The Big Sky's most recent claim to fame was Weber State guard Damian Lillard getting picked No. 6 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. There's no first-round draft prospect in the league this season, but there is another star guard with the ability to be the face of the league...if he plays.
Montana floor general Will Cherry (pictured against Wisconsin in the 2012 NCAA tournament) broke his foot a couple of weeks ago, an injury that could throw the entire Big Sky race into confusion. Weber State will return as a more balanced squad, conference newcomer North Dakota will be elated at not having to travel to New Jersey or Chicago or the Mexican border, and Sacramento State has multiple all-conference candidates.
The possibility exists that Cherry could return before league games start, but if he doesn't, the Grizzlies will have a serious fight on their hands. More on TBI's No. 25 conference after the jump.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH:
--This projection assumes that Cherry returns before conference games start AND that he's 100 percent when he does come back. That's not to say that the Griz are a one-man team, but it is to say that that man is a very good player.
Cherry was the BSC Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous all-league selection, plus he's the school's all-time steals leader. A highly efficient scorer, there's not a whole lot to pick apart in his game except that he could stand to increase his 1.2 A/T ratio.
Top sidekicks Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward return, and their contributions will be key to keeping Montana afloat while Cherry heals. Jamar is likely the favorite for conference POY if Cherry's return is delayed, and he may be the league's most versatile player bar none. He, not Cherry, led the team in assists, took better care of the ball in doing so, and was top-11 in the league in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks. Jamar recorded the Big Sky's only trip-dub last season with 21-11-11 against Hawaii.
Jamar's had experience playing the point, so if sophomores Jordan Gregory and Karon DeShields aren't up to the task, he may be forced into running the offense. Gregory and DeShields played 238 fairly undistinguished minutes between them, but neither embarrassed himself. DeShields may have an early lead on the job, thanks to greater playing time, solid 36-percent shooting from deep and a liveable 13.6% turnover rate.
Ward is a good mid-range scorer who may expand his range out past the arc, where he made 10 of 19 attempts last year. For a 6'7", 235-pound player, he's not a force on the glass and can be a bit of a hacker defensively (2.8 fouls per game).
The supporting cast isn't very seasoned, as 6'9" junior Eric Hutchison's 7.3 MPG led the returnees. Hutchison scored and rebounded well in his limited time, and is now expected to be the top post option. Swingman Kevin Henderson's rebounding numbers were solid in his five minutes per game.
Freshmen Jake Wiley (6'7", 200) and Andrew Martin (7'0", 225) will get a chance to contribute immediately, although Wiley might benefit from a redshirt year to gain strength. Juco forward Spencer Coleman (6'6", 210) could also battle for a starting wing position, especially if Jamar is needed at the point. Coleman averaged 15 points and seven rebounds a game at Eastern Arizona JC.
--Without Lillard to carry the offense, the Wildcats will need former complementary pieces to become leaders. Luckily, there are a pair of All-Big Sky candidates on hand.
Center Kyle Tresnak and guard Scott Bamforth are among the league's best at their positions. Bamforth is a deadly 44-percent career three-point shooter, and his ability to keep getting good looks without Lillard to draw defenders will make a huge difference in WSU's chances this season. If he aggressively attacks the basket and draws contact, chalk up automatic points there as well. Bamforth is an 87-percent shooter from the line.
Tresnak, one of the biggest men in the league at 6'10" and 255 pounds, is a tremendous low-post scorer who could average a lot more than 10 PPG this season. What will need to happen, however, is Tresnak averaging a lot more than the four RPG he managed last year. Without frontcourt mates Kyle Bullinger and Darin Mahoney to help clean the glass, Tresnak's rebounding will be needed even more urgently.
A battle will ensue over the point guard spot vacated by Lillard. Junior Jordan Richardson and sophomore Gelaun Wheelwright should engage in a spirited competition. Wheelwright's a speed merchant who possesses a slightly shaky outside shot, but is a sturdy 82-percent foul shooter. Richardson is a career 37-percent deep shooter who averaged 2.8 assists for every turnover last season. Whichever man wins, if he takes care of the ball and can hit a few bombs to stop defenses from sagging on Tresnak or doubling Bamforth, he'll be doing his job.
The man who may be most able to fill Lillard's scoring shoes is 6'4" swingman Davion Berry, a transfer from Division II Cal-State Monterey Bay. As a D-II transfer, he had to be a practice player just like a D-I newcomer would, so he's had a year to familiarize himself with the system. Berry shot a ludicrous 295 free throws two seasons ago and made 80 percent of them, so he's got no problem with charging the tin. Also a 40-percent three-point shooter, look for him to start the opener at small forward.
There's great frontcourt depth with 6'7" junior Byron Fulton (44.7% career from deep), 6'6" senior Frank Otis (69.4% from the floor last year) and 6'10" sophomore James Hajek, a strong foul shooter and offensive rebounder in limited time, expected to provide quality minutes.
Guard Wayne Bradford led all junior college players in free-throw percentage at 90.8% last year. He should fill in ably when Bamforth needs a rest. Freshman Joel Bolomboy (6'9", 215) should get into the post rotation immediately.
--The entire UND squad is eligible for Newcomer of the Year honors as it joins from the unwieldy tire fire that is the Great West Conference. Many of the "newcomers" are highly experienced talents who should be capable operators in the Big Sky.
Returning starters Troy Huff, Jamal Webb, Aaron Anderson and Brandon Brekke have a combined 197 career starts, and all four are only juniors. Leading scorer Huff will get his shots, but The Artists Formerly Known as the Fighting Sioux have to hope that offseason work on his shot will help him get his stroke back. Huff shot only 19 percent from long range last season after making 33 percent as a freshman. He's also a shaky 62-percent foul shooter for his career.
Brekke was the only player to top Huff's 5.9 RPG last season, recording 6.1 himself. The difference is that Brekke recorded his in seven fewer minutes per game. With 30 MPG, Brekke could threaten double-digit boards on any night. He reached that plateau six times last year, including an 18-and-15 game against Drake in the CIT. Brekke also shot 68 percent from the floor, mostly in the post, but split his foul shots right down the middle.
The Anderson-Webb backcourt may be small (5'10" and 6'1" respectively), but the two complement each other nicely. Anderson is a deadly efficient scorer (.566 eFG% and .614 TS% last year) who also takes great care of the ball. Webb led the Great West in assists and steals, but occasionally gets reckless (1.1 A/T ratio compared to Anderson's 1.7).
Along with the top four, nearly the entire bench has decent experience. Guards Josh Schuler and Lenny Antwi return, and Schuler is a reliable backup at either position. Up front, swingman Jordan Allard and center Mitch Wilmer are both decent shot-blocking threats and solid rebounders.
Texas Tech transfer Jaron Nash and jucos Alonzo Traylor and Ryan Salmonson all stand taller than 6'7", so size is plentiful as well. One of the three could join the starting lineup, possibly Nash if he gets a waiver allowing him to play immediately.
--Many of the nation's assist leaders, like Kendall Marshall of North Carolina and Scott Machado of Iona, became household names last season. Sacramento State freshman Dylan Garrity, not so much.
Garrity finished sixth in the nation at 6.9 dimes per night, making his three turnovers per night more palatable. He's a dangerous foul shooter (.818) who began taking a more aggressive scoring approach late in the year. If he shoots better than 40% from the floor this season, it could make him an even more dangerous passer, as defenses won't be able to sag off of his shot.
Garrity has all of his favorite targets back, as seniors John Dickson and Joe Eberhard return along with junior guard Jackson Carbajal. Eberhard is a capable scorer from nearly anywhere on the court, recording shooting percentages of .502/.448/.759, and still finding time to rip six rebounds per game.
Carbajal equaled Eberhard's 11.1 PPG average, upping his game to 16.5 PPG over the season's final six games. A decent 36-percent shooter from beyond the arc, he was even more capable inside the arc, making nearly 56 percent.
Dickson led the team at 12.4 PPG despite losing minutes (and his starting job) late in the season. He also led the team with 28 blocks.
Big man Konner Veteto (6'8", 265) is a potent rebounder and inside scorer who could contend for All-BSC honors if his health holds up. A knee injury nagged him all season, and splitting time with the now-graduated Josh McCarver didn't help his numbers. He's now the primary post option on this guard-oriented team.
A pair of 6'8" juco transfers, Ryan Okwudibonye and Joey Quigley, posted modest numbers at their previous schools, but could quickly contribute to the Hornets. Fellow JC transfer guard Mikh McKinney should see action behind both Garrity and Carbajal. McKinney averaged 14 points and nearly four assists per game last season, shooting about 53 percent from the floor.
The newcomers will need to be quick contributors, as depth will determine how far SSU can go in this year's race. The starting five is one of the more talented assemblages in the league, but bench help is essential.
--Despite being one of the Big Sky's youngest teams last season, UNC was a strong shooting and rebounding unit. The problem lay in the Bears' charitable nature. The team surrendered the ball 16.3 times per game in 2011-12, 1.5 more than any other team in the league. Tightening up the defense and ballhandling will go a long way toward making NorCol competitive.
Point guard Tevin Svihovec seized the starting role eight games into the season and proceeded to score in double figures in all but four games. His highlights came when he lit up Idaho State for 30 and Cal Poly for 34. What will help the Bears climb the table is Svihovec tightening up the ballhandling, as he recorded 64 turnovers to his 66 assists.
Guard Tate Unruh led the team in scoring, doing so in tremendously efficient fashion. He knocked down 48 percent from the floor, 46 percent from deep and missed only one of his 37 foul shots all season. After struggling in midseason, he finished with a 16.5-PPG kick over his final six games.
Third guard Paul Garnica lit up non-league opponents like Wyoming (18 points), Northern Iowa (22) and Denver (18), but slumped to 6.3 PPG in conference play. If he can produce all season, the Bears will be tough to stop from the perimeter.
Departed big man Mike Proctor took a big chunk of the team's production with him (9.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG), but his numbers could be quickly replaced by a junior college All-American. Forward Derrick Barden was nearly a 20-12 man for Odessa JC, despite only standing 6'5" and weighing 215 pounds. He's only the second player in Odessa history to finish with 1,000 points and 500 boards, the other being a mildly famous cross-dresser named Larry Johnson. You know, this guy:
Aside from Barden, big men Connor Osborne (6'9", 270) and Emmanuel Addo (6'7", 220) will contribute inside. Wing Tim Huskisson is likely to fly under the radar, as he often did last season, but when he busted out, he busted out, scoring 17 against Marquette and 16 against Iowa State.
Redshirt freshman James Davis Jr. should see some action in the backcourt, and he provides quickness and penetrating ability that Svihovec, Unruh and Garnica lack.
--PSU loses two of the Big Sky's best players, and where the lost production will come from is a big question mark.
Forward Renado Parker could give a great impression of the departed Chehales Tapscott, except that he's 30 pounds heavier. Parker was nearly a 10-5 player last season in only 24 MPG, and he racked up 26 points and 16 boards in his two games against Montana. A 56 percent shooter, primarily inside, Parker should be the primary post option.
Guards Lateef McMullan, Mike Harthun and Gary Winston should form a fine rotation, with Winston being touted as a breakout player. He shot 42 percent from long range, second to Harthun by only fractions of a point, and recorded a better A/T ratio than starting point guard McMullan.
Harthun should up his scoring as a primary option this season. A highly efficient shooter, Harthun shot 46 percent from the floor despite more than half of his attempts coming from deep. The one thing that can hold Harthun back is a failure by McMullan to defer.
McMullan shot the ball 40 more times than Harthun, including five more three-point attempts, despite both of his percentages falling 10 points short of Harthun's. McMullan led the team with 91 assists, but that averaged out to less than three per game. If McMullan can up his average to five or so dimes per game, the PSU offense should run much more smoothly.
Two more guards, Washington State transfer Dre Winston and 6'4" juco Marcus Hall, could also prove major contributors for the Vikings. Winston could challenge McMullan for the point guard role, and Hall is another dangerous shooter (45% last season).
Size and depth inside are desperate needs for PSU, and juco transfers Aaron Moore (6'8", 210) and Lamont Prosser (6'8", 275) will get early opportunities. Both are touted as strong rebounders, and Moore can step out for a mid-range shot.
Coach Tyler Geving would love to see 6'10", 290-pound sophomore Brandon Cataldo be able to play substantial time, as he averaged a double-double per 40 minutes last season. The problem was that he only played 88 minutes.
--Four of EWU's top six scorers are gone, and second-year coach Jim Hayford has to begin replacing the guys he inherited with his own recruits.
The top returning scorer is forward Collin Chiverton, a 6'6" senior who averaged nearly 14 PPG last season despite being bothered by a nagging foot injury. Shot selection is his major question mark. Chiverton shot only 29 fewer times than team leader Cliff Colimon, despite playing over 400 fewer minutes. A 40% shooter behind the arc, Chiverton only made 32% of his two-point shots. He can lead the league in scoring if he gets himself better looks.
Former St. Joseph's point guard Justin Crosgile is expected to fill the same role for the Eagles, likely starting next to senior Jeffrey Forbes. Forbes is the superior shooter, drilling about 38 percent from deep, but hasn't been the primary ballhandler at EW. Crosgile's turnover numbers are a bit shaky, but he has that floor general experience. The two could start together, but at 5'11 (Crosgile) and 5'10" (Forbes), that would be one of America's tiniest backcourts.
Sophomore Parker Kelly (6'4", 195) would add a bit more size and was a deadly efficient shooter as a freshman.
Aside from Chiverton, there are a lot of new faces in the frontcourt. Oregon transfer Martin Seiferth has surprising quickness for a 6'10" 230-pounder, and is the likely starter at center. Seiferth is joined by two big countrymen in freshmen Thomas Reuter (6'6", 235) and Frederik Jorg (7'1", 285) along with 6'7", 230-pound Aussie Venky Jois.
Senior Jordan Hickert is the only experienced returnee up front, but he's more of a situational stretch-four than a bruising rebounder. We wish Hayfield luck sifting through the field at the four and five.
--The Bobcats have a skilled backcourt, one that could carry them a bit higher up the standings. The big but inexperienced frontcourt will be the key, though.
Guards Christian Moon, Jamie Stewart and Michael Dison return, along with new juco point guard Antonio Biglow and the team's leading scorer in 2011-12, swingman Xavier Blount. Blount was a wildly inconsistent scorer, racking five 20-point games, but countering that with nine games of seven or fewer. Still, he's the one guy here whose starting spot may be unassailable.
Moon is a pure gunner, taking over 60 percent of his shots from past the arc. Stewart is much more of a penetrator and foul generator, taking three free throws for every four field goals last season.
At the point, Biglow was a 22-point and six-assist man at Mt. San Antonio College who enrolled and began practicing with MSU at midseason. He could rival Dylan Garrity as one of the BSC's top playmakers if he can limit the turnovers (nearly four per game at Mt. SAC) and stay eligible. Academic issues derailed his last juco season, much like Jamie Stewart lost his second semester last year to grades.
Biglow will be backed up by 5'9" sophomore Dison, whose 28.0 assist percentage was fourth in the conference.
Juco wing Flavien Davis (6'5", 225) is another gritty player who loves drawing contact on both ends. Davis drew 75 charges in his two JC seasons. Comparisons to Adrian Dantley have been made by some analysts. If that's not mere hype, Davis should be a great Big Sky player.
The only substantial frontcourt returnees are 6'10" junior Jeff Budinich, who'll serve a three-game suspension for breaking into cars, and 250-pound sophomore Blake Brumwell. Budinich can block shots and rebound, but often struggles to score.
--NAU needed a transfusion of energy, so it tapped 32-year-old Memphis assistant Jack Murphy to take over the program. Murphy obviously feels secure in his job, as he aggressively recruited high school players instead of going for the JC quick fix.
Six of the nine players who played more than 10 MPG last season are back. Like so many other Big Sky teams, the backcourt is where the talent is concentrated. Point guard Stallon Saldivar is one of the league's top creators, but has issues scoring for himself. His 2.2 A/T ratio was among the league's best, but he only managed a .411 eFG%.
Senior Gabe Rogers lost half his season to shoulder surgery, and the Lumberjacks hope that the procedure can fix his wayward shot. His eFG% and TS% both dove by more than 18 points from his sophomore year to his junior year. He can play All-BSC ball if he can shoot. If not, he does his team a lot more harm than good.
Fellow senior Michael Dunn saw his first substantial minutes last season, demonstrating a decent scoring touch and surprising tenacity on the boards. He racked up six double-figure scoring games in conference play and had a five-game stretch in early February in which he averaged 7.4 RPG.
Three-star point guard prospect DeWayne Russell (Peoria, Ariz.) can score better than Saldivar and is a better passer than Rogers. At 5'10" and 155 pounds, how he handles contact will determine how quick an impact he makes.
Up front, veterans Gaellen Bewernick, Ephraim Ekanem, Max Jacobsen and Ben Olayinka aren't huge guys, but they can put in work when called upon. Bewernick had three double-doubles last season, and could greatly increase that number with starter's minutes. Ekanem averaged 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in games of 25 minutes plus. Those averages aren't out of reach this season.
Olayinka and Jacobsen were reliable rebounders, and Olayinka added a strong 6.9 block percentage.
Juco transfer Len Springs (6'10", 220) was a dominant post presence for LA Trade Technical College, ripping 11 rebounds and swatting three shots per game. Freshman forward Jordyn Martin is a Lumberjack legacy, with both parents and an aunt being alumni. Another freshman, 6'5" wing Blake Hamilton, is a flashy athlete who averaged nearly 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game.
--New Bengals coach Bill Evans is known to tilt the court toward the defense, which is something that ISU could use. Last season's Bengal squad gave up more than 73 PPG and were near the bottom of the league in FG and three-point defense as well. The defense will need to play with some teeth until replacements are found for three of last year's top five scorers.
Point guard Melvin Morgan is the main man returning. A 12-PPG man, he'll also assume more of the playmaking load with the departure of versatile backcourt mate Chase Grabau. He'll need to keep his turnovers down, as his A/T ratio was upside down last season. Morgan is also one of the league's top thieves at 1.8 SPG.
Swingman Andre Hatchett was one of the team's more efficient rebounders last season, with a DR% that ranked third on the team. He finished the season by ripping 6.6 RPG over the final eight games, but at 6'4" and 185, he shouldn't be playing power forward as he did last year.
There should be better power forward options this year, with the addition of juco transfers Nnamdi Ezenwa and Ayibakuro Preh. Ezenwa (6'6", 205) averaged 14 and nine at Cochise College, while Preh (6'9", 218) ripped 8.5 RPG and blocked nearly three shots a night, playing primarily at center. He could easily start there for the Bengals, as well.
240-pound Jamaican Neveij Walters comes in with only one year of eligibility, and the burly forward is a bulldozer inside. He was a 13-and-7 man at the College of Eastern Utah.
A returning commodity who could be a difference-maker is 7'4" senior Jakub Kusmieruk, who averaged only 11 minutes per game last season. A player of his stature should be dominant in the Big Sky, but if he was capable of being a dominant player, would he be in the Big Sky?
Guard depth will come from veterans Sherrod Baldwin and Nick Mason, plus juco transfers Chris Hansen and Tomas Sanchez. Hansen was a 43-percent three-point shooter last season, while Sanchez dished more than seven assists per game. The new guys would add more size than the veterans, with Hansen at 6'4", Sanchez at 6'3", Baldwin at 6'0" and Mason at 6'1". Don't be surprised if one of these four gets the start in a three-guard lineup next to Morgan.
--The Thunderbirds enter a new conference with a new coach, and former LSU coach Nick Robinson may be wishing for some new players by season's end.
Two solid pieces return in guard Damon Heuir and swingman Jackson Stevenett, but there's not a lot of other minutes returning. Heuir is an efficient player capable of handling either guard spot, but might be a better fit at the point. He carded a steady 2-1 A/T ratio last season and a .466 eFG%.
Stevenett is a rarity in today's game: a player smart enough to understand that he's not a good three-point shooter who doesn't spend a ton of time jacking them up anyway. He took less than 10% of his shots from outside the arc and was rewarded with successful conversions on about 55% of his twos. A solid rebounder, Stevenett should be capable of transferring last season's 14-and-six averages from the Summit to the Big Sky.
Forward Wade Collie and guard Jordan Johnson are the returnees with the most extensive CVs. Collie is a fairly versatile player who can rebound and pass, but could learn some shot selection lessons from Stevenett. He debuted with a double-double against UC-Davis. Johnson averaged a steal per game in less than 14 minutes, but his offensive contributions were sporadic.
Other frontcourt returnees are 250-pound Tyson Koehler and 6'8" Jaren Jeffrey, both of whom had occasional flashes in very limited minutes. Newcomer Jayson Cheesman (6'11", 250) should be the most likely center candidate.
Freshman guards Zach Ghormley and Drake Thomas could see immediate minutes. Thomas isn't a scorer, but can step in and run an offense quickly. Ghormley is a sharpshooter on a team that could use one.
In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference game, weighed for visibility and possibility of a win.
Eastern Washington: Nov. 10 at Washington State
--The Cougars have to break in a new point guard after the dismissal of veteran Reggie Moore. EWU likely doesn't have the firepower to pull the upset, but the game could be more competitive than it should.
Idaho State: Dec. 13 at Cal State-Fullerton
--ISU could struggle to avoid blowouts against even Big West schools.
Montana: Dec. 15 vs. South Dakota State
--The Summit League favorite comes to Missoula, and Nate Wolters could have a career night without having to check Will Cherry.
Montana State: Nov. 25 at Oregon State
--Oregon State struggled to stop shooters last season, even with NBA draft pick Jared Cunningham. Without him, is the defense better, and can MSU take advantage?
North Dakota: Dec. 9 at North Dakota State
--The in-state rivalry, and NDSU is loaded for a Summit League title challenge.
Northern Arizona: Dec. 5 vs. Loyola Marymount
--NAU's backcourt will have its hands full with Loyola playmaker Anthony Ireland.
Northern Colorado: Nov. 21 vs. Wyoming
--A 20-win team last season, the Cowboys are led by the always-volatile forward Leonard Washington.
Portland State: Nov. 12 at Oregon
--The Ducks return a lot of talent, but they'll be breaking in a new point guard.
Sacramento State: Nov. 16 at Utah
--SSU will be familiar with Utah's likely point guard, Eastern Washington transfer Glen Dean. He and the rest of the Utes' transfers will still be getting used to working together in live action.
Southern Utah: Dec. 4 vs. San Diego
--The Toreros have an entertaining backcourt in sophomores Christopher Anderson and Johnny Dee. SUU could be dizzy by halftime.
Weber State: Nov. 24 at Utah State
--USU struggled at home late last season. The Wildcats will want to prolong that misery and get a resume win over a state rival.
|Jamar driving on Montana State.|
G Scott Bamforth, Weber State (6'2", 190, Sr.)
--Deadly efficiency, but can he keep it up if he's the primary weapon?
G Will Cherry, Montana (6'1", 180, Sr.)
--Will need to hit the ground running if he intends to lead Montana to another NCAA tournament.
G Dylan Garrity, Sacramento State (6'2", 170, Soph.)
--Showed that he can score, but needs to remain focused on keeping the offense flowing.
F/G Kareem Jamar, Montana (6'5", 205, Jr.)
--While Cherry is out, the Griz are Kareem's team. Should be the Big Sky POY.
F Jackson Stevenett, Southern Utah (6'4", 185, Sr.)
--A smart player hamstrung by a lack of supporting talent.
ALL-BIG SKY SECOND TEAM:
F Brandon Brekke, North Dakota (6'6", 215, Jr.)
--May be the best player for TAFKAFS. Don't be surprised if he tops the league in rebounding.
F/G Joe Eberhard, Sacramento State (6'6", 210, Sr.)
--Eberhard could probably play all five positions, and may have to if Veteto has any more health problems.
F/G Troy Huff, North Dakota (6'4", 175, Jr.)
--Needs to get his shot back; could make first team if he does.
F/C Kyle Tresnak, Weber State (6'10", 255, Jr.)
--Should not be a first-team performer unless he can be more assertive on the glass.
G Tate Unruh, Northern Colorado (6'4", 175, Jr.)
--Hopes Barden gives him the kind of inside support that Tresnak gives Bamforth.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kareem Jamar, Montana
COACH OF THE YEAR: Brian Jones, North Dakota
--New league, but he's got a ton of experience on his roster. Still, look for his team to play with its hair on fire now that an NCAA bid is a possibility.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Davion Berry, Weber State
--Narrow win over UNC's Derrick Barden, but Berry is the only Weber State player with a complete scoring game. Could be the league's next 20-PPG man.