2020-21 32×32: Big Sky Preview

Week two continues with the Big Sky! Like many leagues, the Big Sky has unveiled a new scheduling model this season to reduce expenses and risk of COVID-19 exposure. Teams will play on Thursdays and Saturdays against the same team in the same city to reduce travel, with the exception of two sets of home-and-homes. This type of scheduling has grown in popularity at the mid-major level this fall, particularly in more spread-out conferences that require air travel in leagues with budgets that don’t allow for charter flights.

How do things look on the court? Let’s get into it!

  1. Montana – When you consistently recruit at a high level, it becomes much easier to bounce back after the departures of strong senior classes. The continued success of Montana under Travis DeCuire is a testament to this, and I believe the Grizzlies are bound for more success in 2020-21 despite the departure of their three leading scorers from a season ago. It starts with a trio of transfers: Cameron Parker and Cameron Satterwhite in the backcourt along with Michael Steadman up front. Steadman is the guy I’m most excited about, a steady force around the basket who put up 13 points and 8 rebounds per game at San Jose State before joining the Grizz as a sit one, play one transfer. He should immediately be one of the conference’s best bigs. Meanwhile, Parker and Satterwhite should help ease the departures of a great backcourt pairing in Sayeed Pridgett and Kendal Manuel – Parker is a high-level passer at the point guard position and Satterwhite is a solid two-way player with Big Sky (and Final Four) experience. A breakout year from Derrick Carter-Hollinger also seems on the way: he may be a bit undersized, but Carter-Hollinger brings tremendous energy and toughness along with an ability to finish around the rim. He should develop into a star as he improves as a shooter. It’s definitely a new-look group, but there’s enough talent here for the Grizzlies to remain at or near the top of the Big Sky.

  2. Eastern Washington – The incredible player development program at EWU hasn’t slowed down at all under Shantay Legans, and the Eagles were in position to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 before the pandemic struck. They have a good chance to ensure that return was only delayed by one year, though replacing star big man Mason Peatling will without a doubt be a challenge. Peatling was such an incredibly efficient offensive weapon: great around the rim, but also capable of popping out to hit 3’s and making smart passes to keep the offense in rhythm. But even without Peatling, there are plenty of weapons here to make this group interesting. The duo of star guard Jacob Davison and do-it-all forward Kim Aiken is a good place to start, though Aiken needs to continue to become more consistent as Legans puts more and more responsibilities on his plate. Tanner Groves will likely see a bigger role in his fourth year in the program as a Peatling replacement: Groves scored in double figures five times last season and has a similar inside-out game to Peatling.

  3. Northern Colorado – Jeff Linder did an unbelievable job in Greeley, winning 21 or more games in three straight seasons and culminating in a top-75 squad in 2019-20. I expect he’ll do a very good job at Wyoming, and top assistant Steve Smiley will look to keep the train moving at UNC/ Smiley has earned a reputation as a sharp recruiter and a strong defensive mind, leading a unit that prioritized defending the three and running shooters off the line while hitting plenty of triples at the other end. Under the Linder/Smiley regime last season, the Bears shot 45% of their shots from deep (28th-highest nationally) and made them at a better than 37% clip, while teams took a nation-low 23.5% of their shots from deep against them  and made just 28.5% from beyond the arc. Those types of splits give you a massive, massive advantage in any game. And while they do lose star PG Jonah Radebaugh, returners in talented wing/forward Bodie Hume, steady guards Matt Johnson and Sam Masten, and high-energy big Kur Jokuch give Smiley a steady core. A pair of transfers should also help the backcourt: in-state product Daylen Kountz leaves UC-Bolder as a strong buy-low candidate, and Greg Bowie should fit in nicely to the 3-point-heavy attack after making 36% from deep at UTRGV. Taking over as a head coach for the first time during the pandemic is a challenge, but the continuity should play in Smiley’s favor to keep the Bears competitive in the league.

  4. Weber State – This team is a complete wild card. Following the worst season of his Weber State career, Randy Rahe hit the transfer market HARD this spring. The Wildcats added EIGHT transfers: five D1 transfers, two D2 transfers, and one JUCO product. In doing so, Rahe completely has flipped the roster and provided a major talent injection to a group that really needed it. Two newbies are grad transfers (the first two of the Rahe era) who’ll almost assuredly start right away: Isiah Brown finds his third home (all at schools that wear purple, strangely enough) and will have the ball put in his hands immediately to go score, while Florida transfer Dontay Bassett provides high-major size and length in the frontcourt. The three other D1 transfers (Seikou Sisoho Jawara, Tavian Percy, and David Nzekwesi) all provide key depth and experience: I’m particularly excited about Percy, an athletic, high-energy wing/forward who I always felt brought something to the table when on the floor at New Mexico. What would really be key would be a waiver for Darweshi Hunter, an incredibly talented scoring wing from the D2 world who I think is a future star in Ogden. The last time Weber finished under .500, they turned around the next year and won 26 games and a Big Sky title. It would take one of Rahe’s best coaching jobs yet to make that happen, but the influx of talent certainly gives the Wildcats a shot.

  5. Southern Utah – Speaking of the transfer market, few coaches in the Big Sky have used that avenue more than Todd Simon at SUU. The highlight of this year’s incoming group is former top-150 recruit Tevian Jones, who joins the Thunderbirds from Illinois and brings high-level athleticism and versatility to the table. Jones has star potential at this level if he puts it all together, but getting the most out of him will take major buy-in that didn’t come in Champaign. Jones and LSU transfer Courtese Cooper should form an athletic, high-upside frontcourt pairing – both truly feel like “boom or bust” pieces. Cooper blocked 107 shots during his season of JUCO prior to arriving in Baton Rouge, and that type of rim protection should buoy a defense that ranked in the top 100 nationally in KenPom last season. Simon should have one of his deepest backcourts yet thanks to the addition of JUCO product (and former UNLV signee) Nick Fleming. Fleming should compliment returning starting PG John Knight – Fleming can really shoot it, while Knight plays in attack mode at all times. I was hopeful that last year could be the big breakthrough, but the program continues to make progress every season under Simon at a place that isn’t easy to win at.

  6. Montana State – Year two back in Bozeman for Danny Sprinkle brings plenty of excitement despite the departure of long-time backcourt stalwart Harald Frey. Jubrile Belo is a flat-out problem in the post, a supremely talented big man who is great around the rim, gets to the line in bunches, and makes his free throws. Another year of development for him should be a scary sight for the rest of the conference. And in the backcourt, I’m very optimistic about Sprinkle’s efforts to replace Frey. One of his first moves last offseason was grabbing sit one, play one PG Xavier Bishop, a diminutive dynamo who plays with terrific pace and averaged 15 points and 4 assists at UMKC prior to a coaching change. High-level JUCO scorer Mike Hood (22.7 ppg at College of Southern Idaho) should also give the unit a jolt, particularly in the shooting department – Hood made 90 triples at a 36% clip last season. Continued development from the always-aggressive Amin Adamu also brings talent to the backcourt. Improving on last season’s ugly turnover margin will be critical to take the next step, but I like the direction of the program under Sprinkle.

  7. Portland State – Barret Peery has shown a continued desire to maintain very old rosters, bringing in five more grad transfers in this class to help rebound from losing all five starters to graduation or transfer this offseason. My favorite of the group in terms of instant impact is Monty Scott, a well-traveled wing scorer who averaged 17 points per game at Kennesaw before playing key rotation minutes at Temple last season. Former highly-touted JUCO recruit Khalid Thomas is also worth monitoring as a upside play. Washington transfer Elijah Hardy could also be key in solidifying the point position, something Peery likely didn’t expect to have to address until the sudden departure of star lead guard Holland Woods. It’s a unit of entirely new faces, but Peery has proven his ability to shuffle the deck and remain relevant.
      
  8. Northern Arizona – Shane Burcar did a nice job in his first year on the job in Flagstaff, though a pair of key transfers out of the program this spring threatens the upside here. Bernie Andre (Vermont) and Cameron Satterwhite (Montana) are key losses, particularly Andre, who formed a very good frontcourt duo with the always-steady Brooks DeBisschop. Those two departures should further weaken a defense that struggled in virtually every area last season. On the bright side, Cameron Shelton is one of the league’s best guards and is only getting better. I love that he’s constantly in attack mode when on the floor, and his ability to get inside the paint at will opens everything up for the rest of the attack.

  9. Idaho State – Five junior college imports will lead the Bengals into the future in Pocatello as the Ryan Looney era enters year two. Year one was ugly on the defensive end: ISU couldn’t stop anyone, with an interior defense that was one of the nation’s worst (teams shot 56% from two against them). Fixing that starts with adding size, and Looney did just that with JUCO big man Gedeon Buzangu and freshman Zach Visentin down low. But the return of three steady guards in Tarik Cool, Malik Porter, and Austin Smellie is key (especially with summer on-court time limited), while Robert Ford put up gaudy numbers at the JUCO level and should help with depth in the backcourt as well. Buzangu’s emergence as a steady presence at the rim that teams have to respect will be critical for this team to move up the standings.

  10. Sacramento State – A 16-14 finish may not seem like cause for celebration, but it was the second-best finish all-time at Sac State. Brian Katz leveraged a veteran roster into a solid season, though following that up may be a challenge. The Hornets won with a defense that forced turnovers and grinding out possessions at the offensive end. But the graduations of Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa and Osi Nwachukwu (broadcasters rejoice!) is a big blow to that “take it away” strategy – each ranked in the top 75 nationally in steal rate. Brandon Davies really needs to step up in the backcourt to soften the blow. On the newcomer front, I like the addition of former Nevada wing/forward Jalen Townsell, who brings athleticism and floor-spacing ability from the JUCO world.

  11. Idaho – Not much to say here. Zac Claus is known as one of the game’s good guys, but he has an uphill battle getting this roster competitive. Trevon Allen was the only reason this offense was remotely competitive a season ago, putting the team on his back by taking over 37% of his team’s shots when in the game and still somehow scoring efficiently. With his departure, there’s just not much juice here. This will be a relatively young team with a relatively young coach – give things time, because it might be ugly this season.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Cameron Shelton (Northern Arizona)
  • Jacob Davison (Eastern Washington)
  • Bodie Hume (Northern Colorado)
  • Jubrile Belo (Montana State)
  • Michael Steadman (Montana)

Player of the Year: Jacob Davison (Eastern Washington): I was tempted to go with Belo here, but wound up sticking with the high-scoring Davison. With Mason Peatling gone, his role in the offense could grow even more, and I love that Davison isn’t afraid to attack the rack. Davison is also an extremely smart cutter, which is a huge value add in Legans’ system. Let’s see if he can continue to improve his three point stroke as he rounds into the league’s best scorer.

Breakout Player: Derrick Carter-Hollinger (Montana): Carter-Hollinger was a guy who popped on tape when reviewing Montana this summer. He did a really nice job picking his spots and making smart decisions, which for a freshman is very impressive. He’s also a really impressive defender (though he needs to be careful with foul trouble). I expect Cameron Parker to get Carter-Hollinger plenty of good looks as he continues to develop into another 4-year contributor for the Grizzlies.

Newcomer of the Year: Michael Steadman (Montana): Plenty of good candidates here with the amount of newcomers (particularly from the transfer market) but I’m buying plenty of Steadman stock this fall. Quite simply, a program like Montana doesn’t get a player of Steadman’s caliber unless they are a sit one, play one – with more eligibility or immediate eligibility, he winds up at a high-major program. Travis DeCuire will find plenty of ways to get Steadman touches on the block this season.

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