Though the Big Sky is home to only three current NBA players, there’s certainly a possibility for another Damian Lillard-type to emerge this year. On top of having some hidden gems in terms of talent, basketball is on the rise in the region. Fans also keep tuning into this conference because of its unpredictability — rarely does the same team go to the NCAA Tournament two years in row. Montana was the last in 2012 and 2013, but will North Dakota has a real shot to join them this season.
Big Sky Preseason Power Rankings:
1. North Dakota Fighting Hawks:
The Fighting Hawks will be without superstar guard Quinton Hooker, but they will still return the deepest team in the conference. Second-teamer Geno Crandall is back and is poised to up his stats. He pitched in a versatile 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game last year, proving his talent on both side of the ball. However, he will need to limit his 3.3 turnovers per game and set the agenda for an abundantly talented squad. Corey Baldwin is a key backcourt counterpart, shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. Also, Cortez Seales was named top reserve in the conference. Finally, North Dakota will add key transfer talent in Dale Jones, a 6’7 forward from Iowa, and Jafar Kinsey, who spent time in JUCO ball after playing at Robert Morris.
I wrote about Tyler Hall recently and truly believe he’s one of the most underrated players in the game. Last year, he was the seventh-leading scorer nationally and had the second-most three-pointers made. There is so much potential for Hall to morph into a Paul George-like player who makes his teammates better, and if he does, Montana State should win conference. Harald Frey, named Newcomer of the Year last year, compliments Hall well, and Konner Frey (no relation) will join the team this year. The Bobcats certainly don’t have the deepest team, but they are adding two more intriguing recruits in three-star Isaac Bonton and Luke Schultz. Bonton is credited for being a floor general and Schultz had a stat line of 17.7 points coupled with 13.8 rebounds in high school. Schultz will need to be a key presence in the paint for Montana State to succeed.
Though the Wildcats don’t have much returning star power with the loss of Jeremy Senglin, they have one of the best mid-major coaches in Randy Rahe, who has led the team to five Big Sky championships. Zach Braxton is emerging as a strong big man. He posted 10.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game last year. Weber State also has an interesting new addition in Brekkott Chapman, a four-star recruit from the Class of 2014, who is transferring from Utah. He underperformed in a backup forward position for the Utes, but at Weber State he has the chance to shine. The Wildcats also picked up a nice point guard in three-star Doc Nelson, who spurned #FriendOfTheSite Scott Cross from UT Arlington in favor of Rahe.
Montana is returning a lot from last year and could be a contender for a top-three finish. Ahmaad Rorie is entering a make-or-break year in his second season for Montana, after transferring from Oregon. He averaged 17.6 points per game last year but didn’t always have the dagger the Grizzlies needed from three to beat teams like Sacramento State and Portland State. Michael Oguine is poised to be another nice story and will add to his 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds last year. Montana has dark horse potential for the championship, with Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey and CS Fullerton transfer Jamar Akoh, who are both ready to play. Akoh was Fullerton’s leading rebounder in 2015-16.
The Eagles will be without one of their best players ever in Jacob Wiley. If they couldn’t win the conference with him, it will be even harder to do so without him. However, EWU has another potential NBA Draft pick in Bogdan Bliznyuk. The 6’6 Latvian guard/forward averaged 20.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game as a junior. Sir Washington, however, is gonna need to slide in as a key guard to get Bliznyuk going, and that may be a lot to ask for the fourth-leading scorer from last year. Unlike other Big Sky teams, EWU isn’t benefiting much from transfers, so it will look to be a one-man show this year.
6. Idaho Vandals:
Some might say this is too low to rank a team led by Victor Sanders, a guard who scored 30 points or more five times last year. He’s certainly a diamond in the rough, but he is turnover prone as well, averaging 3.2 per game. The Vandals’ forwards, Brayon Blake and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, both show double-double potential, but there’s probably not enough depth to take this team to the NCAA Tournament.
The Vikings have a lot going for them, despite their lower ranking. The team has a new practice facility, a new coach in Barret Peery, and a $50 million arena looking to be finalized soon. Portland State was eighth in scoring nationally last year with 85.8 points per game and will return six players who averaged double figures. They will also have a key new addition in Gonzaga transfer Ryan Edwards, who at 7’1 will be the tallest Vikings player ever. However, he never proved himself at Gonzaga and isn’t good enough for a team to build around as a grad transfer with minimal playing experience.
Unfortunately, this squad is losing their key glue guys from last year in Eric Stuteville and Nick Hornsby. Second-team forward Justin Strings certainly shows promise, having pitched in 15.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last year, but can he hold the team together? The Hornets never won more than three in a row last year, but they did take down Weber State. For more success this season, Marcus Graves will also need to continue to dish and drive.
Northern Colorado is a young team that gained some needed experience with a summer trip to the Virgin Islands. Jordan Davis, who also played for the Azerbaijan U20 National Team, is the leading returning scorer, having posted 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.6 assists last year. Anthony Johnson also will be back and ready to play after redshirting last year. The year before, however, he was the team’s leading scorer, so look for a bounce-back year for him.
The Thunderbirds took a huge blow, losing Randy Onwuasor to LSU. But even with his talent, SUU lost 11 conference games in a row. James McGee is a 42 percent shooter from three, and the Thunderbirds lured an in-state three-star recruit to choose them over BYU, so things aren’t totally bleak. SUU managed to beat Montana State in a triple-overtime Big Sky Tournament game last year, so head coach Todd Simon’s first year wasn’t a complete waste.
The Lumberjacks are losing their leading scorer and rebounder from last year in Jordyn Martin, along with third-leading scorer Mike Green, who transferred. The Lumberjacks went just 6-12 in the Big Sky last year and it’s tough to imagine them being much better.
12. Idaho State Bengals:
Idaho State closed the season with nine straight losses last year, and the Bengals may have lost any semblance of hope with the departure of Ethan Telfair, former NBA player Sebastian Telfair’s brother. Four other players chose to leave the program as well. The Bengals’ best chance will come in the form of Samuel Dowd, a 5’7 tenacious point guard from an in-state JuCo.