It's that time of the offseason where we take a VERY early look to how next season will play out. Since I've started blogging about the Big Sky (three years ago), there was always one or two favorites to win (Weber State and/or Montana). Next season, that won't be the case.
Honestly, to me, the top seven teams look remarkably even. It is going to be an absolutely wide open race for the Big Sky title, which should be pretty fun. So, if you disagree with these rankings, I don't blame you. Would love to hear thoughts and reasoned opinions on where you differ - I think it'd be very interesting to see what people think, because it was hard to come up with an order!
1. Weber State
They are first in part because they are the defending champions, they return a lot of talent (even though they also lose a lot), and there is no other clear favorite. But, it's clear they won't be the favorites as in some past seasons. For one, they will have one senior on the team, relying a lot on young guys. Second, they will be relying on guys to grow in ways they haven't shown yet. The good news is that the talent is there. Joel Bolomboy could be the conference POY - an NBA level rebounder and defender whose offensive game continues to develop. They need their sophomore backcourt of Jeremy Senglin and Richaud Gittens to make the leap from super talented freshmen contributors to cornerstones - a process that will happen, but it's just a matter of how long it takes. Would it be a surprise to see the Wildcats win the Big Sky again next season? No. But unlike past year, it also wouldn't be a surprise if they are in a dogfight just to finish in the top four.
2. Sacramento State
The Hornets get my vote for second based on the strength of their backcourt, which was arguably the best in the conference last season, and will be the best this season. Both Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney are superb ballhandlers, scorers, and passers. Garrity may be the elite shooter in the Big Sky, while McKinney is excellent at breaking down a defense, getting into the lane, and getting to the line. The key will be frontcourt production. They have a nice recruiting class, but they can't count too much on those guys this season. Zach Mills is a nice player, and he will produce. The key will be Eric Stuteville, who came on strong at the end of his freshman season. If he can develop into a double digit scorer (and he has that talent level), the Hornets should have the best offense in the Big Sky.
3. Northern Arizona
Last year, I think, was almost a year ahead of schedule for the Lumberjacks. They finished third in the Big Sky, an impressive showing considering their age and inexperience. They lose Max Jacobsen, but the rest of their main guys returns. They will have a strong backcourt with Aaseem Dixon, Kris Yanku, and Quinton Upshur, and guys like Ako Kaluna and Len Springs will be even better inside. Head coach Jack Murphy has done a great job recruiting, and they should have the athletes and talent to compete for a Big Sky title next season.
There are reasons to think this is too optimistic. They weren't that good last year (despite finishing fourth, they had major issues), and they lose do everything Kareem Jamar. But take them lightly at your own peril. For one, their backcourt will remain strong - Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields will be a solid senior duo, and Mario Dunn is ready to become a star in the Big Sky. The other thing is that the frontcourt will be much better than in past year. Martin Breunig will become eligible, and he was the best post man in the program last season. They also have young bigs coming in, which will greatly help the depth. Bottom line, the Grizzlies lose Jamar, but they could be an improved team anyway.
5. Eastern Washington
The Eagles return everyone from last year's squad, which is good for a team that improved by three conferences games from the year before and was 5th in the conference offensively. They will have tons of weapons, including guard Tyler Harvey, who developed into possibly the best scorer in the conference. They have balance as well, with guys like Venky Jois, Martin Seiferth, and Ognjen Miljkovic in the frontcourt. Like others, the Eagles absolutely are talented enough to win the Big Sky.
6. Northern Colorado
The Bears probably head up the "second tier," but they are still a really talented team, even after losing some cornerstone players. Tevin Svihovec has been around forever, and he'll be the senior leader. Of course, they won't be hurting for backcourt talent - Jordan Wilson was steady as a freshman PG, Corey Spence adds a spark, and eligible transfer Cam Michael is ready to play after sitting out a year (and don't be surprised if he is the Newcomer of the Year). The key to the year might be senior forward Tim Huskisson, who is an all-conference talent when things are going well. The problem has been staying in BJ Hill's good graces and bringing consistency every night. If he does, UNC can and will beat anyone on any given night.
7. Portland State
With the way the Vikings finished and the fact that they don't lose that many guys, this may be too low. They will have a deep backcourt, with guys like Gary Winston, Tim Douglas, Marcus Hall, and DaShaun Wiggins all proven contributors. The key will be the frontcourt, where they lose Kyle Richardson, but will hopefully have a healthy Tiegba Bamba and some solid JUCO guys coming in. Their defense was better last year but still just seventh in the Big Sky last year. If they can get even a little better there, the ceiling could be a top 3 Big Sky finish.
I looked at them in more depth a couple weeks ago, but they look like a typical Big Sky team - they can put points on the boards, but they won't get too many stops. They lose two of their top six, but return Connor Hill, who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Sky in his first season in the conference. During WAC play, they were worst in the conference in defensive efficiency. How they do on that end will determine if they are battling for the final tournament spot, or if their sights should be set a little higher.
9. Idaho State
They lose Tomas Sanchez, Andre Hatchett, and Aviabkuro Preh, who were a huge part of the program and are a lot to replace. As I have said, I think Bill Evans is an excellent coach, but we knew it would take time to build the talent level of the program back up. There are question marks heading into this season - who plays point guard? But there is talent with guys like Chris Hansen and Jeffrey Solarin, and they should be good enough to being on the edge of conference tournament qualification.
10. Montana State
The Bobcats lose three starters (including their top two frontcourt players) and their head coach, so clearly there is some work to be done. Brian Fish looks like a nice fit on paper, so we will see how the first season of his reign goes. He made a quick statement by signing two solid athletes out of Arizona, but the problem in Bozeman lately has not been getting good players to campus, but molding them into a good team. Expectations should be tempered in year one, but the Bobcats could have enough talent to be frisky.
11. North Dakota
All UND is losing is the best class in program history, and the one that brought them into the DI level. They can't replace guys like Troy Huff, Aaron Anderson, Jamal Webb, and others, so this is a team that will look very different. Brian Jones will need a backcourt of Quinton Hooker and Cole Stefan to log a lot of productive minutes for UND, who will be replacing the majority of their scoring from one of the most experienced teams in the country last season. It is a rebuilding year in Grand Forks.
12. Southern Utah
They will be much improved from last year's team, but this is still a program with a long ways to go. They have young guys that they hope can be cornerstone players - the five guys that played the most minutes last season are all returning, and none of them will even be seniors this year(!), but this year will be about continuing that growth and building toward 2015-16. If they improve their Big Sky win total by five games and continue to show the growth that was evident throughout last season, they might finish last again, but their rebuilding plan will be right on schedule for Nick Robinson.
Please share any of your thoughts and opinions! As I've said, this is all guesswork, but one of the most fun articles to write and think about. Would love to hear some discussion.
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