Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: There are not a lot of mysteries in the Big Sky Conference heading into the 2014-15 season.
Weber State should be the top dog, and Southern Utah will be pulling up the rear. As far as all the teams in between, almost anything can happen based on the talent that is coming back to the respective campuses.
The Wildcats were the cream of the crop in 2013-14 in several statistical categories (inside the Big Sky), and even though the team brings back just two starters there is still reason to believe every other team will be chasing them come the new year. The other schools have lost a variety of big-name performers, which will hinder their pursuit of the Wildcats, but during a lengthy season anything is possible.
The league welcomes back the Idaho Vandals after a nearly two-decade absence, the one major change to the Big Sky landscape, but it will take some time for them to return to form and challenge for the league title.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Weber State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Weber State, 2. Eastern Washington, 3. Northern Arizona, 4. Sacramento State, 5. Portland State, 6. Northern Colorado, 7. Idaho, 8. Montana, 9. Idaho State, 10. North Dakota, 11. Montana State, 12. Southern Utah
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WEBER STATE: Somewhat amazingly, the Wildcats are bringing back just two starters from a season ago, and still they are the favorite to be Big Sky champions. A team that won an astounding 30 games just two seasons ago, but dropped to 19-12 in 2013-14, Weber State has lost two of its top performers and is still being feared by the rest of the league. Gone are Davion Berry (19.2 ppg, 122 assists) and Kyle Tresnak (11.5 ppg, 55 blocked shots), but returning are Jeremy Senglin and Joel Bolomboy. Senglin has quite the career in front of him, after being named the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year while starting all 31 games for the Wildcats. Thrown into the fire, Senglin was third on the team in scoring last season with 10.9 ppg, doing quite a bit of damage behind the 3-point line where he knocked down 40.5 percent of his chances and led the program with 62 conversions overall. As for Bolomboy, he was a terror in the paint with 11.0 rpg, which was tops in the league and third in the nation. The Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, Bolomboy was also honorable mention all-conference as he produced 8.7 ppg, but this year he'll need to boost his scoring numbers since he will be more involved in the offense. James Hajek is back after missing all but nine games with an injury last season and while he is far from a scoring threat, he does bring leadership to the floor as the lone senior on the roster.
EASTERN WASHINGTON: The Eagles have been nothing special the last several years. In fact, they've failed to even reach .500 in any one of the last five campaigns, but that should all change this season given the talent that is returning to Cheney for head coach Jim Hayford. All four double-digit scorers from last season are back, with the most significant of those being guard Tyler Harvey who as a sophomore was named First-Team All-Big Sky after leading the league in scoring (21.8 ppg), free-throw shooting (.897) and 3-pointers per contest (3.5). Harvey is also capable of filling up his stat line in many other areas, from rebounding (4.2 rpg) to assists (84) and steals (35). Venky Jois, an honorable mention all-conference performer, has the potential to produce a double-double on any given night after averaging 13.4 ppg and 8.0 rpg, although he does hamper himself and the team with just 52.8 percent shooting at the free-throw line. Getting the ball to both Harvey and Jois again will be Drew Brandon who not only accounted for 10.4 ppg a season ago, he also led the league with 5.1 apg, and in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.1. EWU led the league in scoring last season with 76.2 ppg, ranking the group 48th nationally, so it would not be a stretch to see similar numbers this time around.
NORTHERN ARIZONA: The Lumberjacks had a treacherous non-conference slate last season, one that provided a mere three victories, but when it comes to the Big Sky, this is a group that can certainly make some major advancements given how well it performed last season (12-8, tied for second). Head coach Jack Murphy enters his third season in Flagstaff with a record 12 games under .500 (26-38), and it will take some time to balance the scales, but it should begin now. The good news for NAU is that there are four starters back, the bad news is that the only loss is Max Jacobsen who was one of the better interior performers for the 'Jacks. Senior guard Quinton Upshur will get most of the attention whenever and wherever he is on the floor, after pacing the group in scoring (15.3 ppg) and showing hands quick enough to make 52 steals in 32 games. However, it wouldn't hurt for Upshur to be more giving with his teammates, seeing as how he had just 27 assists and the team was next-to-last in the league with a mere 10.8 apg (305th nationally). Fellow guard Aaseem Dixon could help to supplement the passing duties since he was second on the team with 70 dishes, to go along with 11.2 ppg. Between he and Upshur, they were responsible for 130 of the squad's 170 3-point baskets.
SACRAMENTO STATE: A doormat in the Big Sky for several seasons, the Hornets are poised to make a major move toward the top of the league this season, the seventh under head coach Brian Katz. Tied for seventh in the league at 10-10, the Hornets had their struggles against non-conference opponents and yet their 14 wins overall were still a positive sign. Even more of a positive sign for Sacramento is the fact that all five starters return, which means the quintet is keenly aware of how each individual plays and has a distinct advantage over the competition. Senior guard Dylan Garrity, who has been named honorable mention all-conference in each of the previous three campaigns, should be laying claim to a first- or second-team spot this time around. One of the all- time leaders in assists in the Big Sky, Garrity was responsible for 107 dishes and was one of two players scoring in double figures (13.2 ppg), as he shot an impressive 47.2 percent behind the 3-point line last season. Mikh McKinney, the leading scorer in 2013-14 with 16.6 ppg, proved to be more than just a point-hungry guard because he also ranked second in the league with 4.6 assists per contest. As a unit, Sacramento State was second in the league in assists with 13.4 per contest, a fraction behind Eastern Washington (13.5). Hopefully, Cody Demps (8.0 ppg) has seen the light and understands that he is more valuable in the paint (4.2 rpg) than he is out on the perimeter where he shot just 22.2 percent last season.
PORTLAND STATE: One of the more balanced offensive squads in the Big Sky last season, the Vikings had five players average in double figures, but none putting up more than 12.9 ppg (DaShaun Wiggins). Head coach Tyler Geving has two starters coming back, six letter-winners in all, and that includes a pair of all-conference performers, which should give the team a fighting chance more often than not in 2014-15. Wiggins, a senior guard, did the majority of his damage coming off the bench last season, starting only six games, but there's a good chance he'll see his name in the starting lineup more often now. Tim Douglas is another senior guard who brings leadership to the roster, not to mention 11.8 ppg and a team-best 99 assists from a season ago. However, Douglas could stand to use some direction on his shot selection, given that he converted only 38.2 percent of his field goal chances. Gary Winston (11.3 ppg) was an all-conference player due to the fact that he shot almost as well from 3-point range (.422) as he did from the floor overall (.443). Defense will be an area of concern again this season after the team finished 318th in the country in field goal defense (.470).
NORTHERN COLORADO: The transition to the Big Sky Conference has been a challenging one for the Bears, first performing at an exceptional level, then dipping down to the depths of the league before rebounding and regaining their footing last year when they were 18-14 overall and 11-9 in conference, tying them for fifth in the standings. Coach B.J. Hill, just one game under .500 (61-62) during his career with UNC, will have his work cut out for him this season as he deals with losing three starters from a year ago, one of those being Tate Unruh (12.7 ppg) who was one of the top 3-point shooters in the league (76-of-183). Because of him, and the support from his teammates, the Bears not only ranked second in the Big Sky in 3-point shooting, their 38.6 percent accuracy was 31st in all of Division I. How the team will handle the loss of Unruh remains to be seen, not to mention the loss of interior talent Derrick Barden, the leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (7.8 rpg) who started all 32 games in 2013-14. Tim Huskisson (10.3 ppg) and Tevin Svihovec (10.3 ppg) are the two returning double-digit scorers from last season, while Jordan Wilson (7.4 ppg) and Dominique Lee (6.8 ppg) will be around for support, but beyond that group there is little in the way of substantial game experience for the Bears at the moment.
IDAHO: The Vandals have been a team on the move recently, rejoining the Big Sky after playing a number of years in the Western Athletic Conference where they always seemed to be overmatched. Head coach Don Verlin, now in his seventh season, did manage to close out the 2013-14 campaign strong with six wins in seven tries, but a 77-55 blowout loss to New Mexico State in the WAC Championship game brought an end to a 16-18 season. Idaho is actually returning to an environment that it knew quite well when it was a member between 1963-1996, so there shouldn't be too many surprises awaiting the Vandals. The program brings back three starters, but not among them is leading scorer Stephen Madison (20.1 ppg), who not only knew how to deliver in the scoring department, he also led the Vandals in both rebounding (7.6 rpg) and assists (81) which is a rare feat these days at any Division I school. Throw in a team-best 34 steals and 17 blocked shots and clearly Madison will be missed. Connor Hill returns as the only other double-digit scorer from last season, his 14.2 ppg fueled by 40.5 percent shooting behind the 3-point line. Mike Scott (8.7 ppg) will have more chances to fill up the basket, as well as distribute the ball this season.
MONTANA: After finishing in a tie for second place in the Big Sky standings a season ago with a record of 12-8, the Grizzlies are expected to take more than a few steps back when they hit the hardwood this season. New head coach Travis DeCuire will have to re-sculpt a program that has lost almost half the roster from a season ago, including three starters, of which two were double-digit scorers. The only remaining double-digit performer is Jordan Gregory (13.8 ppg), a senior guard who was an all-conference honorable mention each of the past two seasons. On a team that is used to winning in the neighborhood of 20 games per season, something that did not happen a year ago when the Grizz were just 17-13 overall, the squad will need to get much more production out of forward Mike Weisner who was responsible for 8.1 ppg as he shot 50.6 percent from the floor. Even though he is just a sophomore, it is expected that Mario Dunn will take over as the starting point guard for coach DeCuire, after starting 16 games as a freshman and averaging 6.3 ppg. Showing quick hands, Dunn was responsible for 41 assists and 27 steals in limited action, numbers that should increase dramatically given his new responsibilities.
IDAHO STATE: Head coach Bill Evans has not had a pleasant two years in Pocatello, losing more than twice as many games as he has won. Granted, last season saw some improvement, but still an 11-18 record and being tied for 10th in the conference standings is nothing to cheer about. Although, the team did finish first in the league and 94th in the nation in offensive rebounding with 11.97 per contest and the good news is that Jeffrey Solarin, who was responsible for a great many of those boards, is back for his senior campaign. Solarin was second in the league in rebounding overall with 8.5 per contest, starting all 28 games for the program as he also delivered 10.4 ppg on the strength of 60.4 percent shooting from the floor. The Bengals also bring back senior guard/forward Chris Hansen, who led the team in scoring with 16.6 ppg as he knocked down an impressive 80-of-200 from beyond the arc. Now, if only Hansen could get more comfortable playing inside a bit more in order to improve upon his 3.9 rpg. Another key figure for the Bengals will be guard Evann Hall, who came off the bench in all 29 games and contributed 6.0 ppg, a number that will certainly take a leap forward.
NORTH DAKOTA: Now one of the elder statesmen in the Big Sky, coach Brian Jones is entering his ninth season at North Dakota and is coming off a season in which he broke even at 17-17 overall, but was tied for second in the league standings at 12-8. The bad news for Jones is that he must find a way to fill a massive gap produced by the departure of one of the most successful players in school history in Troy Huff. He was a player capable of doing almost anything asked of him from scoring (19.2 ppg), to rebounding (6.8 rpg) and even playing defense (79 steals), which means UND will most likely take several steps in the wrong direction in the foreseeable future. Take Aaron Anderson (11.1 ppg, 94 assists) out of the equation and the job gets that much more difficult. Jaron Nash, a 52.2 percent shooter from the floor, is the top returning scorer after putting up 10.8 ppg, but having him on the floor was not always the best idea since he ended up with only 19 assists and 48 turnovers. Both Quinton Hooker (4.2 ppg) and Ryan Salmonson (2.5 ppg) will be called upon to make significant contributions moving forward.
MONTANA STATE: A former assistant at Oregon, Brian Fish has been brought in to take over the Montana State program following the resignation of Brad Huse after eight seasons. As an assistant coach over the course of 24 years, Fish has been a part of 17 postseasons and made it to the NCAA Tournament seven times, so there is a level of success that he is accustomed to and hopefully that will carry over to the Bobcats in short order. The squad is coming off a 14-17 campaign and was tied for ninth in the league standings at 9-11, but the problem this time around is that it brings back only two starters and has lost its only double-digit scorer in Flavien Davis (12.5 ppg) and best rebounder in Paul Egwuonwu (6.7 rpg). Considered the top threat for MSU, junior guard Marcus Colbert is back after averaging 9.4 ppg and shooting 37.1 percent from 3-point range. He was also the top passer for the group with 94 assists. Michael Dison should provide some senior leadership that the Bobcats sorely need, if for no other reason than to help nurture fellow guard Stephan Holm who appeared in 30 games as a true freshman and, despite coming off the bench in every appearance, was one of the top 3-point shooters in the league at 43.2 percent.
SOUTHERN UTAH: The good news for the Thunderbirds is that all five starters from last season are back for 2014-15. The bad news is that particular group suffered through a very painful campaign during which they won a total of just two games and were 1-19 in Big Sky action, defeating only North Dakota (77-71) in the final week of the regular season. Prior to that, head coach Nick Robinson, who is a mere 13-47 in two years in Cedar City, had only a season- opening win over Arizona Christian (85-78) to show for his efforts. Tracing back five seasons, the T-birds have not finished at or above .500, coming close in 2011-12 with a mark of 14-17 while competing in the Summit League. Unfortunately, while there will be some measure of improvement this season compared to last, Southern Utah is expected to finish at the bottom of the standings yet again, even with Trey Kennedy (9.5 ppg), A.J. Hess (9.3 ppg) and Casey Oliverson (7.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) inserted back into the starting lineup. It is important to remember that even though there is experience coming back to SUU, this is a team that had the worst record in all of Division I and was next-to-last in scoring with a mere 59.0 ppg.