Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 2

After taking a look at the teams on Monday, let's take a closer look at the players that could make up awards teams and award winners, as we head into conference play. These are my predictions for the first two all-conference teams.

First Team:
- Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington - As we enter Big Sky play, Harvey looks like the favorite for the POY. He plays for the best team, and he has continued right where he left off last year as a dynamic scorer. He is averaging 22.8 PPG, but that only tells a little bit of the story. He is shooting a touch under 50% from three point range on the year, and doing it in nine attempts per game, which is almost ridiculous. He takes great care of the ball, and scores efficiently inside the arc as well. He is a star.
- Mikh McKinney, Sacramento State - I give him the slight nod over Garrity because he does more things well. He is a good distributor, and he is third in the league in Assist Rate. He has shot over 60% on two-pointers, and is a good enough outside shooter to keep you honest. He has also been a menace defensively, with the second best steal rate in the nation, swiping the ball 3.3 times per game.
- Venky Jois, Eastern Washington - Jois has cooled down a little after a scorching start, but he has shown a lot of improvement this year, averaging 19 and 8 per game. He is shooting over 60% from the floor, and has gotten better from the stripe. Though the total rebound number is a little inflated due to the fast pace of EWU, he is a good rebounder, and one of the best shot blockers in the conference. Jois does it all for the Eagles.
- Martin Breunig, Montana - Before the year, an insider told me that Breunig would be the best big man in the conference, and so far you could make the argument that is the case. His raw numbers of 16.7 PPG/6.4 RPG aren't as high as Jois, but he has been very good. He is shooting 64% from the floor, and 74% from the line. He's helped to turn around a lot of the rebounding troubles the Grizzlies have had the past couple years, and can block some shots as well. Foul trouble has limited his minutes quite a bit, but when he is on the floor, he's as good as any big man in the conference.
- Joel Bolomboy, Weber State - He hasn't been the offensive player we wanted him to be yet, shooting 44% on two-pointers against DI competition (he has feasted in two games against non-DI opponents), and hasn't rebounded it quite as well as his otherworldy rate from last year. But he still has the talent level to do that, and it should come together as the year goes on. No big man can match his athletic prowess.

Second Team:
- Dylan Garrity, Sacramento State - Garrity has really evolved in his career, but a playmaking freshman who led the conference in assists, into a senior who has to be one of the most feared shooters in the nation. He is a lethal weapon from the outside. He falls to the second team here because he has become more of simply a shooting specialist then he was in the past, but he could climb up to the first team.
- Mike Scott, Idaho - I have talked a lot about Scott this year, and he is a guy that has been efficient scoring 15.5 PPG (shooting 44% from three), while being one of the best distributors in the conference. He is second in the Big Sky in Assist Rate, which he has done while maintaining a minuscule turnover rate. He has been the most improved player in the conference.
- Drew Brandon, Eastern Washington - Brandon is the often forgotten third cog for EWU, a PG who does it all. Though not a great scorer (though he has been very efficient when he hasn't been shooting threes), he also averages 7 RPG from the PG position. Jim Hayford's offense needs a good PG, and Brandon has been that guy this year.
- Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona - It's reasonable to wonder if we saw Upshur's peak last year, but he is a very productive guy that is capable of carrying their offense in some situations. Though not shooting the ball quite as well as last year, he gets a lot of respect from deep. One thing that could help him is if he can get a little better at the line, where is shooting just 59% this year, baffling for a guy with his shooting ability.
- Dominique Lee, Northern Colorado - Lee was excellent in a reserve role last year, but has been even better with increased minutes so far this year. He is super efficient, and has put up better rebounding numbers than anyone in the conference. He is a guy that brings a lot to the table, but doesn't take much off. He has to play the five spot more than you would like, but that doesn't diminish how good he has been.

Let's hear any snubs or your thoughts...

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Conference Reset, Part 1

On Thursday, Big Sky conference play begins. What that means is this - everything that has happened so far this year is useful only insofar as it adequately got teams prepared for what is to come. Other than that, it doesn't matter. There will be no at-large teams from the Big Sky, so as always, it will come down to conference play.

I wrote up a long-winded preview at the start of the year, but thought it might be useful to type up some new predictions for order of finish and taking a look at some of the best players in the Big Sky so far. In part one, I will give a new predicted order of finish.

Two notes. First, is that I will certainly be wrong. With so little separation, things are going to come down to tiebreakers, and there will be a ton of bunching. Second, I think teams two through eight are largely interchangable - If you feel like those teams should be slotted differently, you may well be right. I would love to hear the other thoughts and opinions from league followers, but with as little separation as we have seen from team's play, it would be hard to say that anyone is definitely right, and that includes my opinion.

All that said, let's begin!

1. Eastern Washington (14-4) - Their stellar start dulled a little at the end of non-conference play, where they followed a close loss to Washington (a great performance) with losses to Sam Houston State and California, ending with a too-close win over Lewis & Clark State.  However, those losses were the end of a very long roadtrip, and completely understandable. Their defenese, while not great, is improved over last year, and they look like they are one of the best offensive teams in the country. If non-conference play has taught us anything, it is that the Big Sky should be going through Cheney.

2. Weber State (11-7) - To clarify, for teams with identical records (such as the three 11-7 teams), I have put them in order of who I think is most likely to be higher. The Wildcats have had an up and down start, and they have arguably not beaten anyone better than them. But I still have them second because I still believe in their talent level. Joel Bolomboy hasn't quite made huge offensive strides, but he's still an elite rebounder and defender. They have the athletes and talent which gives them a high ceiling, it will just be mixed in with confounding losses due to all their youth.

3. Northern Arizona (11-7) - If you want to argue this is too high for them, I understand. They haven't looked great offensively, and other than an impressive win over St. Mary's, they haven't played well away from home. But, I think the fact that they can stake a claim to being the best defensive team in the Big Sky will keep them in most games. Scoring will be an issue all year, but only Weber State can defend at their level.

4. Sacramento State (11-7) - I have been down on them so far this year, but the same reason for optimism that was there at the start of the year is still there now. Namely, Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney. The seniors are both killing it, with ORtg of 118.0 (McKinney) and 117.8 (Garrity). McKinney has become the primary distributor, with Garrity's assist rate plunging down to 14.4 (it was 39.1 as a freshman). Nobody has a backcourt like that, which is the biggest reason they will win a lot of games.

5. Montana (10-8) - They are still finding their way, as they have battled injury issues and a new system from Travis DeCuire. Jordan Gregory has struggled a bit being "the man," though he has by no means been anything but solid. As I've mentioned, the biggest reason for hope is big man Martin Breunig, who has been a force inside, and figures to get even better in a Big Sky conference not known for imposing front lines. The key for the Griz, as with most, will be figuring out how to get stops when needed.

6. Idaho (10-8) - The Vandals have quietly been very good, with a good road win over Wazzu and a home victory over UC Davis (which later beat UNC by 10). Connor Hill has been crushing it lately, and Mike Scott continues to be perhaps the most impressive PG in the Big Sky. It's hard to say if Idaho will be helped by other BSC teams not knowing them well, or hurt by not knowing the other teams as well, but one thing is for sure - they are an offensive force that will win a lot of games.

7. Northern Colorado (9-9) - They are very deep, which is nice. They are also athletic. However, I wonder if their lack of size (Dominique Lee and Tim Huskisson are both very good, but play a lot of the four spot at 6'5'') could hurt, though it might be less of an issue during conference play than it was in non-conference play. The Bears are always tough at home, and they can always score, and those two things should get them to .500. One of their strengths the past couple years was rebounding, but that has struggled after losing Derrick Barden, Somebody besides Lee needs to rebound the basketball, and that hasn't happened enough so far.

8. Portland State (9-9) - I never know what to make of the Vikings, but overall they have had some disconcerting losses. They are cobbling together a solid offense, but they haven't really been able to get any easy baskets, shooting 39.4% inside the arc against D1 opponents - which, as you can guess, is not good. They have also dealt with some injury issues to their key frontcourt newcomers, and they need those guys healthy and productive. All in all, a .500 season with wild positive and negative swings seems to be about right.

9. Idaho State (7-11) - They are the poor man's NAU in that they can stop people (but not as well as NAU), but struggle scoring (even more than NAU). As I've mentioned in the past, they don't seem to have any outside shooters other than Chris Hansen, who defenses can key on. On the plus side, Jeff Solarin continues to gobble up rebounds, and get them some easy baskets on putbacks, which is big for them. I think Bill Evans can make the most of the roster, but it won't be enough to make the conference tournament.

10. North Dakota (6-12) - It hasn't been an inspiring start, but guys like Estan Tyler, Terrel de Rouen, and Josiah Coleman should be better than they have shown so far, which will help the offense and perhaps take some pressure off of Jaron Nash. With so many new faces, growing pains were to be expected, but Jones has done a good job of bringing talent in (and hopefully figuring out the rest later). This is a team that should get better as the year goes along.

11. Montana State (6-12) - They have been better than I expected, but they are still a young team that will struggle in Big Sky play. One trait that has carried over from last year is that they are a solid rebounding team, with big men like Danny Robison and Eric Norman showing themselves to be solid on the glass.

12. Southern Utah (4-14) - On December 23, SUU surpassed last year's win total, using a big run at the start of the second half to beat South Carolina State. Similarly, they should surpass last year's conference wins total within the first half of the Big Sky season. If AJ Hess keeps up his play, he will be at least an all-conference honorable mention player, as he has been excellent from outside while taking care of the ball. His development has helped open things for everyone else.

Let's hear everyone else's thoughts on how things look heading into Big Sky play...

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

For Christmas I am back home visiting family in North Dakota, so there probably won't be any more posts here until next week. However, the good news is that conference play is almost upon us! Thank goodness!

So, hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking at the Bottom Tier

So far this year, we have taken plenty of looks at Eastern Washington and what has made them the favorite, and we have also looked extensively at the middle tier of teams, but today let's took at the four who are presumed to be at the bottom right now.

- Idaho State sits at 3-8, after looking good in a neutral court OT loss to South Dakota State, a road loss to Utah State, and a neutral court loss to Cal State Bakersfield. So far this year they are tenth in the conference in offensive efficiency, but fourth defensively.

Their struggles on offense start with the fact that other than Chris Hansen, they don't have many guys shooting well from the outside. Against DI opponents, they have shot 26% from downtown, which ranks in the bottom 15 nationally. Hansen himself has struggle,d shooting just 29% after hitting 40% of his threes last year. That could be just a random fluke, but it could also be due to the fact that ISU doesn't really have a PG, which allows defense to key in on Hansen.

Jeff Solarin has been excellent again, and Nnamdi Ezenwa has given them good minutes, but they need to find someone other than Hansen that will draw the attention of defenses if they want to compete for a conference tournament spot.

- Montana State also sits at 3-8, and there have been some offensive bright spots in Brian Fish's first season. Junior guard Marcus Colbert has struggled with his shooting, but he is in the top 15 nationally in assist rate while also getting to the line. He is a keeper. Danny Robison has been very solid as well up front, showing a nice outside shot which wasn't there in the past. He is one of the most improved guys in the Big Sky.

To compete for a tournament spot, though, MSU needs to improve on the other end of the floor, where they are ninth in the Big Sky defensively. They haven't been able to force turnovers, but they are sending opponents to the foul line too much, so the aggression is not really paying off. DI teams have an effective FG% of 52.8% against them, which is not a good mark when you're not forcing turnovers. They have had good games on that end, but too many have been like their loss Saturday to Portland, where the Pilots made 23/40 twos and 10/20 threes, while turning it over just 10 times.

The Bobcats are probably a year away from contending for a conference tournament spot, but there are at least some good, positive things happening on the offensive side of the ball.

- North Dakota is 4-6, but two of the wins are against non-DI opponents. One of the best positives has been the play of senior guard Lenny Antwi. He didn't look like much of a Big Sky player his first three years, but he has been shooting the ball very well this year, hitting 12/26 threes. Elsewhere, they have a lot of guys in shooting slumps from the outside.

Estan Tyler made 43% of his triples as a sophomore at UMKC - he is 6/21 this year. Terrel de Rouen made 36% as a freshman at New Mexico State - he is 6/21 this year. Jaron Nash made 34% last year - he is 4/15 this year. Josiah Coleman came in as a guy that looked like he could do some things offensively - he is 3/18 from downtown and an abominable 10/41 FG overall. Some of these things should normalize and give UND a much better offense than they have shown so far.

Defensively, they still can't stop anyone in the paint. DI teams are shooting over 58% on two-point attempts against UND this year, a rank that is near the bottom of the NCAA. They don't really have a rim protector, and their perimeter defenders can't keep teams out of the lane. More than anything else, this will hold them back as we enter Big Sky play.

- Southern Utah is still at two wins, but as we've mentioned there are signs of life from their offense. AJ Hess continues to play great basketball, shooting the ball well while not turning it over. He has become more of a primary option which they desperately needed. SUU is shooting 40% from the outside against DI teams, a great mark and a huge sign that they will win some Big Sky games this year.

Defensively, however, they are a mess. Teams have been killing them from three, though that will hopefully normalize a bit. SUU hasn't forced turnovers, and as has been an issue for them the last few years, they send teams to the foul line way, way too much. They just can't seem to defend without fouling, and this is year three of what must be considered a trend.

Another issue is that Trey Kennedy, a guy that did some nice things as a true freshman playing a too-big role, has regressed this year. His turnovers are up, assists are done, and he doesn't seem to be getting any easy baskets. The Thunderbirds need these young guys to develop, and his sophomore season has not been promising so far.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Don't Sleep on Northern Arizona

Last year, Northern Arizona went 3-8 during non-conference play, and got very little attention heading into the conference season. I wrote that they might be better than we all thought, and they wound up finishing third in the Big Sky.

This year, they currently sit at 4-6, and while they aren't flying as far under the radar (in part because of their high finish last year), there hasn't been a lot of talk about them,. However, don't be surprised if they are contending for the Big Sky title.

For one, they can defend at a high level. They currently sit second in the Big Sky in defensive efficiency, just slightly behind Weber State. Last season, they finished second during Big Sky play in PPP allowed, so their past history shows they can be one of the best defensive teams in the conference, if not the best. In a league where teams struggle to get stops, that can set them apart.

A season ago, their biggest flaw was that teams shot the three ball very well against them, which is the opposite of what has happened so far this year. Though that is sure to regress to the mean, they have forced turnovers well, and have good defenders on the perimeter and inside.

The offense has struggled this year, but there are signs that might be turning around. Sophomore guard Kris Yanku has re-joined the starting lineup the past two games, and played well. They have a lot of guys that shoot the ball well on the outside, but Yanku is the guy for them that can consistently get into the lane, break down the defense, and set up teammates. He is still growing, and might be their most important player.

NAU is now 4-6 after their win on the road versus St. Mary's, and I wonder if they might be flying under the radar a bit. Regarded as a challenger for the Big Sky before the season, everyone seems to be in the second tier behind Eastern Washington. However, don't be surprised if Northern Arizona is a team that can challenge EWU.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Big Sky Power Rankings - 12/15/14

For the first time this year, let's tackle some power rankings as a quick gauge on where things stand, just a couple weeks away from the beginning of conference play!

1) Eastern Washington (8-2)
I wrote about them Friday, so I won't talk too much more. Impressively, they led Washington for much of the game on Sunday, with their win expectancy reaching almost 75% with a little over five minutes to play. Big man Robert Upshaw had a big day against them, and the big, scoring center is someone who can have success against EWU's relatively thin front line. However, there aren't many of those guys in the Big Sky.

2) Weber State (3-5)
While EWU looks better and better each game, the Wildcats spot as number two in the pecking order appears more and more tenuous. They lost on the road to UT-Arlington, and then dropped a home game to BYU where they were never really in the game. The losses are all to good opponents, but I still worry about their turnovers, and their ability to create easy opportunities. Jeremy Senglin does have five assists in back to back games, which is a good sign.

3) Northern Colorado (4-4)
They are flying under the radar a bit because they haven't beaten anyone, but it looks more and more like they will be the second best offensive team in the conference. They take great care of the ball, and they are loaded with efficient scorers. Dominique Lee was good as a junior last year, but he has been outstanding as a senior. He is third in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, blocking shots, and shooting 66%.

4) Montana (3-6)
Last Wednesday, they scored 99 points against Davidson... and lost by 11. They are a solid team offensively, but they are struggling to get any stops. Travis DeCuire should be thankful to former coach Wayne Tinkle for leaving him big man Martin Breunig, who scored 30 in that game against Davidson, and is the real deal. The problem is that teams are just hitting everything against the Grizzlies... DI opponents shoot 40% from downtown and 54% on twos against them. Unlike past year, they are doing well on the defensive glass, they just aren't getting enough opportunities at it!

5) Idaho (4-5)
They had a couple of tough road losses last week, but are playing pretty well overall. Like others, they can score, but they can't stop anyone.They haven't been able to force turnovers, and they've sent teams to the line far too often . Against South Dakota State, they shot 17/30 inside the arc and 12/18 from behind it, and still lost 87-85. I have talked about Mike Scott on here, but senior Bira Seck is another guy showing up big. He is in the top ten in defensive rebounding rate in the nation, and getting to the line offensively. His emergence has been a big plus.

6) Northern Arizona (3-6)
Similar to Weber State, they can't be judged on the record alone, because every loss has come against a solid opponent, with the exception of maybe UTSA. Their problem is the reverse of most - they can stop people, but they can't score well enough right now. They aren't getting to the line, and they aren't getting enough easy baskets (just 42.4% on twos). It looks like Kris Yanku was inserted into the starting lineup last game, which should help. Last year, he showed good passing ability and the ability to get into the lane, which could help generate easy chance.

7) Portland State (5-3)
They are a big of a roller coaster, with a 26 point road loss to an average UC Riverside being a real head-scratcher. One thing that has hurt them is the play of Gary Winston. Winston has been great throughout his career, but has slumped to career low numbers to begin his senior season. He will get every chance to play out of it (as he should), but they need him to start hitting shots. The new duo of Tiegbe Bamba and Braxton Tucker continues to play well up front.

8) Sacramento State (5-4)
They have the talent level to be much better, but they've been up and down this year, and have lost three of their last four. Defensively, teams are scoring at will on them inside, and they continue to struggle getting any offensive production from the frontcourt.  One hope is Erc Stuteville, who played 25 good minutes against Portland, contribuirng 14 efficient points and looking like the player he was at the end of last year. The backcourt of Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney is as good as ever,.

9) Idaho State (3-5)
Offensively, they have really struggled shooting from the outside which has hurt what they want to do. Chris Hansen is just 15/45 from downtown, though that should improve with his shooting ability. The problem might be finding someone else that can stretch the defense... Nnamdi Ezenwa has shot well on limited attempts, but nobody other than those guys has made more than three threes so far this year. They don't have enough offensive talent there if they can't hit some shots from the outside.

10) Montana State (3-6)
They have bounced back well from the Kentucky loss, winning three of their last five, including an impressive home win over UT-Arlington (who later beat Weber State). They are pushing the pace, and guys like Marcus Colbert, Mike Dison, and forward Danny Robison has played well in that style. They can't stop anyone, but they are at least playing a more exciting style and building some things for the future. Early on, Brian Fish is building things at MSU.

11) North Dakota (3-6)
It appears that some of the fears are coming true... having lost most of their offensive talent from last year, the new guys haven't been able to step in, and the defense hasn't picked up the slack. Last week against Minnesota and NDSU (two good teams), they lost by an average of 33.5 points. It looks like it will be a long year in Grand Forks.

12) Southern Utah (2-5)
As we've been saying, they could very well still finish last, but they are a much improved club. They are still struggling mightily on the defensive end, but the offense is making a lot of strides. When they don't turn the ball over (which has happened far too often), they are shooting the ball well, and showing some ability to get to the line. They are giving minutes to a lot of guys and seeing what sticks, and so far they are finding some things. Tyler Rawson has looked good, and fellow freshman James McGee has canned 14/25 threes. There are a lot more bright spots this year.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Eastern Washington Continues to Impress

With each passing week, sentiment grows that the Big Sky this year will be going through Cheney, WA. The latest evidence came last night, when Eastern Washington went on the road and beat a good San Francisco team... The Dons had beaten Montana by 19 last week. Earlier this week, EWU went and beat Seattle by 12 in Seattle (Montana beat Seattle by four).

The Eagles are now 8-1, with their lone loss coming on the road in a tight game to SMU (they are 6-3 and widely seen as a likely tournament team). Offensively, EWU has been dynamite, scoring 1.08 PPP against DI opponents, which is 30th in the nation. For comparison, Northern Colorado has been second best, scoring 1.03 PPP, good for 97th in the country.

Also against DI teams, the Eagles are shooting 56.7% on twos, and 40.3% from downtown, giving them a 58.4% effective field goal percentage, top ten in the country. They take care of the ball, and they have a ton of guys that can hurt you.

Venky Jois has become a good free throw shooter almost over night... he was 12/33 from the charity stripe to start the year, but is 23/27 from the line in his last three games. That would take away the biggest weakness of his offensive game, and he is certainly in the short discussion for best big men in the conference.

Tyler Harvey and Drew Brandon continue to excel in the backcourt as guys that do a little bit of everything. Harvey is an elite scorer with unlimited range, while Brandon is a nightly triple-double threat (to wit: he is in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate in the Big Sky, despite being the team's PG!)

Parker Kelly fills his role masterfully, as he is a lethal spot up shooter. Perhaps the best sign for EWU is the emergence of Ognjen Miljkovic in his sophomore year. The big man shoots 46% from downtown, and helps out on the interior with a 5.6% block rate. Against USF, he scored 20 points, hitting 4/7 from behind the arc. Again, he is their four man.

Eastern Washington is far from invincible... defensively, they have been much improved this year but they are not a lockdown D. They have a tough three game road stretch ahead, so it's possible that they could be 8-4 in a week's time, which would dull some of the enthusiasm. But they are an explosive offensive unit with a ton of skilled players and ways to hurt you. When they are on, they can put up 85 on anyone, and so far, it looks like they're going to do exactly that many times over this Big Sky season.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taking Stock of the Second Tier

As we enter mid-December, let's take another look at the pecking order of things right now. Up top, there is Eastern Washington, who has established itself as the early favorite for now. It feels similar to Northern Colorado last year... the upstart that looks ready to challenge for the title, so it will be interesting to see how things hold up. After that, I still think Weber State is second right now... despite their flaws and youth, they have so much talent that they'll be in the race.

But my interest today is those teams that sit behind those two, in the three through eight spots, where you could seemingly draw names out of a hat for an order right now. Let's take a look at those teams, not necessarily in any specific order.

- According to KenPom, Montana is actually the second best team in the conference right now, which would be a surprise to the coaches that picked them eighth before the year. They have been beat handily by good Colorado State and San Francisco teams on the road, and other than that have played very good basketball. The latest win was over a perennially good North Dakota State team, and they also took Boise State to OT and Cal to two OTs.

Their strength so far has actually come defensively, as they have done a good job of forcing turnovers, and (somewhat surprisingly) rebounding opponent misses. Martin Breunig has been a monster, shooting over 60%, rebounding on both ends, and blocking shots. The scary part is I don't really think their offense is clicking as well as expected yet - if that clicks and their defense continues to be solid, they will be in the Big Sky race.

- Another entrant into the race is Northern Colorado, who is behind only EWU in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency.  Against DI opponents, they have a top 20 turnover percentage, and they are shooting 57% on twos. While that is not sustainable, they are getting quality shots and they have the talent to continue to get them. They have nine guys that play at least 39.5% of the team's minutes, while only one guy plays over 60%, so they are tough to gameplan for because they can hurt you in a lot of ways. They still struggle defensively - and they have sent opponents to the line far too often - but if they can shore that up, they're a contender. Of course, they have struggled in that area the past few years, but they have enough offensive firepower to make some noise.

- Many people thought Portland State and Sacramento State would be right up there (including myself on Sac State), but both have been up and down. PSU has the opening win over USC, but they have been a bit uninspiring other than that, culminating in a 26 point road loss on Saturday to UC Riverside (who, coincedentally, is Sac State's lone inspiring win). The Vikings have struggled in stopping anyone this year - Their 1.07 PPP allowed is 328th in the country... They have to improve that if they want to be a serious contender.

Sac State is 4-3, but they haven't played that many meaningful games. The losses to Gonzaga and UC Irvine are understandable, but an 11 point loss to Abilene Christian could be a warning sign. Part of the optimism there was from the presumed improvement from Eric Stuteville, but he has struggled mightily so far in the post. They have the guards to compete, but so far, the frontcourt is again providing very little.

- Northern Arizona has played a tough slate with some difficult roadtrips, but I am sure internally they hoped to be a little better than 2-6. They have been a solid defensive team, but they've struggled to score, with just 0.95 PPP. They aren't getting to the FT line, and they aren't getting many easy buckets. Everyone benefited from Max Jacobsen last year, and while they have talented guys replacing him, they miss his offense early on. Newcomer Jaleni Neely is taking three-point specialist to a new level... he is a solid 40% from deep, but just 4/24 inside the arc.

- Idaho is another team that has the offensive firepower to compete, it's just a matter of whether or not they will get enough defensive. They have some nice wins over South Dakota State, UC Davis, and Washington State, though mixed in is a confusing home loss to Northern Kentucky. Guard Mike Scott continues to play like a POY candidate, excelling in all areas, while Connor Hill is heating up after a relatively slow start. They are a fun, fast paced team that is going to win a lot of Big Sky games, and their addition makes the conference better. Now, they just need to find a way to stop allowing easy baskets, as opponents are shooting over 55% on two-pointers against them.

How do you see the order of these teams?

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Monday, December 8, 2014

[VIDEO] Quinton Hooker Game-Winning Shot

Over the weekend, North Dakota took down Drake 63-62 for a nice road win. With under 10 seconds left, guard Quinton Hooker with a shot that I guess would best be classified as a runner, which gave UND the lead and eventually the win. Take a look for yourself.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Big Sky Freshmen to Watch

Now that we are close to ten games in for each team, let's take a look at some of the stars of tomorrow in the Big Sky - some of the freshmen who have been getting a good amount of playing time so far. In no particular order, a brief look at some of them...

- Bogdan Bliznyuk (Eastern Washington) - It's not easy getting minutes for a talented EWU team, but Bliznuk is playing about a quarter of the team's minutes. He is scoring about three points per game, but that has come from 7/11 FG overall and 3/3 from behind the arc, meaning he has been efficient. Against DI opponents, he is rebounding 15.9% of his team's available offensive misses, which is great. He will continue to struggle for minutes to the talent talent up front they have, but he looks like he will be a good player.

- Hayden Hunter (Weber State) - Playing decent minutews at PG, Hunter has had his ups and downs. He hasn't shown much of a scoring ability yet, scoring just seven points on the year despite playing double digit minutes in each contest. He looks like a playmaker, with a 24.3 Assist Rate against DI teams, but is turning the ball over way too much (almost twice per game). It will be interesting to watch his development, because WSU may need his ability to create for others this season.

- Fabijan Krslovic (Montana) - The true freshman has been starting and playing pretty good minutes for the Grizzlies. As a combo forward, he has been solid offensively, making 50% of his shots. He has been above average on the offensive glass, but needs to contribute more grabbing defensive rebounds. He has shown a knack for blocking some shots so far, with seven in six games.

- Arkadiy Mrkrtchyan (Idaho) - He started five games so far for the Vandals, but has struggle a bit. If you take out the opener against Eastern Oregon (where he had 18 and 8), he has shot 33% from the floor and struggled rebounding the basketball. He has also struggled a bit with fouls, including fouling out against NIU. He has shown some offensive pop overall, including ability from the outside. I would expect his minutes and production to ebb and flow, but it's always a good sign when a true freshman is playing as many minutes early as he is so far.

- Zach Green (Montana State) - He has struggled with his outside shot, hitting just one of nine threes so far on the year. Outside of their loss to Grand Canyon, he has struggled overall offensively, as he has just two field goals in the other six games. He has shown good ability as an offensive rebounder for a guard, and we will have to see if that holds. The good news for him is that he should continue to see 15+ minutes a game, because MSU will struggle this year, and his development will be important for the future.

- Tyler Rawson (Southern Utah) - Early on in the season, Rawson has probably been the best freshman who is playing minutes, as he gotten 20+ minutes in each game and been very productive with his time. He has made 15/21 two-pointers which is not sustainable, but the good news is that he has also been very good at getting to the line (though struggled once he got there), which is a positive development for his future. He has been out of this world as a defensive rebounder, with a rate that ranks in the top 15 in the country. He is also blocking shots well. Coming off the best game of his young career in the win against UTSA, SUU could have a future building block on its hands.

Anyone else that has caught your eye? I'll try to do this every few weeks during the year, since one of my favorite things about college basketball is seeing player's growth through the year and throughout their career. Hopefully these guys will continue to get minutes, and a few more will emerge as well!

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Big Sky 2015-16 Recruits

Now that fall signing has happened, it's finally time to get this page up. As always, this is every changing, and possibly will be outdated at times. Please let me know what I am missing, and I will get it fixed!

Rundowns of the early signing period recruits can be found here, here, and here.

Eastern Washington
- Michael Wearne (6'2'' G)
- Jesse Hunt (6'7'' F)
- Rico Nuno (6'7'' JUCO F)
- Ty Gibson (6'3'' G)

- Tyler Brimhall (6'4'' G)
- Henry Cornelious (6'5'' F)

Idaho State
- Ali Faruqbey (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Anthony Knight (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Gary Chivichyan (6'5'' G)

- Michael Oguine (6'1'' G)
- Jared Samuelson (6'7'' F)
- Walter Wright (5'10'' JUCO G)
- Bobby Moorehead (6'6'' F)

Montana State
- Tyler Hall (6'4'' G)
- Sam Neumann (6'6'' F)
- Mandrell Worthy (6'3'' G)
- Quinton Everett (6'2'' JUCO G)
- Nahjee Matlock (5'11'' G)
- Shikei Blake (6'7'' JUCO F)

North Dakota
- Drick Bernstine (6'8'' transfer F)
- Josh Collins (6'6'' F)
- Adam McDermott (6'4'' G)
- Cortez Seales (6'4'' G)

Northern Arizona
- Brady Twombly (6'5'' F)
- Majestic Tejada (6'1'' G)
- Corey Brown (6'8'' F)
- Junior Searcy (6'4'' G)
- Michael Green (5'11'' G)
- Isaiah Thomas (6'8'' F)

Northern Colorado
- Jordan Davis (6'2'' G)
- Miles Seward (6'3'' G)
- Dallas Anglin (6'2'' G) - transfer from Southern Miss
- Chaz Glotta (6'1'' G) - transfer from Southern Illinois

Portland State
- Torrian Epps (6'4'' JUCO G)
- Evan Garrison (5'10'' JUCO G)

Sacramento State
- Jeff Wu (6'2'' G)
- Joshua Patton (6'8'' F)

Southern Utah
- Will Joyce (6'6'' JUCO F)
- Nick Pete (6'8'' F)
- Brayden Holker (6'8'' F)

Weber State
- Emmanuel Nzekwesi (6'7'' F)
- Juwan Williams (6'4'' G)
- Jordan Dallas (6'10'' C)
- Riley Court (6'4'' G)
- McKay Cannon (6'1'' G) - returning from LDS mission
- Dusty Baker (6'5'' JUCO G)

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Recruiting Rundown: Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah, Weber State

For all of October and the first half of November, I was working on previewing the Big Sky, culminating in this long-winded diatribe about the conference. In this, I missed a lot of recruiting news. In a series of three posts over the next week or so, I will go through the teams and the recruits they have signed thus far, in alphabetical order.

Here is part 1 and part 2 of the rundown, so let's finish things up...

Portland State
The Vikings got one recruit as far as I can tell, signing 6'4'' guard Torrian Epps, a junior college guard who should have two seasons of eligibility left. He plays for Central Arizona College, and Coach Geving says he is "an athletic wing who is very good at getting to the basket and running the floor in transition." As a senior in high school, he shot 44% on threes, so he appears to be able to score all over.  PSU will be losing their top three guards after this year, so Epps will have the chance to play big minutes right away for the Vikings.

Sacramento State
The Hornets signed two in the early recruiting class, inking 6'2'' guard Jeff Wu along with 6'8'' forward Joshua Patton. Wu is originally from Taiwan, but moved to the USA before his sophomore year of high school. Due to transfer rules, he joined his team midway through last season, but shot 50% from the floor and 40% from downtown. He is in the mold of current guards Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, in that he can do everything a guard needs to do, in terms of being able to shoot well, handle the ball, and pass it. I am sure Coach Katz likes the dual guard approach where both guys are nominal PGs, and Wu should fit that.

In their press release, it was announced that Patton will redshirt next year. He averaged 11 and 9 last season, shooting 62% from the floor and setting a school record for blocks. His brother plays at Fresno State, so he certainly has bloodlines for success. It sounds like he needs to fill out physically (hence the redshirt year), but he is a long, athletic guy with a lot of upside.

Southern Utah
The Thunderbirds signed three guys - two that will be freshman and one JUCO player. The junior college player is forward Will Joyce, a 6'6'' guy for New Mexico Military Institute. As a freshman, he averaged eight points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He looks like a guy that will bring a lot of energy, athleticism, and rebounding prowess for SUU next year.

Nick Pete is a 6'8'' forward from California who averaged 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks per game last year.  He is a very good athlete that should be able to affect the game in many ways. Last is Brayden Holker, a 6'8'' forward from Utah who averaged 18.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game a season ago. He was a top ten prospect in the state of Utah, according to ESPN. SUU has done a lot to bolster their frontcourt... despite some struggles, Coach Robinson is bringing in some good players, and it is clear that better days are ahead for the Thunderbird program.

Weber State
The Wildcats have consistently recruited better athletes than the rest of the conference for the past couple years, and their class this year appears to be excellent once again. They signed four guys.

One is 6'7'' forward Emmaneul Nzekwesi, a three-star recruit out of Texas, where the Wildcats have established a nice pipeline. He averaged 19 and 11 next year, and is a powerful player in the post. He has played basketball for just four years, and should have tons of upside for the Wildcats. 6'5'' guard Juwan Williams is also out of Texas, and he averaged 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds a year ago. He joins guys like Richaud Gittens and Ryan Richardson from last recruiting class to add to what will be a very big, athletic backcourt in future years.

Jordan Dallas is a 6'10'' center from Long Beach who averaged 11 and 4 a season ago. He is a long and athletic player who play on the inside and outside. Rahe noted he needed to add some strength, so he should be a redshirt candidate next season. Last is 6'4'' guard Riley Court from Utah, who put up a nice stat line of 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game a year ago. He will likely serve an LDS mission before he enrolls at Weber State. Weber will also add McKay Cannon, who is returning from his LDS mission next year. He is a 6'1'' guard who had offers from other Big Sky schools when he originally signed.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Portland State's Bryce White Fakes Handshake, Steals Ball, Dunks

Missed this from yesterday... at the end of the Portland/Portland State game (which Portland won by 12), PSU's Bryce White faked a handshake, stole the ball, and got a late dunk. Video below.

Thanks to Deadspin for unearthing (that's where I saw it first).

I can understand frustration about losing, especially to a rival, cross-town school... but yikes. Sportsmanship doesn't get a whole lot worse than that.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Big Sky Notes

NOTE: This was written before all of Wednesday's games, which features an impressive Idaho win over Washington State on the road, a tough NAU loss to UTSA in OT, and a Montana loss in double OT to California.

It's been about a week since I've typed up some notes and observations from Big Sky play, so let's go back and take a look at some of the top storylines and things that have happened lately around the Big Sky.

- Jeremy Senglin for Weber State hit his second game-winner in a week, this time hitting a three with 2.4 seconds left to cap a late comeback win over Oral Roberts. Senglin told Brett Hein he thought the Wildcats were down three rather than two, which helps explain the shot selection. Video and quotes can be found here.

The fact that he may not have known the margin changes this storyline a little bit, but the shot and the possession brought up an interesting look at the process versus the outcome in how we should evaluate things. The shot was good because it went in and gave them the win, but the possession itself was not very good. Down two (again, this is complicated if he really thought it was a three point game), the possession was ugly, filled with a bunch of dribbling on the perimeter and then a long three attempt. He was bailed out in a sense by the shot going in, but overall it wasn't a great look.

The Wildcats are now 3-3 with a neutral court win over Nevada and home win against Oral Roberts, but the fact that they are a young team is still clear. The biggest issues seem to be taking care of the ball, and finding someone other than Joel Bolomboy to rebound the ball, but the talent is still evident. Still, while Senglin has struggled a bit adapting to the full-time ball handling role, Bolomboy has shown more assertiveness offensively (with mixed results), and maybe most importantly, Richaud Gittens looks like a star right now. Their future is very bright.

- Eastern Washington continues to win, as they're number 117 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and top 60 by the RPI. They have gotten absurd efficiency from their guards (Drew Brandon, Tyler Harvey, and Parker Kelly), while Venky Jois appears to have taken a big step forward. Offensively, they have been excellent. I think teams know how much they like to shoot threes, and that has given them good looks inside the arc, where they have been dynamite.

 Their next five games are on the road - Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, Sam Houston State, and California. We should find out during this stretch if their ceiling is that of a team that could be a major threat in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, or merely as the best team in the Big Sky. Either way, they have established themselves as the early favorites in the Big Sky with their play so far.

- Northern Colorado has been flying under the radar a bit, but they are a good team. While they have again shown some struggles defensively so far, they could be behind only EWU in terms of their offensive prowess. They have been excellent shooting the ball, as well as taking care of it. It could be partly due to the early schedule, but they look deep... only four teams in the country have given more minutes to their bench in DI games. They may not have a star, but they have a lot of good players.

- Sacramento State is 4-1, but I don't know that we've learned much from their games so sfar. One positive development for them is that Nick Hornsby is playing well early on, but that is mostly due to his unsustainable 12/18 FG. They should still be contenders, but there's not much new information on them.

- Kudos deserve to be given to Brian Fish who got the first win of his head coaching career in a 104-81 Montana State win over UT-Arlington. Kudos also to Southern Utah, who snapped a very long road losing streak with this shot from AJ Hess. In case you missed it, here it is again!

AJs 40 ft shot to for first season WIN at the Buzzer 93-92 from Barbara H Hess on Vimeo.

- Martin Breunig has been as good as advertised for Montana, shooting 20/29 on two-point FG against DI opponents, while showing great rebounding ability. Montana has mixed some good performances with puzzling ones, but Breunig still looks like a star.

- On Saturday, Northern Arizona lost a slobber knocker, 40-36, to North Carolina Central. It's not a good loss, but maybe not quite as bad as it sounds. UNCC plays at a snail's pace, and they have been pretty good defensively. At 2-5, the Jacks look like they could be one of the better defensive teams in the conference, but they are struggling a little bit defensively. Still, the 2-5 record basically means nothing, because they've played a very tough slate of opponents so far.

- On the whole, Idaho has been about what we expected - a team that looks like it will score a bunch of points, but not be able to stop anyone on the other end. Their defensive efficiency is #338 in the country... they haven't forced turnovers, and teams are shooting the ball very well against them. Still, there are positives. Mike Scott looks like the breakout senior player for the Vandals, shooting 12/21 from downtown while sporting a cool 26:2 assist to turnover ratio. Perrion Callandret has also started well, and I will have to eat some crow to an Idaho fan who emailed me about him if that continues.

Each week and each game provides some more data points, as the 5-7 games each team has played so far don't give us too much to go on. Things look to be as competitive as they promised to be before the year began. Anything else that you have noticed?

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recruiting Rundown: Montana State, North Dakota, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado

For all of October and the first half of November, I was working on previewing the Big Sky, culminating in this long-winded diatribe about the conference. In this, I missed a lot of recruiting news. In a series of three posts over the next week or so, I will go through the teams and the recruits they have signed thus far, in alphabetical order.

I started with Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, and Montana, so let's move on to the next four...

Montana State
I wrote a bit about their signees last month, but Brian Fish was very active in his first recruiting cycle for the Bobcats.

They signed 6'4'' guard Tyler Hall, a guy that can shoot the ball well and who Fish says has very high upside. He shot 35% from deep and seems to still be improving. He reportedly had more than a dozen DI offers. Another signee was 6'6'' forward Sam Neumann from St Paul. He can also fill it up, shooting 38% from three-point range last year and scoring 19 PPG. The other high school guy they signed was 6'3'' guard Mandrell Worthy, who averaged 23 points/6 rebounds/5 assists per game last year. He has done everything for his high school team, including playing four positions.

They also got a verbal commitment from 6'2'' JUCO guard Quinton Everett, He is another guy that shoots it well, and should handle the ball well also. From the recruits, Brian Fish's preference to play fast, and have multiple guuys that can handle the ball well and shoot it from the outside seems clear. So far, things are off to a good start on the recruiting trail.

North Dakota
Brian Jones was very busy in the early signing period, as UND signed four guys. One is a transfer from Denver named Drick Bernstine, a 6'8'' forward. He averaged 2.1 PPG and 2.4 RPG for Denver before transferring after the spring semester last year. He will have three years of eligibility left. Jones said he reminds him of Boris Diaw in that he can do everything on the court, and is very skilled. UND has been very active on the transfer market the past couple years, and they have another nice player in Bernstine.

Continuing their Minneapolis pipeline, they got 6'6'' Josh Collins, who plays for De LaSalle high school, a program that is always good. He is a very good athlete that should be able to guard multiple positions and fill in some different roles. 6'4'' Adam McDermott averaged over 16 PPG last year, and is a very good outside shooter. He is the nephew of Greg McDermott, so you know he has good basketball in his genes. Last is 6'4'' Cortez Seales, a combo guard who averaged 16.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 3.0 APG last year. He will be a versatile member of the backcourt who can finish at the rim, which should be a good complement to McDermott.

It's an impressive four man group for North Dakota.

Northern Arizona
The Jacks have been one of the best recruiting teams in the conference, and that continues this year. They signed five guys in the early recruiting period. One is 6'5'' forward Brady Twombly, who Murphy says brings "very good size on the wing and he is a proven shooter." He is from California.

In addition to Twombly, NAU got a whopping four guys from Florida. Majestic Tejada is a 6'1'' guard that was their first commit. He looks to be a true PG that looks to get his teammates involved first before looking for his own shot. Corey Brown is a 6'8'' forward who is teammates with Tejada who is an excellent athlete and rebounder, as he averaged nine boards per game. You have to think they were excited about getting guys who were high school and AAU teammates.

Junior Searcy is a 6'4'' guard that is a skilled scorer. He is a combo guard who averaged 22 and 6 last year, with coaches having great things to say about his work ethic. Last is 5'11'' guard Michael Green, and the quotes about him show he is an explosive guard that can play on both ends of the court. The press release calls the group the "Florida Four," and they look like big-time building blocks for an NAU program that is constantly improving.

Northern Colorado
The Bears got two guys in the early signing period, with the first being 6'2'' guard Jordan Davis from Las Vegas. He averaged 17 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds last year. He originally committed to Eastern Washington, but de-committed and re-opened his recruitment. He also had offers from Northern Arizona and Hawaii, and looks like a good get for BJ Hill and staff. He was the primary ballhandler of his high school team last year, and is solid attacking the rim. They also signed 6'3'' guard Miles Seward out of Canada, who averaged 17 PPG last year. He is a good shooter that will help in the backcourt.

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Recruiting Rundown: Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Montana

For all of October and the first half of November, I was working on previewing the Big Sky, culminating in this long-winded diatribe about the conference. In this, I missed a lot of recruiting news. In a series of three posts over the next week or so, I will go through the teams and the recruits they have signed thus far, in alphabetical order.

Eastern Washington
The Eagles signed two recruits in the early signing period, both guys that will be freshmen next season. One is guard Michael Wearne from Australia, continuing the Eagles foreign pipeline. Last year, he led his team to an undefeated season while averaging 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists.

Coach Hayford had this to say on him - "By our evaluation and most of the people we talked to in Australia, he is one of the top two point guards in that country. We are excited to sign him because he had other options and received other scholarship offers from universities here in America. We feel very fortunate that he selected us. He's a very athletic, quick guard. He can score off the dribble and he can shoot it off the pass. He can penetrate, and we think he is capable of leading our fast-break offense."

With Drew Brandon graduating, Wearne will team with current redshirt Will Ferris to give them some backcourt options.

The other signee was 6'7'' forward Jesse Hunt out of California. He averaged 17 and 10 last year, and is a skilled forward that can drive to the basket or shoot it from the outside, similar to other EWU bigs. He was also born in Australia, but has lived in the USA for his high school career. He will continue to add more depth and versatile talent in the EWU frontcourt.

The Vandals got a commitment from 6'4'' guard Tyler Brimhall, who hails from Logan, UT. A three year player for his high school team, Brimhall averaged 17 PPG last year as a junior. Last week, he scored 32 points on six threes in a win, showing his scoring and shooting prowess. Head coach Don Verlin called him an, "excellent shooter" while also mentioning that he "has really improved his ability to finish at the rim." He will be a shooting guard for the Vandals, and looks like a nice prospect that will score a lot of points at Idaho.

Idaho State
The Bengals have signed a junior college player in 6'2'' guard Ali Faruqbey. He is a sophomore at Arizona Western College who scored 16.3 PPG last year as a freshman. He shot 46% from the floor, and 38.6% from the three-point line. He looks like a great fit for them, as they are in need of offense and shooting. With Chris Hansen being a senior, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Faruqbey step into the starting lineup next year, though that speculation is a little soon. He should at least provide some perimeter scoring for them.

Last May, they also reportedly signed a guard named Anthony Knight, though I am unsure if he qualified or is playing anywhere else.

In Travis DeCuire's first full recruiting cycle, he has a couple of early commits coming to Montana next year. DeCuire's California roots may have helped in bringing in CA guard Michael Oguine, a 6'1'' guard from Los Angeles. He averaged 12.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG,m 2.8 APG, and 2.4 SPG, and was named a first-team selection by a couple of LA newspapers. He scored 32 points in last year's state semifinal game, and 26 in the championship, which seems to have made an impression on Coach DeCuire. He should be a nice pickup for their backcourt.

Also signed was 6'7'' forward Jared Samuelson, who averaged 18 and 6 last year playing for Billings West. He can hit from outside, ans he made 40% from three-point range last season. He is a three-year starter who can handle and pass the ball. It seems as though DeCuire is continuing to recruit forwards that can play the three or the four, and shoot the ball from the outside. Samuelson fits that mold.

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AJ Hess hits 40 foot game winner to beat UTSA

Southern Utah has not had a lot of luck the past couple of years, especially on the road, so this was great to see. With 2.5 seconds left, Southern Utah trailed UTSA 92-90, and SUU had to go the length of the court to tie or win. Well, they were able to do that, as junior guard AJ Hess drained a 40 footer off the backboard to get the win.

AJs 40 ft shot to for first season WIN at the Buzzer 93-92 from Barbara H Hess on Vimeo.

Original link to the video is here.

It is the Thunderbirds first win of the season, and first road win since February 7, 2013, two seasons ago.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope that everyone out there has a great holiday!

See you later this weekend when I will hopefully have some more Big Sky writings up. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Eastern Washington Shocks Indiana

For a long while, it seems as though the Big Sky has gotten close to some big wins against very good programs. On Monday night, it got one - as Eastern Washington went into Assembly Hall and beat Indiana 88-86. While Portland State's win over USC was big, it doesn't quite have as much cachet as EWU beating Indiana on the road, one of the blue blood programs of the sport.

The Eagles used a late 9-0 run to get the win, and ended Indiana's 43 game home winning streak against non-conference foes.

"We just never stopped believing," coach Jim Hayford said. "We really don't look at the scoreboard till there's three or four minutes left because that can go up and down and we just play through runs. That didn't happen overnight. These guys have developed a lot of confidence, growing up together the last two, three seasons."

Yesterday I wrote that EWU looked like the best team in the Big Sky so far, and they provided an exclamation point to that. They were 3-12 on the road last season, and are a young team that seems to have grown up very quickly.

While several guys contributing, there were three heroes for the Eagles, and they were exactly the guys you would expect. The leading scorer was Drew Brandon, who had 27 points on 10/16 FG, Always the stat sheet stuffer, the senior PG also had eight rebounds, four assists, and five steals. It was a career high for him, and back to back baskets by Brandon started their 9-0 run late.

Tyler Harvey was next in line with 25 points on 9/20 FG, including three treys. His ability to shoot and for the defense to have to account for him at all times opens up lanes for everyone else. One guy that gets more room is big man Venky Jois, who had a great day, finishing with a ridiculous stat line of 20 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Already one of the best big men in the Big Sky, Jois has taken another step forward as a junior.

Entering this season, Eastern Washington was a team with a ton of talent and offensive potential, but we didn't know if they would make the leap. It's safe to say they have. With Jim Hayford around with a contract extension before the year, a unique ability to recruit and find talent, and a victory that will give it a lot of credibility in the college basketball world, Monday could be the day that Eastern Washington makes the leap and becomes a Big Sky contender with staying power.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pre-Thanksgiving Big Sky Notes

This past week has been a busy one at work followed by an unexpected trip for a family matter, so even though I have been following the games and happenings, I haven't had the chance to write about them recently. So this will more or less be a random dump of some Big Sky thoughts.

- If all you knew about the Big Sky was what has happened so far this season, Eastern Washington looks like the best team in the land so far (which KenPom rankings also bear out).

After their opening win against Texas Southern, they crushed Utah Valley (a game they should win, but it was impressive how they won), and then on Saturday they hung in there on the road against #22 SMU. They hung with SMU despite shooting just 11/36 from downtown, and making just 7/15 FT's (in fairness, Veky Jois was 2/7 at the line, and he does not excel there). It is too early to make any definitive conclusions, but their offense looks as good as neutral observers hoped it would be.

- Montana State went on the road to play #1 Kentucky, and the result was even worse than you would expect. The Bobcats went into Rupp Arena and lost 86-28. Some of the more staggering numbers: The Bobcats shot 19.7% for the day, including 10/38 from two, and 2/23 from downtown. They were just 2/2 from the foul line. They turned the ball over 21 times, and scored 0.40 PPP. Joey Frenchwood led the team in scoring... with 7 points.

It was ugly all-around. Kentucky is a great team, and they could have the best chance of going undefeated that anyone has had in college basketball in many, many years. Brian Fish after the game said it was the best team he had scouted in 25 years of coaching. Against a young and rebuilding MSU team, clearly this was as big of a talent mismatch as you'll see between two DI programs. But I all that said, I am sure the Bobcats would like to get the taste of this game out of their mouth as soon as possible.

- Weber State has played a tough schedule, so there is no need to panic about a 1-3 start (indeed, they started 0-3 last season), but there are some discouraging signs below the surface. We knew that they could struggle to handle the ball, and that is exactly what has happened, as they are 340th in the nation in turnover rate. The biggest offender has been PG Jeremy Senglin, who has a staggering 40.1 TO Rate, and 18 TOs against three DI teams. Backup PG, freshman Hayden Hunter, had a 28.3 Assist Rate (good), but a 58.3 TO Rate (very, very bad). These guys are talented, and they will figure some things out... but the early guard play has been disappointing.

- One thing for Weber which has not been disappointing is Joel Bolomboy, who has been putting up huge numbers. While his FG percentages are down so far, he has been getting to the line often, and hitting them. He was 14/15 against Illinois State, and 7/8 against LSU. If he is doing this against non-conference opponents, they have to be excited to see what he will do against Big Sky big men.

- Northern Arizona is also 1-3, but other than a 33 point loss to Xavier (who, to be fair, is an NCAA Tournament team), they have played well. They lost to Toledo, but that looks better after the Rockets went toe to toe on the road with VCU and Oregon. They pounded Fresno State, and then lost 80-74 to Ole Miss on the road. Junior guard Jaleni Neely has been solid for them in the backcourt, and looks to be a nice piece for them. I will be writing more about some Big Sky newcomers hopefully early in the week.

- After a tough opener, Montana bounced back and took Boise State to double OT, and then went on the road to beat Seattle. Stats were not in for the Seattle game at the time of this writing, but Martin Breunig flashed some of his talent in the game against Boise State. Though he again had some foul trouble, he was 7/8 from the floor and had 16 points in 24 minutes, also grabbing nine rebounds. The Grizzlies will be an interesting sleeper.

- Southern Utah is winless, but they have showed some offensive punch so far, and showing that they may be trying to play at a much faster pace. Through three games, they are 29th in the country in pace, as they try and jumpstart an offense that struggled mightily last year. In a close loss to Utah Valley, SUU had 11 different players score. They are trying some things out, and I think they will be better for it in the long run.

- North Dakota lost a nailbiter to South Dakota State on the road, which is a good sign for them. In Estan Tyler's first game for them, he scored 17 points on 6/10 shooting and 5/7 FT. He has the potential to be a very good scorer for them. It's only been three games, but UND has looked a little better than I thought they might, which is encouraging.

- Idaho has been playing very good offensive basketball so far, and one reason for it is Mike Scott, who has stepped into the starting lineup and played three excellent games so far. Thus far, he is 16/27 from the field, and has 14 assists to one turnover. While he can't keep those numbers up, he looks like a real asset for them, and forms a really nice backcourt along with Sekou Wiggs (also off to a good start) and Connor Hill. The Vandals will score a lot of points this year.

I know I couldn't quite touch on everybody... but what else has stuck out early on in this season?

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Portland State Upsets USC, Other Weekend Notes

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Anything else stick out over the weekend?

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Eastern Washington Wins the First Game in College Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

On to the preview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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