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.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT NOTES & PREDICTIONS
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.
ALL CONFERENCE TEAMS
(*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.
10 [KIND OF BOLD] PREDICTIONS
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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