By Kevin Sweeney
The Big Sky drops from 12 teams to 11 this season, with North Dakota having officially departed for the Summit League following the 2017-18 season. Losing a program just 2 seasons removed from an NCAA Tournament bid isn’t ideal, especially to a conference the Big Sky would like to consistently compete with on the hardwood. Still, the league has some excellent coaches that consistently do an excellent job of finding under-the-radar talent, and its conference tournament is always one of March’s most exciting tournaments. With some talented teams at the top that could make some noise come the Big Dance, the Big Sky will be worth a watch all season long.
The Grizzlies bring virtually everyone back from last season’s club, a team that won 26 games and gave national runner-up Michigan a run for its money in the NCAA Tournament. Headlining that returning group is backcourt duo Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, with Rorie providing 3-level scoring ability along with high-level distribution while Oguine’s quick-twitch defensive instincts and dynamic athleticism makes him a unique prospect at the next level. The x-factor that could make this team even better is Donaven Dorsey, a solid role player at Washington who has sat out the last 2 seasons at Montana due to transfer rules and injury. He could provide a versatile piece to put Montana over the top.
#2. Weber State
Randy Rahe remains one of the nation’s most underrated coaches, and he’ll have another strong squad in Ogden next season. Rahe’s team’s have always had stars at guard, with the latest stud a junior in Jerrick Harding who can score against anyone in the country. His efficiency at putting the ball in the basket (he slashed .530/.425/.882 last season) at high volume is impressive to say the least, and as he develops his ability to create offense for others, he could work his way onto NBA radars. Combine Harding’s scoring punch with a strong, veteran frontcourt unit in Zach Braxton and Brekkott Chapman, as well as a talented recruiting class, and you’ve got a WSU club that should be a legitimate challenger to Montana in the Big Sky.
#3. Idaho State
The Bengals came into last season with little fanfare, but had a surprisingly solid season in which they won 9 Big Sky games. The biggest reason for that was blistering shooting: ISU shot 40% from 3 as a team and an even-hotter 42% from downtown during Big Sky play. The core of that group returns, with highly efficient wing scorer Jared Stutzman leading the charge after shooting 52% from beyond the arc last season. Since it will be tough for the Bengals to get any better shooting the ball, they’ll have to improve on the glass, where they were terrible last season. A trio of JUCO players with D1 experience will be looked to in order to help in that area: Kelvin Jones (UTEP), Chier Maker (Portland), and Alonzo Walker (Kent State). If ISU can improve on the glass, they have a chance to surprise yet again.
#4. Northern Colorado
Jeff Linder’s club had a banner year in 2017-18, winning 26 games and a CIT title in just his second year at the program. Losing star scoring guard Andre Spight is a blow, but uber-athletic lead guard Jordan Davis returns as one of the conference’s best players in his senior season. Davis will lead a young but talented Bears team with a 6-man freshman class with a lot of long-term potential, but big improvements from Jalen Sanders and Jonah Radebaugh will be necessary if UNC wants to contend for a conference title.
#5. Eastern Washington
Year 2 for Shantay Legans at EWU presents a big challenge: replacing do-everything point forward Bogdan Bliznyuk. However, Legans has a strong returning young core in place, headlined by a talented sophomore guard in Jacob Davison who could be one of the biggest breakout stars in mid-major basketball this season. BYU transfer Steven Beo should also factor into the guard rotation, and could be an x-factor if he can return to his high-scoring high school ways.
#6. Montana State
Just about everything that could have went wrong did go wrong last season for the Bobcats. After 2 incredible seasons, Tyler Hall took a step back in both efficiency and production, with his NBA Draft buzz cooling off in the process. The MSU defense was also ugly, conceding well over 81 points per game in conference play. In a make-or-break year, Brian Fish has doubled down on his guard-oriented offensive system, hoping that the returning core that also includes talented scoring point guard Harald Frey can up their efficiency and move up the Big Sky standings. Otherwise, the program make look to move in a different direction at head coach.
#7. Portland State
Barret Peery did a great job in year one, winning 20 games and competing with blue-blood programs in the PK80 Tournament. Now, he gets a beautiful new arena, which should without a doubt help in recruiting.
This season is a bit of a transition year for the Vikings, with just 1 returning starter. PG Holland Woods is a nice piece to build around, but a large crop of JUCO players will likely decide whether PSU can creep into contention.
#8. Southern Utah
It’s been more than a decade since SUU finished over .500. Will this be the year? That remains to be seen, but Todd Simon is doing a solid job accumulating talent and has the program headed in the right direction Dwayne Morgan will carry the load, but a pair of talented transfers in Cameron Olutiyan (Boise State) and Andre Abrams (Arizona State) hold the keys to any potential improvement for this squad. Simon will also be tasked with retooling a defense that was one of the nation’s worst last season.
Despite having some of the league’s most talented rosters over the last few seasons, Idaho hasn’t been able to get over the hump. Now, with 6 of the team’s top 7 scorers graduating, it’s a full-on rebuilding campaign for Don Verlin’s club. 6 freshmen (3 of whom were with the program last season) will be relied upon heavily, but it feels like an uphill battle for the Vandals in 2018-19.
#10. Sacramento State
Star forward Justin Strings is gone, but much of a young core (including 7 players from last season’s playing rotation) returns. That’s good news for Brian Katz’s club, which can only improve from a terrible 2017-18 campaign. Bruising lead guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa remains my favorite player in the nation (for obvious reasons), but this team just doesn’t have a lot of talent to win much this season.
#11. Northern Arizona
The Lumberjacks were simply putrid offensively last season, and it’s hard to imagine them getting much better in that area with both Torry Johnson and JoJo Anderson transferring out of the program. I loved the add of Loyola-Chicago transfer Cameron Satterwhite, but he’ll have sit this season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ahmaad Rorie– Montana (17.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.7 apg, .422/.339/.850)
- Jerrick Harding– Weber State (22.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, .530/.425/.882)
- Tyler Hall– Montana State (17.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, .407/.372/.907)
- Jordan Davis– Northern Colorado (16.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, .515/.239/.638)
- Jared Stutzman– Idaho State (14 9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, .567/.520/.720)
Player of the Year: Jerrick Harding (Weber State)
Rorie will likely be the popular choice here, but it’s hard for me to ignore Harding’s production and efficiency. After taking absolutely massive strides from his freshman into his sophomore year, Harding is still getting better. That’s very bad news for the rest of the Big Sky.
Breakout Player: Jacob Davison (Eastern Washington)
Under Jim Hayford, Eastern Washington was among the nation’s best at developing talent. Shantay Legans certainly hopes to continue that into his time as head man, and Davison seems poised to be his first project. Davison finished the season strong, flashing all-conference potential down the stretch. With the aforementioned Bliznyuk gone, EWU needs scoring badly, and Davison is more than capable of providing that.
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Nuga (Portland State)
It’s always difficult to evaluate newcomers at the mid-major level with limited available tape or stats at times. Nuga seems to fit the bill of an impact newcomer though, coming from a top JUCO program in Eastern Florida State where he posted strong numbers and was named team MVP. Barret Peery’s system loves guards who can score and handle the ball, and Nuga should provide a strong presence in that regard.