Last year was the first time since 2011 that neither Montana nor Weber State won or tied for the regular season championship in the Big Sky. Instead, North Dakota took the crown and the conference tournament title to boot, making their first ever NCAA appearance. This year, we are going out on a limb and once again not picking either Montana or Weber State to win it — and instead going with what may be a surprising pick in Montana State. The Bobcats have a legitimate star player, tons of experience, lots of depth and talented newcomers — all the key ingredients to winning a conference crown.
Although the Bobcats are the pick, this could in fact be one of the more exciting conference races in the entire country. Idaho, Montana, Northern Colorado, Weber State and even Eastern Washington all have enough talent to capture the title. And with the conference tournament being on a neutral court in Reno once again, just getting that top seed will by no means guarantee an easy path to the automatic bid. Long story short — the Big Sky will once again be a ton of fun this season!
Predicted Order of Finish
- Montana State – The Bobcats were 16-16 last season, but have almost all the pieces to contend for the conference title this year, including experience (all five starters back), a star player (Tyler Hall averaged over 23 points per game last year) and talented newcomers (transfer Konner Frey averaged over 14 points for Utah Valley). The only question is size, but they may be deep enough to make up for that.
- Idaho – The Vandals return all five starters led by Victor Sanders and one of my personal favorite players (for reasons unknown), Chad Sherwood. This team should have the depth and experience to be right there in the conference race.
- Montana – The Grizzlies have a talented group of returning guards, led by Michael Oguine, and have added several big guys. There is no reason why they won’t be right in the thick of the conference race all season long.
- Northern Colorado – The Bears return Jordan Davis (19.3 points per game) and senior Anthony Johnson (5.8 points per game two years ago before redshirting while the team was on probation last season). They also add in Arizona State transfer Andre Spight. The only question will be whether they have enough talent and depth in the frontcourt to go along with their formidable backcourt.
- Weber State – This season looks like more of a rebuilding year for the Wildcats as they begin life without Jeremy Senglin. That said, Randy Rahe’s teams are always dangerous and players like Zach Braxton and Jerrick Harding should keep them in most games.
- Eastern Washington – With Jim Hayford now coaching in Seattle, long-time assistant Shantay Legans will try to keep the Eagles at or near the top of the Big Sky standings. Although he does have to replace a pair of starters that combined to average over 31 points per game, he has a big piece back in Bogdan Bliznyuk, and an even bigger graduate transfer (literally) in 7-footer Benas Griciunas. Also keep an eye on freshman Brendan Howard this season.
- North Dakota – The Fighting Hawks had a magical season last year, winning the regular season and conference tournament titles and advancing to their first ever Big Dance. Junior guard Geno Crandall is back, but three other starters are gone and this may be a bit of a rebuild year as they get ready to enter the Summit League next season.
- Sacramento State – The Hornets have a very good inside-outside pair in Marcus Graves and Justin Strings. However, there just do not appear to be enough other pieces here to challenge for the upper division.
- Portland State – New head coach Barret Peery at least has a few solid pieces around which he can focus his team this year, though all three are seniors — Bryce Canda, Traylin Farris and (if he can stay healthy) Braxton Tucker. It will likely be a few years before he has this team moving up in the standings.
- Idaho State – Last season was painful for Bengals fans as they went from a winning season the year before to an awful 5-26. The only good news is that it will be tough to be worse than that this time around.
- Northern Arizona – The Lumberjacks lost 23 games last year and then lost their top five scorers in the offseason. This could be a very long season.
- Southern Utah – Just when the perennially woeful Thunderbirds had a beacon of hope, Randy Onwuasor decided to take his 23.6 points per game to LSU for his final season of eligibility. Todd Simon’s team may eventually begin to move up in the standings, but just avoiding the cellar may be a accomplishment this season. UPDATE: UNLV Graduate transfer Dwayne Morgan has committed to SUU and will be eligible after the first semester. He could push this team up a few spots in the standings.