By Kevin Sweeney
This offseason was one of turnover in the Big Sky: five coaches were replaced following the 2018-19 season, all for poor performance rather than moving up the ranks. Two of the programs, Idaho and Northern Arizona, haven’t named permanent replacement, going with interim coaches for the season before making a final decision following the season. In the past, a full-year interim would be frown upon for setting the program back in recruiting. However, it seems to be a growing trend, especially with moves occurring later in the coaching cycle.
#1. Weber State– The Wildcats pushed the pace more than any Randy Rahe team last season, taking advantage of a deep, athletic backcourt to put up points in bunches. The trio of Jerrick Harding, Cody John, and breakout candidate Israel Barnes should help Rahe’s bunch do just that again in 2019-20, and that group is enough to give the Wildcats as good a chance as any in the Big Sky. With the departures of Brekkott Chapman and Zach Braxton up front, youngsters Dima Zdor and Donatas Kupsas have to grow up quick.
#2. Northern Colorado– The graduation of Jordan Davis is a massive one for Jeff Linder to overcome, as Davis departed UNC with his named etched throughout the Big Sky record books. Despite such a massive hole left behind in the backcourt, the Bears should be just fine– youngsters Bodie Hume and Sam Masten have star potential, and Linder’s group really got after it on the defensive end down the stretch.
#3. Southern Utah– Todd Simon has done a terrific job slowly accumulating talent, and this could finally be the year the Thunderbirds break through. Simon has loaded up with versatile wing/forwards with high-major talent, with the addition of Iowa State transfer Jakolby Long, a waiver for Dwayne Morgan, and the return of Cameron Olutiyan and Harrison Butler allowing for tons of lineup versatility on both ends. The x-factor– Illinois State transfer David Ndiaye, a 7-footer who showed flashes at Illinois State and could be a mismatch in the Big Sky.
#4. Portland State– Another Big Sky club that has been savvy on the transfer market, Barret Peery grabbed several key complimentary pieces this offseason to augment a returning core headlined by star guard Holland Woods. Grad transfers Markus Golder (Valpo) and Alonzo Walker (Idaho State) were two of my favorite mid-major grad transfers on the market– each adding athleticism, defensive ability, and the ability to play a role to the mix. Meanwhile, the presence of Santa Clara import Matt Hauser could free up Woods more to score. Peery’s teams love to pound the glass– hopefully that toughness transfers over to the defensive end, where they really struggled last season.
#5. Eastern Washington– No program in the country seems to find one breakout star after another quite like EWU, from Tyler Harvey to Austin McBroom to Jacob Wiley to Bogdan Bliznyuk to Jesse Hunt and Mason Peatling last season. While Hunt graduates, Peatling returns, and perhaps the next star in line is ready to emerge. My pick– Kim Aiken, a sophomore who flashed an intriguing skillset as a freshman with his ability to play inside and out along with his rebounding prowess.
#6. Montana– Losing three stars in Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine, and Jamar Akoh figured to be tough enough for Travis DeCuire to handle. The loss no one is talking about that may have just as big an impact: Tony Miller, a D2 transfer who sat out last season before moving on to Washington State this summer. Miller could have been a star next to Sayeed Pridgett for the Grizzlies– instead, they’ll need a youngster to step up. One potential option is Utah transfer Naseem Gaskin (if he can secure a waiver).
#7. Northern Arizona– Jack Murphy’s disappointing tenure came to an end this offseason, when he left voluntarily to take a spot on Sean Miller’s staff at Arizona. Shane Burcar takes the reigns on an interim basis, and inherits a lot of returning talent. Bernie Andre is a legit star, and I love the addition of Loyola-Chicago transfer Cam Satterwhite. The middle of this league gets muddy, but the Lumberjacks have some rising power if they can improve on defense.
#8. Montana State– Failing to finish above .500 despite having a four-year star in Tyler Hall led to the demise of Brian Fish in Bozeman, with native son Danny Sprinkle coming home to take the reigns after a successful stint on the staff at CSUF. He inherits one of the league’s best guards in Harald Frey, but what Sprinkle desperately needs is to toughen one of worst defenses in the country. JUCO wing Amin Adamu should help, but this will be a multi-year rebuilding job.
#9. Idaho State– I really liked the Ryan Looney hire for ISU– a guy with ties to the Pacific Northwest who has won at all kinds of tough gigs before (even landing an NBA prospect in Daulton Hommes at his last stop). Like Montana State above, this is a multi-year play, but the Bengals are on the right track for the long term.
#10. Sacramento State– The graduation of Marcus Graves is a big one to overcome: every time I watched a Sac State game, Graves found a way to take over with his shot-making ability and craftiness. The Hornets have size, but without Graves, they have the worst guard situation in the league. That’s not a recipe for success in most mid-major conferences.
#11. Idaho– Zac Claus has a strong rep throughout the coaching business, but couldn’t inherit a tougher role than the interim spot at Idaho, attempting to clean up the mess Don Verlin left behind. There’s a chance this team is the worst in D1 this season– every win will be a success.
ALl-Conference First Team:
- Jerrick Harding (Weber State)
- Holland Woods (Portland State)
- Harald Frey (Montana State)
- Bodie Hume (Northern Colorado)
- Mason Peatling (Eastern Washington)
Player of the Year: Jerrick Harding (Weber State)
Well on his way to becoming Weber’s all-time leading scorer, Harding is one of the most prolific scorers from the point guard position in college basketball. He’s a dynamic finisher at the rim who scores efficiently and thrives at drawing contact, and should be the driving force behind a title contender.
Breakout Player: Kim Aiken (Eastern Washington)
As I mentioned earlier, I am bullish on Aiken’s upside as a multi-positional wing/forward in Shantay Legans’ offense. In the season’s final 10 games, Aiken really turned it on, averaging 11.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, and better than 1 steal and 1 block per game. He’s a perfect fit for Legans’ system, and is a star in the making for the Eagles.
Newcomer of the Year: Markus Golder (Portland State)
Golder comes home to the Pacific Northwest for his final year of eligibility, a major coup for Barret Peery. A plug-and-play starter on the wing, Golder’s athleticism and defensive playmaking ability should make an immediate impact, and his slashing offensive game should open things up for Holland Woods and the rest of the offense.