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Big Sky Preview: Detailing the hoops outlook from coaches, media polls

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Defending champion Weber State was pegged for the conference's top spot, but what followed may look a lot different than you are used to. Here is a look at how the polls may be right and where teams could be different.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Big Sky Conference released the results of its preseason coaches and media polls for the 2014-15 basketball season. Despite losing three senior starters, Weber State was voted to the top spot of each poll.

The two polls diverged from there to a decent degree of disagreement. Let's look at the composite of the two polls and review why coaches and media members might have voted the way they did. The conference is shifting to an eight-team conference tournament next season with the addition of Idaho, so I'll treat the top four as conference favorites.

BIG SKY Composite Coaches & Media 2014-15 Preseason Poll

Team (1st place votes)

Coaches
Rank

Coaches
Points

Media
Rank

Media
Points

Total
Points

1

Weber State (42)

1

117

1

424

541

2

Northern Arizona (6)

3

99

2

339

438

3

Eastern Washington (2)

2

100

3

318

418

4

Sacramento State (1)

4

90

4

298

388

5

Montana

8

56

5

297

353

6

Northern Colorado

6

73

6

242

315

7

Portland State

5

80

7

227

307

8

Idaho

7

65

8

207

272

9

North Dakota

9

38

9

175

213

10

Idaho State

10

35

10

125

160

11

Montana State

11

24

11

104

128

12

Southern Utah

12

15

12

52

67

1. WEBER STATE WILDCATS

The Wildcats finished the 2013-14 season with a record of 19-12 with a 14-6 Big Sky record, winning both the regular-season and conference tournament championships. Weber State lost 68-59 to Arizona in the NCAA Tournament.

Justifying the ranking:

Ninth-year head coach Randy Rahe will enjoy the services of defending Big Sky defensive POY Joel Bolomboy and freshman of the year Jeremy Senglin. Those two join with sophomore Richaud Gittens -- who really began to blossom at season's end, nearly single-handedly playing Weber back into its tournament game against Arizona on both ends of the floor -- in combining to create a dynamic lead for the Wildcats.

Athletic sophomore Kyndahl Hill and capable center James Hajek -- the team's lone senior -- round out the team's five returners. The rangy, athletic Bolomboy and Hill have both begun to develop an ability to stretch the floor on offense; that added to their length (with Hajek) should keep Weber strong on the boards.

Questions:

Gittens showed great flashes, and he is phenomenal at the rim. He may already have Damian Lillard-type finishing ability. But he is still largely unproven, playing behind departed seniors Davion Berry (Big Sky MVP) and Jordan Richardson (left Weber State as leader in all-time games played). Will Gittens and JC guard transfer Chris Golden carry the poise of Richardson or be able to score like Berry? The Wildcats will need a scoring presence from deep, which, along with leadership, is the biggest question facing their title defense.

2. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS

Just three seasons ago, the Lumberjacks finished with a record of 5-24 (with two of those wins coming against non-Division I opponents), went 1-15 in conference play, and ended the season on a 16-game losing streak.

Now, thanks to Jack Murphy, the 'Jacks are expected to earn a top seed in this season's conference tournament. Last season, NAU finished 15-17 with a 12-8 Big Sky record, losing by two to Northern Colorado in the first round of the conference tournament.

Justifying the ranking:

A solid trio of guards Aaseem Dixon and Kris Yanku with wing Quinton Upshur gives NAU one of the best chances at knocking Weber State off the top spot. The senior Upshur flourished in his first year in Flagstaff after transferring from VMI, scoring 15.3 points per game, shooting 44.3% overall and 38.2% from three, and possessing a knack for timely steals.

Dixon, also a senior, can shoot from deep and can enjoy some time off the ball because of the sophomore Yanku, who showed a ton of poise as a freshman at point. Yanku shot 83% from the charity stripe and got there five times per game, a number that will really help the 'Jacks as I would expect Yanku to play at least a little more than 25 minutes per game this season. Early returns on Jack Murphy as a coach look very good, and NAU might be ready to make the jump.

Questions:

Big man Max Jacobsen graduated, leaving a sizable hole in the NAU front court. Jacobsen was good for 12 points a night and played capable post defense. Returning experience is great, but the Lumberjacks were second-to-last in scoring offense in the Big Sky, ahead of only the anemic Southern Utah offense. While second-best in points allowed, the 'Jacks still allowed more points on average than they scored. NAU was 12-8 and tied for third in conference standings, but went 3-6 against the Big Sky's other four best schools -- including a first-round dismissal from the conference tournament by a lower seed. Was 2013-14 a sign of a rising program or fool's gold?

3. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES

The Eagles finished 2013-14 with a 15-16 overall record and were 10-10 in Big Sky play, finishing tied for 7th and missing the conference tournament.

Justifying the ranking:

For two years, the Eagles have taken their lumps as one of the youngest teams in the Big Sky. Slotting them at #3 is an indication coaches and media believe EWU's development will pay off. Energetic junior Tyler Harvey leads the conference's highest scoring offense, scoring 21.8 ppg on a whopping average of 37.4 minutes, and shoots very well -- 43.3% -- from deep. The Eagles' top five players in points and minutes all return. Joining Harvey are Venky Jois (13 ppg, 8 rpg), Drew Brandon (6 rpg, 5 apg), Parker Kelly, and Ognjen Miljkovic. Plenty of experience and offensive firepower returns.

At power forward behind the junior Jois, senior Martin Seiferth and junior Thomas Reuter both left for pro ball in Europe. The Eagles added JC forward Kyle Reid from California, a 6-foot-7 junior who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds last season and once prepped with Harvey.

Questions:

The Eagles like to run and gun and shoot from deep, but can this group ever make it happen on defense? This group has brought up the bottom of the Big Sky in points allowed two seasons running, and it has hardly been a contest. With their shot at the conference tournament on the line in the season finale, the Eagles scored 78 points against Weber State, which averaged an allowance of 64 ppg -- but gave up 82 points, lost, and missed the conference tournament. The offense and skill is there. EWU needs marked defensive improvement to rise above .500 status.

4. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS

The Hornets finished 2013-14 with a 14-16 record, going 10-10 in the Big Sky and losing by three points to North Dakota in the first round of the conference tournament.

Justifying the ranking:

Sacramento State is largely in the same boat as EWU (returns 8 of 9 top minutes/scorers!) and as the other teams pegged to top the conference (returns experienced, skilled guards). No team has the combined experience of senior point guards Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, however. Garrity is a four-year senior who brings tremendous poise to the Hornets and shot a blistering 47.2% from deep last season. McKinney is a JC transfer who may be the best on-ball creator in the conference, and scored 16.6 ppg and dished 4.6 apg last year.

All 8 of the top returners appeared in all 30 games, and 7 of 8 averaged at least 15 minutes per game. The Hornets are seasoned and talented.

Questions:

Sac State tore off 7 wins in 8 games to climb near the top of the Big Sky last season, only to lose 3 of its last 4 and barely squeak into the conference tournament. Sac State and EWU tied for the final spot and split their season series, so the Hornets won the tiebreaker thanks to its win over first place Weber State, which came on a Garrity 3/4-court buzzer-beating heave. The Hornets went 11-3 at home, which was fantastic, but were a horrid 3-12 on the road (same as EWU).

So the issue is the same as EWU. The Hornets are experienced but very unproven. After climbing near a top seed and putting together one of the best seasons in recent school history, they wilted down the stretch and whimpered their way to a first-round exit. The good news for both EWU and Sac State is that while unproven, they return much more experience than many of last year's top teams, which is why they are getting the preseason nod.

5. MONTANA GRIZZLIES

The Grizzlies were a shadow of their once-dominant selves, going 17-13 and earning a 12-8 mark in the Big Sky in 2013-14, which tied for second.

Questions:

Montana was a little undersized last season, and its successes were largely due to the graduated all-purpose Kareem Jamar, who averaged 18.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Jamar split time between several guard positions and sometimes had to guard the power forward spot on defense. He will be nearly impossible to replace. Montana also loses big man Eric Hutchison to graduation, who at 6-foot-9 was about all the size UM had last season.

In addition, the Griz lose head coach Wayne Tinkle to Oregon State, which may be the biggest blow. Tinkle was a great coach and motivator, and was a solid recruiter. (He may have also been the best worker of refs in the conference.)

Adding insult to that injury, Keron DeShields transferred before what was set to be his senior season. DeShields was third in points and minutes last season (Jamar was first) and leaves the guard line pretty inexperienced. In addition to DeShields, seven-footer Andy Martin left the team (he would have played around 15 mpg with the departure of Hutchison). Reserves Morgan Young (PG) and Nick Emerson (SF) also left the team. All of this is why coaches pegged Montana #8.

Reasons for optimism:

Montana still returns a nice trio of players, starting with guards Jordan Gregory (senior) and Mario Dunn (soph.). Gregory scored 14 ppg last season and was crucial to Montana's success. With DeShields gone, it wouldn't surprise me to see new coach Travis DeCuire often go with Gregory at shooting guard with Dunn at point to keep up with the guard lines throughout the conference. Michael Weisner is the third of the trio, a stretch four who can kill you with the three (46.6%) if given the chance. Weisner will need to shoulder a much bigger load as a senior.

The other bright spot for the Griz is transfer Martin Breunig, a 6-foot-8 addition from Washington. Breunig is a skilled big who should be able to do a lot of things for DeCuire. If he lives up to his billing, he'll vie for all-conference status and the team will contend for a top seed in the conference tournament.

6. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS

The Bears started 2013-14 hot, beating Kansas State on the road in its season opener and began conference play 7-1, seemingly drawing inspiration from this site's preseason prediction pegging them 5th by wearing a reference to it on shooting shirts. But the experienced Bears went through two separate four-game losing streaks, finished 18-13 overall and 11-9 in conference -- good for 5th. UNCo lost in overtime to Weber State in the conference tournament semifinals.

Questions:

It shaped up to be B.J. Hill's best shot at making noise in the Big Sky, and the Bears faltered after building a commanding 7-1 record. The team's two leading scorers graduated: Derrick Barden (14.1 ppg), who also was a handful on the boards at 7.8 rpg, and Tate Unruh (12.7 ppg), the sharpshooter who made teams pay when he was hot (41.5% 3PT). Also graduated is energetic veteran center Connor Osborne, who provided a much-needed defensive presence in the post. Junior big man Cody McDavis (6-foot-8) constitutes the only size of note returning. UNCo lost a lot of talented experience.

Reasons for optimism:

Two seniors will lead the Bears, both of whom averaged 10.3 ppg last season: point guard Tevin Svihovec, a fearless vet, and forward Tim Huskisson, the small forward who shot 43.9% from deep. Both have a ton of games under their belt. Svihovec started as a freshman and Huskisson has been a rotation player throughout.

JC transfer Dominique Lee is now a senior and appeared to be a capable guard in his reserve role last season. He and Colorado State guard transfer Dwight Smith will need to contribute in what may be a very guard-driven team, more-so than the other Big Sky teams.

7. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS

The Vikings finished 2013-14 with a 17-14 record and went 11-9 in conference play, losing to North Dakota in the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament.

Questions:

To be honest, my questions about Portland State continually involves the Viks' level of junior college turnover. It's supremely hard to build a winner with what PSU does. Contender? Maybe, and that's what Tyler Geving is shooting for. It feels like a long time since Ken Bone took the Viks to the NCAA tournament in consecutive years.

portland state roster portrait

via Verbal Commits

That's 10 JC transfers currently on the roster (2 walk ons) and 7 JC transfers who at one point enrolled and then left the school. Geving surely has a stronger stomach than I do. (Those listed in bright blue are scholarship offers, not rostered players.)

PSU lost two solid rotational seniors to transfer (one JC, one not) in Dre Winston and Marcus Hall, both of whom played about 28 mpg and appeared in a combined 63 of 64 games. Dre Winston was very good at scoring at the rim and getting to the foul line. Reserve depth players and would-be seniors Jacob Begin and LaMont Prosser, as well as soph Kyle Benton, all transferred as well.

Reasons for optimism:

Despite the turnover, PSU still has six scholarship seniors on the roster, the most important of which are a trio of guards. Point guard Tim Douglas averaged 35 mpg and was a solid leader while scoring 11.8 ppg and 3.1 apg. Leading scorer DaShaun Wiggins scored 12.9 ppg on 42.3%, and Gary Winston (11.3 ppg) also returns as the Vikings' best three-point shooter (42.2%).

Outside of Weber State it's a guard's conference, and Portland State still has as much skill and experience as anyone. There is also some intrigue surrounding true freshman shooting guard Iziahiah Sweeney, a three-star prospect who had offers from Gonzaga, Oregon State, and Utah State. He is no doubt behind the seniors Winston and Wiggins, but Geving was not afraid to play four-guard lineups last season so if the talent is there, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sweeney end up in the rotation.

8. IDAHO VANDALS

The Idaho Vandals return to the Big Sky in 2014 after calling it home from 1963-1996. The Vandals went 16-18 in their final WAC season, going 7-9 in the depleted conference.

Questions:

Losing a leading scorer and three-year starter always hurts, and that's what the Vandals deal with in losing forward Stephen Madison, who scored 20.1 ppg, got to the line 8 times per game, and was definitely the focal point of the offense. The Vandals also played poor defense at 74.6 ppg and 1.12 PPP allowed, and only managed a 7-9 record in the WAC where teams like UMKC, Chicago State, and Texas Pan-American live.

Reasons for optimism:

Looking at least year's schedule, Idaho did beat Portland State (on the road) and Idaho State. It did go 0-2 in a home-home against Montana, though the loss in Moscow was only by one point. So the Vandals had talent to compete in a limited sample size -- though again, that was with Madison.

Still, the Vandals return senior sharpshooter Connor Hill, who has shot 42.4% from behind the arc in his two years as a starter and attempted 7 treys per game last season. If Big Sky teams struggle with the obvious scouting to be done there, he can do some damage. Sophomore point guard Sekou Wiggs turned in a great freshman campaign, getting to the foul line at a ridiculous rate of 6 times per game on a 23.4 minute-per-game average.

9. NORTH DAKOTA

UND finished 2013-14 with a record of 17-16 and 12-8 in conference, losing to Weber State in the conference title game.

Questions:

The winningest class in UND history led the squad through its moves upward in college hoops -- and they're all gone. All-conference combo guard Troy Huff (19.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), solid point guard Aaron Anderson (11.1 ppg), sixth man Jamal Webb (7.2 ppg), skilled big man Alonzo Traylor (7.3 ppg), and reserve shooter Josh Schuler (5.6 ppg) all graduated. After getting blown off the floor by Weber State in the Big Sky championship game, you got a sense from head coach Brian Jones that he knew that was UND's best immediate chance and that a rebuild would at least temporarily be on.

Reasons for optimism:

Forward Jaron Nash was given an additional year of eligibility and therefore becomes the lone returning starter. Nash is a talented big man who averaged 10.8 ppg and 4.5 rpg and will be gladly welcomed back by Jones.

The green and white enjoyed a ton of depth last season, so only Huff and Anderson really logged anything that could be considered "big minutes." The talents of Huff will be especially hard to replace, but I wouldn't be surprised if we learned UND is a little better than 9th in the conference. Quinton Hooker joins Nash as an important returnee, logging several starts as a freshman and showing a lot of promise. Seniors Cole Stefan, Lenny Antwi, and big man Chad Calcaterra were all rotational players last season. The team has seniors and a decent amount of experience, but will it have enough skill?

10. IDAHO STATE BENGALS

The Bengals went 11-18 in 2013-14 and made significant strides by going 8-12 in conference, which was oddly only good enough for 10th place given the logjam between Weber State at the top and Southern Utah at the bottom.

Questions:

Who plays point guard? Graduating is Tomas Sanchez, who played a whopping 38 mpg last season. He wasn't particularly efficient while scoring a second-best 15.3 ppg, but he was really the only point guard on the team and was always there for the Bengals, logging 40 minutes 12 times last season, including the final nine games of the season as ISU tried to squeak into the conference tournament. Two of those nine were overtime games where Sanchez played 45 minutes in an OT upset over Weber State and logged 44 in the season finale against Portland State.

The only point guards on the roster are true freshmen Ian Fox and Geno Luzcando. Six of ISU's scholarship players are freshman, which makes the Bengals one of the conference's younger teams. Third-leading scorer Andre Hatchett also graduated.

Reasons for optimism:

Two team leaders return as seniors for the Bengals in two players who were JC teammates: leading scorer Chris Hansen, a 16.6 ppg performer who took 7 threes per game and converted at 40%. Hansen is capable of carrying the load again, but may need to score even more with the absence of Sanchez and Hatchett. The other senior leader is Jeffrey Solarin, an undersized forward (6-foot-5) who averaged 10 ppg and an impressive 8.2 rpg. Solarin made hay on the offensive boards and shot 60.4% from the field.

11. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS

Montana State finished 2013-14 with a record of 14-17 and a 9-11 conference mark.

Questions:

MSU didn't have a particularly good year and head coach Brad Huse was dismissed after 8 seasons. The Bobcats never surpassed 15 wins with Huse at the helm. The Big Sky has a decent level of head coach tenure, so that alone is a disadvantage for a struggling program. Brian Fish is in Bozeman for his first head coach gig after serving as a long-time assistant to Dana Altman at both Oregon and Creighton.

Fish has a tall task, losing capable players Flavien Davis, Paul Egwuonwu (the top two scorers), and guard Antonio Biglow to graduation.

Reasons for optimism:

The Bobcats return some nice players in Marcus Colbert and Michael Dison, but the main hope to optimism is probably Fish, who is likely to install a lively brand of basketball in Bozeman after several uninspiring seasons. MSU will probably run and push tempo from whistle to horn.

12. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS

SUU finished 2013-14 with a 2-27 record, going 1-19 in Big Sky play.

Questions:

The T-Birds played a lot of underclassmen. You'll take your lumps that way, so the big question is can the same players do much better than 1-19? No player averaged double digits in points, and on average SUU was outscored 75-59. It was a brutal year.

Reasons for optimism:

Players like shooting guard A.J. Hess didn't look like bad players, SUU just looked overwhelmed with inexperience. Nick Robinson is a good coach and should have the T-Birds playing better. He also signed three JC transfers to breathe new life into the roster: guard Travon Langston and forwards Christian Thompson and Casey Oliverson. The biggest difference maker is expected to be Thompson, a 6-foot-7 point-forward type of player who averaged 16 ppg in JC play last season