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Big Sky preseason rankings: Montana remains the team to beat in a top-heavy conference

Several teams retain talent from last season, setting up the stage for a close Big Sky race.

Montana v Michigan Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Big Sky was filled with drama not just in the tournament, but throughout the 2017-18 season. In fact, by the end of the regular season, the top four teams in the Big Sky were separated by just three conference games.

Montana came out victorious by the time all was said in done, surviving overtime basketball and all, and even put up a great challenge in the NCAA Tournament against Michigan. With many of the conference’s biggest stars returning this year, there is no doubt that college basketball fans will be in for a treat if they check out Big Sky Conference play.

1. Montana (26-8 overall, 16-2 Big Sky, NCAA Tournament First Round)

The 2017-18 season went about as perfect as it could for Montana, as their 26 wins were the third-most in school history. Additionally, the Griz went a perfect 14-0 at home — their first time in the last 26 seasons — and at one point held a 13-game winning streak, which was one win shy of tying the program record.

Head Coach Travis DeCuire will hope to make the 2018-19 season even better as he returns four of their five starters from last season, including senior guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine.

Rorie and Oguine are one of the most dangerous backcourts in the entire country. Rorie is an offensive force as he led the team in points per game (17.2) and assists per game (3.7). Oguine is no slack himself, as he averaged 15.8 points per contest while also adding 5.5 boards and led the team by shooting 36 percent from three.

Oguine is also the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year while Rorie was eighth in the league in steals (1.2), proving this tandem is not just scary to stop on offense.

2. Weber State (20-11 overall, 13-5 Big Sky)

While Montana has the best tandem backcourt in the conference, it is very possible that the best player in the Big Sky resides at Weber State. Junior guard Jerrick Harding is one of three returners for the Wildcats and he will no doubt be an offensive force after averaging 22 points per game last season.

Harding, a 6’1 junior guard, scores in a variety of ways but his jumper is deadly — just ask Montana State who he dropped 46 on last season. Harding shot a tremendous 53 percent from the field last season and 42 percent from beyond the arc. His combination of pull-up jumpers and great finishes at the basket truly makes him a threat any given night.

Throw in fellow senior returners Zach Braxton and Brekkott Chapman, and Head Coach Randy Rahe’s team will be a major threat for the title.

3. Eastern Washington (20-15 overall, 13-5 Big Sky, CBI First Round)

Replacing a talent like Big Sky Player of the Year Bogdan Bliznyuk will be tough — I mean, anytime you have to replace a guy who averaged 22/8/5 in conference play it will be tough.

Luckily for EWU, they return their other four starters from last season and they return Head Coach Shantay Legans who will be much more comfortable with the players in his system heading into his second season.

None of the returning starters scored in double figures last season but watch out for senior guard Cody Benzel, who, despite just averaging 4.9 points in his career, is major threat from three-point range (42 percent).

4. Northern Colorado (26-12 Overall, 11-7 Big Sky, Won CBI Tournament)

As winners of the tournament, one would assume Northern Colorado is due to for a big upgrade this season. Last season went great for the Bears and Head Coach Jeff Linder, who in just his second season led his team to a program-best 26 wins.

Linder and the return of senior guard Jordan Davis has everyone excited for Bears to pounce on the competition. Last year Davis averaged 16.3 points per contest and was an exciting player who could either drop buckets at any moment or dish out some passes (he averaged 3.2 assists per game).

Overall, the Bears are a team that will rely on Davis. If he could become the star former teammate Andre Speight was, then this team will be a tough draw night in and night out. Keep in mind that this is a Northern Colorado team that nearly upset Montana in last year’s tournament, but lost 91-89 in overtime.

5. Portland State (20-14 overall, 9-9 Big Sky, CIT First Round)

Portland State is a team that will go as far as their star takes them. Reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year Holland “Boo Boo” Woods is back for his second season of action and after averaging 10.5 points and 5.6 assists per game, fans are wondering how much better he can be.

Woods is an interesting talent. Standing at just 6’0 he does not instill the fear like other Big Sky guards do, but his innate passing ability is something else. He dropped 10 dimes in a win over Montana State last season and routinely led the team in assists throughout the year.

Still, his shooting leaves much to be desired as he shot just under 30 percent from three last season and 40 percent from the field. A much-needed lift to his jumper would do wonders for the Vikings.

6. Idaho State (14-16 overall, 9-9 Big Sky)

Returning players have really been the theme of this preview so far, and this does not change with Idaho State.

Returning junior guards Brandon Boyd and Jared Stutzman will be huge for this team going into this season. Both players averaged 14.9 points per game, but even more impressive is that Boyd did that starting in just 12 games. In college basketball comfortability is everything; keeping two scorers in a system they already know playing off of each other could help push Idaho State over the top this season.

7. Idaho (22-9 overall, 14-4 Big Sky)

Going off of last season, Idaho should be among the top four again fighting for a chance to get into that NCAA Tournament. But of course, the beauty (and the bad) of college basketball is how quickly a window of opportunity closes when players graduate. No team has been gutted quite like Idaho. The Vandals lost six seniors to graduation from last season’s team, but will now be a team that features only two upperclassmen.

Still, senior Nate Sherwood is no slouch, as he averaged 9.5 points per contest last year and started in 30 of the team’s 31 games. Combine him with a hungry freshmen class and Idaho still might have enough talent to shock some people.

8. Montana State (13-19 overall, 6-12 Big Sky)

One of the biggest candidates poised to have a turnaround this season is Montana State and that is due in large part to the return of senior guard Tyler Hall. Once touted as the best player in the conference, Hall still played well last season averaging 17.5 points per game with 3.7 rebounds.

Still, the senior would get himself into trouble a lot of the time, leading to 56 turnovers on the season. If Montana State wants a turnaround, —which it is very capable of doing with returning four of five starters — then it has to start with Hall, who comes into this season hoping to become the league’s all-time leader in points and three-pointers.

9. Sacramento State (7-25 overall, 4-14 Big Sky)

The Hornets return two players that averaged double figures last season in center Joshua Patton and guard Jordan Tolbert, but even with that it would be hard to imagine the Hornets jumping out of the cellar. The Hornets will also be hard-pressed to replace not only the talent, but also the leadership that forward Justin Strings brought to the table.

Even so, last season was a bit of an odd one for Sacramento State. Before then, the Hornets had won at least 13 games in five consecutive seasons. Maybe this year they can get back on track to meet that goal.

10. Southern Utah (13-19 overall, 5-13 Big Sky)

The Thunderbirds return their leading scorer from last season in senior guard Brandon Better, who averaged 12.8 PPG despite only starting in six of his 31 appearances. Still, Better will most likely need some help to keep this team competitive come conference play —especially in such a top-heavy league. Losing players like James McGee, the team’s leading rebounder last season, is a huge blow.

11. Northern Arizona (5-27 overall, 2-16 Big Sky)

It is hard to imagine a team like Northern Arizona accomplishing what a team like the Big West’s UC Santa Barbara did last season by going from worst to first. Still, the team has enough talent to win more than five games this season.

NAU returns three starters but one of their more intriguing players could be junior college transfer Jonathan Andre. Andre averaged a very solid 13 points per game adding 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in his one year at Wallace State. Newcomers are always a welcomed addition — especially one who can look to make an immediate impact like him.