Mid-Major Conference Preview: Big Sky Conference

USA TODAY Sports

Montana and Weber State have been battling atop the Big Sky for a few years now. While these two rivals prepare for another season long battle, a nameless group looks to complete a rapid ascension to the top.

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Big Sky Conference.

1. Weber State Wildcats
Last Year: 30-7 (18-2), 2nd in Big Sky, lost in CIT final.
Key Departures: Scott Bamforth (14 ppg), Frank Otis (8.9 ppg) Gelaun Wheelwright (Transfer, 6.3 ppg).
Top Returners: Davion Berry (15.2 ppg), Kyle Tresnak (11.8 ppg), Jordan Richardson (7.2 ppg), Joel Bolomboy (7.1 rpg).

The Wildcats were by far the best team in the conference last season. Unfortunately, being in the Big Sky means auto-bid or bust. Seriously, the Big Sky has never sent more than one team to the big dance. Last season, Montana made sure it was bust.

For the second year in a row the Wildcats will have to make up for the loss of their all-time leading three point shooter. Last year, without Damian Lillard, they did pretty well (30 wins). This year they need to replace the man who replaced Lillard atop the list, Scott Bamforth. Junior Gelaun Wheelwright appeared to be this year's replacement, but earlier this month it was announced that he would be transferring out of the program. Seniors Jordan Richardson and Davion Berry will anchor the back court. Joining them will be talented freshman Jeremy Senglin, who turned down offers from high-major conference programs like Nebraska, Colorado State and Air Force. The Wildcats, despite the losses, still have a very talented back court. The issue is now a lack of depth.

Up front the Wildcats have less of a personnel shakeup to deal with. Frank Otis is gone but the larger, and nearly as productive, Joel Bolomboy returns. Super-athletic redshirt freshman Kyndahl Hill, who drew interest from the Big 12 as a football player, should provide solid reserve minutes. The only issue up front lies in the knee of reserve, 6' 10" junior center James Hajak. Hajak will likely miss the non-conference slate as he recovers from a recent surgery.

Weber State has been at or near the top of the Big Sky for nearly a decade. While they're dealing with a couple big losses, their usual challengers have it worse.

2. Montana Grizzlies
Last Year: 25-7 (19-1), 1st in Big Sky, NCAA Tournament Round of 64.
Key Departures: Will Cherry (13.3 ppg), Mathias Ward (14.8 ppg)
Top Returners: Kareem Jamar (14.2 ppg), Jordan Gregory (8.2 ppg), Keron DeShields (6.6 ppg)

Wayne Tinkle's Grizzlies are looking to win a third straight Big Sky championship. They'll have to overcome the loss of their heart and soul, Will Cherry, and key big man Mathias Ward. Ward's career ended early due to foot surgery in February. The loss of Ward no doubt hurts the Griz, but they've already gained experience due to losing him with games left to play. In his absence, Spencer Coleman locked down a spot in the starting five. Reserves Eric Hutchison, Andy Martin and Michael Weisner also saw an increase in minutes down the stretch. There isn't a go-to big man this season, but the Griz have a deep cast of solid, rotational bigs. The front court isn't the key for Montana, anyways.

Returning on the perimeter is reigning Big Sky Player of the Year, Kareem Jamar. First on the team in rebounds and assists, as well as second in points, his senior year figures to be just like his first three, exceptionally effective. He's the favorite to win POY again this year. Joining Jamar in the back court is a duo of talented combo guards, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields. Gregory is a fantastic shooter. His 120.0 offensive rating was the best on the team, and 71st in the nation, last season. DeShields is a streaky player; the Baltimore product scored zero points three times last season, but also dropped 17 on Colorado State. If DeShields can produce with consistency, the Griz back court should be the best in the league.

Marquee non-conference road games at Washington and Minnesota, as well as Hawaii and South Dakota State, will provide early tests for Montana.

3. North Dakota
Last Year: 16-17 (12-8), 3rd Big Sky, CIT 1st Round.
Departures: Mitch Wilmer (5.7 ppg), Jordan Allerd (3.0 ppg), Doug Archer (2.5 ppg), Dan Stockdale (1.1 ppg)
Top Returners: Troy Huff (19.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Aaron Anderson (13.2 ppg), Jamal Webb (9.7 ppg, 4.2 apg), Josh Schuler (9.2 ppg)

Don't let the lack of a nickname fool you into thinking that North Dakota doesn't have an identity. This is a veteran team that returns eight seniors and the top five players in terms of minutes played. The losses this off-season, all to exhaustion of eligibility, are almost negligible. Starting center Mitch Wilmer, the tallest player on the team at 6' 11", will be missed only for his size and 1.4 blocks per game. It may be addition by subtraction with Wilmer, as he managed a measly 39% shooting from the field, and it's not like he was far from the basket.

Brian Jones has done a magnificent job leading North Dakota through its transition from D-II. In just its second year in the Big Sky, and fifth in D-I, North Dakota has the look of a contender in the conference. Their quest for a championship starts in the back court, specifically with Troy Huff. Huff led the Big Sky in scoring last season and ranks 12th in scoring among returning players, nationally. Jamal Webb, a solid defender and distributor, and Aaron Anderson join Huff in the back court.

The front court is where North Dakota will struggle. The players who aren't returning this season weren't very productive but they were the tallest on the team. They were also the bulk of the rotation up front. 6'7" Alonzo Traylor, who was ineligible after the first semester, is a solid scorer and maybe the best returning rebounder on the team. Another player who was ineligible last season is Jaron Nash. The 6' 8" Texas Tech transfer should figure into the front court plan immediately.

4. Eastern Washington Eagles
Last Year: 10-21 (7-13), 9th Big Sky
Departures: Colin Chiverton (10.8 ppg), Kevin Winford (6.1 ppg), Jeffrey Forbes (5.8 ppg), Jordan Hickert (3.0 ppg)
Top Returners: Venky Jois (12.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Kelly Parker (9.5 ppg), Martin Seiferth (8.2 ppg), Tyler Harvey (7.1 ppg)

The Eagles have had some serious personnel shakeups since the start of last season, In January, leading scorer Justin Crosgile left the program to be closer to home. Earlier this summer, just before committing a bizarre crime, assistant coach (and longtime Michael Jordan victim) Craig Ehlo left the school. Fortunately, the staff and roster seems solid for now and the foreseeable future.

Jim Hayford is entering his third season at the helm and his young squad is poised to make a big leap in the conference. The Eagles' front court is loaded. Sophomore Venky Jois should average a double-double and is nearly a lock for the all-Big Sky first team. Alongside Jois is junior Martin Seiferth. These two posted block rates of 6.7 and 8.9 respectively. As a team, the Eagles fell just three blocks short of the all-time conference record of 179. With a year under their belts, this underclassman-laden team should improve upon its already stout defense.

5. Northern Colorado Bears
Last Year: 13-18 (10-10) T-4th Big Sky.
Departures: Paul Garnica (7.2 ppg), Emmanuel Addo (4.9 ppg), Bryce Douvier (2.5 ppg)
Top Returners: Derrick Barden (13.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Tate Unruh (13.5 ppg), Tevin Svihovec (11.9 ppg)

B.J. Hill's Bears are caught in the transfer loop. All three players from last years' squad not returning this season have transferred out of the program. They're being replaced by two junior college transfers and a true freshman. The problem for the Bears, a team that was in the bottom-100 in terms of height last season, is these transfers make them even shorter. Corey Spence, a junior college transfer, stands 5' 10" and Jordan Wilson, the freshman, is 5' 9". Dominique Lee is the other juco transfer. The 6'5" wing spent one season at Utah before moving to Casper College.

These transfers will add depth to the Bears' back court, which is their strength. Derrick Barden and Tate Unruh are both very good shooters. Tevin Svihovec played point guard last season, but his assist/turnover ratio of 1.1 ranked 678th nationally. Wilson and Spence will split minutes with Svihovec at the point. Unfortunately for the Bears, they're not adding much. In a league where the top two teams are light years ahead of everyone else, stagnation won't cut it.

6. Montana State Bobcats
Last Season: 13-17 (10-10), T-4th Big Sky
Departures: Christian Moon (13.9 ppg), Xavier Blount (10.5 ppg), Jeff Budinich (2.0 ppg)
Top Returners: Flavien Davis (11.2 ppg), Antonio Biglow (10.5 ppg), Paul Egwuonwu (9.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg)

Montana State battled with injury and dismissal last season, yet the Bobcats still managed to finish fourth in the Big Sky. This season they will have to work without their two senior stars from a year ago, Christian Moon and Xavier Blount (Blount's career came to an end, due to injury, a few games before the end of the season). Those two held down the perimeter for the Bobcats but they should easily be replaced by Antonio Biglow and incoming sophomore Terrell Brown. Brown played last season at Otero Junior College. He has D-I experience, as he spent a redshirt freshman year at South Dakota. Montana State assistant Shawn Dirden recruited Brown to South Dakota, where he was an assistant at the time, but when Dirden picked up a job at MSU, Brown decided to leave. Also in the back court is steady sophomore point guard Marcus Colbert, who started 27 of 30 games as a freshman.

The Bobcats' front court duo of Flavien Davis and Paul Egwuonwu, both seniors and former junior college players, were solid in their first season. On the offensive end, the Bobcat bigs will be the most productive unit on the team. Egwuonwu showed double-double ability late last season. If he can do that regularly this season, the Bobcats' front court will be second only to the Eagles' in the Big Sky.

Defense is the issue, once again, in Bozeman. Last season the worst defensive team in the league was a toss up between the Bobcats and Vikings. Fortunately, under coach Brad Huse, their defense has never been that bad. Davis and Egwuonwu, with a year under their belts, should help lower the defensive two point field goal percentage this season.

7. Sacramento State Hornets
Last Season: 14-15 (8-12), T-6th Big Sky
Key Departures: John Dickson (12.8 ppg), Konner Veteto (10.2 ppg), Joe Eberhard (6.9 ppg)
Top Returners: Mikh McKinney (12.3 ppg), Dylan Garrity (11.6 ppg)

Sacramento State fans should be pleased with the junior guard duo of Mikh McKinney, the team's leading returning scorer, and Dylan Garrity, one of the conference's most efficient returning players. Those two form a back court that is solid on both ends of the floor. Joining them is 6' 5" freshman wing Nick Hornsby out of Tustin (CA) High School. Hornsby is a good shooter from the perimeter and off the dribble.

The Hornets' three key departures, all seniors, stand 6' 6", 6' 6" and 6' 8" tall. That's a formidable front line by Big Sky standards. It should not be a surprise then, that the Hornets will struggle around the hoop this season. Here's the thing, the Hornets struggled around the hoop last season. They connected on just 44.1% of their two point shots last year. Combine the continued problems in the post with the return of a top-half Big Sky back court, and you've got another unimpressive but not awful season lined up in Sacramento.

8. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Last Season: 11-21 (8-12), T-6th Big Sky
Key Departures: Gabe Rogers (17.9 ppg), Stallon Saldivar (6.6 ppg), Michael Dunn (5.8 ppg)
Top Returners: Dewayne Russell (14.4 ppg), Max Jacobsen (9.0 ppg), Gaellen Bewernick (6.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

The Lumberjacks were wildly inefficient last season, ranking ninth in the conference in offensive and defensive points per possession. They were also horrible at holding onto the ball. Gabe Rogers was a volume shooter with a 0.7 assist/turnover ratio, but he was one of two players who could be counted on to score points. The other, DeWayne Russell, returns. The 5' 11" Russell had a monster freshman year, the Walkup Skydome will be home to even more monster freshmen this year.

Incoming three-star shooting guard Kris Yanku should fill Rogers' shoes immediately. The other three-star freshman is 6' 7" power forward, Ako Kaluna. What Kaluna lacks in length he makes up for in bulk. Weighing in at 260lbs, he has the ability to easily move players out of the way when going for rebounds. The Lumberjacks will have to deal with seven newcomers, two of which are junior college transfers. This is a rebuilding year, but considering the loss of inefficient players, they should navigate the rebuild better than the teams lower on the list.

9. Idaho State Bengals
Last Season: 6-24 (5-15), T-10th Big Sky
Key Departures: Melvin Morgan (12.0 ppg), Neveij Walters (5.1 ppg)
Top Returners: Chris Hansen (11.4 ppg), Tomas Sanchez (10.3 ppg), Andre Hatchett (9.2 ppg)

Last season the Bengals' offense was one of the slowest in the nation, though their methodical possessions often ended the same way. Outgoing guard Melvin Morgan attempted a shot on nearly one third of possessions, the 89th highest rate in the country (per Ken Pomeroy). With Morgan gone, but most of the remaining production returning, the Bengals will be a significantly more balanced team on offense this season. Tomas Sanchez, Andre Hatchett and Chris Hansen form a serviceable and veteran back court tandem. Those three are the reason this team looks to be a step above the Big Sky cellar.

The front court is once again where the Bengals will struggle. Last season only ten teams were shorter, and this year they're without 7' 4" center Jakub Kusmieruk. Things are looking up in Pocatello, literally, as all six incoming players are over 6' 4". Of those six, three are junior college transfers. Most important among them, the 6' 11" Ajak Magot from Cochise College and 6' 7" Marcus Bradley who played one season at UC-Irvine before spending last year at San Bernardino Valley College. Those two will help bolster what was one of the nation's worst front courts. Give this team a year to gel before looking for a significant climb in the standings.

10. Portland State Vikings
Last Season: 8-20 (5-15), T-10th Big Sky
Departures: Renado Parker (11.4 ppg), Michael Harthun (11.3 ppg), Lateef McMullan (10.3 ppg), Michael Harvey (3.3 ppg), Martin Whitmore (2.9 ppg).
Top Returners: Aaron Moore (13.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Gary Winston (7.9 ppg), Dre Winston (7.0 ppg)

Tyler Geving is on the hot seat in Downtown Portland. He took over in 2009 after Ken Bone made the NCAA Tournament and bolted to the Pac-12. Geving led a solid rebuild over his first three seasons, culminating in a 17-15 season two years ago (his only season over .500). Now though, with a team full of his players, the Vikings are on the decline. They return last year's leading scorer, senior forward Aaron Moore, but they lose their second, third and fourth leading scorers. All three were starters and seniors. There were no freshmen on last year's team, and the two incoming freshmen this year will both be behind Moore and the Winstons on the depth chart. The back court duo of the two Winstons will be solid, but they're not at the level of Harthun and McMullan, who they're replacing.

The Vikings' ability to score, however, is not that important. It's the Vikings inability to stop others from scoring. Since Geving took over the Vikings have ranked in the bottom-100 of defensive field goal percentage. With the exception of the 17-15 season, they've been in the bottom-15. Expect a lot of baskets at the Stott Center.

11. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Last Year: 11-20 (8-12), T-6th Big Sky
Departures: Jackson Stevenett (17.5 ppg), Damon Heuir (15.5 ppg), Julian Scott (6.9 ppg), Wade Collie (6.8 ppg), Jordan Johnson (3.6 ppg), Tyson Koehler (1.3 ppg), Zach Ghormley (0.8 ppg).
Top Returner: Jayson Cheesman (6.8 ppg)

Nick Robinson's second season in Cedar City is going to be a tough rebuild. Coach Robinson has to work five freshmen and a junior college transfer into the team. On top of that, the Thunderbirds will be without the players responsible for over two-thirds of their points scored last season. The players who return aren't very good at scoring. Leading returning scorer Jayson Cheesman, a 6' 11" center, shot 40.4% from the field despite not operating very far from the hoop. Only one returner, sophomore wing A.J. Hess, posted an offensive rating above 100 last season. The bright spots lie with the freshmen, especially McKay Anderson. The 6' 6" wing is already the best shooter on the team.

Interestingly, the biggest moment of the year may be a blowout loss. The Thunderbirds will host the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV on December 14th.

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