Given that the Vikings and Wildcats will be strong again this season and the Grizzlies are resurgent, the odds are against another team crashing the party this time around. However, that's not going to stop last season's surprise Big Sky finalist, Montana State, a team that returns four starters from the team that claimed road wins over Montana and regular season champ Weber before falling to Portland State in the final. Eastern Washington and Idaho State, two squads that feature three returning starters bolstered by junior college transfers, also bear watching as the league race unfolds.
More on these teams, along with the Big Sky squads who are in a rebuilding mode, after the jump.
Let's start with a look at the final Big Sky standings for 2008-09.
Big Sky Conference Standings
(updated 3.20.2009 at 11:52 PM EDT)
|Weber St. Wildcats||15||1||21||10|
|Portland St. Vikings||11||5||23||10|
|Idaho St. Bengals||9||7||13||19|
|Northern Colorado Bears||8||8||14||18|
|Montana St. Bobcats||6||10||14||17|
|Eastern Washington Eagles||6||10||12||18|
|Northern Arizona Lumberjacks||5||11||8||19|
|Sacramento St. Hornets||1||15||2||27|
Now here are my picks for the 2009-10 season, presented in reverse order.
Sacramento State (last NCAA: None) Since the 2004-05 season, when the Hornets finished with an 8-6 Big Sky mark, the conference win totals have consistently shrunk, even dropping from 2 league wins to 1 in Brian Katz's first season. Things may not improve that much thanks to the departure of leading scorer Loren Heath, a 6-2 guard who averaged nearly 16 points a game. 6-8 center Justin Eller (10 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is back, giving Katz a force in the middle, but a flood of JC transfers will have to gel for the Hornets to avoid the wooden spoon. Sacramento State will travel to Houston to take on host Rice, South Alabama, and Houston Baptist in a round-robin. The game against the Huskies is a chance for a rare Hornets' win.
Northern Arizona (last NCAA: 2000) The Lumberjacks will struggle to improve on last year's eighth place finish, thanks to the departure of three starters, all of whom averaged more than 9 points per contest. But Mike Adras does have two players back who can provide offense--6-4 junior guard Cameron Jones (12.7 ppg) and 6-7 forward Shane Johannsen, a junior who averaged nearly 10 points a game while shooting almost 73 percent from the floor, all while grabbing over 5 boards a game. 6-10 C Joshua Lapley was also a key frontcourt contributor as a reserve, and he should improve on his 5.9 points and 3 rebounds a game with more minutes this year. The arrival of 6-5 DeAngelo Jones, a JC transfer who started at New Mexico State, means NAU should have another frontcourt weapon. Point guard is a major question mark after the graduation of Josh Wilson, but 5-9 Julian Olubuyi, another JC transfer, may be called on to fill that role. The Lumberjacks will participate in the first ever West Coast Classic, a unique round-robin event in which NAU will host Fresno State and Pacific and visit Santa Clara and San Diego State.
Northern Colorado (last NCAA: None) The strength of the Bears will be backcourt, as both senior PG Will Figures (12.1 ppg, 2.3 apg) and junior SG Devon Beitzel (11.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg) return. The frontcourt could be an issue, despite all of the returning personnel head coach Ted Boyle has at his disposal. The problem is that none of the returnees, led by 6-7 junior Taylor Montgomery (3.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg), has been able to show they can consistently match the performances put up by the departed Jabril Banks (12.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg). The Bears will open their season with back-to-back tournaments, heading to Hawai'i to take on the Warriors, McNeese State, and Southern Utah in the scaled-down Rainbow Classic, then returning to the mainland to play Texas Southern and either Air Force or Dickinson State in the Reggie Minton Classic.
Eastern Washington (last NCAA: 2004) Kirk Earlywine returns three senior starters from a team that won only 12 games last season. The Eagles' key man is in the backcourt, as 5-7 PG Benny Valentine averaged 15+ points alongside 3 assists per contest. The frontcourt features EWU's only other returning double-digit scorer, 6-9 Brandon Moore (11.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and 6-8 Mark Dunn (5.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg). The Eagles should get a lot of help from four transfers-6-6 F P.J. Bolte (Rice), 6-3 Alden Gibbs, 6-8 Laron Griffin, and 6-7 Morgan Hislop (all JC). The Eagles will participate in the low/mid-major bracket of the Las Vegas Classic after they visit Nevada and BYU in the same event.
Idaho State (last NCAA: 1987) The Bengals take on a difficult non-conference schedule, featuring road contests at Bradley, BYU, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Utah, and Utah State, and a home game with in-state rivals Boise State. Like EWU, Idaho State also returns three senior starters, led by leading scorer Amorrow Morgan (13.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), a 6-5 senior PG who is one of five players on the roster who's from Memphis. That number includes 6-0 JC transfer Broderick Gilchrist, who could replace the team's second leading scorer from last season, Matt Stucki (12 ppg), who graduated. Expect to see 6-8 Demetrius Monroe, who averaged 6.5 points and over 5 boards a game off the bench, get more playing time this year.
Montana State (last NCAA: 1996) Brad Huse's Bobcats hope to build on the end of last season, when they claimed road wins over third-seeded Montana and top-seeded Weber State to make the Big Sky final, where they fell two points short of claiming a surprise NCAA bid. Montana State returns the bulk of that team, except for C Divaldo Mbunga (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg), leaving a huge void in the middle that Huse hopes a combination of 7-foot French C Michel Swita and 6-9 F Brandon Johnson (6 ppg, 3.5 rpg) can fill. If they can, the frontcourt could be among the best in the league, as 6-7 junior Bobby Howard (10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and 6-6 Danny Piepoli (7.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg) are already key contributors. The backcourt is also loaded, thanks to the presence of shooting guards Will Bynum (10.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Erik Rush (9.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and senior PG Marquis Navarre (5.7 ppg, 2.8 apg). To prepare for a conference run, the Bobcats will travel to Boise State, Memphis, Nevada, and Oregon during the early part of the season.
Portland State (last NCAA: 2009) The Vikings will try to reach the NCAAs for the third straight seaon, but they'll have to do it without two of the men most responsible for their recent success. Former head coach Ken Bone has moved onto the BCS level and Washington State, while 5-6 guard Jeremiah Dominguez (12.9 ppg) graduated. Bone's former assistant Tyler Geving will try to keep things going with a team that returns three starters: 6-1 senior G Dominic Waters (11.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg), and 6-7 Fs Phil Nelson (10.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Jamie Jones (9.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg). 6-5 F Julius Thomas, who averaged almost 7 points and over 5 boards a game coming off the bench last season is due for a bigger role, while two JC transfers will see significant time. 6-8 F Phillip Thomas, who started during his time at Idaho, is another body for an undersized frontcourt, while 5-10 guard Melvin Jones will be called on to replace Dominguez. Portland State will open their season in a tournament in Seattle, where they'll take on hosts Washington, Belmont, and Wright State. They'll also face their former coach's team in a neutral site game in Kennewick, Washington.
Montana (last NCAA: 2006) Fresh off finishing in a second-place tie, the Grizzlies should contend again, especially as last season's Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, point guard Anthony Johnson (17.6 ppg, 3 apg), should be even better as a sophomore. He'll be joined in the backcourt by Ryan Staudacher, who shot over 45 percent from three-point land while averaging nearly 8 points a game. Head coach Wayne Tinkle does have a major hole to fill in the frontcourt, thanks to the graduation of 6-9 Jordan Hasquet (11 ppg, 6 rpg). The Griz will need 6-11 junior C Brian Qvale to improve upon his 5.6 points and 5 boards a game to make up for his production. Positively, Qvale was a defensive force last season, averaging nearly 2 blocks per contest. Montana heads to Oregon and Washington during their non-conference season, while Boise State visits Missoula this season.
Weber State (last NCAA: 2007) The Wildcats stormed to a 15-1 league mark, which ultimately resulted in an NIT bid (and first round loss to San Diego State) thanks to their Big Sky semifinal loss to Cinderella Montana State. The frontcourt should be a strength for the Wildcats, thanks to the return of starters Steve Panos, a 6-8 C who averaged 9.4 points and 4.4 boards a game, and Kyle Bullinger, a 6-6 sophomore who added almost 9 points and 4.4 rebounds a contest himself, and key reserve Trevor Morris, a 6-9 junior C who scored almost 5 and grabbed nearly 4 boards a game off the bench. He may have to increase his production thanks to the departure of Davlin Davis, who scored almost 10 a game for Weber State last season. Sophomore Damian Lillard (11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg) will run the offense, and 6-4 senior Nick Hansen who averaged nearly 9 points a game in a reserve role last year, should slide into the 2 guard spot after the graduation of leading scorer Kellen McCoy (14.1 ppg). Three JC transfers, swingmen Josh Noble and Franklin Session and guard Lindsey Hughey, should see significant minutes for Randy Rahe's team. Weber hosts Utah and visits UNLV and BYU. They also face Utah State in a home-and-home. The trip to Logan will be one of the Wildcats' three games at a pre-Christmas round-robin event that also features Cal State-Fullerton and Morehead State.
Weber State is my pick to claim the Big Sky's auto bid for this season. They'll appear in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9.
To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-Big Sky team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-Big Sky Team
Player of the Year: Anthony Johnson, 6-3 G, Sr. (Montana)