inspired by ESPN’s Marc Stein, returns one more time this season. We’re gazing into the future, deciphering the signs of the basketball universe and revealing how the Big Sky Conference will unfold in 2017.
Take these prognostications seriously. Because who’s ever been even slightly wrong when trying to predict how Big Sky teams will finish?
2016-17 Big Sky MVP
Jeremy Senglin, Weber State*
2016-17 all-conference team^
G - Jeremy Senglin, Weber State
G - Quinton Hooker, North Dakota
G - Ethan Telfair, Idaho State
G - Victor Sanders, Idaho
G - Tyler Hall, Montana State**
1) WEBER STATE (2015-16 record: 26-9, 15-3)
Who's gone: Joel Bolomboy (17.1 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 1.2 bpg)
Losing Bolomboy, the Big Sky MVP, is no small detail. Then again, this is Weber State. Center Zach Braxton, who averaged 6.9 points on 61 percent shooting while starting 34 games as a freshman, should take a monumental step forward as he develops.
Senior-to-be Kyndahl Hill, the Wildcats’ third-leading scorer at 8.2 points a game, is ready for a primetime role. Freshman point guard McKay Cannon, who spent most of the season shooting spot-up 3-pointers and passing the ball around the perimeter, showed real flashes of real playmaking ability against Xavier in the NCAA Tournament.
Just think about Weber’s depth. The ’Cats had the luxury of bringing absurdly athletic junior guard Richaud Gittens off the bench in 2015-16, and they’ll start incorporating 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman and former Rivals three-star recruit Jordan Dallas into the fold next fall.
And in the biggest OH BY THE WAY, Jeremy Senglin, with Bolomboy off to the pros, becomes the guy for Weber State now. Senglin will vie for conference MVP honors, and the Wildcats will contend for a second straight league championship.
2) NORTH DAKOTA (17-16, 10-8)
Who's gone: No one of consequence
Eight Fighting Hawks averaged at least 15 minutes a game a season ago. Four were freshmen, two were sophomores and the other two were juniors. That’s the group that pushed UND to 17 victories, a nine-win boost from 2014-15 when North Dakota finished 4-14 in the Big Sky.
We know what Quinton Hooker delivers on a nightly basis. His offensive rating of 120.7 and effective field goal percentage of 55.4 percent are excellent and likely to improve with another year of maturity. But the guy who’s really interesting moving forward is freshman Geno Crandall. He’s nowhere near the offensive dynamo of Hooker, and there were times when UND was overly reliant on Hooker’s scoring. So if Crandall — and the Hawks’ other bevy of contributors — can continue developing their offensive skills, North Dakota will have one heck of a year.
Here’s one area where North Dakota should be much better: on the road. The Fighting Hawks, in league play, went 7-2 at home but 3-6 on the road. And two of those road Ws were at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. Finding a way to get things done away from Grand Forks is their next step of development.
3) MONTANA (21-12, 14-4)
Who's gone: Martin Breunig (18.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg)
For the past two seasons, Montana built itself around the all-league skills of Martin Breunig, and he delivered with back-to-back first-team all-conference selections.
Breunig posted a stellar 120.2 offensive rating via KenPom, and his 62.8 percent effective field goal percentage was 23rd in the country. Breunig was a tank, too, starting 65 games the past two seasons. The committee (of one) took no issue with Bolomboy’s selection as the Big Sky MVP. But if we had a vote, it would have gone to Breunig.
We bring this up because, as well as UM has recruited with DeCuire, replacing Breunig is going to be monstrously difficult for coach Travis DeCuire.
Breunig was the team’s lone senior, and UM signed high school swingman Alphonso Anderson out of Tacoma, Washington, last November. If our math is correct, then, the Grizzlies don’t have another scholarship available. So Montana’s options for replacing Breunig are to either make room on the roster for a transfer or rely on the roster pieces already in place.
The latter of the options is particularly intriguing. Montana has ranked No. 303 and 310 in adjusted tempo in DeCuire’s two seasons, but the current construction of players on the team leads us to think the Griz may decide to speed things up. A faster pace could take advantage of Walter Wright, Mario Dunn and Michael Oguine^^^ — not to mention the shooting talents of Bobby Moorehead, Brandon Gfeller and Jack Lopez.
No matter what the Montana coaching staff decides, though, we’ll just assume it’s the right choice and Montana will battle (again) for the Big Sky crown.
4) IDAHO (21-13, 12-6)
Who's gone: Chris Sarbaugh (5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.2 apg), Nashon George (4.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Paulin Mpawe
Four is too low for the Vandals. The committee (of one) is already regretting it. The team’s top six scorers are back, and that includes sophomore Victor Sanders (15.9 ppg, 41 FG%) and junior Perrion Callandret (14.0 ppg, 39 FG%).
Idaho’s weakness was its offense. The Vandals were ninth in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency (1.033 points per possession), so Sanders and Callandret have to lead the charge to an improved offensive unit. Junior college signee BJ Blake, who averaged 21.2 points a game at North Idaho College as a sophomore, should be able to help right away.
And, ultimately, if the Vandals proceed to defend at a high level, they’re going to be just fine.
5) IDAHO STATE (16-15, 11-7)
Who's gone: Ben Wilson (6.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 50 percent shooting), Evann Hall (2.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 50 percent shooting)
Don’t sleep on how much Idaho State will miss Wilson. He was a limited offensive weapon but his defense, rebounding and, most of all, leadership are the kind of things no one outside ISU’s locker room will notice as a big deal until it’s no longer there.
That said, however, Idaho State is in the same position as Weber, North Dakota and Idaho. The Bengals return the bulk of a roster that shocked the league as they nabbed a top-four postseason seed.
One of the biggest accomplishments of ISU’s season, and the reason why Bill Evans was the right choice for coach of year, was that the Bengals won 11 league games despite working from scratch with the roster. Other than Wilson, Idaho State’s top players were new to the program or minor contributors the year before. They’ve got an entire offseason to continue working out together and that extra time to get to know one another on and off the court is important.
We know Ethan Telfair is tremendous. He is, in the committee’s eyes, the most exciting talent in the Big Sky. But if ISU is going to challenge for a championship next season, guys like junior forward Kyle Ingram, freshman Stephen Lennox and freshman Gary Chivichyan have to make similar year-to-year improvements like Luzcando^^ managed in 2016.
Watch what Chivichyan (7.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 38 3P%) does closely. As a true freshman he didn’t work his way to a full-time starter until mid-January, and of his 168 field goal attempts, 151 were from 3. But he’s a solid athlete and there were flashes of an all-around game as the season wore on.
6) PORTLAND STATE (13-18, 8-10)
Who's gone: Cameron Forte (19.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Donivine Stewart (5.8 ppg, 3.7 apg), Collin Spickerman (5.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
By the end of the season, Portland State’s cast of Division I transfers and junior college signees came together really well. The Vikings played faster than anyone else in the Big Sky, Cameron Forte was a nightmare matchup and PSU developed a toughness the committee (of one) found appealing.
Three starters (Isaiah Pineiro, Calaen Robinson, Zach Gengler) are back from that team, plus junior Braxton Tucker, who started 22 games in 2014-15 and redshirt last season, is slated to return. Throw in junior college transfer Bryce Canda, who should be able to provide some much-needed long-range shooting, and PSU has intriguing talent.
7) Montana State (14-17, 9-9)
Who’s gone: Marcus Colbert (16.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.1 apg), Danny Robison (5.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
With Colbert gone, Montana State has two key areas to address in recruiting. Coach Brian Fish needs a point guard and an injection of some frontcourt players with size.
Expect MSU to go the juco route to fix at least one of those issues, and the Bobcats will structure their offense (to an even greater degree) around the abilities of sophomore-to-be Tyler Hall.
Montana State has a number roster issues, but the ’Cats take our No. 7 spot because … A) We believe Fish and his staff can recruit. He’ll fill the holes. … B) Hall is the Big Sky’s next big thing.
8) NORTHERN COLORADO (10-21, 7-11)
Who's gone: No one
In our continuing theme, Northern Colorado was an exceedingly young team in 2015-16 and didn’t have a senior on its roster. That’s good news.
What’s bad news, however, is that BJ Hill and UNC have ranked 305th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past five seasons. Northern Colorado was 348th in AdjD in 2016, giving up 1.165 points per possession. At this point we know Northern Colorado is a miserable defensive squad, and without any major additions to the current roster that’s not changing.
But the committee (of one) loves the idea of continuity. And assuming the Bears take the floor with the same cast of guys next season, they’ll make improvements in all aspects, and — maybe — they’ll even get a few stops on defense.
9) EASTERN WASHINGTON (18-16, 10-8)
Who's gone: Venky Jois (16.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Austin McBroom (21 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.7 apg), Kyle Reid (1.3 ppg)
Eastern returns some talent next season in Felix Von Hofe, Bogdan Bliznyuk and Julian Harrell. And the Eagles will have 6-foot-7 Australian Geremy McKay ready to go after he had to sit out a season following his transfer from Albany.
But McKay is a freshman who hasn’t played for two years, and he’s part of team filled with 12 freshmen and sophomores. The 2016-17 season could be a rebuilding year as the Eagles transition to a new era.
The most fascinating thing to watch with the Eagles right now is whether coach Jim Hayford really is interested in the vacant University of San Francisco job.
10) SACRAMENTO STATE (14-17, 6-12)
Who's gone: Dreon Barlett (7.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Cody Demps (12.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.7 apg)
Sophomores Justin Strings and Marcus Graves are two solid building blocks, and freshman Jeff Wu has us interested. But Sacramento State, which was 295th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, lacks the pieces that shows the committee (of one) the Hornets will be demonstratively better on that side of the ball next season. The Big Sky Conference, with rare exceptions, is ruled by great guards, and that’s what the Hornets are missing.
11) NORTHERN ARIZONA (5-25, 3-15)
Who's gone: Kris Yanku (14.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.8 apg) … Jordyn Martin and Jaleni Neely are both appealing for medical redshirts
It stinks that Kris Yanku’s collegiate career is over. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported Thursday that Yanku, a junior, will not return to NAU for his senior season. He’s “deciding between transfer/turning pro.”
Yanku, remember, did not play in the Big Sky tournament for NAU. When the Lumberjacks traveled the #RoadtoReno, Yanku was sent home for “conduct detrimental to the team,” according to an article by the Arizona Daily Sun.
It’s an unsatisfying end to what had been a brilliant career. The committee’s lasting memory of the heady point guard is from his freshman season.
The Lumberjacks were in Pocatello playing the Bengals and Yanku walked to the line for a free-throw attempt with 6 seconds left in the game and the score tied. Yanku had drawn foul by stealing the ball away from ISU’s Chris Hansen on the other end of the floor.
As Yanku stood at the foul line and waited for the ball, Bengals senior point guard Tomas Sanchez walked up to him and whispered in his ear. No idea what Sanchez said, but let’s assume they weren’t words of encouragement. Yanku went on to sink one of the free throws, NAU won 66-65 and delivered a crushing blow to Idaho State’s postseason hopes in the process.
On the road, chaotic ending, senior muttering sweet words in your ear — it was just a ballsy couple plays for Yanku and ones he made again and again for the ’Jacks. But the relationship , it seems, ended because Yanku rebelled against coach Jack Murphy and the NAU staff as they labored through a five-win season. It’s too bad.
12) SOUTHERN UTAH (6-24, 3-15)
Who's gone: Travon Langston (11.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Christian Thompson (4.2 ppg), Casey Oliverson (9.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and the status of A.J. Hess is unknown. Hess has been granted a medical redshirt and is “exploring options” according to the Twitter account Compton Magic.
Trending: To be determined … not really sure down is an option, anyway
Nick Robinson is out. And Todd Simon, who was a high school coach in 2013, is Southern Utah’s new head coach for men’s basketball.
Simon built a reputation as a top recruiter in his three years at UNLV. Recruiting, as it turns out, was Robinson’s greatest downfall. The Thunderbirds never consistently pulled in elite players in his Robinson’s four years in Cedar City.
Robinson and SUU relied heavily on high school kids to fill out their roster, rather than dipping into the juco ranks for a quick fix. It’ll be intriguing to see which approach Simon takes.
FINAL RPI RANKINGS FOR THE BIG SKY
108 - Weber State
144 - Montana
190 - Idaho
218 - North Dakota
232 - Eastern Washington
256 - Idaho State
260 - Montana State
273 - Sacramento State
282 - Portland State
304 - Northern Colorado
333 - Northern Arizona
335 - Southern Utah
CURRENT KENPOM RANKINGS FOR THE BIG SKY
137 - Weber State
146 - Montana
194 - North Dakota
195 - Eastern Washington
213 - Idaho
257 - Montana State
261 - Portland State
277 - Idaho State
284 - Sacramento State
312 - Northern Colorado
340 - Southern Utah
343 - Northern Arizona
* The committee (of one) truly wanted to select either North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker or Idaho State’s Ethan Telfair as the 2016-17 Big Sky MVP. But if we’re under the assumption Weber State is going to win the league, we have to pick a Wildcat as the MVP. It’s rare when those two things don’t coincide. And, hey, Senglin is good — like real good.
^ Notice how there are five players on our all-conference team? Big Sky coaches should take note, because we’re sick of seeing six players on the league’s all-conference teams. It’s a joke. Why six? It makes no sense … unless, of course, you remember the fact that the coaches who vote for the all-conference teams are thinking about job security and padding their resumes.
** Five guards on the all-conference team? That’s ridiculous. … And, yeah, it is. But with Bolomboy, Breunig and Jois graduating, there’s a dearth of quality big men in the conference. New guys will emerge, no doubt. But as we look at the conference, there’s no question to the committee (of one) that the five best players are guards. Taking that thought a step further, we could make a second all-conference team with five different players and it’d still largely consist of guards. That’s the state of the Big Sky.
^^^ As if Montana doesn't have enough good guards ... this guy will be ready to go in 2016-17.
^^^ As if Montana doesn't have enough good guards ... this guy will be ready to go in 2016-17.
^^ Luzcando as a freshman … 15.6 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 36.4 FG%, 27.9 3P%
Luzcando as a sophomore … 30.6 mpg, 14.4 ppg … 4.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 2.0 spg, 50.3 FG%, 35.9 3P%
*** Wait, Montana State is picked by the committee (of one) to finish seventh in the league. That’s where the ’Cats finished last season. So why are they “trending” up?
— Kyle Franko