50% on those shots as a sophomore. If he can maintain anything close to that three-point percentage while improving the two-point percentage, he will actually be a really solid and efficient offensive player.

He has been pretty good at drawing fouls, and is shooting around five free throws per game, making 76.5% of them. Adding that all up, he has been a solid offensive player so far this year, and there is reason to think he could get even better as the year goes along.

Defensively, he has a 3.0 Steal percentage, which is 11th in the Big Sky. As a team, PSU has been a little bit better defensively this year, and it's fair to believe that Douglas is a part of that. Against DI competition, PSU is allowing 1.11 PPP, down from 1.16 PPP last season.

It's early in the year, and clearly there are big sample size issues that will sort themselves out. But through seven games, Douglas has been a steady PG for Tyler Geving, and looks to be a good starter for the Vikings for the next two seasons.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Drew Brandon and Kareem Jamar - Stat Sheet Stuffers

So far this season, two guys have really stood out for their ability to stuff the box score in a variety of ways.

One of them is a guy that every Big Sky fan is familiar with - Kareem Jamar of Montana. The reigning Big Sky Player of the Year has been even better in his senior season, and is putting up some big numbers.

Jamar is averaging 19.6 PPG (3rd in the Big Sky), 6.4 rebounds (11th), and 5.6 assists per game (2nd). He is shooting 50% from the field, and getting to the free throw line (though that has been his one weakness - 60% shooting on FTs). He is grabbing 20.6% of available defensive rebounds this year, up from 16.3% last season. Lastly, he has a robust 33.8 Assist Rate (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) while taking great care of the ball - a 13.1 Turnover Rate.

Jamar has been an excellent scorer while also being one of the top distributors in the conference, and an excellent rebounder to boot. Montana is off to a slow start, but it is not Jamar's fault in any way.

One guy who has possibly been outdoing him is Drew Brandon for Eastern Washington. Though he struggled a little bit yesterday (along with the rest of EWU), he has been outstanding this season. He is averaging 11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG (7th in the Big Sky - before yesterday he was averaging eight per game, which was 4th in the conference), 5.9 assists per game (leading the Big Sky), and 1.6 steals per game (top ten in conference).

As a scorer he has been a solid role player, showing an ability to knock down shots when needed. But he has grabbed 8.7% of available offensive rebounds - a solid mark for a big man, a downright ridiculous mark for a PG. His Assist Rate is at 28.8, and he sports about a 2.5:1 assist to turnover ratio. He has been a steadying PG for them, which is exactly what the team needed after last year.

It's always fun to check the box scores of the games these guys are in - Brandon has just missed on a triple double about three times this year, while Jamar has been very close a couple of times. Both guys are playing excellent basketball early on.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Updated Recruiting Tracker

If you had looked at my Big Sky recruiting tracker lately, you would have seen it was horribly out of date.

That should be mostly fixed now, though I am still working on linking to the official pages of their signings. But, if you notice anything missing, drop me a line! Check them out here.

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Big Sky Power Rankings

After a month of college basketball, it's debatable if we know more about the Big Sky than we did before the season began! There are still a lot of unknowns... but, let's still take a look at how things look right, and the order that I would put teams in right now if I was re-picking the order that things will finish in.

1. Weber State - The Wildcats are just 1-3, but the losses are two road losses to BYU and Colorado State, and a home loss to Utah State. But, it's certainly way too early to panic. They have some things to work on... their backcourt is unsettled as Jeremy Senglin is a freshman PG and Jordan Richardson is adjusting to his new role. But Davion Berry is still one of the best in the Big Sky, and the frontcourt of Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy is the best in the conference. There is enough talent and experience there that I still feel confident that they will figure things out.

2. Northern Colorado - If you look at just the results, the case could be made that no team has been more impressive than Northern Colorado. They are solid offensively, but look much improved defensively from the last two seasons. One key has been the moving of Tevin Svihovec off the ball, where he has been very solid. While his shooting numbers are down, he has shown a great ability to get to the basket and get to the free throw line. Now a junior, he appears more comfortable than he has throughout his career, and it has been big for the Bears.

3. North Dakota - If these rankings had been done before Thanksgiving, UND could have gotten the top spot. But after their three-game ugly showing in Oregon, it's far to have some worries about them. Troy Huff is great, and Aaron Anderson is pretty great too, but they need everyone else to step up too. Jaron Nash has been solid, but has struggled after a great start to his season. As mentioned earlier this week, the interior defense for UND has been atrocious so far this season, and that has to be a big-time concern.

4. Montana - I had a hard time figuring out where to rank the Grizzlies. For the most part, they have not been bad offensively, but that is because they are shooting 60% on twos, which will not continue. They don't get offensive rebounds, and they haven't been very good at getting to the free throw line, which is a concern long-term. Further, Kareem Jamar just carries such a huge load. He has played an unsustainable 93.8% of the team's minutes, and has been even better than advertised. But when you are relying so much on one guy, no matter how good he is, that's a recipe for trouble. Part of the reason for the big load has been an ankle injury for Jordan Gregory, but the Grizzlies need guys like Keron DeShields, Mike Weisner, and Mario Dunn to be able to contribute every night, and so far, that is not happening.

5. Eastern Washington - The Eagles are a tough team to rank right now, because on any given night, they could be the best and most talented team in the Big Sky. I have a feeling this number five ranking is too low, but I'm not ready to downgrade any of the teams above them quite yet. Offensively, they are scary. Tyler Harvey is second in the Big Sky in scoring with over 20 a game, with a ridiculous 68.3% true shooting percentage. Venky Jois is averaging 15 and 7, while shooting 63% on twos. PG Drew Brandon is the ultimate box score stuffer - 11.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG (5th in Big Sky), 6.4 APG (1st in Big Sky). The Eagles have a great, young core that is the envy of the conference.

6. Portland State - You cannot yet call the Vikings offense good, or even average, but it is showing signs of being improved, which would be huge for a program that has been one of the worst defensive teams in the country the past couple of seasons. Offensively, they haven't played great, but they look like they have a lot of guys that can contribute, and they should get better as the season goes along. Newcomer DaShaun Wiggins has drawn more fouls per minute than all but one person in the country, and looks to be a really solid all-around player for PSU.

7. Idaho State - They beat San Francisco on the road and almost beat Cal State Bakersfield away from home, so there is plenty to feel good about. They are forcing a lot of turnovers, and newcomer Evann Hall has the second highest steal rate in the country. They also appear to be a little bit deeper than last year, especially in the frontcourt. However, they still have trouble stopping teams inside, and they are turning the ball over too much. I think having them seventh may be overrating them just a little bit, but there can be little doubt that Bill Evans has things headed in the right direction.

8. Montana State - Only one guy has played more than 61% of the team's minutes so far, so clearly Brad Huse is playing around with some rotations and who plays well together, which is what the non-conference season is for. So far though, there are a lot of things that haven't quite been working. The Bobcats have been poor offensively, with only Marcus Colbert, Terrell Brown, and Paul Egwuonwu being above average on that end so far. There are reasons to think they will be ok - Flavien Davis will play better, and Antonio Biglow still has the talent to be really good on both ends, but I worry that their ceiling is limited.

9. Sacramento State - So far this year, things have been ugly. Offensively, they aren't getting easy baskets, they are turning it over way too much, and they aren't getting many second chance opportunities. Defensively, teams have shot almost 45% from downtown against them (which should regress to the mean), and they aren't stopping teams from scoring inside either (57% on twos). Some of those numbers are skewed by playing teams like UCLA and UC Irvine, but it has still been an opening month where they have realized there are a lot of improvements to be made.

10. Northern Arizona - After losing DeWayne Russell right before the season, they have struggled to find an offensive identity. Big man Max Jacobsen has continued to build on his strong last year last season, and is averaging over 16 PPG on 65% shooting on two-pointers. He perhaps trails only Kyle Tresnak (and even that is debatable) for the post true post scorer in the conference. There are high hopes for Quinton Upshur, but he has been uneven so far. They are a young team, and I think this 10 spot might be a bit low, but we've got to see some of the young guys and newcomers perform.

11. Southern Utah - I have a lot of respect for their program. I think Nick Robinson is a really good coach, and will do some really good things in his career. But this Southern Utah team is going to struggle to win games this year. They don't have offensive punch - they are shootting 35.5% on two-point field goals against DI competition, and not creating any second chance opportunities. They are one of the youngest teams in the country, and it is showing so far. The good thing is that they have building blocks - Trey Kennedy, Juwan Major, and AJ Hess are all really good players (or are going to be really good), and they are either freshmen or sophomores. But there will be plenty of growing pains this season.

Thoughts? How would you change things around?

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Snapshot of the Big Sky

I missed a lot over the Thanksgiving break, but it was a great holiday! However, rather than trying to go over everything I missed, let's take a snapshot of what happened for each team the past few days, and any trends that we can see.

Eastern Washington - On Friday, they got a win over a decent Seattle team, powered again by a great offensive performance, as they scored 1.17 PPP. Tyler Harvey led the way with 30 points, including 6/9 from downtown. Through seven games, he has already attempted 55 threes... but being as he has made 28 of them (51%), I am sure the EWU coaches would just like him to keep shooting!

Idaho State - The Bengals have had a nice long break, as they haven't played since November 23. As we have talked about often, all four of their game have been over 70 possessions, a remarkable turn from last year. They are fun to watch.

Montana - They lost by 11 to Hawaii, dropping them to 1-4 on the young season. Against the Rainbow Warriors, Kareem Jamar was merely good - 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists. To beat good teams, they need Jamar to be great at this point in the season. The Grizzlies are continuing to get little to no production from their frontcourt.

Montana State - The Bobcats beat Cal State Northridge last Tuesday, before falling big at Wyoming (which is to be expected). One of the biggest reasons they are struggling is that Flavien Davis (87.3 ORtg) and Calen Coleman (91.5 ORtg) are both struggling. They were both solid last season, so they should pick up... but they need them to be good for MSU to compete.

North Dakota - UND took their high of beating NDSU... and promptly lost to Cal Poly (by 27), Oregon (15), and Pacific (17). That's not a good look for them or the Big Sky. UND was BAD defensively in all three games, allowing over 90 to both Oregon and Pacific. DI Opponents are shooting 58.7% on twos against them this year, which is really, really bad. They need to clean that up.

Northern Arizona - The Jacks fell to 2-6 with losses to CS Bakersfield, Drake, and Fresno State, three games they could have been reasonably expected to lose. They are shooting just 25% on threes against DI opponents this year, led by the struggles of Quinton Upshur (28% on almost seven attempts per game) and Aaseem Dizon (33% on almost six attempts per game). Combined with too high of a turnover rate and not getting to the foul line, and they are struggling offensively.

Northern Colorado - The Bears won a way too close game against Bethune Cookman (65-60) and then beat Prairie View A&M over the weekend. They trailed Bethune Cookman by as many as 18 before a late comeback to win. They didn't really learn from that, as they trailed Prairie View by as many as 11 in the first half before winning by 17. They have the talent to compete for a Big Sky title, but have to find the consistency... and not have any games where they go through the motions.

Portland State - PSU lost to Boise State on the road, but now stand at 4-2. They have been forcing a lot of turnovers, having the 45th best rate at that in the country. If they can keep that up, that can help make the defense at least average, which would be a big step up from the past couple years and position them to nab a conference tournament spot.

Sacramento State - The Hornets eeked out a win in a rivalry game against UC Davis, and then got blown out by a pretty good UC Irvine team. It still feels like we don't know that much about the Hornets. Dylan Garrity is great, Mikh McKinney is good... but then what? We are still waiting to see which big men will step up and be consistent rotational players for them.

Southern Utah - Through the first few weeks of the year, they still look like they will probably occupy the cellar in the Big Sky. They look like one of the worst offensive teams in college basketball, failing to crack 0.90 PPP in any game against DI competition (and that is not a very high benchmark). They have some good pieces, but there's not enough of them, and they are still too young to make a consistent impact.

Weber State - The national nightmare is over, as Weber State got their first win - a comfortable victory over San Jose State. They are still looking for a consistent impact from Jordan Richardson at the two spot, and their forced turnover rate is still ugly, but they have the talent to figure those things out. Joel Bolomboy continues to rebound the ball, with an OR% of 12.1 and DR% of 23.1. Two interesting road games against UT-Arlington and Utah Valley await.

Anything important I have missed?

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

For Thanksgiving, I am off to the Promised Land (aka North Dakota) visiting family, so posts will be sparse if there are any at all. There is still some good basketball being played, so make sure to watch some Big Sky action!

Most of all, hope that you have a great Thanksgiving! And thank you for reading!

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Improvement in the Big Sky

In 2012, the Big Sky finished 28th in KenPom's rankings (which can at least provide a decent overview of the state of the conference).
In 2013, the Big Sky finished 27th in the rankings.
So far this year, the Big Sky is 23rd in the rankings.

To my eye, we are seeing some improvement from Big Sky teams, and we are especially seeing what will be a much improved top five of the conference, as all of the top teams seem like they will be very strong. A quick rundown of some of the impressive wins and performances so far this year.

- North Dakota's win over potential Summit League winner NDSU was one of the biggest wins so far, and should look stronger as the season goes along. Also, they did score 85 against Wisconsin (but they did give up 103). For the last couple of seasons, their defense has been better than their offense, but so far this year, they look like they could have the most explosive offense in the Big Sky.

- Northern Colorado has been perhaps the most impressive team in the conference so far. They have the season-opening win over Kansas State, but they also went on the road and gave two solid teams - New Mexico State and Colorado State - all they could handle. The experience gained in tough, road games should be a big help as the season goes on.

- Eastern Washington led the University of Washington by nine at the half in Seattle, before falling late. They followed that up with an impressive win over a good Boston team, a beating of a traditionally solid LIU team, and a road loss to UC-Irvine. Like UND, their offense is looking very explosive right now, and they potentially have the talent to be better than their number five pre-season ranking.

- Montana faltered against Minnesota and San Francsico, but they did beat South Dakota State on the road. The Jackrabbits were an NCAA tournament team last year, though they'll surely take a step back this season.

- Idaho State actually has the best RPI in the conference, and they boast an OT win on the road at San Francisco, who will be a good team this year.

- Portland State hosted a tournament, and came away with wins over DI opponents Loyola Chicago, SIU Edwardsville, and UC Davis. No matter the quality of the opponents, when you win three DI games in three days, that is really positive.

- Montana State got a road win over Central Michigan, who could be a middle of the road MAC team if things break right.

There are no stunning upsets of top 25 teams, but there's a lot of solid victories in the mix here. Those are the types of things that were few and far between for the Big Sky the past two years. This year, the top appears stronger, and the depth with teams like Idaho State seems better than in past years as well. That is a great sign for the Big Sky.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

North Dakota Takes Down Rival NDSU

Every North Dakota fan or alum will tell you that there is nothing better than beating NDSU. Though we all know that the University of North Dakota has the superior athletic program(!), NDSU fans like to claim that their football success and NCAA Tournament appearance makes it more of a discussion. So, it always feels good to beat NDSU. In this case, it felt especially good to beat a good NDSU team by 18 points, scoring a blistering 1.25 PPP.

UND won this game by simply being excellent offensively. They made 24/39 shots from two-point range, and got to the line an astounding 41 times (making 33 of them, which is no small thing for a team that has struggled at the line the past couple of seasons). (It should also be noted that NDSU made 36 trips to the free throw line themselves).

The star was Troy Huff, who was fantastic again. He followed up his 39 points, 9 rebound performance against Wisconsin with 32 points and 10 rebounds in this game. He was 8/12 from the floor and 13/17 from the foul line. He had three steals. He led the team in scoring and rebounding, and was efficient from downtown (3/6). So far, has looks like every bit the Big Sky POY contender that everyone thought he would be, and then some.

Aaron Anderson once again was his efficient self, scoring 18 points despite taking four field goal attempts. (He was 10/12 from the FT line). Jaron Nash scored 12 points, Chad Calcaterra had 11 off the bench, and Jamal Webb was creating plays for other guys. They got production from their bench, which is another thing that hasn't always been there for UND.

Defensively, UND shut down guys who weren't named Taylor Braun (the NDSU star scored 34 points). All other Bison players were 17/43 from the floor, and 8/14 from the stripe.

UND moves to 2-1 on the year, but this is a win they will feel good about it, especially since NDSU beat them by 20 in Fargo last season. This game, along with the play of Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington, has shown us that the Big Sky is going to be very competitive at the top. North Dakota finished last season strong, and they appear to have picked up right where they left off.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Rest of Friday Night's Big Sky Action

While I was at the Northern Colorado vs Colorado State game, four other Big Sky games were happening. Let's take a quick rundown at what else happened in the Big Sky on Friday night.

Eastern Washington 80, Boston University 68
If you are not familiar with the Boston program - they are solid. The Terriers are a legit America East contender this year, so for the Eagles to go win by 12 on a neutral court is an impressive feat. There are no shortage of eye-popping numbers for the Eagles:

- As a team, they shot 21-39 on twos, and 10/18 from three-point range. They turned it over 16 times, but that will get corrected. They can score the ball in bunches.
- Drew Brandon's stat line - 15 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists. He is averaging over ten rebounds per game.. Oh yeah, he is their starting PG!
- Tyler Harvey drained five more threes tonight, giving him 20 makes through four games. He is a budding star in the Big Sky.
- Venky Jois is already a star for EWU, and he had 20 points and eight rebounds. After not making any threes last year, he had one in this game - adding that to his arsenal makes him that much more dangerous.
- Freshman Ognjen Miljkovic had 14 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes. It's an embarrassment of riches in terms of young talent for Jim Hayford right now.

EWU should be a scary team for the rest of the Big Sky to think about because they are so talented, but still so young. They are going to keep getting better and better, and they're already pretty darn good.

Montana State 59, Central Michigan 54
Road wins are never easy, and this one has to feel very good for the Bobcats. They clawed their way (no pun intended) to a victory in a defensive battle, winning despire shooting 21/54from the field and turning it over 12 times.  They won it with defense, which has been a struggle for them. They also won it thanks to the contributions of Terrell Brown off the bench. Brown had 23 points, hitting from the outside (3/7 3PA) and getting to the line (6/8). They will need those types of performances from different guys this year, as they don't have anyone they can count on to consistently carry the load.

The Bobcats were great on the defensive glass, especially Paul Egwuonwu (11 defensive rebounds). They held Central Michigan to just two offensive rebounds. That is getting things done.

Portland State 67, Loyola 63
The Vikings trailed by 14 points in the second half before coming back for a nice early-season win. They were sparked by 14 second half points each for Dre Winston and Aaron Moore, and another solid defensive effort. Moore finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, shooting 9/14 from the floor. Winston was 5/7 from the floor and 6/7 from the stripe, scoring a hyper-efficient 16 points.

Last note... I mentioned earlier this week that Tim Douglas was playing it well but turning it over a bit too much. He turned that around quickly, with seven assists to one turnover. Very nice game for him.

San Francisco 75, Montana 74
I'm not sure anyone would have predicted this chain of events - Idaho State goes on the road to beat San Francisco, and days later, the Dons come into Missoula and take down Montana. Basketball is a funny game. While Jordan Gregory did play (and pretty well), the Grizzlies somehow allowed USF to shoot 30/55 from the field, AND grab 14 offensive rebounds. Put another way, the Dons grabbed 45% of available offensive rebounds in this game, which is bad for Montana. Kareem Jamar did everything he could - 25 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals - but it wasn't enough. The Grizzlies offense looks ok right now (1.12 PPP, though ISU had 1.15 against the Dons), but their ceiling remains limited right now until they can get some type of production down low.

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Colorado State Outlasts Northern Colorado

Coaches often say there is no such thing as a moral victory, and maybe that is true. But Coach BJ Hill and the rest of the Northern Colorado program should have gone to bed on Friday night excited about their team, their program, and their season. Northern Colorado fell 72-65 to Colorado State, but it was a game they controlled for much of the second half. After the game CSU coach Larry Eustachy said, "They're better than us right now," and that the Bears could win the Big Sky. I am starting to think he might be right about that.

Let's start with the reasons that the Bears lost, before we move onto the positives. The biggest key was that they simply could not match CSU's size and athleticism in the frontcourt. CSU grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and had 18 second-chance points, compared to zero for the Bears.

The other key down low for the Rams was JJ Avila, who showcased a full variety of offensive skills, shooting 9/13 from the floor and 10/10 from the stripe on the way to a 28 point evening. This was a night for Connor Osborne to forget. Against a frontline as long and fast as CSU has, Osborne simply is not quick enough to make an impact. While not all five of his fouls seemed legit, he was out of position at times defensively, missed boxouts, and could not establish any type of position offensively. Fortunately for him, there are no frontlines like Colorado State's in the Big Sky.

The other key to this game, at least down the stretch, was officiating. Let me say it this way - reffing was not THE reason they lost, but it was a reason. At times down the stretch, it was like CSU initiated a little bit of contact and dared the refs to call a foul - and they obliged. All told, CSU show 25/33 from the stripe. It wasn't necessarily that the refs weren't calling things both ways, it was just that it seemed that they were calling fouls that weren't there, and they happened to be going against the Bears. But that's enough whining about the refs.

For the positives... that is the best I have seen Tevin Svihovec play. I will be the first to admit that during much of the offseason, he was kind of the forgotten man for me. Tonight, he showed his talent. He scored 20 points, including 2/3 from downtown and 6/6 from the charity stripe. He was the Bears best offensive player. It is an interesting dichotomy to watch the varying styles of him and Corey Spence...Svihovec is a very good penetrator using strength and footwork, while Spence got into the lane with pure quickness.

If Svihovec was UNC's best player in this game, the most pleasant surprise to me was Corey Spence. Hopes were high for him heading into the year, and he looks like exactly the player they have been needing. He finished with 11 points and six assists, but it's more than that. He pressured the ball full-court and played solid man defense. He played with an attitude and swagger that was fun to watch. The added dimension of him and Jordan Wilson (who played just nine minutes in this game, but has had a nice start to his career) give the Bears a couple guys that will wear opposing guards out.

Lastly, the Bears as a whole just look a lot more quick and active defensively than last season. Dominique Lee is another guy upfront that can defend multiple positions with his athletic ability, and he will have better days than this one. The Bears have struggled with quickness the last couple of years, but that shouldn't be the case so much this year. They look good.

It's a loss for UNC, but you couldn't have watched the game without coming away impressed by the Bears' talent and toughness. They are going to win a lot of basketball games this year.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Early Season Notes and Trends

There have been quite a few games over the past week that I haven't had the chance to write about, but rather than look at them in much detail, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look around the league and look at one or two interesting stat or trend each team!

Eastern Washington - When you look at some of their individual defensive rebounding numbers (Venky Jois - 18.7 DR%, Martin Seiferth - 30.3 DR%, PG Drew Brandon - 22.0 DR%), you would think that hardly anyone is getting offensive rebounds against them. However, opponents have grabbed 39.5% of available offensive rebounds, putting EWU 303rd in the country. Also, through three games, Eastern Washington has taken 72 threes, with guard Tyler Harvey accounting for 31 of them himself, over ten per game. Of course, nobody will complain about a guy taking that many threes when he makes 48% of them, as Harvey has done so far this year.

Idaho State - Through three games, Idaho State continues to play at a much faster pace than last season. While they only had one game over 70 possessions last season (an OT game against Southern Utah), all three of their games have achieved that so far. They had 1.15 PPP in their win over San Francisco, and that improved offense is a good reason that Bengals fans have to be optimistic.

Montana - Through two games, it's hard to be more efficient than Brandon GFeller has been. He has an EFG of 106.2%, thanks to shooting 6/8 from the field, including 5/7 from downtown. One of the main guys getting him the ball is Kareem Jamar, who has a 35.0 ARate and sports a cool 2:1 A:TO ratio. He is great. As a team, though, there has only been one squad worse at grabbing offensive rebounds, as Montana is only rebounding 9.7% of their misses. That will go up, but they look like a very poor offensive rebounding team.

Montana State - Senior Antonio Biglow has really struggled this year, as he is 0/9 from downtown. He has distributed the ball ok, but they need him to be more of a scoring threat than he has been. Defensively, they have struggled, going into Thursday's game against CS Northridge allowing 1.13 PPP. Then they sent the Matadors to the foul line an astounding 40 times. They need to get better defensively, and in a hurry.

North Dakota - Jaron Nash was a bit of a question mark heading into the year, but through two games (one against an NAIA team), he has been everything they could have hoped for and more.  He has a 133.1 ORtg, is hitting outside shots, and has a robust 23.1 DR%. Those are all-conference type numbers, so expect to see a dropoff, but he looks like a highly productive player for UND.

Northern Arizona - It's fair to say that Jack Murphy is still figuring out the bench rotation, and who he can trust back there. PG Aaseem Dixon has played 90.1% of the team's minutes, and Gaellen Bewernick has played 88.1% of them. One guy that has stood out to me is Kris Yanku, who I think could be a Big Sky assist champion at some point in his career. He has a stellar 27.1 ARate in the first four games of his career, but is struggling to gain the coaches' trust thanks to his abysmal 33.7 TO Rate.

Northern Colorado - If all you knew about the Big Sky was the current season games, UNC would probably be your pick for the best team in the conference. They are getting it done defensively, though part of it is a mirage though - opponents are shooting just 10% from downtown and 51.7% on free throws against them, both of which are unsustainable. However, they're playing well despite their offense not really having gotten going yet - their EFG% will be better than 42.8% by the end of the year, as they are shooting just 29% from downtown themselves. Senior forward Derrick Barden is averaging almost 14 rebounds per game... he is a joy to watch.

Portland State - More than anyone else in the Big Sky, it's tough to make conclusions on PSU, as they have only lost to UNLV (in a game they played well defensively but terrible offensively) and beaten Pacific Lutheran. One potential area of concern is finding someone to set up teammates for good looks. PG Tim Douglas has just four assists compared to ten turnovers. Brandon Cataldo has been a bright spot so far this year, grabbing then rebounds against UNLV, and shooting 7/11 from the floor through two games. He has always been talented.

Sacramento State - Though their strength is their backcourt, they have struggled holding onto the ball, turning it over a combined 32 times against Cal State Bakersfield and UCLA. Another struggle has been getting to the free throw line - against UCLA they shot two free throws all game. Dylan Garrity is shooting more than ever, and that's a good thing for the Hornets - he is an excellent shooter and scorer. The Hornets are still searching for frontcourt answers, and nobody seems to have really grabbed those spots yet.

Southern Utah - Outside of the opener against an NAIA team, they have had the offensive problems that were predicted - getting 0.88 PPP against Utah State and 0.73 PPP against California. They play a lot of young guys, and this was to be expected. Trey Kennedy and Juwan Major have had some promising debuts, and look to be a big part of the foundation for coach Nick Robinson.

Weber State - I covered them earlier this week, but an area of concern is that they aren't forcing turnovers, but they weren't great at that last season and their defense was still solid. They are still doing a good job of not allowing opponents to take threes, but the problem is teams shooting 53% on twos against them. Jeremy Senglin has impressed a lot of people in his first two games as freshman PG, but he only has three assists vs four turnovers... he needs to create a few more shots for others.

Anything else catch your eye so far this season?

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Idaho State Upsets San Francsico

These aren't the Idaho State Bengals of last season. Last year, it took the Bengals until January to score at least 60 points against a Division I opponent. On Monday night, they broke the 90 point mark - with a 93-90 OT victory over San Francisco.

In the process, the Bengals got career high totals from Chris Hansen (33 points) and Tomas Sanchez (24 points), while Andre Hatchett (20) tied a career high. Hansen was 5/11 from downtown, while Sanchez and Hatchett combined to make 21 free throws. It was the best offensive effort we've seen from ISU in a long while.

As well as they played, it almost ended in a disappointing manner. With the score tied at 90 with 24.5 seconds left, the Bengals had the ball with the chance to take the final shot. Sanchez was handling the ball up top, but seemed to panic a little bit when he got closer to a five second call. He fired a shot early, and then committed a foul on the putback, sending the Dons to the line. However, USF missed the front end, and Ayikaburo Preh swatted their putback attempt. Sanchez got the ball, and amazingly he got fouled with 2.2 seconds left. He calmly knocked down both freebies, and USF was unable to score. It was a big Bengals win.

ISU played lots of zone defense, as you can probably tell by the fact that the Dons fired 46 threes (making 17 of them). Often, it looked like USF was content to simply pass the ball around the perimeter and take a three. They hit a lot of them and got a lot of good looks, but they did ISU a favor by not trying to penetrate the zone.

By every measure, the Dons were favored to win this game. At times in OT, it looked like they had it under control. But ISU kept at it, and kept attacking. They were the aggressor, and it showed, as they took 35 FT attempts to 12 for USF. They got rewarded with a great road victory over a solid WCC team. It's the biggest sign yet that Bill Evans is on the verge of doing nice things with this program.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

What Happened to Weber State Against Colorado State?

When Montana lost their season opener to Minnesota, I took a look at some of their potential problems and issues, saying that while it was way too early to panic, it wasn't too early to take a look at some negative trends and potential problems areas for them. After Weber State's game on Saturday - an 88-67 loss in a game that many (myself included) thought they may be capable of winning - it's time to do the same for Weber State.

Over their first two losses, the place to start is on the defensive side of the ball. In the opener against BYU, they allowed 1.07 PPP. Against Colorado State, that number was up to (close your eyes, Weber State fans) 1.29 PPP, which is not good. Most notably, CSU shot 25/39 on two-point shots, which has to be disturbing for the Wildcats staff. It's one thing if a team catches fire from deep, but the way the Rams physically dominated the game is disconcerting, to say the last.

CSU scored 44 of their 88 points in the paint, led by JJ Avila, who scored 30 points, going 10/19 from the floor (9/13 inside the arc) and 9/9 from the free throw line. Center Gerson Santo was also 5/5 from the floor, as the Rams got almost anything they wanted.

Weber was great at stopping the three-ball last year, and surprisingly (with the results of their two games), they have actually been excellent in that area so far this year, with their two opponents hitting 8/26 from downtown in the two games. One thing the Wildcats are not doing is forcing turnovers. BYU had seven turnovers, while CSU only had 4. Not forcing turnovers and allowing opponents good looks have been the big areas of concern defensively.

Offensively, Davion Berry has struggled a bit (2/10 against CSU), but he will be fine. Probably the biggest concern has been Jordan Richardson at the two guard, as he has struggled in his transition to that role. It's only two games, but he has seven points in 57 minutes, and has two made field goals this season. That spot was occupied by Scott Bamforth last season, and it's been a big drop-off so far. Again, Richardson has a good track record of being a good player, but they need him to grow into that role during the non-conference season, as Jeremy Senglin seems to have entrenched himself as the point guard.

Like Montana last week, it's obviously far too early to panic (and Montana followed up a rough opening game with an impressive road win over South Dakota State), but these are definitely areas of concern for Weber State. They will have plenty of things to work on before the home opener against Utah State on November 26.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Quinton Hooker is Playing for North Dakota

Up until the start of the season, there was at least a little bit of question as to whether freshman guard Quinton Hooker for North Dakota would play this year or redshirt. After the opener against Minnesota-Morris, that question has been answered - Hooker is playing.

He played great in the opener, scoring 17 points while also dishing off four assists.

He is a freshman, so there are sure to be some growing pains and rough spots in his opening season. But with his talent, he should be a future star in the Big Sky. Judging from the opener, he should be ready to contribute very positively for the UND this season.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

JC Washington Decommits from Northern Colorado

In September, dynamic wing man JC Washington verbally committed to Northern Colorado, and he was seen as a great athlete as a high school big man, making it a pretty nice coup for the Bears.

On Wednesday, he showed why these things are just verbal commitments, and nothing is final until they actually sign the letter of intent, as he recommitted, per Texas Boys Basketball:

Obviously, it it stinks for the Bears. I am sure that Washington was seen as a key cog for them in the future, and certainly if he re-committed, they would be thrilled. However, I simply can't fault Washington.

All the time, you hear of coaches changing their mind. Scholarships get offered, and then rescinded. More commonly, coaches leave for better jobs with no recourse, while players have to sit out a year if they decide to transfer. This is commonly accepted practice. Thus, a guy needs to make sure that where he commits to, that is where he wants to go to school. If Washington had doubts, he was within his rights to change his mind, because things become a lot more difficult once you sign that LOI. So to that end, I understand his decision, and I can't fault him for it.

But it's still a tough break for Northern Colorado.

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Problems For Montana

Let me throw a big giant caveat at the beginning of this article... Montana has played one game, and they have the best coach in the Big Sky, who has shown time and time again the ability to make adjustments as the season goes along to make the team better. However, this also needs to be said - The Grizzlies have some things to work on.

The fact that they lost on Tuesday to Minnesota is not a surprise. Minnesota is a good team, and they will win a lot of games this year. If Montana had won, it would have been a bigger upset than Northern Colorado beating Kansas State. However, the way they lost (84-58) had to be a bit discouraging for the Grizzlies. Heading into the year, it was easy to see some potential problem areas for Montana, which I highlighted in my preview. Through one game, those areas stood out.

Montana may well recover and win the Big Sky (nobody should doubt Wayne Tinkle at this point), but there are four big concerns I have about the Grizzlies right now:

1. Rebounding - Last year, they were not a good rebounding team. They had one of the lowest offensive rebounding rates in the country (25.1%, 334th in the nation), and personnel-wise, there doesn't seem to be a lot of help brought in. I think this is partly a function of their offense, but it lowers their margin for error offensively (more on the offense later). Defensive rebounding wise, they were not terrible last year, but frequently got outrebounded. Against Minnesota (who, it should be noted was the best offensive rebounding team in the country last year, although most of their best offensive rebounders from last season were not playing in the opener), the Grizzlies allowed 14 offensive rebounds, and got outrebounded 45-29. They may not be a great rebounding team, but they have to get better there. Fortunately, they won't play the Gophers again!

2. Defense - Don't look now, but the Grizzlies took a step back defensively compared to past season, allowing 1.00 PPP, after three straight seasons below 1.00 (including 0.96 PPP in 2012). This isn't a crisis - they were still second in the Big Sky by a big margin - but that is the difference between competing for a title and competing for second place. Against the Gophers, they allowed 1.24 PPP. The Gophers shot 11/25 from downtown, and their 14 offensive boards were a big factor there. Montana had a similarly bad game against BYU early last year, and things turned out ok, but it's something to keep an eye on.

3. Point Guard Play - In my preview, I noted my concern about Keron DeShields' ability to step in and run the show, and it was an uneven first game for him. He shot 3/11 from the floor (compared to 12 FGA for Kareem Jamar and six for Jordan Gregory), and had three assists compared to four turnovers. These are some of the same issues from last season, where he was a bit uneven as a ballhandler and not an efficient scorer. Backing him up, Mario Dunn played like a freshman. He was 2/5 from the field, but his line would have looked a lot better if he was better than 1/4 from the charity stripe. He had one assist and one turnover. I think Dunn will improve a lot as the year goes on, and could even seize the PG spot by conference play. We will see.

4. Interior scoring - To win in the Big Sky, you don't need an elite interior post threat. Heck, the Grizzlies have proven that the last couple of years. Of course, that doesn't mean it isn't something you would like to have. Against Montana, they had none. To wit, the lines of the frontcourt guys:

- Eric Hutchison played 11 minutes and was in some foul trouble. He scored two points and had no rebounds in his time.
- Chris Kemp played just seven minutes, going scoreless but grabbing three rebounds. I think he will be a bit like Spencer Coleman last season... slowly getting worked into things before becoming a big-time contributor by the end of the season.
- Andy Martin played six minutes, also going scoreless while grabbing one rebound.
- Michael Weisner is like Mathias Ward last season a bit... he is a frontcourt guy, and started at the four spot... but he is almost more comfortable on the perimeter. He scored five points on 2/5 shooting,  grabbing two rebounds but turning it over four times.

Again, it's only one game, against a very good opponent, and these things will definitely get better. Still, I bring them up because they were seen as potential areas of weakness heading into the season, and they were glaring in the opener. It is far too early to make any type of conclusions, but they will be things to watch. Grizzlies fans, what are you worried about (if anything)?

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Big Sky Preview Videos With Brandon Garside

Over the few days before the season began, Brandon Garside and I filmed some previews for each Big Sky team, giving you the opportunity to finally see what I look like and hear what I sound like (OK, I know nobody actually cared about that). He's posted the links up on you tube, so click the team you want to listen to!

Each video is roughly 10-15 minutes long, covering the quick basics of each squad:

- Eastern Washington
- Idaho State
- Montana
- Montana State (includes short snippet on DeWayne Russell)
- North Dakota
- Northern Arizona (filmed before DeWayne Russell leaving)
- Northern Colorado
- Portland State
- Sacramento State
- Southern Utah
- Weber State

And here is the whole playlist.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Three Ranked in Mid-Major Top 25

After Northern Colorado's upset victory over Kansas State, they got a little bit of love in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25, one of three Big Sky teams ranked.

- Weber State remained at #15 following their loss to BYU.
- Montana stayed at #20, and they have not played yet.
- Northern Colorado moved up to #25.
- North Dakota is technically ranked #35 based on the number of votes they received.

It's nice to see someone other than Weber State and Montana getting some early season love, because obviously those two teams have dominated the Big Sky headlines the past couple of years. Hopefully it continues!

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Podcast with Gidal Kaiser

Last Thursday, the day before the weekend kicked off, Gidal Kaiser from the Bozeman Daily-Chronicle and I chatted Big Sky hoops for about a half hour. Among the topics we discussed were why I picked North Dakota over Montana, a look at Montana State, different tiers of the conference, and some things could be pleasant surprises or disappointments headed into the season.

You can find the podcast here, if you are so interested. If you are interested in Big Sky basketball, I humbly suggest it should be worth the listen.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thoughts and Impressions From Opening Weekend

The opening weekend is past us, and 9 of 11 Big Sky teams have played (with the exception of Montana and North Dakota). So, let's take a quick peek around the league to see some of the interesting happenings of opening weekend.

- Montana State struggled mightily (more on that in a bit), but everyone else has some encouraging performances, especially among teams projected to be near the bottom of the conference. We knew that things were unsettled after the top five, but after one weekend at least, it seems like every single one of the bottom six teams in the preseason polls could be in a dogfight for spots six through eleven.

- The Bobcats lost 84-55 at home to Cal State Fullerton, and it wasn't just one thing that ailed them - it was everything. Their defense which was bad last year... looked even worse in the debut, giving up 1.35 points per possession. Fullerton shot 55% on twos, made 9/18 on threes, and grabbed 37% of available offensive rebounds, while turning it over only eight times. Offensively, the Bobcats shot 2/20 from three-point range, and had six assists against 12 turnovers. Brad Huse was excited about the continuity of the team from last year, but this was an all-out miserable performance in the season opener. Back to the drawing board for the Bobcats.

- Bill Evans said before the year that Idaho State would play at a faster pace, and he was true to his word in the opener. The Bengals played at an 80 possession pace in the opener. Last year, the highest was 78 possessions in an OT game against Southern Utah, and no other game even cracked the 80 mark. Scoring won't come quite as easily when they are playing someone other than an NAIA team, but they appear to be committed to a faster pace this season.

- It's certainly no time to panic for Weber State after a season-opening road loss to BYU that contained plenty of positives, but it was a rough game for senior PG Jordan Richardson. In 28 minutes, he was 0/4 from the field with three assists. We have talked about how PG could be an issue for Weber State, but it was presumed that Richardson would be steady for them. It's just one game and most likely a blip in the road to start the year, but they do need him to perform. From my understanding (I didn't get to see the game), a lot of the ballhandling responsibilities fell to freshman Jeremy Senglin, which is certainly an interesting thing to watch.

- Northern Colorado had the biggest win of the weekend with the victory over Kansas State, but new PG Corey Spence struggled in his first game for the Bears. In 17 minutes, Spence was 0/3 from the field and 0/2 from the FT line, missing the front end of two straight one-and-ones down the stretch to give the Wildcats some hope. Spence also turned it over 4 times. Backup PG Jordan Wilson had a solid debut as a freshman - eight points, three assists, and no turnovers in 24 minutes. That PG battle will be one to watch.

- In the past, Portland State has historically been all offense and no defense. So of course, it makes no sense that against UNLV, they were actually solid defensively, but miserable on the offensive end. They allowed only 0.92 PPP, which would qualify as the best mark in the conference last season if they continued, but only scored a measly 0.66 PPP. It was an odd result for them, but the defensive effort is something to build on. They have enough talent offensively that they should be fine on that end in time.

- Not a bad sophomore year debut for Venky Jois - 22 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks. Between him and Drew Brandon (in his EWU debut - 14 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 5 steals), there are some stat sheet stuffers in Cheney.

- Southern Utah got encouraging performances from two freshman guards - Trey Kennedy and Juwan Major, two guys I have been hyping up this preseason. Kennedy found a way to get to the line eight times, and had five assists vs two turnovers. Major showed good scoring punch, with 12 points in 21minutes. I think it might be a matter of time before both guys are starting (Kennedy got the start in the opener, with Major off the bench).

- I praised Northern Arizona's offensive balance on twitter, and that was nice, but defense was the more impressive thing in the opener. They allowed just 0.86 PPP, mainly by having UTSA shoot 2/14 from downtown. Another key for NAU was their ability to grab offensive rebounds - 12 of them. That will be key, as I think they might have to manufacture some things offensively at times. Getting easy putback buckets would be big for them.

- Sacramento State pounded UC Santa Cruz 73-43, really cruising on both ends. I'm not really qualified to gauge the competition level when it gets to these lower programs, but it was impressive at how easily they commanded this game. If there was any concern, it was with turning it over 13 times, but it looks like a lot of those were from the bench guys after the game was well in doubt.

Any other impressions from the opening weekend of play?

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Weber State Falls, Other Big Sky Action

I wrote about Northern Colorado going on the road and dispatching Kansas State, but let's take a quick look at the rest of the happenings in the Big Sky on opening night.

BYU 81, Weber State 72
The Wildcats got off to a very slow start (BYU led 17-3, and then their largest lead was 41-22), and the Wildcats simply couldn't catch up the rest of the day. Weber State made some runs throughout the second half, but BYU simply always had an answer for them.

The Cougars shot 44% for the day, and grabbed 13 offensive rebounds. Tyler Haws scored 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while Matt Carlino had 22 points for BYU.

WSU was led by senior big man Kyle Tresnak, who scored a career-high 24 points on 10/16 shooting, while also grabbing 6 rebounds. Davion Berry had 23 points for the Wildcats as well, shooting 8/16 from the floor.

Joel Bolomboy showed off his talents and the things he needed to work on in this game, as he grabbed 13 rebounds (six of them on the offensive end) and blocked two shots, but was 4/12 from the field. Also, freshman Jeremy Senglin had a solid debut. He was just 4/11 from the floor, but played 35 minutes with two turnovers. It is clear he will have a big role in their season.

It's a tough loss for Weber State to begin the year, but BYU is a good club who will win a ton of games this season. On the road, they fought hard after a poor start, and a little adversity to start the year could be good in the long run.

Southern Utah 85, Arizona Christian 78
Arizona Christian beat Northern Arizona in an exhibition game last week, making this one a little more interesting than a typical Big Sky team hosting an NAIA squad to start the year.

While the Firestorm did put up a lot of points, the Thunderbirds showed a surprisingly amount of punch offensively. Southern Utah shot 45% from the floor, and got to the line 26 times in the season-opening victory.

AJ Hess led the charge was 17 points and six rebounds, shooting 5/9 from the floor and 5/5 from the charity stripe.  Four other guys scored in double figures for SUU, including senior Jayson Cheesman (12) and freshman Juwan Major (12). Freshman Trey Kennedy also scored 11, going 8/8 from the FT line.

UNLV 67, Portland State 48
Portland State made things interesting for a half, but ultimately UNLV was just a little too talented for the Vikings to hang tight. PSU trailed by a point at halftime, but couldn't get anything going in the second half.

Tim Douglas had an uneven debut for the Vikings, scoring 18 points, but also turning the ball over eight times. No other Viking was in double figures, as Kyle Richardson (9) and DaShaun Wiggins (9) were the next highest totals.

PSU star Aaron Moore was saddled with foul trouble throughout, scoring two points and grabbing one rebound in 15 minutes before fouling out. Ultimately, it's a 19 point loss for Portland State, but they have to be encouraged by the way they played in the first half, and it should give them something to build on.

Sacramento State 73, UC Santa Cruz 43
The Hornets rolled to an easy home victory over UC Santa Cruz, taking a 37-15 lead into the half before winning 73-43.

Five Hornets finished in double figures, lef by 14 from Mikh McKinney. Dylan Garrity (11 points, 5 assists), Alex Tiffin (10), Nick Hornsby (10), and Jordan Salley (11) were the other to score in double figures. One other guy of note is Eric Stuteville, who had seven points and six rebounds in 15 minutes.

It's tough to glean much from this game other than this - Sacramento State should have dominated, and they did. By that measure, it's a successful opening night for the Hornets.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Northern Colorado Stuns Kansas State

In the first big upset of the college basketball season, Northern Colorado went into Manhattan and beat the defending Big 12 champion Kansas State Wildcats, 60-58. The Bears trailed by five at the half, but took a lead in the second half and held on down the stretch, despite some misses from the free throw line.

The star of the game was unquestionably Derrick Barden. The forward who averaged a double-double during Big Sky play last year started off this season with a bang, scoring 16 points and grabbing a ridiculous 17 rebounds. He was 8/16 from the field, and had three assists for good measure.

Tate Unruh was second on the team with 14 points, shooting 4/11 from the floor. Freshman Jordan Wilson chipped in eight, along with three assists and no turnovers, which is big in comparison to the four turnovers from Corey Spence.

Most importantly, the Bears defense played well, holding K-State to 34% shooting, including 2/19 from long-range. The Wildcats also missed 17 free throws on the night.

I'm not sure how Kansas State will do this year, and at this point, that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Northern Colorado started the season on the road and upset a Big 12 team. They will be feeling pretty good this season, for good reason.

College basketball is back!

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Most Comprehensive Big Sky Preview You'll Ever Read, 3.0

I love to write previews. Warning in advance, this post is long (over 10,000 words), but I write it with this goal in mind - if you know absolutely nothing about the Big Sky before reading this article, after reading it you would know more than 99% of people that are college basketball fans. That has been my goal the last few years, and it was again this year. I hope you will enjoy!

The Big Sky is struggling to get respect.

Objectively speaking, it's not that hard to see why. Two seasons ago, the Big Sky was 26th out of 33 conferences in RPI, and 28th in Ken Pom's rankings. Montana fell to a good Wisconsin team in the NCAA Tournament, and the game wasn't that close. Last season, the Big Sky was 28th out of 33 teams in conference RPI, and 27th in Ken Pom's rankings. Montana got into the tournament, but facing injury issues and a mad matchup with Syracuse, they got blown out. Over the past two seasons, Montana and Weber State have gone 62-2 against the rest of the teams in the league, as there has been little depth beyond those two.

Subjectively, I know this - Montana and Weber State have been dang good teams the last two seasons. Montana limped into the NCAA Tournament with an ailing Will Cherry and without one of their best scorers (Mathias Ward), playing against a team in Syracuse that presented the worst possible matchup. The whole season shouldn't be judged on that game, but that is often what happens with low major conferences (and understandably so).

I also know that this year should be better. Weber State will be as good or better than last year's squad, which won 30 games. Montana won't be as strong, but North Dakota/Northern Colorado/Eastern Washington all look to be much more formidable, actually giving the league a little bit of depth through five spots. The bottom of the conference should be more competitive, and there are some great coaches that are turning programs around. There was a great crop of newcomers last season, and their second years in the league give the Big Sky a lot of talent.

But, there is always optimism at this time of the year. The Big Sky teams have to prove it on the court - both in March with whatever team advances to the NCAA Tournament, but also in the non-conference slate, to push the conference RPI back to where it had been a few years ago, where it was 18th in 2009-10. The conference should be better this year from top to bottom then it's been for the past couple of seasons, but they have to prove it on the court.

It is fair to say that this has changed quite frequently over the past weeks, and will look different than the order I had when I did my rankings for ESPN Insider. After seeing some of the analytic looks at the conference as well as some exhibition results, I have tweaked some of my own rankings.

1. Weber State (17-3)
Why they'll be good: They have the most talent, experience, depth, and balance in the conference. They will have the best frontcourt in the Big Sky - with Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy forming a great starting duo (and we will get into the many things they can do later), and guys like Josh Fuller, James Hayek (when healthy), Byron Fulton, and Kyndahl Hill behind them. For the most part, the league is better in the backcourt than frontcourt, which is part of what makes WSU so devastating.

It's not like they aren't talented in the backcourt. Davion Berry can play the two or three, and has a legitimate argument that he is the best player in the conference. Jordan Richardson made the leap to be an excellent PG as a junior, and will be a force as a senior, just a steady guy that does everything right. Between them, the Wildcats have plenty of enticing options to start, between freshmen Jeremy Senglin or Richaud Gittens, smooth Royce Williams, or going big and athletic with Kyndahl Hill. It's hard to find a weakness. Moreover, with the Wildcats excellent track record of player development, many of these guys should add facets to the game we haven't even seen yet.

Why they'll struggle: There are two things that could cause them a little bit of trouble. One, they are currently a bit unsettled at the backup PG spot behind Richardson. Freshman Jeremy Senglin might be able to play some time at the one, and Davion Berry can handle some ballhandling duties as well, but it's hard to say how it will play out. This likely isn't a big issue unless something happens to Richardson, but something to watch.

The other thing is this... if Weber State is down at the end of the game and needs a bucket or two, who do they go to? They are so balanced, that it might be hard to establish a pecking order. Davion Berry is probably the guy, but it will be interesting to see how they react in this type of situation.

Final verdict: Last season they led the conference in offensive and defensive efficiency, and they should do it again. They were the best team in the country and not allowing an opponent to get three-point looks, and held the opposition to shoot just 29% when they did shoot it from deep. They were second in the country in three-point shooting themselves. They are the best rebounding team in the Big Sky, and were sixth best in the country last season in opponents OR%. More than anything else in the Big Sky this season, I am most confident in saying this - Weber State is the best team in the conference.

2. North Dakota (14-6)
Why they'll be good: They return almost everyone of consequence, and will likely be the most experienced team in the Big Sky. They will likely have the best backcourt in the Big Sky, with a bunch of guys that are seniors. The biggest reason to think they will challenge Weber State is Troy Huff, the most exciting player in the conference who has become more and more of a complete player in his time at UND. If he becomes a little more efficient of a scorer, he's the best player in the conference.

On the whole, UND is the only team that potentially has the athleticism to match the Wildcats. Jamal Webb is potentially very solid at PG, with Aaron Anderson evolving into a very legitimate secondary threat after Huff. Newcomer Jaron Nash can provide a different dynamic in the frontcourt that Brian Jones has not had in the past few seasons.

Why they'll struggle: They have more size than they have lately, but it's still a wait-and-see for how that plays out on the court. On paper, Nash can be a big difference-maker, but he has yet to show much consistency in his career. Alonzo Traylor was off to a nice start last year, before becoming ineligible the second semester... can they count on him? Chad Calcaterra and Ryan Salmonson have some ability, but are they anything more than depth guys? Brandon Brekke is a guy that is potentially a difference maker, but his senior season seems to be in doubt with lingering effects of a concussion last season.

The other issue is whether or not they can score efficiently. As good of a year as they had last season, they were sixth in the conference in efficiency during conference play, with 1.00 points per possession. Huff takes 35% of the shots when he is out there, but his true shooting percentage was 52.6%, which is merely average for someone that dominates the ball. If UND wants to seriously challenge Weber State during the season, they need to improve the efficiency with which they score the ball, especially in the halfcourt. That is the key to their season.

Final verdict: I think UND is very good, probably the top challenger to Weber State in the conference. Their athleticism is difficult to match up against, and with a rotation that features many seniors, they won't be intimidated by any situation. They also seem to have solved some of the road woes that used to plague them. However, I don't think they are good enough to seriously challenge for a conference title in the regular season. I am less worried about their depth inside as I am about their scoring ability - they simply have not shown the ability to consistently get easy baskets and great looks in the halfcourt. Freshman Quinton Hooker could be a difference maker there (he would be a substantial upgrade over backup guard Lenny Antwi), but I'm not sure the difference would be enough to close the gap on Weber State.

3. Montana (14-6)
Why they'll be good: This one is simple - they have the best coach and best player in the conference. Wayne Tinkle's teams always seem to be a little better than you think they are going to be, and he is the master at covering up any weaknesses the team has. He is a bona fide great coach, and that is my biggest concern with picking UND over Montana. The work he has done the past two seasons has been remarkable.

Similarly, it's tough to pick against Kareem Jamar, ever. He is a great all-around player that quite literally does it all for the Grizzlies. If Montana is going to have a chance this year, he'll need help from Jordan Gregory and Chris Kemp, about whom early reports are positive. Gregory might have been the most improved player in the Big Sky last season, and Kemp should provide a post presence that they haven't had for a couple of seasons. They lost a lot of talent, but should see the maturation of some young guys, and certain players who fit very well within the role they play. They always seem to become more than the sum of their parts.

Why they'll struggle: Will Cherry has meant so much to the program on both ends, and it will be difficult (impossible?) to replace some of the things he brought, especially defensively. Similarly, Mathias Ward was a reliable player who could stretch the defense from the 4 spot, and they will miss his contributions, as his role was vital in their offense. They have struggled to rebound the basketball the past couple of seasons, and potential centers Eric Hutchison and Andy Martin didn't show themselves to be anything more than average on the defensive glass. Hopes are high for them, but we'll have to see how it plays out.

At Cherry's departed PG spot, the onus will be on Keron DeShields initially to fill that spot, but he hasn't yet shown the ability to be a good PG in the Big Sky. His assist rates are very average, and his scoring is inconsistent (40% on twos, 31% on threes). If he struggles, they could call on Mario Dunn, but that would be a lot to place on a true freshman PG.

Final verdict: Montana has lost exactly two conference games over the last two seasons, so it's hard to be picky. Still, they got a little fortunate in close games (or they "know how to win," whichever storyline you prefer), and that luck could turn a little bit. Still, they are good enough to contend for the conference title, and moreover, they expect to. That confidence can carry you a long way. I can promise they will lose more games this year, but they will still be in the thick of things, and they will be a tough out come tourney time. Kareem Jamar always brings his best in the Big Sky tournament, and the Grizzlies will be counting on a little more of his magic.

4. Northern Colorado (12-8)
Why they'll be good: Derrick Barden doesn't get the hype that a lot of the other guys in the conference get, but he's a true first-team all-conference guy, and has the talent to go even beyond that this season. The sky is the limit for Barden, who averaged a double-double in conference play last year.

The Bears bring back almost everyone of note, though they did lose a couple of contributors as transfers. However, their starting five returns (even if it will look a little different), and they will be anchored by seniors, which hasn't been the case the past two seasons (they didn't have any seniors last year). Additionally, they have addressed one of their biggest weaknesses, which was PG play. Tevin Svihovec turned the ball over too much, struggled to find a balance between scoring and creating, and wasn't a great on-ball defender of quick guards (he is expected to play off the ball this season, which will suit his game much better). They believe they have shored that up with the addition of JUCO guard Corey Spence (and for the future, freshman Jordan Wilson). Spence might not score much, but if he brings solid defense and playmaking, that will be huge for the Bears.

Why they'll struggle: Simply put, their defense has been bad the last two seasons. They were ninth in defense during conference play last year, at 1.07 points per possession allowed (and even worse than that during non-conference play). Derrick Barden is an above average defender, but nobody else necessarily is. There is reason for optimism there, namely with Spence and a potentially in better shape Connor Osborne, but most of the roster is the same on what was a bad defensive team. If they do not improve to something closer to 1.00 points per possession, they won't be good enough to challenge for a top 3 spot. They also did not have a lot of continuity on the coaching staff, which might be a good or bad thing - we will see.

Final verdict: After a miserable start to last season, they turned the corner in the second half of conference play. After losing no key contributors, and bringing in some guys that have a chance to play big minutes, optimism is rightfully high. With Tate Unruh and Barden, they have two guys that are among the best at their position in the conference. They will have the offense and shooting to beat anyone on a given night, especially at home. I think the defense will be better, but it would be a long climb for them to make in order to be able to move up in the standings.

UNC can stick with anyone because they are potentially the best outside shooting team in the Big Sky - two years ago they led the country in three-point percentage, and much of that core remains. But they can also lose to anyone if they don't get significantly better defensively, and I'm not sure the personnel will quite be there for the defensive transformation. Their ceiling is high, however, and they will be a legitimately good team from the get go. I think they could challenge for a top two spot if everything breaks right.

5. Eastern Washington (11-9)
Why they'll be good: By the end of last season, five freshmen or sophomores were contributing key minutes to EWU, and that experience gained will serve them well. Venky Jois returns, and he could be an all-conference player, after he led the league in rebounds and blocks as a true freshman. Tyler Harvey was a revelation, going from little used in the beginning of the year, to playing big minutes and posting a 111.7 ORtg by the end of the season. Along with some talented newcomers, they will have the ability to scare teams, particularly by the end of the season when all the youth has grown for another year.

PG is an important spot in Jim Hayford's offense, and they struggled to find consistency there after Justin Crosgile transferred. Enter Drew Brandon, a JUCO guard who will seize the starting spot from day one and should have stability to that position. Much like UNC, an upgrade at that spot is a big reason for optimism.

Why they'll struggle: Few teams blocked shots as well as the Eagles last year, but they still struggled defensively, though they improved during conference play. They simply didn't create turnovers, and they were last in the league in opponents offensive rebounding percentage, which is surprising when you look at their frontline. That should improve with the maturation of guys upfront and the addition of Brandon (an excellent rebounder at the one), but they need to take big steps there.

The other thing is that there offense has traditionally been so reliant on the three-point shot, that if that is not falling, they will struggled on the offensive end. Last year, they only shot 32.3% from deep, but still took more than anyone else. Since they do not get to the FT line (and only shot 65% when they did), they need to become a better outside shooting team.

Final verdict: There is an interesting dichotomy with Eastern Washington. More than anyone else in the conference, they are projected to have a big jump from where they finished last year to the start of this year. Usually you would associate that with a veteran team, but obviously they have no seniors. While I think they are a year away from competing for a Big Sky title, they should be one of the more dangerous teams in the conference this season, with their length and versatility. Their frontcourt is as talented and deep as just about anyone in the conference, with the positional flexibility that will allow them to play around with what is working. The key will be how quickly the backcourt comes along. I think by season's end they will be humming, but you could see some ups and downs before that time.

6. Montana State (9-11)
Why they'll be good: For the first time in a while, they have some continuity, which should serve them well. They return four starters, including the makings of a solid frontcourt with Flavien Davis and Paul Egwuonwu, who both got better and better as last season went along. They also have some stability in the backcourt, where Marcus Colbert and Antonio Biglow return, giving the team essentially two starting point guards, which is part of what made MSU so good at taking care of the ball last season.

Why they'll struggle: Their defense was pitiful last season, finishing 339th in the country in defensive efficiency. All that continuity means they will have mostly the same personnel back from that team, so they have to find defensive improvement somewhere or else they will probably finish lower than this. Last year, they were saved by a solid offense, but they lose guard Christian Moon, who was their best offensive player by far. They will need to find someone to create that offense and be able to consistently stretch the defense. I am not sure yet who that guy will be, but it will probably be a combination of guys.

Final verdict: I think Brad Huse will continue his streak of making the conference tournament with another appearance this year, but it won't be easy. While MSU did have a five game losing streak in the second half of the year (in what has become a staple for the Bobcats), they did recover to win their final two conference games to make the Big Sky tournament. I think consistency will again be hard to come by, but they should be able to sneak into the tournament once again.

7. Portland State (8-12)
Why they'll be good: They will score the ball, like they always do. Even during last year's miserable 5-15 conference campaign, they scored 1.07 points per possession in conference play, fourth best in the Big Sky. They project to have some frontcourt depth, with options like Kyle Richardson, Lamont Prosser, Brandon Cataldo, and Tiegbe Bamba flanking standout Aaron Moore.

They like to go inside, and should have the bodies to score in the post. When they kick it out, Gary Winston is back, and he is one of the best shooters in the conference. If Tim Douglas or DaShaun Wiggins can give them solid minutes every night (and both were excellent in the exhibition game), it's not hard to envision that this could potentially be a top 3 offense in the Big Sky.

Why they'll struggle: At this point, it's unknown if they will ever stop a defense. During conference play, they allowed 1.13 points per possession, dead last in the Big Sky. Looking at the whole season, it was even worse - 1.17 points per possession, third to last in all of the NCAA. That wasn't an aberration either... in Tyler Geving's four seasons at the helm, they have never allowed less than 1.10 points per possession for the season, and that was two years ago when they were anchored by do-it-all Chehales Tapscott.

If the Vikings were merely below average defensively, they would be a top 6 team. However, I'll have to see it to believe it.

Final verdict: I suspect this will be similar to last year, just a little bit better. They will be tough to beat at home (they went 5-5 at home during conference play), but bad on the road (0-10 last year in Big Sky play). They will be tough to stop, but easy to score on. Their defense should be better - almost HAS TO be better - and that should give them a few more wins than last season. That would put them right on the fringe of making the conference tournament.

8. Sacramento State (8-12)
Why they'll be good: First and foremost, Dylan Garrity is really good. All he has done in his first two seasons is lead the Big Sky in assists twice, and greatly improve his scoring from year one to year two. He has the talent to be the best PG in the conference and an all-conference first team type of player. He had an ORtg of 113.1 last season, and really cut down on his turnovers. He can be a special player for them.

They struggled last year in their ability to stretch the floor (32% on threes during conference play), but I think that could be a strength this season. Garrity is a good shooter, and McKinney can keep defenses honest. They brought in Case Rada, who originally committed to Boise State out of high school, and hit 111 threes last year in junior college. Newcomer Zach Mills shot 43% from deep at junior college last year. Dreon Bartlett has the chance to be a dynamic scorer as well. They should be much more potent from the outside compared to last season.

Why they'll struggle: It's hard to say where theire frontcourt production will come from, as they lost all three starters last year up front. They have some bodies that they can put in there, but nobody that has proven themselves to be a good starter at the Big Sky level. They will need someone like Jordan Salley, Joey Quigley, or Alex Tiffin to really step up for them in the frontcourt. Eric Stuteville is their most talented guy, but he is a true freshman. It's easy to look at their frontcourt and wonder where the production will come from, and I suspect that Coach Katz is wondering the same thing.

Who grabs the tough rebounds for them? Who guards the opposing offense's best interior scroer? These are things they will have to figure out by the time conference play begins, because there are no clear answers right now.

Final verdict: They will be a fun team to watch, as it wouldn't be a surprise to see them pick up the pace and run a little bit more with a deep, experienced, and talented backcourt. They can score from outside, and they have the best point guard in the conference in Garrity. However, they haven't finished over .500 since 1988-89, and I'm not sure this is the year it happens - their frontcourt and coaching just have too many question marks. They will certainly be in the mix for the final tournament spot, but I have them falling just outside it.

9. Northern Arizona (7-13)
Why they'll be good: They have a lot of talent, even after losing some key guys in their backcourt. Some of the more analytical projections have NAU ranked sixth, which is a little surprising and higher than they've gotten voted in polls. However, those projections happened before DeWayne Russell transferred out of the program, so that might be different today.

Upfront, they have senior Max Jacobsen, a talented scorer that will have a big impact. He will be joined by Gaellen Bewernick, who should see a lot more time at the three this year, but is a good player no matter where they slot him. A lot of responsibility will be placed on the newcomers, and they some look ready to play right away. Quinton Upshur on the wing will start immediately, and PG Kris Yanku could as well. As the saying goes, it's better to have talent than experience, and NAU does have that.

Why they'll struggle: When I asked Jack Murphy last week who will man the point for the Lumberjacks, he said he had no idea yet. While they certainly have talent, it will take time to fit them into the right roles for their skills, and see who is actually ready to contribute and who is not. They lost three senior guards all will distinct skill sets, and it remains to be seen who will replace those guys and who will get time in the backcourt. In addition, without the presence of Russell, it's hard to know who will be their #1 option and who they will count on for big buckets. They need some young guards to step up.

These problems reared their head in an exhibition loss to Arizona Christian last week, falling 92-85. While most exhibition results must be taken with a grain of salt (where does that expression come from?), it's still not an encouraging sign to give up 92 points to an NAIA team. I'm not sure where their interior defense is going to come from, as it wasn't very good last season.

Final verdict: We know one thing - there will be many growing pains. With a team so young and with so many new faces, that is bound to happen. I think they are in the middle of the same rebuilding as Eastern Washington right now, only EWU got a one year head start. That means there will likely be games they lose that they shouldn't, but possibly wins that they shouldn't get either. I suspect they will be inconsistent all season. Before hearing about the transfer of Russell, I had them in the #7 spot here. After the departure, I've got them ninth, simply because it's hard to say what their backcourt looks like.

10. Idaho State (6-14)
Why they'll be good: They were seventh in the Big Sky defensively last year, and I think that could go up with another year under the tutelage of Bill Evans, who is a great defensive coach. The addition of a guy like Ajak Magot down low should help, as the Bengals were very thin up front last year.

The other reason is they return two solid guys in the backcourt in Tomas Sanchez and Chris Hansen. Both guys had their moments in their first years in Pocatello, and both should be improved heading into this season. Hansen has the chance to be one of the best shooters in the Big Sky, while Sanchez is one of the better all-around PGs. Having that experience and talent back there will be a nice security blanket for Evans.

Why they'll struggle: Last year they were miserable offensively, to the tune of 0.97 points per possession during Big Sky play, last in the conference. Combined with their slow pace, they weren't always the most exciting team to watch. They didn't score over 55 points against a DI opponent until January 5th last season. Evans said they will pick up the pace, but they could still struggle to put the ball in the basket.

In addition, they will again be thin up front. They had a couple of guys that will not be able to play due to an NCAA rule, and another guy that will be redshirting. They aren't deep there and will be relying on guys that are some wildcards right now. The frontcourt should be a lot better, but it is certainly unproven.

Final verdict: I think that Evans is an excellent coach, and I think he is really turning the program into the right direction. However, it's a rebuilding process. The cupboard was pretty bare, and he is slowly building it. They have some solid recruits coming in, and that will pay dividends down the line. In the short-term, there will still be some growing pains. They could sneak up to 9th or so, but I'm not sure their talent level is high enough yet to climb any higher than that.

11. Southern Utah (4-16)
Why they'll be good: They are a well-coached bunch, and Nick Robinson seemed to get the most out of his team last year. They played to their strengths, and I think caught a lot of teams off guard last year, as they started 8-5 in Big Sky play (before losing their final seven). One strength could be interior defense, as Jayson Cheesman could be one of the better defender/rebounder guys in the conference.

Another strength could be their versatility, and they will be playing loose. They are picked last, and nobody is expecting much of them. But they have good freshmen like Juwan Major and Trey Kennedy, who could make an early impact with their athleticism and ability to play and guard multiple positions. If they can create matchup problems, they might be able to sneak out some games.

Why they'll struggle: They weren't a good offensive team last year (0.99 points per possession in Big Sky play), and that was with Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir. Those two guys weren't just their two leading scorers and focal points of the offense... at times, they WERE the offense. Just those two players accounted for roughly 48% of the team's scoring last year, and that was even with each of them missing a game. Who will score for the Thunderbirds? I suspect that not even Nick Robinson is too sure where their points will come from at this point.

Final verdict: I like Nick Robinson, and I think he will be successful long-term. However, to me, they have the lowest talent level in the Big Sky this season, and it will be tough to overcome that. This year, there will not be seniors like Stevenett and Heuir to bail them out with great games. SUU could escape the cellar in a best-case scenario, but I don't see their ceiling being much higher than that this season.

Format: Once again, the tournament will follow the format of seven teams making it, with four going home. That will give the top seed a first round bye. If it was me, I would put everyone in the tournament, but I believe the Big Sky does it this way to maximize the chances of the top seed making the tournament.

Location: The tournament will be at the site of the top seed, which gives them a little bit of an advantage in the tournament, which has helped Montana the past two seasons. This is the Big Sky trying to do everything it can to make sure that the top seed (ideally the best team) wins the conference tournament and makes the NCAA Tournament. That is why I personally like this format.

Rd 1 - North Dakota over Northern Arizona - The Lumberjacks time will come, but it won't be this season. I think they finish strong, and are a top four team heading into next year, but they won't be able to move on in the conference tournament.

Rd 1 - Montana over Montana State - MSU is always up and down, but they have usually ended the year down. This time around, Montana would be a tough matchup in the opening round. The Grizzlies are too experienced and well coached to fall early.

Rd 1 - Eastern Washington over Northern Colorado - By this time, the Eagles should have gotten better and better as the season gone along, and be hitting their stride with all of their youth when tournament time comes. Nobody will want to play them by the end of the season.

Semis - Weber State over Eastern Washington - While the Eagles pull the upset in round 1, they don't have the chops to beat a rested Weber State team, especially in Ogden. The Wildcats advance to another conference title game, their third straight.

Semis - North Dakota over Montana - Playing two games in two days, I like the deeper and more athletic North Dakota team here.

Championship - Weber State over North Dakota - It's a rematch of last year's conference semifinals, which North Dakota almost won. In this scenario, the game would be in Ogden. UND won't be coming on the road to beat the Wildcats.


(*denotes Player of the Year)
- Davion Berry* (Weber State) - Berry is the best player on the best team in the conference, and that usually is the tiebreaker for awards, so I have him as my POY. Berry is a skilled guy that does it all - he is an excellent shooter and passer. An underrated part of his game is his ability to get to the FT line - he shot almost six freebies per game last year. Add that to 52% shooting on twos and 41% on threes, and he is one of the most efficient players in the nation.
- Kareem Jamar (Montana) - People have said about all you can say about Kareem Jamar - he is a great player that deserves any accolade he receives. With a 26.1 ARate, he might be the best passer in the conference. With a 16.3 DR%, he was Montana's best rebounder last year. And oh yeah, he had a true shooting percentage of 58.8%. The Grizzlies need him to be more assertive this year - sometimes he can be unselfish to a fault - but he should be up to the task.
- Troy Huff (North Dakota) - As a sophomore, Huff shot 19.5% from downtown. Last year, he raised that to 35.6%, making a huge difference in how teams can defend him. If he can make a similar leap, he will be the best player in the conference. He takes great care of the ball, but you'd like to see him get a few more easy baskets for teammates with the attention he gets. One area you can't fault him is defensively, where he used his long arms and quickness to lead the Big Sky in steal percentage (4.4%).
- Derrick Barden (Northern Colorado) - Barden came in with high accolades last season, and surpassed the expectations. His athleticism and quickness at the 4 spot causes mismatches even though he is only about 6'3'', and his leaping ability makes him a threat to get the rebound no matter where the ball bounces. One thing he has reportedly been working on is his skill level with the ball. That is the only thing separating him from the top three guys... If he can add a little creativity and off the bounce ability, he could be in the POY mix.
- Joel Bolomboy (Weber State) - It would not be possible for me to like this guy more, and I think he will be a breakout star this season. Off the bench last year, he had some of the best rebounding rates in the country, a 7.4% block rate, and shot 58% from the floor with his ability to get dunks. If he gets the minutes (and he should), something like 13 PPG, 10 RPG, and 2.5 BPG per game is possible, which could make him the best all-around big man in the conference.
- Venky Jois (Eastern Washington) - All he did as a true freshman was lead the Big Sky in rebounding (9.0 per game) and blocks (2.4 per game) while scoring 12.3 points per contest... not a bad debut! He does great work on the block, but is skilled when handling the basketball, even though he isn't a threat from the outside at this stage of his career. He plays with great effort at all times. It'll be interesting to see what he can do for an encore... if he develops an outside shot that teams have to respect, he could be a conference player of the year as early as next season.

- Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State) - Garrity made great strides between his freshman and sophomore years, and enters his junior season as one of the best offensive players in the conference. He led the Big Sky in assists in both of his first two seasons. He's a great shooter that made 41% of his three-pointers and 86% of his free throws last year, as he became a little more assertive looking for his own shot. He is the best pure PG in the conference right now.
- Jordan Gregory (Montana) - He was possibly the most improved player in the Big Sky, and they need him to take the next step and become the #2 scoring option after Kareem Jamar. I think he is up to the task. He was efficient all around, with 88% FT/52% twos/42% threes shooting last season. His ORtg of 120.0 was in the top 75 in the country. If he keeps those numbers up with higher usage, he will be one of the better scorers in the country. He does need to become a better passer.
- Aaron Anderson (North Dakota) - He has turned himself into an excellent outside threat, one that can carry the team on some nights. He does a great job at getting to the line, and makes 86% of his free throws. He is a deadly outshooter that made 41% of his threes, after shooting 48% the previous season. To top it all off, he a good passer that also takes care of the ball. He is a complete player, and looks primed for a big senior year.
- Aaron Moore (Portland State) - Surprisingly, Moore turned into the Vikings best player a year ago, and will have to deal with the increased attention that comes along with that. He was an excellent rebounder last season (20.6 DR%) and may have been PSU's top defender. If he can score at a similar rate as last season, PSU coaches will have a nice building block for this season.
- Kyle Tresnak (Weber State) - He is probably the most skilled post scorer in the Big Sky, and shot 57% last season. He is one of the few pure back to the basket offensive players in the league, which makes him hard to defend and prepare for every night. He made a big breakthrough last season by becoming much better on the glass last season, as well as almost doubling his block rate. He should have a big senior season.

- Drew Brandon (Eastern Washington) - Before transferring last year, Justin Crosigile for Eastern Washington averaged 14.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. Why do I bring that up? I think it's possible that at times, we will see Brandon put up similarly absurd numbers. Last year he averaged 15.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game. He will add stability to Jim Hayford's offense.
- Tate Unruh (Northern Colorado) - Unruh is one of my favorite players to watch, as he is the best pure shooter in the Big Sky and has become an excellent player off the ball, setting himself up off screens for open looks. He has also improved in his ability creating his own shot, a key for his development.
Max Jacobsen (Northern Arizona) - After Kyle Tresnak, Jacobsen might be the best post scorer in the Big Sky. He was a surprise last year, shooting almost 60% from the floor, playing especially well during conference time. He is an average rebounder and defender, but if you get him the ball down low, he will score. That is very valuable.
- Quinton Upshur (Northern Arizona) - With perhaps the best recruiting class in the conference, Upshur looks like the jewel.  He is a dynamic offensive player with the ability to score, rebound, and defend at a high level.
- Tomas Sanchez (Idaho State) - He had an excellent debut season for the Bengals, where he showed himself to be a capable scorer and distributor. His 29.6 ARate was second in the conference, trailing only Dylan Garrity for Sac State. He also showed a knack for getting steals defensively, with a 3.1 steal percentage. Bill Evans will be counting heavily on him.

Jordan Richardson (Weber State) - Richardson went from a solid role player to an above average starting PG in the Big Sky, and might be one of the more underrated players in the conference. He needs to cut down a little bit on turnovers, but he is solid in running the Big Sky's best offense.
- Jamal Webb (North Dakota) - At this point, it looks like Webb is what he is, and has been throughout his career. He is a PG that can get to the rim and score (55% shooting on twos), but struggles when you put him on the free throw line. He passes well (26.4 A Rate) but doesn't take good care of the ball (27.6 TO Rate). He does create some plays defensively, and his 4.1 steal percentage trailed only Troy Huff in the Big Sky. If he could cut down on his TOs, he could be nearly an elite Big Sky PG.
- Martin Seiferth (Eastern Washington) - Seiferth had a nice debut season as a sophomore, shooting 62% from the field, having a block% of 8.9% (52nd in the nation), and being a solid rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. If he can do all of those things again, but improve his FT shooting to a respectable level (49.5% last year), he could be a first or second teamer.
Flavien Davis (Montana State) - He came on strong last year, becoming a versatile weapon for the Bobcats. He shot 54% on two-pointers last year, and showed himself to be a solid defensive rebounder. He might not get too much better as a senior, but he showed himself to be a solid starter at the Big Sky level.
- Eric Stuteville (Sacramento State) - Coach Brian Katz said he knew that Stuteville would be a good Big Sky player, but didn't know when. I'm thinking it will be sooner rather than later, if only by necessity. After graduating their starting frontcourt, the Hornets need Stuteville to step in right away, and he appears skilled enough on both ends to do it. He will make freshman mistakes, but he should be a nice building block for the Hornets.

- Jeremy Senglin (Weber State) - He might be the most talented freshman in the conference, as you will see me argue later. More importantly for this section, he looks to be in line to start around four fantastic players, meaning that he will be one of the last guys that opposing defenses worry about. He should given them great efficiency numbers and an threat from the outside.
- Corey Spence (Northern Colorado) - Spence will be counted on heavily, and I like his chances because he will be asked to play a very specific role - play good man to man defense, and take care of the ball. That role fits perfectly to his strengths, and that is why I think he was one of the best signings of the offseason in the Big Sky.
Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington) - You would be forgiven if, halfway through last year, you didn't know the name Tyler Harvey. But in the latter half of the year, he was a bona fide excellent player for the Eagles, one of the most efficient offensive players in the conference. He shot 60% on twos and 43% from downtown last year. If he keeps up anything close to those numbers over a full season, this spot is way too low.
- Chris Kemp (Montana) - This ranking could be far too low, as Kemp looks to bring an inside presence that the Grizzlies have been lacking the past couple of seasons. He is an athletic low post scorer and will be the best rebounder the Grizzlies have had for a couple of seasons. He is a big piece for Wayne Tinkle.
- Jayson Cheesman (Southern Utah) - Cheesman is one of the best rebounders and defenders in the Big Sky. Last year, he led the Big Sky in block rate at 9.6%, which was 37th in the country. He also nabbed 23.4% of defensive rebounds, placing him in the top 75 nationally. However, he only shot 40% from the field, which is pretty bad for a guy that doesn't shoot much outside of a few feet. If he improves a bit in that area, he can move up this list.

- Antonio Biglow (Montana State) - Biglow came in with high expectations last season, but struggled a bit to find his rhythm offensively. He was a solid scorer, but did post a solid assist rate. The best part of his game was defense, where he posted a 4.0% steal percentage, third in the conference. At his best, he affects the game on both ends.
- AJ Hess (Southern Utah) - He could be their #1 offensive option, after the departures of Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir. He was a solid weapon for them last year, making 33% of his threes and posting an ORtg of 103.2. How will he respond when he is the top focus of opposing defenses? We shall find out.
- Marcus Colbert (Montana State) - He had a stellar freshman year, and was simply steady all season long, playing with the maturity of a guy beyond his years. He shot 40% from deep, making defenses respect his game. He needs to get a little better at finishing, but has the ability to be one of the best PGs in the conference.
- Jaron Nash (North Dakota) - He is a wildcard for UND, and it's hard to project what he will bring to the team. He has the athletic ability to fit in alongside the talented trio of Webb-Anderson-Huff trio, and could be a matchup nightmare in the frontcourt. But will be good enough to make a consistent impact in the halfcourt. That is a big question for UND.
- Tiegbe Bamba (Portland State) - Assuming he does return and is at full strength for conference play, I think he'll have an immediate impact for the Vikings. He's an athletic big man that would benefit from the attention that Aaron Moore will receive this season.

TOUGHEST OMISSIONS - Chris Hansen (Idaho State), Paul Egwuonwu (Montana State), Mikh McKinney (Sacramento State), Tim Huskisson (Northern Colorado), Keron DeShields (Montana)

Player of the Year: Davion Berry (Weber State)
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Newcomer of the Year: Quinton Upshur (Northern Arizona)
Freshman of the Year: Eric Stuteville (Sacramento State)

I used some combination of contributions this year and throughout their careers in the ranking... consider the placement of guys to be very unscientific.
1. Jeremy Senglin (Weber State) - I think he will be the best player in the class by the end of his career. He is a great shooter and scorer, but will need to develop as a creator and defender. Good thing he came to the player development factory of Weber State.
2. Mario Dunn (Montana) - He is their PG of the future, and may start sooner than people think. The reports are great about him, he is a hard worker with a ton of ability. Look for him to be Montana's next star guard.
3. Quinton Upshur (Northern Arizona) - He is a talent that might be the newcomer of the year in the conference. He can do it all, and has the athletic ability to potentially dominate games. He should be a fun one to watch.
4. Eric Stuteville (Sacramento State) - To me, he looks like the best freshman big man entering the Big Sky, and may have a big role out of necessity from the get go. He is a skilled big man that can score in a variety of ways, and should have a fine career.
5. Richaud Gittens (Weber State) - Gittens will slot in at the future guard spot next to Senglin, and looks like he will be a dynamic athlete with the ability to make highlight-reel plays. He will need to continue working on his jumper, but he should form one half of an athletic backcourt in the future in Ogden.
6. Drew Brandon (Eastern Washington) - He joins Kareem Jamar and Davion Berry as the guys most likely to get a triple-double this season. Last year as a sophomore at junior college, he averaged about seven rebounds and seven assists per game. He also has a solid outside shot.
7. Chris Kemp (Montana) - He is a solid athlete that is a good finisher for Montana. He is their best true inside player since Brian Qvale. He's unselfish and should fit in nicely for the Grizzlies.
8. Quinton Hooker (North Dakota) - He will be the next star for North Dakota after the current crop of seniors leave. He has great poise, and always seems to be in control at the PG spot. He could have a big impact as soon as this season.
9. Corey Spence (Northern Colorado) - They brought him in to start from day one, and he looks on track to do just that. He is a quick defender, solid passer, and has a jumpshot good enough that defenses will at least have to respect it.
10. Ognjen Miljkovic (Eastern Washington) - He is a versatile forward that can score in a variety of ways. He should see playing time right away, even if it's in a bench role. He is a great fit for Coach Jim Hayford.
11. Kyndahl Hill (Weber State) - He is a hybrid 3/4 man who might be the best athlete in the conference, as he reportedly had a football scholarship to play Defensive End at Kansas State. He should be a defensive force for the Wildcats who will only get better as he gets more experience.
12. DaShaun Wiggins (Portland State) - He's an athletic guard that looks to be able to play either guard spot. He should put up points and make plays, and could start from the get go.
13. Jeffrey Solarin (Idaho State) - He is in the mold of a guy like Derrick Barden - undersized four man who gets after it and rebounds. He is 6'4'', but could lead the Bengals in rebounds this season. I would expect him to get big minutes right away.
14. Jaron Nash (North Dakota) - We know that he is an athletic forward that could be a potential matchup nightmare for opponents. His offensive game seems a little bit raw, though, and may be inconsistent.  If he can shot a consistent outside shot, that would have a lot of versatility to their offense.
15. Tiegbe Bamba (Portland State) - If he is healthy, he could be the starter alongside Aaron Moore. He is an undersized but athletic four man (a type that Coach Geving loves), that will be a difference-maker if he stays on the court.
16. Juwan Major (Southern Utah) - He's an athletic guy that has the ability to defend multiple positions. He is excellent in transition, and has a good first step that allows him to get to the basket.
17. Trey Kennedy (Southern Utah) - He can play either guard spot and has a great basketball IQ. While he isn't a big-time scorer, he does a little bit of everything for a team, and I suspect that will put him in Coach Robinson's good graces throughout his career.
18. Brandon Gfeller (Montana) - The word is that he is playing so well that he is making it tough for Montana to redshirt him. He could one day be the best shooter in the conference.
19. Jordan Wilson (Northern Colorado) - He has great quickness and the ability to make things happen on the court. Corey Spence will have more of an immediate impact, but I bet BJ Hill is most excited about Wilson from this recruiting class.
20. Kris Yanku (Northern Arizona) - He has all of the intangibles you want from a PG, with great leadership and will to win. That could earn him early minutes in Flagstaff, as they look for someone to seize the PG spot.

- Felix Van Hofe (Eastern Washington) - His time will come, but there are a lot of bodies between him and playing time right now. But he has enough talent to be a key guy for EWU going forward.
- Ajak Magot (Idaho State) - Don't be shocked if he leads the conference in blocked shots this year. Will get as much time as he can handle, and should be a solid defensive anchor.
- Dominique Lee (Northern Colorado) - It wouldn't be a surprise if he gets as many minutes as starting center Connor Osborne this year. They like his defensive versatility.
- Ako Kaluna (Northern Arizona) - I think he'll have a nice career as a post scorer and rebounder. Not sure if he has the athleticism to play big minutes right away, but his time will come.
- Zach Mills (Sacramento State) - He can be a solid undersized four, as he is an excellent rebounder and solid all-around guy. They will need him early.
- Tim Douglas (Portland State) - The transfer from Portland could be the starting PG right away.
- Kyle Richardson (Portland State) - The transfer from Long Beach State could start right away. He has one season of eligiblity remaining.

1. Davion Berry will be Big Sky POY - Since Kareem Jamar is the reigning POY, that automatically makes him the favorite the next season. However, Berry is the best player on what will be the best team in the conference, and I think that means the tiebreak will go to him. Berry will have a great year, and get the hardware once the season ends.
2. Eastern Washington will lead the country in three-point attempts - They have been near the top the past few seasons, and I expect that to continue as Hayford gets more of his own players on the team and into his system. Especially with solid inside threats like Venky Jois and Martin Seiferth, things will be open on the perimeter, and they won't hesitate to fire away.
3. Kareem Jamar will lead Montana in five categories - I like Jamar to lead the Grizzlies in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and assists - he is that good and that multi-dimensional. Last year he led the team in rebounds and assists, and was second in the other categories. That changes this year.
4. Dylan Garrity leads the league in assists... again - He has done it for two straight years, and I expect he will do it again. He has a knack for finding the right guy, and the improvement of his own offensive ability scoring the ball will just mean that defenses have to pay more attention to him. When that happens, he'll find the open man.
5. Joel Bolomboy will be the frontrunner for next season's POY - I think Bolobmoy will be one of the most improved players in the conference, and will become a guy that people start to know nationally. He was one of the best rebounders in the country as a freshman, and he should score more as his game develops. He is primed for a big season.
6. Troy Huff will make at least five highlight reel plays this season - Just watch this highlight and you will understand. He is dynamic, and capable of making a momentum changing play at any time.
7. Montana State will have a 4 game conference losing streak at some point - This is just based on history... they always seem to go through a period of conference play (usually during the second half) when they struggle. Last year, they rebounded to win their last two and make the conference tournament. They need to weather any storm once again.
8. Quinton Hooker will be UND's best PG by year end, even if he doesn't start - The reports are great about Hooker, and UND certainly was excited when they got him. He is playing too well to be able to redshirt. By the end of the year, he will be the clear future star for UND.
9. Derrick Barden will average another double-double in conference play - He did it last season, and I think he can do it again. He hits the glass hard on both ends, and will get as many minutes as he can handle. Barden is a special player.
10. Five guys will average at least two blocks per game - Look out for Venky Jois (EWU), Martin Seiferth (EWU), Andy Martin (UM), Jayson Cheesman (SUU), Joel Bolomboy (WSU), and Ajak Magot (ISU). All are capable of getting some swats!

In other words... other guys I didn't get the chance to talk about, but would like to!

- Parker Kelly (Eastern Washington) - Kelly entered the Eastern Washington program as a non-scholarship player, but has become an important piece for them. He is an excellent shooter that can stretch defenses. He shot 45% from three as a freshman, and 40% last season (almost doubling his attempts). He is a reliable guy that doesn't try to do too much.
- Gary Winston (Portland State) - Winston shot 47% from downtown last year, showing he is one of the best shooters in the Big Sky. He also can create some things off the dribble, though he only shot 39% inside the arc as a sophomore. He's gotten a lot of experience, and could be a key piece for them with his shooting ability.
- Mike Weisner (Montana) - Weisner is a solid player that always seems to step up when Montana needs him. Last season, he shot 47% from three, and had a knack for hitting bit shots. In the Big Sky tournament final, he played 30 minutes, scoring seven points. He is not a great rebounder in the frontcourt, but he is a valuable member of the Grizzlies rotation as a guy that can play the 3 or stretch 4.
- Connor Osborne (Northern Colorado) - He gets lost in the shuffle sometimes when you think about UNC, but he can play. His best skill is as an offensive rebounder, where he had an 11.8 OR% last season, one of the best in the conference. He does that and shoots 54% from the floor. If he can play a little better defensively, he is a key cog for them.
- Royce Williams (Weber State) - Williams played just 21.6% of the team's minutes last season, but was solid when he did get time. He shot 50% from the floor (including 11/22 from deep), showing his ability to score. He needs to cut down on turnovers and hit the glass a little harder, but if he does, he'll be a nice rotation piece for the Wildcats.

Just in case this wasn't enough Big Sky info for you... here are some other links to posts both on this blog and in other areas in the internet world.

- Big Sky preview over at College Basketball Talk,
- A look at the coaches and media preseason polls.
- My interview with Dan Hanner of Realgm.com, who did some statistical previews for ESPN.
- My rankings of the Big Sky recruiting classes.
- A comparison of the games of Kareem Jamar, Davion Berry, and Troy Huff, who are the top three favorites for POY in the Big Sky.
- My previews for ESPN Insider.

If you read all of this, you have my utmost respect and thanks, because I believe we surpassed the 10,000 word mark this year! Feel free to drop me a line anytime this season with thoughts or questions. My email is bigskybball AT gmail.com, and you can also find me on twitter. Let the games begin!

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