Player of the Year: Tyler Hall, Montana
Coach of the Year: Jeff Linder, Northern Colorado
Newcomer of the Year: Andre Adams, Southern Utah
Freshman of the Year: Bodie Hume, Northern Colorado
Key Returners: Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine, Jamar Akoh, Bobby Morehead, Sayeed Pridgett, Donoven Dorsey
Key Losses: Fabijan Krslovic
Key Newcomers: Eddy Egun, Mack Anderson, Ben Carter, Freddy Brown
Outlook: Everyone remembers Michigan’s march to the national championship game – Jordan Poole’s absurd scissor-kick buzzer-beater and the 2nd half comeback against Loyola Chicago both come to mind – but most forget that the Wolverines were up against it just 20 minutes in to their 1st round matchup. Despite garnering little to no buzz as a likely 1st round upset candidate entering the opening weekend, Montana got everyone’s attention when they entered the locker room at the halfway mark neck-and-neck with the eventual national title runner-up.
The Griz’ offense would eventually fizzle out in the 2nd half, but the way they battled Michigan is a perfect primer for wants in-store for 2019. Led by a two-pronged guard attack in Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, Travis DeCuire will once again go to battle in the Big Sky with the best backcourt in the league. The dynamic duo of Rorie and Oguine is a special pairing, not just because of their individual talent, but because of how well they complement each other on both ends of the floor.
Rorie and Oguine are both thoroughbred scorers who do most of their damage inside the arc – this is a stark contrast to the rest of the Big Sky, a conference where the 3-point shot has always been king. While Rorie’s bread-and-butter is a smooth stop-and-pop pull-up, Oguine is much less content settling in the midrange – he’s looking to get all the way to the rim, where he either finishes over inferior athletes or draws contact to rack up bonus points at the charity stripe. While their scoring styles differ slightly, they’re both excellent at securing the basketball when they attack 1-on-1, a major reason why the Griz rarely waste possessions offensively.
On the other end, Rorie and Oguine spearhead the Griz’ swarming perimeter defensive front that puts opposing ball handlers in a constant state of discomfort. Oguine’s Defensive Player of the Year accolade speaks for itself, and with another defensive stalwart in former Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey set to finally take the floor, an already elite defensive unit could vault to another level this season.
Given what’s transpired at Washington with Mike Hopkins taking over for Lorenzo Romar, Dorsey would be another clone in a deep collection of wings that makes the Huskies’ 2-3 zone so disruptive. For Montana, Dorsey, along with Sayeed Pridgett and Bobby Morehead, will be menaces as a multi-positional defenders in a more traditional man-to-man defensive scheme. The length of Dorsey, Pridgett and Morehead at their respective positions should help on the glass as well.
When you factor in the Griz’ interior hub Jamar Akoh, it’s unlikely Montana gets bashed on the boards in 2019. The Griz were spoiled from 2014-2016 with Martin Breunig’s brilliant work inside, prompting DeCuire to hit the transfer market in search of a viable replacement – with Akoh, he may have got more than he bargained for. The former Cal St. Fullerton import shored up the rebounding gaps, and promptly asserted himself as a complementary low-post offensive threat to Rorie and Oguine on the perimeter – per Synergy, Akoh scored in the 83rd percentile on post-up efficiency.
Bottom Line: If you’re searching for a mid-major with the chops to knock off a Goliath in the tournament next March, look no further than Missoula, Montana:
Trustworthy, veteran guards: check
High-major transfer talent: check
Power-6 caliber size and length: check
This team is the total package and balanced in every possible aspect – even in a time when the Big Sky is experiencing a Renaissance, the Griz are still head and shoulders above the next closest contender.
2. Weber State
Key Returners: Jerrick Harding, Zach Braxton, Brekkott Chapman, Michael Kozak
Key Losses: Ryan Richardson, Dusty Baker
Key Newcomers: Dima Zdor, Donatas Kupsas, Tim Fuller, Spencer Johnson, Israel Barnes, Caleb Nero
Outlook: Somewhere just outside of Odgen, Utah, we can only assume there’s a factory operated by Randy Rahe that produces batches upon batches of dead-eye shooters. Going all the way back to the Damian Lillard days at Weber, there’s always been a line of succession to the next great scoring marksmen – from Lillard to Davion Berry to Jeremy Senglin to, now, Jerrick Harding.
The silky smooth Lefty played in the shadows of Senglin as a freshman, but snatched the keys to the offense last year and never looked back. Much the gravitational pull Steph Curry has in the NBA, Big Sky opponents live in constant in fear of Harding heating up from deep, which forces defenders to pick-up well beyond the 3-point line. This is where Harding will exploit an overextended defense, using his unpredictability and change of pace as a driver to knife through open seams in the middle of the floor.
With Dusty Baker graduating, these opportunities for Harding to ignite the offense off-the-dribble will rise, which begs the question – who will be the beneficiaries of the attention Harding draws as a creator?
Most of Rahe’s best teams at Weber have featured a bevy of high-volume, spot-up shooters to make defenses pay when they over help on dynamic creators like Harding. Last year, the long-range accuracy of Ryan Richardson and Dusty Baker gave Harding had plenty of room to operate. This year, the projected supporting backcourt cast, Cody John and Ricky Nelson, carry a slightly different DNA than Baker and Richardson. John does emulate Baker’s pass-first mentality, but he’s not nearly the shooting threat that Baker is. Nelson was a model of efficiency in his first collegiate season – a 130 O-Rating is virtually unheard of for a freshman guard – but it’s unlikely he knocks down 87 3s at a 44% rate like Richardson. The point is, the primary perimeter support for Harding is solid, but they’re not going to set the nets on fire like many other 3-point snipers who have come before them.
However, that may be a moot point with a pair of inverted bigs likely to see significant time this year. Brekkott Chapman and Michal Kozak both struggled to hit outside shots consistently last year, but carry reputations as plus shooters and should pair nicely with the bruising Zack Braxton inside. The Braxton / Harding inside-out tandem bears a striking resemblance to the Joel Bolomboy / Jeremy Senglin duo. Braxton is more grounded than Bolomby, but his bruising, burly frame reminds me a bit of Reid Travis from Kentucky with his invaluable combination of strength and touch in the post.
Bottom Line: As high as I am on Montana, Weber carries many of the same traits as their top competitor. Both can beat you in a variety of ways, whether it be with game-breaking guard play (Rorie / Oguine for Montana; Harding for Weber), or a steady dose of low-post punches inside (Akoh for Montana; Braxton for Weber). What separates Montana is their shutdown defense, which held just opponents to 94.8 points per 100 possessions in Big Sky play last year, a whole stratosphere lower than the 2nd place Wildcats at 101.2 points per 100 possessions. Weber has the offensive firepower to trade buckets with Montana on any given night, but can’t quite match the Griz’ level of defensive dominance, which is what will ultimately separate these two Big Sky rivals over the course of the season.
3. Northern Colorado
Key Returners: Jordan Davis, Jalen Sanders, Jonah Radebaugh
Key Losses: Andre Spight, Tanner Morgan
Key Newcomers: Bodie Hume, Sam Mastern, Cole Bergan, Kur Jockuch, Roy Grigsby, Trent Harris, Tre’Shon Smoots
Outlook: Jeff Linder couldn’t have drawn up his rebuilding plan any better. In year 1, he took the expected lumps during a throwaway season under the shackles of a postseason ban – but in year 2, oh how the seas parted in year 2…
After slowly easing into his preferred track-meet style of offense back in 2016-17, Linder took the restrictor plates off last season. With a dynamite backcourt of Andre Spight, Jordan Davis, Jalen Sanders, andJonah Radebaugh sharing the wheel, the Bears played at the 2nd fastest tempo in the Big Sky. Spight’s record breaking scoring outburst set the pace last year, but Jordan Davis is well groomed to take command without Spight in 2019. As a sophomore, Davis was the unquestioned director of the offense and had the ball in his hands as often as any guard in the Big Sky. Last season, he was asked to delegate some of that responsibility to Spight, but it now appears that Linder will hand the point guard job back to Davis on a full-time basis.
With Davis sliding back over to point, he’ll be the fulcrum of a pick-n-roll dominant offense that always puts opposing defenders on their heels. Last season, Linder focused on getting Spight or Davis the ball in positions where they could generate downhill momentum off dribble penetration and force the defense to collapse around them. Without Spight, Davis will initiate this action a ton this year, which should feed into open kick-outs for Radebaugh and a multitude of offensive counters for Sanders.
The underappreciated element of this band of guards is how well they defend the 3-point line – as I mentioned above, in a league where long range shooting is in high-supply, winning the battle of the 3-point line is critical. Just 24% of all opposing field goal attempts came from behind the stripe last year, the lowest rate of any team in the Big Sky by a country mile. What made this feat impressive was how Linder was able to preach perimeter aggressiveness without sacrificing much of anything on the defensive glass inside. In fact, UNC posted the best defensive rebounding rate in the conference last year, an area that must continue be a point of emphasis with the departure of Tanner Morgan this summer.
With the top rebounder off the best rebounding unit in the conference no longer around, Linder will need Kai Edwards to regain his 2017 stride. Edwards was a part-time starter two years ago and posted astronomically high rebounding rates on both ends. Matej Drgon is another option up front, but the anticipation around freshman Bodie Hume may be too tempting for Linder to keep him out of the lineup. Hume is reportedly a late developer who many big name programs tried to poach away from Linder’s hands late in the recruiting process.
Bottom Line: Hey Jeff Linder – just as Leonardo DiCaprio said to Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained – you had my curiosity… now you have my attention…
In just two years, Linder has course corrected a basketball program that was spiraling out of control under the direction of BJ Hill. Not only has he cleaned up the program, but has it firing on all cylinders and on the cusp of competing for a Big Sky championship with an array of top-tier guards. Collectively, the ‘Triple-J backcourt’ (Jordan, Jalen and Jonah – I made that up FWIW) and Linder’s offensive system form a perfect marriage – one that will be nipping at Weber State’s heels in the upper-echelon of the 2019 Big Sky standings.
4. Eastern Washington
Key Returners: Mason Peatling, Jack Perry, Cody Benzel, Ty Gibson, Jacob Davison
Key Losses: Bogdan Bliznyuk, Sir Washington
Key Newcomers: Steven Beo (BYU transfer), Elijah Jackson, Austin Fadal, Mike Meadows
Outlook: Eastern Washington is yet another example of recent coaching changes gone well in the Big Sky. Shantay Legans replaced Jim Hayford at the helm last year and shattered the preseason expectations bestowed on him by many national media outlets. Even with Bogdan Bliznyuk leading the way – who now holds claim to the all-time Big Sky scoring record – most felt EWU would be competitive, but dismissed the idea of the Eagles keeping pace with Montana and other league powers without the services of Jacob Wiley and Felix Von Hofe.
In the midst of the ‘pace and space’ basketball revolution, Legans only subscribes to half of that slogan – hold the ‘pace’ please!
In each of the past two seasons – one of which was under the oversight of Legans’ former tutor Jim Hayford – the Eagles have played at the slowest tempo in the Big Sky, evidenced by the lowest average offensive possession length in the conference. Legans deserves credit for recognizing the athletic constraints of his roster, which was further amplified by some untimely injuries last year (most notably Luka Vilikic). As a result, the offense completely revolved around Bliznyuk, forcing defenses to pick between one of two evils: either shade towards / double Bliznyuk, and leave shooters open on the perimeter or stay at home on shooters and watch Bliznyuk run circles around his defender 1-on-1.
For the most part, Legans stayed true to his old boss’ roots on offense, but he did shake things up a bit on the defensive end. After playing almost exclusively man-to-man in 2016-17, Legans threw some curve balls at Big Sky opponents last year by going zone on 30% of all defensive possessions. I’m curious how much the aforementioned injuries and personnel limitations came into play here, but whatever the driving factors were, it worked. Despite losing an elite shot-blocker and defensive glass cleaner in Wiley, the Eagles finished with a top-3 defense in the league for the 2nd year in a row.
Mason Peatling was the unsung defensive catalyst, an emerging forward that answered the bell in a big way last season. The 6’8 Peatling has a somewhat lanky frame, but the inner Australian shines through in his never-ending motor and perpetual pursuit of the ball. As the advanced on / off numbers below indicate, Peatling was an enormous factor in the Eagles stout defense last year:
While Peatling hit his stride later in the season, his fellow Aussie frontcourt mate Jesse Hunt had a foot injury keep him out the lineup for most of Big Sky action – he may take the league by surprise after teasing EWU fans with a streak of five straight double digit scoring outings at the end of December.
Bottom Line: Since Venky Jois and Tyler Harvey’s junior season in 2014-15, the Eagles have been a fixture at the top of the Big Sky leaderboard. EWU always seems to have an abundance of elite shooters and shot-makers waiting in the pipeline, which eases my concerns of what the offense will look like in a post Bliznyuk world. The Harvey and Jois led squads were seamlessly followed by the Bliznyuk and Wiley cavalry of sharpshooters, who now hand the baton off to Jack Perry, Cody Benzel, Ty Gibson and Jacob Davison – Legans has raved about Davison’s upside this offseason – to set the nets on fire from long distance.
My lone worry with this team is shot creation. Setting up open shooters will have to become a collaborative effort this year with a rejuvenated Luka Vilikic and a wiser Jack Perry expected to expand their roles offensively. If that pans out as well as Legan expects it too, the Eagles should retain a top-5 spot in the Big Sky standings with an upside as high as 2nd.
5. Montana State
Key Returners: Tyler Hall, Harald Frey, Keljin Blevins, Sam Neumann
Key Losses: Joe Mvuezolo, Devonte Klines
Key Newcomers: Usman Haruna (East Carolina transfer), Russell Daniels, Ladan Ricketts, Zeke Quinlan, Jared Martin, Quentin Guliford, Maximilian Schuecker
Outlook: On January 6th, Montana State sat atop the Big Sky leaderboard with a flawless 4-0 league record. Head coach Brian Fish had his eyes set on pulling away from the 11-team field after notching a solid double-digit win over Northern Colorado, along with a pair of victories over the always pesky Southern Utah and North Dakota…
8 weeks and 13 losses later, Fish was left searching for answers as to how a former 1st place team could only muster two wins in just as many months to close out the season.
So, what exactly went wrong? Many are quick to point the finger at Tyler Hall’s ailing right ankle, but that doesn’t excuse the complete abandonment of trying to stop people from scoring on the other end.
After checking in with the Big Sky’s 7thranked defense two years ago, things went from bad to worse last season – the Bobcats’ surrendered 1.13 points per possession in conference play (dead last in the Big Sky) thanks to a complete and utter lack of resistance inside. Standing 6’7 a piece, Sam Neumann and Keljin Blevins are both solid as complementary wing / forward defenders, but they lack the verticality needed to be a defensive centerpiece in the paint. Big Sky foes had a field day inside against the undermanned front line – per hoop-math.com, opponents converted 67% of their shots at the rim last season, the 15thhighest percentage in the country. Tried to cover up the length scarcity with zone (26%, up from 15% the year prior)
Neumann and Blevins need not worry. Help is on the way in the form of Usman Haruna, an imposing 6’11 transfer from East Carolina. Haruna had trouble carving out a consistent role at his previous stop, but his size and production on the JUCO circuit a couple years ago project him as a potential permanent stopgap in the middle.
Not to harp on the defense, but tightening up the screws on that side of the ball will lay a foundation for a big ‘ol bounce back for the Bobcats in 2019. Tyler Hall, one of the Big Sky’s all-time greats is back for his senior farewell tour – one he hopes isn’t derailed by lingering pain in his right ankle. Hall continuously deflected the pain he was in, but the reluctance to attack the rim, coupled with an unforeseen dip in his shooting percentages, were both clear indicators that something wasn’t right. With a sharp floor general in Harold Frey back to command the offense – a full-time starter at point for the past two seasons – Hall will be in a favorable position to regain his impeccable sophomore year form with Frey setting him up.
And in case you missed how special that 2016-17 season was, the following excerpt from Sports Illustrated sums it up well:
[Hall] was one of only eight players since 2009-10 who’s posted an Offensive Rating of at least 125 on 28% usage or higher over 500 or more minutes in a single season, according to sports-reference.com. One of the others is a Western Conference superstar who plied his trade in the same conference as Hall, the Big Sky: Weber State product Damian Lillard (2011-12).
When at his best – in other words, fully healthy – Hall’s an elite shooter off-the-bounce, armed with one of the country’s best pull-up middle games – just refer to his nation-leading 1.14 points per possession scoring efficiency on shots off-the-dribble back in 2016-17 (per Synergy).
Bottom Line: While a lot of the offseason chatter gravitates toward Hall, it’s both unfair and inaccurate to assign last year’s letdown to his bum ankle and somewhat disappointing season – again, relative to the monstrous expectations he created for himself after a close to perfect sophomore campaign.
NBA-caliber talents at the guard spot are like precious medals in a league like the Big Sky. With Hall back and [presumably] healthy, along with some interior size and supplementary shooting on the way (Laden Ricketts is the one to watch here), the Bobcats should wipe away the memories from last season’s late collapse.
6. Southern Utah
Key Returners: Dwayne Morgan, Dre Marin, Brandon Better
Key Losses: Jadon Cohee, James McGee, Jamal Aytes
Key Newcomers: Andrew Adams (Arizona State transfer), Cameron Oluyitan (Boise State transfer), Jason Richardson (Cal State Northridge transfer), Dato Apkhazava
Outlook: As expected, Todd Simon is rolling up his sleeves and going to work on the recruiting trail with the intent of injecting some much needed talent to a basketball program that hasn’t sniffed success in the entirety of it’s existence. Last year was Simon’s 2nd season in Cedar City and a revamped roster pushed the Thunderbirds up ~80 spots in kenpom.com’s overall rankings – it didn’t necessarily translate to the win column, but with the talent base Simon is laying down via the transfer market, the future is looking brighter and brighter for the T-Birds.
After an ungodly poor defensive showing in 2016-17, Simon brought in some reinforcements to help stop the bleeding. None were as critical as Jamal Aytes (BYU) and Dwayne Morgan (UNLV), who teamed up as the main frontline pairing once Morgan became eligible 2nd semester. Aytes’ short stint at SUU is now over, but Morgan’s shot-blocking and glass cleaning prowess are back to solidify a defensive unit that was leaps and bounds more proficient than Simon’s first year calling the shots.
Unfortunately, in a see-saw like effect, the T-Birds’ emphasis on locking down defensively coincided with the offense coming to a screeching halt last season. SUU wasn’t the Golden State Warriors in 2016-17, but clearly the loss of high-major talent Randy Onwuasor stripped the Thunderbirds of a prolific scoring and playmaking threat. Simon tried to replenish his production with a makeshift group of newcomers, including the aforementioned Morgan and Aytes, along with Jadon Cohee (Seattle U), Brandon Better (JUCO) and Jamil Jackson (JUCO).
Unfortunately, the T-Birds looked out of sync without the ultra-high usage Onwuasor carrying the offensive load. To remedy the scoring deficiencies, Simon went back to the high-major transfer well and scooped up Andre Adams (formerly of Arizona State) to stuff the scoring column this season. Simon is hoping Adams can be the 2nd coming of Andre Spight – another ASU transfer who tore up the Big Sky last year – though, I’m sure he’d settle for Adams simply staying healthy given how much time he’s spent on the operating table thus far in his collegiate career. Adams has already suffered two ACL tears on same leg, which puts a major asterisk next his predicted impact – if he can stay on the court, this might be the year Southern Utah finally gets over the .500 hump.
Don’t snooze on yet another “down transfer” in 6’7 Cameron Oluyitan, who comes in from Boise State as a multi-skilled wing. With Adams and Morgan as the odds on favorites to gobble up most of the minutes at the 4 and 5, while Brandon Better, Dre Marin (rising sophomore stud), Jason Richardson (big time bucket getter from Cal St. Northridge) share the two backcourt spots, Oluyitan looks like the missing piece at the 3. If both Oluyitan and Adams perform to their expectations (and stay healthy), look for both names to be engraved on the All-Newcomer list next March.
Bottom Line: Todd Simon has delivered on what he promised – that is, the ability to stockpile top-flight talent. He’s not all the way there yet, but as it stands today, Southern Utah’s roster currently has five high to mid major transfers either eligible immediately or expected to suit up in 2019-20.
Dwayne Morgan – UNLV
Andre Adams – Arizona State
Cameron Oluyitan – Boise State
Jakolby Long – Iowa State (eligible in 2019-20)
Daouda “David” N’Diaye - Illinois State (eligible in 2019-20)
Few teams in the Big Sky have a talent pool that stacks up one-to-one with that list. With that said, Morgan has yet to live up to his early hype, and both Adams and Oluyitan have minimal track records from their prior stops. You could argue the T-Birds have one of the highest outcome potentials in the league, but the more likely median outcome falls somewhere closer to the pack.
7. Sacramento State
Key Returners: Marcus Graves, Izayah Mauriohooho-le'afa, Jeff Wu, Joshua Patton, Bryce Fowler, Jordan Tolbert
Key Losses: Justin Strings
Key Newcomers: Osi Nwachukwu, Elijah McCullough, James Bridges
Outlook: Brian Katz has seen just about everything during his decade long tenure as the head honcho in Sacramento. That type of longevity is a rarity in the 2018 college basketball environment, where fans and administrations too often exhibit the patience of a young child with new coaching hires. Patience is indeed a virtue, and had Sacramento State not been willing to wait four years to see results, they never would’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel. From 2009 to 2015, Katz improved his conference win total in every single year, which reached an apex of 13 Big Sky victories in the 2014-15 campaign.
But that magic appears to have fizzled away in recent years as Katz and the Hornets have been stuck in the middle of the Big Sky mosh pit, finishing at or below .500 in three consecutive seasons. Last year was the low point of this recent skid, but Katz will welcome back four of five starters with open arms, along with his former floor general Marcus Graves, who missed all of last season with a herniated disc (and who I likely snubbed from the All-Conference team above).
With Graves set to return at full strength, everyone else – including Graves’ nominal substitutes last year, Izayah Mauriohooho-le'afa and Jordan Tolbert – will have to adjust their roles accordingly. This should be music to the ears of Mauriohooho-le'afa and Tolbert, who knocked down a combined 40% of their triples last season on over 200 attempts. Tolbert is the ultimate microwave off-the-bench guy, a slippery jitterbug at 5’9 who’s a chore to corral in space. Expect him to retain his super-sub status with incumbent full-time starter Jeff Wu back after missing the final seven games of the season, along with Kevin Hicks, who effectively replaced Wu in the top-5 late in the year.
Unlike his sharpshooting perimeter running mates, Graves’ will need to fix his broken jumper after making an abysmal 11% of his 55 tries from behind the arc as a junior. It helped that the Hornets simply didn’t take that many 3s two years ago with Justin Strings as the epicenter of the offense, which allowed Graves to hide this glaring deficiency at times.
Strings was a prototypical hybrid “tweener” at 6’7 220 pounds with an enviable combination of gifted physical tools and immense skill. On paper, his counting stats would lead you to think his departure is a crushing blow for a Hornets team that tallied just 4 wins in conference all season. However, I’d argue he was almost tooversatile and never quite figured out what he was offensively. If you only watched his highlights, you’d question why he wasn’t a sure-fire NBA-caliber talent with his ability to score in so many ways – but the devil lies in the statistical details, and his poor shooting percentages both inside and outside the arc deflated his overall efficiency and effectiveness as the go-to-guy offensively.
Bottom Line: Citing Strings’ gaudy production is a convenient reason to be bearish on the Hornets this year, but I am fully sold on the Ewing Theory effect (addition by subtraction) in this circumstance. Katz has another underappreciated returner forward spot in Joshua Patton, who, in my opinion, projects to be a better fit for what this team needs. Patton doesn’t have Strings’ scoring repertoire, but he’s a far better shot-blocker and more consistent finisher inside. A beefy frontcourt pairing of Patton and Calvin Martin should out muscle most Big Sky interior units on the glass and fend off anything coming at the rim off penetration.
Ultimately, Montana is the only team in the Big Sky with a higher percentage of minutes returning from last year (per Barttorvik.com). Thus, with many middle of the road teams last year likely to fall back this season, a jump from 4-14 to near .500 doesn’t seem all that ludicrous for Katz and the Hornets.
8. Portland State
Key Returners: Holland Woods, Michael Mayhew, Deante Strickland, Jamie Orme, Derek Brown
Key Losses: Deontae North, Ryan Edwards, Bryce Canda, Brandon Hollins
Key Newcomers: Rashaad Goolsby, Robert McCoy, Michael Nuga, Sal Nuhu, Juwan Williams, Kyle Greeley, Trey Wood, Filip Fullerton
Outlook: After spending two nearly decades as a journeyman assistant, Barret Peery finally got his break last summer when Portland State offered him a promotion at his former employer (Peery was an Vikings assistant way back in 2002-03). Forget about the whole rocky transition period most new head coaches endure. Peery hit the ground running with the immediate installment of a frantic, end-to-end brand of basketball that makes Bob Huggins’ patented ‘Press Virginia’ look timid.
Portland State’s admirable showing during Phil Knight’s birth day celebration last Thanksgiving cemented them as the undisputed darlings of the PK80. The Vikings’ relentless and fearless (albeit, often erratic) approach on both sides of the ball captivated the Moda Center crowd and had a pair of blue-bloods (Duke and Butler) shaking in their boots.
Even with the laundry list of injuries hampered the Vikings’ depth last year, Peery still full court pressed on 41% of all defensive possessions, the highest rate in the country. So, with a 6thplace Big Sky finish already listed on Peery’s head coaching resume – a finish that shattered most pundit’s preseason expectations – can he keep his foot on the gas in year 2?
The jury is still out, but the extensive roster overhaul this summer means Peery and his staff will have to pull all the right strings to exceed expectations again in 2019. With Peery’s ties to some of the top JUCO programs in the country, it comes as no surprise that most of the new faces hail from the community college talent oasis.
The forward depth chart was in dire need of attention, so Peery brought in Robert McCoy, an athletic, mobile forward who should thrive in the press. Incumbent wing / forward blend Jamie Orme and previously injured 6’9 Brendan Rumel are two returners with the best chance to infiltrate the primary rotation up front with big Ryan Edwards and Brandon Hollins gone.
Make no mistake about – the perimeter crew makes this team tick, which is spearheaded by Holland Woods, Deante Strickland, Michael Mayhew and Derek Brown. Deontae North controlled the ball quite frequently last season, but Woods now gets his moment as the sun with untapped freedom to run the offense. Woods is a lightning quick playmaker and fearless driver, while his bigger counterparts are money shooters at their respective off guard spots.
With so much depth and experience at the guard spot – Rashaad Goolsby, Michael Nuga, Juwan Williams all come from the JUCO ranks – it’ll be tough sledding for Kyle Greeley to crack the rotation. Greeley proved he could get buckets in bunches during his final year in high school after averaging just 2 points shy of 30 points a game for the entire season.
Bottom Line: Trying to pinpoint which of the JUCO guys will pop is a maddening exercise, but all reports indicate there is some serious upside in this collection of experienced newcomers. If this group can assimilate into Peery’s press-happy, hyper-fast system, the Vikings won’t be dragged down by the mass roster exodus this summer. Holland ‘Boo Boo’ Woods is a star in the making and he has enough shooting support around him on the perimeter to light up the scoreboard this year – getting consistent stops will be the key in 2019.
9. Idaho State
Key Returners: Jared Stutzman, Brandon Boyd, Balint Mocsan, Gary Chivichyan
Key Losses: Geno Luzcando, Novak Topalovic
Key Newcomers: Chief Maker, Kelvin Jones, Alonzo Walker, Chidi Udengwu, Austin Smellie, Matija Ilic
Outlook: It feels like only yesterday when I first fell in love with the Ethan Telfair / Geno Luzcando Bengal backcourt. These feelings arose during the 2015-16 season when this dynamic duo catapulted Idaho State to Big Sky contender status, notching a 7-win improvement and top-4 finish.
Naturally, my heart was broken into a million pieces the very next season when everything went sideways – the Bengals tallied just six wins and found themselves in the basement of the Big Sky standings when it was all said and done, capping off a tragic conclusion to Ethan Telfair’s collegiate career.
I guess it was only fitting that last year, in a roller coaster-esque fashion, Idaho State rose from the ashes once again and clawed their way to a respectable .500 finish in Big Sky play. It was hard to come to grips with the fact that Telfair’s excessively high-usage and controversial shot-selection may have hindered the Bengals’ offensive efficiency two years ago, but might explain some of the resurgence we witnessed on that side of the ball last season.
It also helps when a diamond emerges from the rough and seizes control of the offense without hesitation. Even with the veteran Luzcando back, Brandon Boyd stepped up to the plate as the primary table setter for an Idaho State offense that posted a league leading 58% effective FG percentage in conference play. Despite standing a hair under 6’0, Boyd was an exceptional finisher from all three levels on the floor, an especially rare trait for an undersized, inexperienced lead guard – per hoop-math.com, Boyd converted a respectable 60% of his attempts at the rim, and knocked down 44% on pull-up 2-point jumpers.
Without Luzcando as a supporting ballhandler, Boyd must not taking sole ownership of spraying the rock around to three of the more accurate 3-point gunners in the Big Sky. This trio of shooters rained in 46% of their combined 300 attempts from long distance, a staggering combination of accuracy and volume – Jared Stutzman (60/117; 51%), Gary Chivichyan (33/75; 44%) and Balint Mocsan (56/134; 42%).
It’s a good thing the 3-point shooting riflemen are back this year, because, except for Blake Truman, the returning forward depth chart is currently empty. Those blank spaces must be filled in by a troop of newcomers. Head coach Bill Evans will have the microscope on Chidi Udengwu, Alonzo Walker, Chief Maker and Matija Ilic in practice and throughout the non-conference portion of the season to see who emerges as workable replacements at the 4 and 5 spots, respectively.
It’d certainly help if those dudes could get an offensive rebound every once in a while – the Bengals got crushed on the boards last year , ranking 10thin defensive rebounding rate and last in offensive rebounding rate. Without generating extra shots offensively and giving away free ones to their opponent, the Bengals were forced to shoot the lights out on any single night to make up for the discrepancy in possessions.
Evans appears to be addressing this by phasing out a zone he once swore by – the chart below shows the impact it’s had on opponents’ 3-point attempt rate and offensive rebounding rate:
It makes intuitive sense that reverting to a more traditional man-to-man defensive scheme would cut back on open looks from the outside, and this seems wise given the plethora of shooting found around the Big Sky. The rebounding figures don’t seems to be correlated with the shift in style, which leads me to believe lineup tweaks last year – that is, playing less of a 4-guard lineup and playing the longer 6’6 Stuzman at the 4 – influenced a marginal improvement. Still, there’s plenty of work to be done in this department, and it should continue to be a top of mind concern for Evans this year.
Bottom Line: There’s a lot to like about the returning perimeter gang with a proven playmaker in Boyd, neighbored by a trio of bombers in Stutzman, Chivichyan and Mocsan on the wing. If Evans opts to play that guard-heavy lineup often, he’ll be making a conscious decision to risk giving up some serious size defensively in hopes of making it up with an air assault from three on offense. After finishing 9-9 last season, the Bengals could certainly replicate that again in 2019 – the separation between their median outcome and Montana State at the top of ‘Tier 3” is minimal, so competing for a top-5 or top-6 finish feels like a reasonable goal this year for Evans.
Key Returners: Nate Sherwood, Trevon Allen
Key Losses: Victor Sanders, Perrion Callandret, Brayon Blake
Key Newcomers: Marquell Fraser (JUCO), Cameron Tyson
Outlook: No time to dwell on the past Vandals nation. The glory days of Victor Sanders and Perrion Callandret are long gone, so as Bob Seger once told us – it’s time to, ‘Turn the Page” to a new chapter.
Few guards in the Big Sky could match the combined athleticism of Sanders and Callandret, whose size and explosiveness rivaled most Power-6 conference caliber guards. They were staples of the Idaho program for four years, but neither was even the most important player on last year’s squad – that [fictitious] award would go to Brayon Blake. The former 6’7 swiss army knife had the skill diversity to play anywhere on the floor, but head coach Don Verlin often dropped him in the low and mid post areas to isolate him against either smaller or slower defenders in isolation settings. Per Synergy, only 15 teams in America played through the post more frequently, and on 62% of those possessions, the ball went through either Blake or Arkadiy Mkrtychyan.
So without Sanders, Callandret, Blake or Mkrtychyan back – not to mention Jordan Scott and Chad Sherwood – it looks like Verlin will be grasping for straws next year in terms of personnel. Nate Sherwood, a three year starter at ‘power forward’, and Tevon Allen, a serviceable reserve combo guard, are the only two names who were even on the radar of opposing scouting reports last season. Geno West and Scott Blakney are back, but they combined to score just 2 points a game, so banking on dramatic improvements from either of them feels like a stretch.
A deep, experienced roster last season prevented underclassmen from getting live reps, so three redshirt freshman who watched from the sidelines last year will now take centerstage (Losini Kamara, Jared Rodriguez and Cassius Smits-Francisco). Of that trio, Rodriguez and Smits-Francisco will need to fast-track their development, given the immediate attention needed up front after Blake, Mkrtychyan and Scott’s departures decimated the interior depth. Much like their in-state rival, Verlin will also features a healthy dose of 3-2 zone, which could mask some of the experience inside – but that schematic wrinkle alone won’t cover up the gaping holes left behind by last year’s frontline.
Bottom Line: Sherwood and Allen are in for a big bump in their per game numbers, but neither are regarded as high-level creators or shot-makers. With no returners fitting that bill, Verlin is praying Marquell Fraser and Cameron Tyson are the answers to those playmaking problems. Even with their impressive resumes, it’s unlikely they’ll match Sanders and Callandret’s game-breaking explosiveness. This should be a long year for Verlin and a Vandals fan base, who must come to terms with the fact that the NCAA tournament window has now likely closed.
11. Northern Arizona
Key Returners: Brooks DeBisschop, Chris Bowling, Isaiah Thomas, Corey Brown
Key Losses: Gino Littles, Torry Johnson, JoJo Anderson
Key Newcomers: Davon Bolton, Ted McCree, Jonathan Andre, Cameron Shelton, Keith Haymon
Outlook: Since the Big Sky expanded to 11 teams in 2012, only two teams have failed to surpass the 3-win threshold. Jack Murphy and the Lumberjacks now find themselves in “esteemed” company with the historically bad 2013-14 Southern Utah Thunderbirds after last year’s 2-16 fiasco.
While a few other Big Sky squads struggled last year because of critical injuries, the Lumberjacks can’t even use that as a valid excuse. Even getting back Torry Johnson for the entire season after missing all of the 2017 campaign didn’t move the needle, nor did a promising UTSA import in Gino Littles. Oh, did I mention point guard and NAU’s 2nd leading scorer JoJo Anderson also bolted for the exit as well? From a production standpoint, that guts this roster of the bulk of their scoring production – but given the blood red shading in the chart below, which denotes NAU’s last place overall offensive efficiency, effective FG% and turnover percentage, per kenpom.com:
Hey, snaps all around for their league best 42% FT Rate – essentially, the only semi-reliable source of offense was contingent on the referees blowing the whistle.
Murphy must now re-tool and reset in a hurry. With just 11 total conference wins to his name over the past three years, Murphy’s feet are being forced closer to the flames of the fire. Some returners will likely retain their spots in the primary rotation, while others may have to fend off some solid newcomer prospects to sustain their playing time from last season. Brooks DeBisschop and Isaiah Thomas are a formidable frontline pairing defensively and aren’t afraid to mix it up on the glass, but neither offers a consistent avenue of offense. On the perimeter, Karl Harris and Chris Bowling both stunk it up last year, so I’d suspect Murphy won’t hesitate to allocate some of their minutes to some other new faces. Carlos Hines was wildly inefficient, but at least he still has some room for growth with the sophomore year window upcoming.
To address the shooting incompetence, Davon Bolton and Ted McCree were tagged as alternatives to what the Lumberjacks trotted out last season, so look for them to have the greenest of lights from Murphy. There are a few other newcomers who could emerge, but Jonathan Andre is the one who will likely have a target on his back when Big Sky play rolls around. His numbers at Wallace State weren’t eye-popping, but he can do a little bit of everything as a multi-positional tool on both ends of the floor. The highlights below give a small taste of that versatility:
Bottom Line: We hate to address the elephant in the room, but it’s widely accepted that Jack Murphy’s job is far from secure at this juncture in his career. While he has a promising transfer waiting in the wings to lace em’ up next year (Cameron Satterwhite from Loyola) it’s unlikely that upside outweighs the negatives when the athletic department sits down to evaluate Murphy’s performance and future outlook. With the holes of this roster resembling a block of Swiss cheese, I would’ve be stunned if someone finished below the Lumberjacks in the Big Sky standings.