OUTLOOK: Weber State is the favorite to win the Big Sky for the fourth preseason in a row, and having the league's best player back from injury makes the difference, at least on paper. The Wildcats also return a solid supporting cast that includes senior leadership as well as two up-and-comers that spell a bright future in Ogden.
Montana is the clear cut challenger, a veteran unit that only developed more depth last season. Eastern Washington is introducing a new coach this season but is loaded with experience, which could propel the Eagles into the title conversation come February.
Northern Colorado, Portland State and Northern Arizona all have to replace prolific scorers and are unproven heading into the campaign, while Montana State's season hinges on the contributions it receives from a batch of newcomers.
Sacramento State and Idaho State are well-coached ball clubs who have struggled to get out of the cellar the past few seasons; both programs were hit hard by graduation, and aren't likely to contend this year.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Weber State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Weber State, 2. Montana, 3. Eastern Washington 4. Northern Colorado, 5. Northern Arizona, 6. Portland State, 7. Montana State, 8. Sacramento State, 9. Idaho State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WEBER STATE: The Wildcats finished third in the league a year ago, which was pretty impressive considering their star guard Damian Lillard was lost for the season to a foot injury nine games in. Lillard, who was Big Sky Player of the Year two years ago, is a NBA prospect who can flat out score. The Oakland native has solid size (6-3, 195) and posted 19.7 and 19.9 points per game during his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, and is averaging four rebounds per game during his career. Weber State returns all-Big Sky pick Kyle Bullinger as well. Bullinger averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Head coach Randy Rahe also has the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year returning in Scott Bamforth (12.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg), as well as the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in Byron Fulton, who averaged seven points and 3.5 boards last year.
MONTANA: The Grizzlies will be tough again in 2011-12, returning four starters. Although Wayne Tinkle must replace the production of graduated center Brian Qvale, he does have Will Cherry back, a year after the junior guard recorded 14.1 points, 4.3 assists and 2.6 steals per outing. Cherry is a speedster who will be the floor general this season. Also back is fifth-year senior Derek Selvig, a talented 7-0 forward who averaged 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game a year ago. The roster is bolstered by forwards Art Steward and Kareem Jamar, two players who should see an increase in minutes and productivity this season. Steward averaged 8.6 points per game in 2010-11, while Jamar registered 8.1.
EASTERN WASHINGTON: Having to install a new system and philosophy from first year head coach Jim Hayford could set this team back, but the bottom line is that Eastern Washington has a veteran ball club that is ready to take the next step in 2011-12. Hayford inherits four starters from last year's squad which finished 10-20 but still managed to make the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in five seasons. Cliff Colimon is the leading returning scorer (10.4), while Tremayne Johnson should see an increased role after posting 10 points and 5.1 rebounds despite starting just eight games last season. Kevin Winford and Jeffrey Forbes also return to bolster the guard position. Winford averaged 9.9 points and shot 82.9 percent from the foul line last season, while Forbes put up 9.8 points and two assists per outing.
NORTHERN COLORADO: The Bears must replace Big Sky Most Valuable Player Devon Beitzel, who led Northern Colorado to a league title and NCAA Tournament berth a year ago. Northern Colorado will be anchored by guard Elliot Lloyd, who averaged 7.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, and started in 31 of 32 contests. Head coach B.J. Hill will need Lloyd's production to increase this season in order for the Bears to compensate for the graduation of its three top players. Mike Proctor will likely be another difference-maker this season on the block, where he averaged 5.4 points and a team high 5.6 rebounds in 2010-11.
PORTLAND STATE: The Vikings lost a quality scorer in Chris Harriel this offseason after the guard transferred. Portland State does have two double- digit scorers back in Charles Odum (14 ppg) and Chehales Tapscott (11.8 ppg). Tapscott added 8.1 rebounds per contest and will be relied heavily upon this season on the boards, while Odum shot 52.4 percent from the field and is a player who can create his own shot off the dribble. Having 6-10, 270-pound center Nate Lozeau back should give the Vikings depth in the paint, and a player to keep an eye on is Michael Harthun, a Washington State transfer who can really drill the long ball.
NORTHERN ARIZONA: The Lumberjacks face the tough task of replacing the do- everything Cameron Jones, the school's all-time leading scorer. Northern Arizona is led by all-league selection Gabe Rogers, who scored 13.1 points per game last season, along with averaging 2.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He has shot 43.1 percent from three point land in his career, including an impressive 46. 8 percentage last season. Stallon Saldivar is also back to give the Lumberjacks a solid backcourt. Saldivar has logged a lot of minutes over the past two seasons, and averaged 3.7 points and 5.4 assists per game last season, both marks that should spike this season in an expanded role.
MONTANA STATE: The Bobcats will have to retool the rotation this season with four starters graduating, but at least head coach Brad Huse can rely on returner Rod Singleton to give his team some leadership and veteran experience. Singleton was third in scoring last season, averaging 7.7 points per game and dishing out 3.5 assists per game. Jourdain Allou and Tre Johnson return seven starts to the club; Allou averaged 3.3 points and 3.1 boards a year ago. New faces will have to step up in order for Montana State to make a run, and it will likely come from a core of junior college recruits.
SACRAMENTO STATE: The Hornets have been in the lower-half of the Big Sky barrel for much of the past five seasons, and making a move up the conference standings will be a difficult challenge this season. Sacramento State loses three starters from a year ago, and will lean heavily on the perimeter play of guard Jackson Carbajal and forward John Dickson. Carbajal averaged 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds last season, while Dickson is probably the Hornets' best player. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.2 rebounds, and established himself as one of the squad's most capable defenders. Walter Jackson is another multi-dimensional returner, and Sacramento State will need heightened numbers from him this season. Jackson averaged six points and 4.5 rebounds a game, including 52 boards on the offensive end.
IDAHO STATE: The Bengals won just nine games in 2010-11, and took a huge hit offensively with the departures of Broderick Gilchrest and Deividas Busma. The guard position will still have a veteran presence with seniors Chase Grabau and Kenny McGowen returning. Grabau averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game and contributed 38 steals per game, while McGowen averaged 9.3 points, 1.5 assists and one steal per game, and hit 34 three pointers. At 6-9, 225 pounds, Abner Moreira is the team's best big man. The Brazilian averaged 5.8 points and 6.7 boards per game, and started in 19 contests.