2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Big Sky ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on October 18th, 2012
- The Injury to Will Cherry – Cherry was the runaway favorite for Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, and one of the best perimeter defensive players in the country. However, he will miss the start of the year with a broken foot. The most likely scenario is that he misses the non-conference portion of the schedule and returns for conference play. However, nobody is sure if he will be 100%, and there has even been a little talk that he could redshirt if he can’t come back fully healthy this year. With Cherry, Montana is the favorite. Without him, the conference race is wide open.
- Change is Everywhere – There are two new teams in the Big Sky, as North Dakota and Southern Utah join the fray. This brings the total number of teams to 11, and with each team playing everyone else twice, everyone will be playing 20 conference games. There will also be an increase from six teams in the Big Sky Tournament to seven teams this season. Three new coaches enter the league. Changes are all around (and more on them later).
- Life Without Damian Lillard – Lillard was the best player to come out of the conference in a long-time, as he was the sixth pick in the NBA Draft and arguably the best college point guard in America last season. Now, Weber State must move on. Either Jordan Richardson or Gelaun Wheelwright will step into the starting lineup, and they have big shoes to fill. They will need multiple people to step up and perform, and they will have the personnel to do it.
- Weber State and Montana Reign Again – Heading into last year, these two teams were the media and coaches top two choices. Heading into this season, it will be more of the same. Simply put, they are the most talented and deepest teams in the conference, and they have continuity on the coaching staff. With the way they are recruiting, it won’t be a surprise if the two teams stay in the top two for a long while to come.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Weber State (17-3)
- Montana (16-4)
- Northern Colorado (13-7)
- Sacramento State (12-8)
- North Dakota (11-9)
- Montana State (10-10)
- Eastern Washington (9-11)
- Portland State (8-12)
- Northern Arizona (5-15)
- Southern Utah (5-15)
- Idaho State (4-16)
Preseason All-Conference First-Team (last season’s stats included)
- G Will Cherry (Montana) – 15.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.6 SPG – He has a chance to become the Big Sky’s all-time leader in steals, and is become known nationally for his tenacity on the defensive end. Assuming he only misses the non-conference slate, he could still be the player of the year. Offensively, his jump shot has improved every year, and he has the ability to get a mid-range jumper almost anytime he wants.
- G Kareem Jamar (Montana)* – 13.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44% 3FG – My pick for conference player of the year now that Cherry is hurt, Jamar can hurt you in a plethora of ways. He might be the Montana’s best outside shooter, post up player, passer, and rebounder. He just seems to be do everything well.
- G Scott Bamforth (Weber State) – 14.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.4 APG – He is one of the best pure shooters in the conference, and has a very quick stroke to go with it. After shooting 49% from downtown two years ago, he was back down to an earthly 40% last year. He will be asked to do a bit more with the loss of Lillard.
- F Collin Chiverton (Eastern Washington) – 13.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 41% 3FG – While battling a foot injury all year, he still scored almost 14 points per game in 22 minutes. He is fully healthy this season, and could lead the Big Sky in scoring. He is talented, as he can shoot from anywhere on the court and has good athletic ability, and has the green light to shoot at any time.
- C Kyle Tresnak (Weber State) – 10.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 54% FG – He is the best post scorer in the conference, and can play with his back to the basket, which is a bit rare in this league. He needs to get better rebounding the ball, as he had just 3.8 per game. If he improves there, he is the best big the Big Sky has to offer.
Sixth Man – Davion Berry (Weber State)– redshirted after transfer – He was a scoring machine at Division II Cal-State Monterey, and the word is that he will be a scoring machine for the Wildcats as well. He has a silky smooth shot, and enough athletic ability to score in a variety of ways.
*denotes preseason conference player of the year
Davion Berry (Weber State) – Another nugget about Berry is that in his last year at the D-II level, he led the country in free throw attempts. That’s a great sign, because it shows even if his jumper is not falling, he has a lot of ways he can score.
Montana (NCAA #14 seed) – While I like Weber State to win the conference in the regular season, I think Montana will be the best team by the end of the year, which is why I have the Grizzlies winning the conference tournament. It might take Will Cherry a bit of time to get back to full strength, but once he does, the Cherry/Jamar duo is the best in the league. They also have the best coach in the conference in Wayne Tinkle, who showed he can make adjustments and get his team better and better as the season goes along. There are definitely concerns – where are they going to get inside scoring? – but they have proven that they can win the big games.
- Weber State (NIT) – With the graduation of Damian Lillard and Kyle Bullinger, they don’t have the star power that they did last season, but they will be deeper and more balanced. They are two deep at all positions, and brought in some athletic players that will make them a difficult matchup. With just two seniors on the roster (Scott Bamforth and Frank Otis), they could be even better next season.
- Northern Colorado – Last year, they were the best three-point shooting team by percentage in the nation. However, they couldn’t stop turning the ball over, and they couldn’t stop opposing teams from scoring. They graduated just one player, and brought in Derrick Barden, who could be the best newcomer in the Big Sky. If they improve defensively and in taking care of the ball (two things that would seem to come with experience), they are good enough on paper to compete with WSU and Montana.
- Sacramento State – If you have followed the Big Sky at all over the past few years, this pick will surprise you. But they return one of the best starting lineups in the league, including Dylan Garrity, who led all freshmen in assists last season. They have some questions about their depth, and will be relying on a lot of newcomers to provide something there, but one through five, they match up well with everyone else.
- North Dakota and Southern Utah – Each joined the conference as full members this past offseason. North Dakota won the Great West each of the past two seasons, which got them some postseason basketball. Their best player is Troy Huff, who has the potential to be very good. Southern Utah struggled in their final season in the Summit League, finishing 8-10 in the regular season and losing in the second round of the conference tournament. They are not projected very high, but could surprise some people with a solid (for the Big Sky) defense.
- New Coaches – Three new coaches enter the conference this year, with Bill Evans (Idaho State), Jack Murphy (Northern Arizona), and Nick Robinson (Southern Utah). Of the three, Murphy has gotten off to a fast start in recruiting, restoring excitement to a program that was as low as you can get last season. Evans was a less splashy hire, but he has the pedigree (especially on the defensive end) to turn things around. Robinson is young, and you might remember him from his days at Stanford in the early 2000s. He spent the last few years at LSU as an assistant under Trent Johnson.
- Transfers – I have already talked a bunch about Davion Berry, who should score in bunches for Weber State. Another good newcomer is Justin Crogsile for Eastern Washington. He played a lot in two seasons at St. Joseph’s, and looks like he could be EWU’s point guard. At North Dakota, Jaron Nash came from the wreckage at Texas Tech, and should be eligible to play immediately, where he could start in the frontcourt. He would be a talent infusion in a frontcourt that really needed it. Eric Norman will be eligible immediately also at Montana State, as he was cut by Larry Brown at SMU.
- Impact Freshmen – My favorite of all the incoming players is Joel Bolomboy for Weber State, a big man with freakish athletic skills. They say he does three things – rebound, block shots, and dunk the basketball. That is a good trio of things you do. Venky Jois is a name to keep an eye on, as the Australian big man could start immediately for EWU. A final situation to watch is Northern Arizona, where guys like DeWayne Russell and Blake Hamilton have the double benefit of being very good, and entering a team that needs talent to play right away.
- Junior College Players – Derrick Barden is a guy that has gotten a lot of talk, and he could step right in for Northern Colorado. He was a third-team JUCO All-American last season, and averaged 19 and 11 at that level. Antonio Biglow’s long-awaited Big Sky debut will happen, as he will be the key for Montana State this year. Conference favorite Montana will lean heavily on Spencer Coleman, who will probably have to play both the three and four with the Grizzlies’ size shortage.
Spotlight On… Big Sky Tournament Location
One thing that seems to always be in debate among Big Sky fans is the location of the conference tournament. The conference is unique (though not alone) in that its tournament is not played at a neutral site, but rather at the home site of the regular season champion. It is also unique in that only seven teams will make the tourney, with the top seed getting a bye to the semifinals. This obviously makes things much easier for the best team in the conference to make the NCAA Tournament, which gives them the best chance to be successful. Some fans like this method of rewarding the champion, while others push for a neutral venue to make things easier for scheduling and travel purposes (last year, it wasn’t known where the tournament would be until the end of the regular season), and for potential exposure.
Personally, I like the current format. The reality for one-bid leagues is that usually they will have one team that could be capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. That is why it is imperative to do all they can to make sure the best team makes it. That is what the Big Sky does, both with the first-round bye and home-court advantage. It adds a great atmosphere as well to the championship game, which would be missing if the tournament was held in, say, Las Vegas.
With many conferences going through a transitional time in this period of realignment, the Big Sky came out stronger than ever. As mentioned, two teams have been added to the conference, with the possibility of another one (Idaho) within the next couple of seasons. All games played at Big Sky home venues can be viewed for free online, which allows everyone access to watch the teams. The other thing that is great about the conference is the entertaining style of play. While the teams don’t typically play a very fast pace, they like to shoot threes (and make them), which creates a more efficient offensive game. Even though Damian Lillard was in the league, it was a down season overall last year, but the talent level appears improved from the top to the bottom. It will be another interesting season in the Big Sky.