OK, so we don't yet know who might be leaving their current programs, and recruiting classes aren't fully finalized in some cases... but that doesn't mean it's too early for some Big Sky rankings for next season!
Let me state the obvious caveat - everything is conjecture at this point. I would love to hear the dissenting opinions, because next year should be a fun year in the Big Sky, as always. Please let me know where you think I am right or wrong... I don't really have anything to base this off of except my own thoughts and opinions, so I don't know if my views are common or not.
The Big Sky was very deep this season, though there was no dominant team. You could see this in the conference tournament, where even the number eight seed Weber State had a legit shot at the title. There was a lot of balance this year. Next season, there still doesn't seem to be a dominant team (more on that in the previews), but there also doesn't seem to be quite the depth that there was this season, at least at first glance.
To be honest, I had a really difficult time trying to rank teams from 6-11... I almost feel like you could draw them from a hat, and you could make a case that it is a reasonable ranking. To me, there doesn't seem to be a lot of separation between those teams. Each has a lot of flaws and question marks at this juncture, granting that there is a lot of time left to go before the start of next season.
Also, I have updated the recruiting tracker, so hopefully that looks a little more up to date...
1. Weber State
Losses: James Hajek, Chris Golden, Jaylen Johnson-Coston
It was a disappointing year for the Wildcats, as they were the preseason pick to win the league, and they wound up sneaking into the tournament as the eight seed. However, next season should be much better. For one, the losses should be minimal, as James Hajek is the only senior, and then they lose two transfers. However, they weren't super young either - most of their production came from sophomores and juniors - so they will be flush with upperclassmen as well. The biggest name is Joel Bolomboy, who might never be the offensive force we want him to be, but is still a darn good player that can be the best shot blocking/rebounding force in the conference. Jeremy Senglin is still one of the most talented guys in the Big Sky, and Kyndahl Hill and Richaud Gittens are as athletic as anyone. There will be no shortage of upperclassmen talent.
All of this isn't to say that there is a lack of young talent as well. Weber State has been excellent recruiting, and reinforcements should make next year's team very deep. Ryan Richardson will be a sophomore, and he showed flashes of being a major threat stretching the floor. Jeremiah Jefferson redshirted this season, and he will be another athletic presence in the backcourt as a guy who can light it up from outside, or get to the rim. It is really a beneficial thing that they were able to redshirt him, and he should be dynamic. Up front, Zach Braxton redshirted as well, and he is a guy that could have made an impact as a true freshman for a lot of programs. He is a true post that will add depth and talent to a frontcourt that at times lacked size. That is not even including any incoming players who could potentially contribute.
Weber State took a one year step back, but they are primed to be right back in the thick of the title race again next season. With the likely departure of Tyler Harvey to the NBA Draft, it's reasonable to crown them at least as co-favorites, along with Montana and Eastern Washington.
Losses: Jordan Gregory, Mike Weisner, Chris Kemp
The co-champions only lose one starter, but he is a guy that will be tough to replace. Among all of their perimeter players, Gregory was the shot maker, and the guy that got the ball in crunch time. Mario Dunn has the talent to potentially evolve into that role, but his offensive skillset is not there yet.
The best thing Montana has going for them is big man Martin Breunig, a unanimous first team guy who almost beat the Eagles by himself in the Big Sky title game. He is dynamic in all phases, with the ability to hit midrange shots, put the ball on the floor and finish, and be one of the best rebounders in the Big Sky. He's a star. The Robin to his Batman is Dunn, who should win a defensive POY award before his career is out, and made a lot of strides offensively. If he can cut down on turnovers and develop a consistent outside shot that teams have to be wary of, he is a first-team all-conference type of player. He spearheads a Grizzlies defense that was the best in the Big Sky this year.
The role players are there too, as they always are for the Grizzlies. Brandon Gfeller could be the best shooter in the Big Sky next year (he shot 197 threes this year compared to 19 two-point attempts). Fabijan Krslovic was very steady as a freshman, and guys like Riley Bradshaw and Jack Lopez should be solid role players. The key will be replacing that production from Gregory, which will have to be a group effort. If they can do that, and if Dunn develops as expected, the Grizzlies have the pieces in place (including a top notch defensive mindset) to make another run at the Big Sky title.
3. Eastern Washington
Losses: Drew Brandon, Parker Kelly, Garrett Moon, Tyler Harvey
Before the news broke that Tyler Harvey would be entering the draft, I speculated in this now-rewritten section that EWU would be a unanimous selection as the preseason number one team in the Big Sky. Now, they are certainly still in the conversation (and it wouldn't be a major surprise to see them number one), but I've dropped them down a couple spots.
The strength of the team will be up front. Everyone knows Venky Jois, who does a bit of everything on both ends for the Eagles. He shot over 60% on twos, rebounds on both ends as well as most guys in the Big Sky, and is one of the best shot blockers in the Big Sky. He has a good handle for a big man. Other than shooting free throws, there isn't much he can't do. You could argue he was even more valuable than Harvey for the Eagles last year.
Joining him up front is Bogdan Bliznyuk, who should be ready to absolutely take off as a sophomore. He is an extremely efficient scorer (he shot 58% on twos and 24/43 from three) who always seems to be under control. He is an excellent rebounder as well. With the ball in his hands a bit more this year, he could average something like 16 and 7. He will be fun to watch. Ognjen Miljkovic will be back up front, and though he was up and down at times, skilled big men who score 10 PPG, can shoot from three, and will bang with the big men down low defensively don't grow on trees. Felix Van Hofe will be a junior, and provides more shooting range for EWU.
The questions facing the Eagles come in the backcourt, after losing their top three guys there. Everyone knows about Harvey, but Drew Brandon did a bit of everything for them, and Parker Kelly was a dangerous shooter and steady player for them. It's going to be very tough to replace all of those guys. Sir Washington will likely start at one of the guard spots, after an impressive freshman year. He didn't play a lot as he missed time due to injury, but he was a high-energy, athletic player (he sparked them in the NCAA Tournament game). He will probably get all of the minutes he can handle.
Among newcomers, Will Ferris will be in the mix after redshirting last year. He projects to be able to play both guard positions, and would add another excellent shooter to the mix. A final candidate is incoming freshman Michael Wearne, who hails from Australia (where else?). Wearne is one of the top PG prospects from Australia, and put up some eye popping numbers over there. It's always difficult to predict freshmen production, but it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see him starting at PG and excelling right away.
When you put it together, nobody will be able to match the size and talent that the Eagles will have in the frontcourt, with multiple all-conference candidates up there. The key for them will be growth of young guards. If those guys develop (and Hayford has usually been able to get guard production), then the Eagles can win the Big Sky title again, even with some big losses.
4. Northern Arizona
Losses: Quinton Upshur, Aaseem Dixon, Len Springs
There is a fair amount of speculation in putting NAU this high, because they are losing two of their top three scorers (and leading shot blocker, and a four year guy in Gaellen Bewernick who has started most of his career), but don't necessarily have guys currently on the roster to replace them. They lost one backup guard to transfer this year, and another to academic ineligibility (who may be able to return). They are not a super deep team this season, often playing only seven guys, so they are losing over half of their main rotation.
Still, I feel comfortable putting them this high for a couple reasons. One, they even with the losses, they return arguably their two most important players. The first is PG Kris Yanku, who grew into a Big Sky first-team guy as a sophomore, and always seems to be in control of the offense. He is not a great outside shooter, and may never be, but he has the ability to almost get into the lane whenever he wants, draw a ton of fouls (7th in the country in the rate he draws fouls), and find open teammates (his 38.2 Assist Rate ranks 10th in the country. If he is able to score more efficiently (he shot an ugly 35% on twos this season), he can be the Big Sky player of the year. Their defensive anchor is Jordyn Martin, who was the Defensive POY this year. Martin isn't a big shot-blocker, but he's always in the right spot. Offensively, he is an excellent rebounder, and efficient finisher, shooting 58% this year.
Those two are joined by Ako Kaluna, one of the most skilled big men in the Big Sky. He can handle the ball, bang down low, but also hit from the outside, as he shot 43% on threes this year. With guys like those three, and expected improvement of Zachary Reynolds and Tate de Laveaga, the returning talent isn't as bare as it might seem.
NAU will be able to supplement this talent with six freshmen, a class that has been lauded by those who know more than me when it comes to recruits. It's impossible to say which of these guys will contribute, but I feel confident saying that some will. NAU has made a lot of strides in the three years under Jack Murphy, and while next year's team may not be quite as good as last year, they should still be a talented team that could be a Big Sky favorite entering 2016.
5. Southern Utah
Losses: Cal Hanks, Tyler Rawson (to LDS Mission), Austin Waddoups
Not only were they a young team last year, but Nick Robinson gave everyone a ton of playing time. For a long time, their bench played more minutes than anyone else in the country... They finished the year playing 44.8% of the team's minutes, fourth most in the nation. The loss of Cal Hanks will not hurt, but Tyler Rawson gave them a lot of good minutes this year. They are bringing in three frontcourt guys, so they should be able to put enough bodies in there and see what sticks in the frontcourt.
They have a ton of potential guards, so you can see why they didn't go for any in recruiting. AJ Hess can play the two or three, and is probably their best offensive guy with his shooting and size. He just keeps getting better, and will be a senior. James McGee was spectacular as a freshman with his shooting range - he made over 50% of his threes, which is remarkable. Nobody is talking about him, but he was quietly outstanding.
Trey Kennedy and Juwan Major are two guys who have the physical skills to be really good, but they haven't separated themselves through two seasons. Kennedy shot just 40% on twos this year, and Major had a 28.7 TO Rate. They need one of these guys to take a leap. John Marshall and Race Parsons are two other guys who will be juniors and while they have some flaws, they can be rotation pieces.
The reason I don't think they are a top tier yet is because nobody really stands out as a star to me. When you look at teams above them, there are guys that are potentially all-conference players there (Harvey, Jois, Yanku, Breunig, Senglin, Bolomboy, etc), but when I look at this SUU roster, I'm not sure who that guy would be. You can win a conference title with a lot of good players, but it helps to have a great player or two thrown in. We'll see if one develops for the Thunderbirds over the next couple of seasons.
6. Northern Colorado
Losses: Tevin Svihovec, Tim Hukisson, Dominique Lee, Corey Spence
The past couple of seasons had to be frustrating for the UNC staff, as the team was good enough offensively to make serious waves, but never got it together defensively. For the second straight year, they lose some key pieces, including four of their top six in minutes played. Of course, the cupboard still isn't bare.
Their backcourt will still be very solid, as Cam Michael and Jordan Wilson enter their junior seasons. Michael was one of the best newcomers in the conference this season, a great shooter with a quick release and ability to create his own shot. He shot 39% from downtown this season, and will slide over to become more of a focal point in the offense. Wilson is probably the fastest player in the Big Sky, and he uses that quickness to get in the lane, and pressure opponents defensively all over the court. He may never be a true distributor, but he takes great care of the ball, and can hit from the outside. Anthony Johnson will also be in for an expanded role. He was very efficient scoring the ball, but it was in very limited minutes.
The frontcourt has some solid players, though nobody that really stands out as a star. Cody McDavis and Jeremy Verhagen are both big bodies that can score efficiently, but neither has stood out as an above average rebounder or rim protector. Spencer Mathis played sparingly as a freshman, and he could be a combo 3/4 guy depending on his development.
Of the newcomers that they have signed up so far, Jordan Davis looks like he could be a really good player. He originally committed to EWU, and is excellent ballhandling and attacking the rim. When Wilson entered the program as a freshman two years ago, he split time with Corey Spence, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a similar arrangement, with Davis now splitting time with Jordan Wilson. They also will get transfer Dallas Anglin in from Southern Miss, who I assume will be eligible in the second semester, and he can fill some backcourt minutes as well.
All of this is to say that UNC will likely be able to score the ball next year, as they always do under BJ Hill. But, we'll have to see if they can build a championship contending defense out of the group. I'm not sure the pieces are there for that.
7. Portland State
Losses: Gary Winston, DaShaun Wiggins, Tim Douglas, Tiegbe Bamba, Brandon Cataldo
The six through eleven logjam is typified by Portland State. They are losing a lot of talented guys, and there aren't necessarily many obviously replacements on the roster. As a change from some previous years, they look to be strongest in the frontcourt, where Collin Spickerman and Braxton Tucker both return. Spickerman was an interesting player... He was not a great offensive force, but he was strong on the glass (especially offensively), and he was 12th in the country in his block rate. Tucker is a little more of an offensive presence, as he shot over 50%, and was really missed when he was hurt.
The backcourt will be more interesting, because there are a lot of unknowns. Zach Gengler played the most among returning guys, and he is a guy that shoots the ball well. He was also pretty good as a defensive rebounder for a guard. They will need him to play a bigger offensive role. Iziahiah Sweeney got some time as a freshman, and while he is raw, flashed some skills. He needs to improve his outside shots, and he wasn't much of a distributor, but they like him. Sebastian Suarez could also get some time as a senior... He was billed as a great shooter but hasn't seen a lot of playing time.
The Vikings will also get transfer guard Calaen Robinson eligible. He transferred from Arizona State, and sat out last season. While Robinson didn't do much for ASU, he was the 19th best PG recruit coming out of high school. You don't need to look any further than Montana this year to see the impact a major program transfer can have. Bryce White will also be back. He only played 13 games last year because of injury, but he averaged 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game when he was playing. A core of Robinson-White-Spickerman-Tucker is pretty solid.
Part of the reason I have them as high as seven is because Tyler Geving is always very active on the juco market. While I worry about that strategy and how it works for overall team building, it should help to ensure they don't sink too low. We will see what kinds of players he is able to get from the junior college ranks.
8. North Dakota
Losses: Jaron Nash, Lenny Antwi, Chad Calcaterra, Ryan Salmonsen, Josiah Coleman, Kraig Shields
The sheer number of players leaving the program (either through graduation or transfer) is a bit exhausting, but it's not as bad as it looks. The biggest name is Jaron Nash, and though he was a very talented guy who could do a lot of things, at times he may have hurt the offense more than helped it. The other notable loss is Lenny Antwi, who followed up three OK years with a very solid senior season that saw him become a more consistent outside threat.
However, they still have some guys, especially in the backourt. Quinton Hooker took the big step forward that many people thought he would as a sophomore, becoming a steady PG with improved scoring punch. He will be an all-conference candidate type of player next year, and is easily their most important guy. He is joined in the backcourt by two transfers from last year who will be seniors - Estan Tyler and Terrell de Rouen. Tyler has the ability to be a very good scorer with a dangerous outside shot. De Rouen is the better defender of the two, but he shots a miserable 30% on over 100 threes last year - which quickly makes you a net negative offensively. Dustin Hobaugh is another guy that will get minutes, and can hit shots from anywhere on the court.
Up front is where there will be more question marks. The anchor will likely be Carson Shanks, who became eligible in the second semester last year, and flashed some skills. He was solid rebounding the ball, and showed some shot blocking chops. They are expecting growth from him. Bryce Cashman got some minutes as a freshman, and had an interesting time. He was 22/36 from the floor (great), but 8/24 from the free throw line (yeesh).
In the recruits that they have signed so far, it seems like there was an emphasis on wings, and they got some talented guys. I expect they will sign a JUCO big man or two to provide some depth and talent in the frontcourt, with immediate playing time being a lure for them.
After reaching the Big Sky title game two years, they predictably took a step back as guys graduated. However, they have more talent than you might think, and should compete in the middle of the Big Sky next season.
9. Sacramento State
Losses: Dylan Garrity, Mikh McKinney, Zach Mills, Alex Tiffin
This may be a little low after the best year in school history, but Garrity and McKinney did so much for the program, and they will be extremely difficult to replace. Also gone is Zach Mills, who was an underrated contributor in the frontcourt, and had the ability to play multiple positions.
The torch will have to be carried by Cody Demps, a do-it-all senior who has enjoyed a secondary role offensively the past couple of years. A three year starter, Demps really came into his own last season, shooting over 50% on twos, and making frequent trips to the foul line, where he shot 80%. He can also move the ball, and is their best defender. However, we have to see who will join him in the backcourt.
Dreon Bartlett played a secondary role last year, mostly as a catch and shoot guy. He was a 45% three-point shooter (though not on a ton of attempts), so there is certainly something there. Possibly the leading candidate to be the primary ballhandler is Marcus Graves. The 6'0'' guard was compared by Coach Katz to Dylan Garrity when he signed. Another guy is Jiday Ugbaja, who redshirted last season. The 5'10'' guard can be an athletic and dynamic scorer, with the ability to shoot and drive. Incoming freshman Jeff Wu could also be in the mix.
In the frontcourt, they have some guys, but not a lot who are proven. Eric Stuteville has been an important part of the team the last two years, as a guy who can score in a variety of ways in the post. He is not super quick, and has struggled rebounding the ball defensively, but he could be a main option offensively. His brother, Mason Stuteville, came in pretty highly touted, and wound up redshirting. He has the skillset to be more of a stretch four. Two other guys, James Herrick and Justin Strings, will get some time. Herrick is a bruising inside player who should split time with E Stuteville at the five. Strings played in 23 games last year, though he didn't play enough to draw any conclusions. He is a small power forward, the type that so often thrive in the Big Sky.
The Hornets will take a big step back next year, but they'll be a very young team that should have a bright future ahead of them.
Losses: Sekou Wiggs, Connor Hill, Mike Scott, Bira Seck
It was a disappointing year for the Vandals. They were talented enough to beat anyone in the Big Sky, as they showed during the year. However, they snuck into the Big Sky tournament as a seven seed, falling to EWU in the first round. They lose four of their top five scorers, meaning next could be a bit of a rebuilding year in Moscow.
The best player returning is Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, who was a bit of a forgotten freshman this season. He was superbly efficient scoring the basketball, and rebounding well on both ends of the court. He is not bad at drawing fouls and getting to the line either. He will be an all-conference first-team player at some point in his career - he is that good. He is joined up front by guys like Ty Egbert and Jordan Scott, who both played well, but in limited minutes. Scott in particular could have a bright future.
They will also get transfer Skyler White eligible, after he sat out last season. White played at George Washington, where was active in 17 games but didn't accumulate much in the way of stats. With Paul Mpawe and Nahshon George also in the mix, they will have plenty of bodies up front, it's just a matter of some of them developing next to Ark up front.
In the backcourt, the main holdover is Perrion Callandret, who looked much improved as a sophomore, showing a solid three-point stroke to go along with vicious athleticism. He could be the best dunker in the conference. He didn't flash much in the way of creating for others, so it will be interesting to see if that is a role he has to fill. Victor Sanders is another guy that got a good amount of playing time, and was a good shot beyond the arc. He needs to be better inside the arc, but he could be a player. Another guy to watch is Jake Straughan, who redshirted last year after a high school career as the quintessential three-sport star. Tyler Brimhall could play as well.
All in all, the Vandals will be a young team, without a ton of proven guys. However, history also shows they will be a team that can score points under Don Verlin. We'll see if they can defend well enough to crawl into the middle of the pack/
11. Montana State
Losses: Blake Brumwell, Mike Dison, Eric Norman, Ryan Shannon, Joey Frenchwood, Terrell Brown, Bradley Fisher
I am not sure what to make of these guys heading into next season. I like Brian Fish, and I feel like he will build this into a winning program in time. However, next year looks like another year of growing pains with a young roster.
There will still be some pieces for a fast-paced team that can shoot from outside. Leading the way is Marcus Colbert, who was the sixth man of the year in the conference, but played more minutes than anyone else on the team. He was greatly improved as a distributor, while also displaying a dangerous outside shot. It is big to get him back. Stephan Holm is one guy that will join him in the backourt. Holm was a 33% three-point shooter on a lot of attempts, but the hope is that he will improve that and become a guy that can really stretch defenses. Zach Green will also return, and he got a lot of experience as a freshman.
In the frontcourt, Danny Robison had a nice impact as a junior, scoring efficiently inside the arc and becoming an outside threat. He is a guy where they at least have some certainty that he will be a productive player for them. Quinn Price is a guy with some talent, and should be better as a sophomore.
Beyond those guys, there are a lot of question marks. They have a big recruiting class, and they will need some of those guys to play right away. Fish's recruiting focus a lot of times has been clear to see - guys that can shoot the ball, handle it well, and are comfortable playing at a high tempo. Again, it will take some time for that plan to come to fruition, and there will likely be another year like last season, but things should slowly come more and more into focus.
12. Idaho State
Losses: Chris Hansen, Jeffrey Solarin, Evann Hall, Nnamdi Ezenwa, Ajak Magot
I like Bill Evans, and I think he is a great basketball mind. However, next year could be a long one for the Bengals, a program that has averaged just eight wins per season since he took over three years ago (in fairness, the cupboard was extremely bare when he took over).
Unlike other teams at the bottom of the Big Sky, the Bengals were an experienced team - by some measures the seventh most experienced team in college basketball, as measured by the class of the guys who played the most minutes. They lose arguably their three best guys. The most experienced returner is guard Ben Wilson, who started at PG and played 87% of the team's minutes. He is not a natural PG, but did have a solid 21.1 Assist Rate. He is not a huge offensive threat, but his experience will be nice to have around.
In terms of underclassmen, Geno Luzcando played a good chunk of minutes as a true freshman, though he may not have been quite ready. He struggled taking care of the basketball, and with shot selection... Still, he is a talented guy that will likely be given some opportunities next year. Big man Andre Slavik is a guy that Bengals fans like, though he didn't play enough to get a great read on him. The sophomore was just 10/14 from the field, but did not rebound very well and turned the ball over frequently.
The Bengals are bringing in some JUCO guards to hopefully provide some experience and a quicker injection of talent than a freshman might, and hopefully those guys will be ready to go right away. I am just speculating here, but I imagine that with another poor year, Evans could start to feel some job pressure, if he is not already. If you ever listen to him, you know he is one of the most likeable and quotable coaches in the Big Sky, so I am rooting for some Bengals success next year. As of today, however, they look to be on the bottom rung of the conference for next season.
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