By Kevin Sweeney
Despite usually being labeled as one of the weaker conferences in college basketball, the Big Sky has seen 3 of its players drafted in the past 5 years, a remarkable number for a small mid-major league. One of them, former Weber State star Damian Lilliard, has blossomed into one of the best players in the world. Last season, it was Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy who parlayed an outstanding senior season into being the 52nd pick of the 2016 NBA Draft to the Utah Jazz. This season, there is more exceptional talent in the Big Sky, and we should see as many highly competitive games in this league, which saw 8 of its 11 conference tournament games be decided by single digits, as we do in any conference in the country.
- Weber State
- Idaho State
- North Dakota
- Montana State
- Eastern Washington
- Sacramento State
- Northern Colorado
- Northern Arizona
- Portland State
- Southern Utah
Champions: Weber State- While I could make an argument for any of my top 3 teams to win this league, I will trust the Wildcats, who have taken home 2 of the last 3 conference titles. They do lose Bolomboy, last season’s Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, but do bring back a strong core of players from last season’s team, including guard Jeremy Senglin, who averaged nearly 18 points per game to lead the Wildcats a season ago. A lethal 3-point marksman, Senglin will now be the focal point of opposing defenses. How he responds to that will be critical to Weber State’s success. They also bring back key contributors Kyndahl Hill, Zach Braxton, Ryan Richardson, and McKay Cannon. They also have a big home-court advantage throughout the regular season, averaging 6,795 fans per game, one of the best of any mid-major team.
Dark Horse: North Dakota– North Dakota is an interesting team to watch this season. Last season, they finished the season with a 17-16 record and earned a bid to the CIT, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that this season’s team could easily eclipse last season’s totals. One of those reasons is Quinton Hooker, the outstanding guard for the Fighting Hawks who averaged over 20 points per game last season. Hooker, a dominant scorer, put up double figures in all but 2 games last season, including 10 games with 25+ points. Around him is guard Geno Crandall, who averaged double digits as a freshman last year and is a potential breakout candidate, and forward Drick Bernstine, who has an excellent chance to average a double-double this season. Another thing that makes me optimistic about UND is that they lost a ton of close games last season. In fact, every loss after January 6 last season was by 10 of fewer. With some player development and some wins in close games, the Fighting Hawks could be a true contender in the Big Sky.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Justin Strings- Sacramento State
- G: Jeremy Senglin- Weber State
- G: Tyler Hall- Montana State
- G: Ethan Telfair- Idaho State
- G: Quinton Hooker- North Dakota
Player of the Year: Tyler Hall- Trying to choose between the 4 guards I listed is truly splitting hairs. All of them deserve serious consideration as the top player in the Big Sky. However, I believe that Hall will stand at the end of the season, not only as one of the best players in the Big Sky, but one of the best scorers in all of college basketball. Hall put up absolutely ridiculous numbers as a freshman for the Bobcats, averaging 18.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season, and those numbers should only go up, considering the Bobcats’s second-leading scorer from last season, point guard Marcus Colbert, finished his collegiate career. With more opportunities to score and handle the ball, Hall could put together a truly special season for Montana State.
Newcomer of the Year: Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa (Sacramento State)- To be honest, this pick is mostly due to his name. The New Zealand native comes to Sacramento State hoping to make an impact in what would be one of the best stories in college basketball. The 6-2 point guard, who also played rugby in New Zealand, should at the very least provide some toughness to the Hornets.