2012-2013 BIG SKY PREVIEW – CAN MONTANA MAKE IT 2 IN A ROW?
By Raphielle Johnson
NBE West Coast Editor
The battle at the top of the Big Sky standings last season was one of the more intriguing races in the mid-major ranks, with Montana and Weber State battling it out from start to finish. It was obvious that whichever team avoided a stumble against one of the other Big Sky teams would end up grabbing home court for the conference tournament semifinals and title game.
That ended up being Montana as the Grizzlies suffered just one loss (at Weber State) in conference play, and having the title game in Missoula had quite the impact on the outcome. Wayne Tinkle’s squad advanced to the NCAA tournament while Weber State, armed with an eventual lottery pick in Damian Lillard, had to settle for 25 wins and a berth in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
While the Wildcats have to adjust to life without Lillard, Montana returns one of the better back courts in the western United States in senior Will Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. So who has the talent needed to challenge Montana at the top of the Big Sky, if not derail their plans of a second consecutive conference title?
Could it be Weber State, which does return Scott Bamforth and Gelaun Wheelwright? B.J. Hill had a young team at Northern Colorado last season, so could the Bears work their way into the discussion with a year under their belts and an off-season trip to Australia? The middle of the conference looks as if it could provide a variety of results, and adding North Dakota (from the Great West) to the fray could make things even more muddled. Here’s one attempt to forecast the Big Sky.
2011-12: 25-7 (15-1 Big Sky); lost to Wisconsin in NCAA Round of 64
Losses of note: F Art Steward (9.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg), C Derek Selvig (9.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Wayne Tinkle’s Grizzlies have more than enough talent to repeat as Big Sky champions, but how they go about accounting for the departures of Steward and Selvig will go a long way in determining whether or not they do. The best defensive team in the conference whether you look at scoring defense (62.0 ppg allowed) or defensive efficiency (95.0 per kenpom.com), Montana limited opponents to 40.6% shooting from the field and 33.2% from beyond the arc.
But with Steward and Selvig the Griz were a mediocre rebounding team, ranking sixth in the Big Sky in rebounding margin while opponents managed to grab nearly 32% of their missed shots. It helps that Kareem Jamar is a very good rebounder for his position (5.6 rpg last season), but players such as Kevin Henderson, Eric Hutchison (limited duty last year) and junior college transfers Spencer Coleman and Marko Kovavevic will need to be contributors on the glass, especially with 6-9 forward Billy Reader leaving the program.
The back court is why Montana is the pick here and will be in just about every major publication. Few teams have the luxury of calling on a tandem as good as Jamar and Will Cherry (two-time defending Big Sky Defensive POY). Cherry also ranked third in the conference in assists while leading Montana in scoring (15.8 ppg), and Jamar is arguably the most versatile player in the conference. If those two remain healthy while getting some help from Keron DeShields, Montana has the talent needed to repeat as Big Sky champs.
2. Weber State
2011-12: 25-7 (14-2); lost to Loyola Marymount in the second round of the CIT
Losses of note: G Damian Lillard (24.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), F Kyle Bullinger (6.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Darin Mahoney (4.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
Life after Damian Lillard will certainly be interesting for Randy Rahe and company, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the departure of the 6th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft means that Weber State can’t win the Big Sky. His partner in crime on the perimeter last season was Scott Bamforth, who averaged 14.5 points per game and should have even more freedom in his senior campaign. Weber State can also call on sophomore guard Gelaun Wheelwright, who received valuable experience as a key reserve last season.
Wheelwright averaged 5.6 points per game last year, a number that will jump with more opportunities. Cal-State Monterrey Bay transfer Davion Berry should also factor into the rotation after sitting out last season, as should Jordan Richardson (4.2 ppg in 32 games, 14 starts) and transfers Wayne Bradford, Royce Williams and Abdulsamad Zaid. Obviously all of them won’t get maximum minutes but it won’t be one player that accounts for what Weber State lost with Lillard’s departure, but rather a joint effort.
Inside the Wildcats find themselves in a position similar to that of Montana as their top three rebounders have all left Ogden. Kyle Bullinger and Darin Mahoney may have been overlooked nationally but those two were key figures on the glass last season. Senior Frank Otis returns as does junior Byron Fulton, who is Weber State’s leading returning rebounder (4.3 rpg). 6-10 center Kyle Tresnak, who isn’t the greatest rebounder for his size, still started all 32 games last season and averaged a shade under ten points per game.
Offensively Weber State was the Big Sky’s best in regards to both scoring (77.3 ppg) and efficiency (107.2), but that was with one of the nation’s best players in Lillard. Will they be able to match those numbers in 2012-13? That’s definitely going to be tough, but even with that being the case the Wildcats are capable of winning the conference.
3. Northern Colorado
2011-12: 9-19 (5-11)
Loss of note: F Mike Proctor (9.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
Outside of Proctor the Bears return every key contributor of note from last year’s nine-win team, and in a fact that bodes well for 2013-14 there are no seniors on the roster. But what about this season? B.J. Hill’s team is talented enough to push the top two but it may not be enough to consider the Bears to be a true contender for the Big Sky’s automatic bid, especially if they don’t make strides defensively. Northern Colorado was the league’s worst team in regards to scoring defense, allowing an average of 75.4 points per game. And if you’re big on efficiency numbers, their defensive efficiency of 112.4 ranked 8th out of nine teams.
The good news is that Northern Colorado had an off-season trip to help matters, and their top three scorers from last season return with junior guard Tate Unruh leading the way. Unruh averaged 11.3 points per game for the Bears, who finished the season third in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency. But they need to get better when it comes to valuing the basketball, as their turnover percentage (24.9%) in league games was the Big Sky’s worst. Guard Tevin Svihovec (10.8 ppg, 2.4 apg) and forward Emmanuel Addo (9.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg) should also be factors, and one can’t ignore juniors Connor Osborne or Paul Garnica either. With a stacked junior class Northern Colorado is the team most likely to challenge Montana and Weber State atop the Big Sky.
4. Eastern Washington
2011-12: 15-17 (8-8)
Losses of note: G Cliff Colimon (16.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), F Cliff Ederaine (10.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), F Laron Griffin (8.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Tremayne Johnson (6.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
Luckily for head coach Jim Hayford he had a preseason trip to Canada (the Eagles went 6-0) at his disposal, because EWU has to replace three key starters from last season’s team. Losing three of their top four scorers will make things difficult offensively, but senior Colin Chiverton does return for his final campaign. Chiverton averaged 13.9 points per game and led EWU with 88 made three-pointers, but he’ll need to shoot better from the field as a whole (36.7% FG) as even more of the offense falls upon his shoulders. Senior guard Jeffrey Forbes wasn’t asked to do much scoring last season but that will likely change with Colimon graduating, and Saint Joseph’s transfer Justin Crosgile will also factor into the rotation.
The front court is where the biggest questions lie however, as Ederaine and Griffin combined to average just over 14 rebounds per game and Johnson was a key reserve off the bench. Oregon Martin Seiferth is eligible after sitting out last season and senior Jordan Hickert should see an increase in minutes after averaging 12.2 mpg in 32 contests as a junior. EWU also adds four newcomers in the front court, and they’ll need to contribute if the Eagles are to finish in the top half of the conference. If there’s one stat to keep an eye on for EWU it’s free throw rate, as according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers opponents finished with a rate of 59%. The Eagles can’t afford to give away that high of a number this season.
5. Sacramento State
2011-12: 10-18 (5-11)
Losses of note: F Konner Veteto (9.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Josh McCarver (5.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
The Hornets have 11 upperclassmen on this season’s roster, and three of them are the team’s leading returning scorers. Senior forward John Dickson, senior wing Joe Eberhard and senior guard Jackson Carbajal will be expected to lead the way for a team that failed to qualify for the Big Sky tournament last season. Sacramento State was a streaky team in Big Sky play, dropping its first seven conference games and then winning four in a row. But a four-game losing streak at the worst possible time sealed their fate. Brian Katz’s team has the experience needed to avoid such a situation this season, however. The interesting aspect of Sacramento State’s season is that many of their stats fell within the middle of the Big Sky pecking order, with the notable exception of turnovers.
The Hornets weren’t the best team when it came to forcing turnovers, as they ranked 7th in the Big Sky in defensive turnover percentage and 9th in steal percentage according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Sophomore guard Dylan Garrity was their leader in steals with an average of 0.9 per contest while also averaging 8.1 ppg. But the steals aren’t as big of a question as who steps in for the departed McCarver and Veteto. Junior college transfers Ryan Okwudibonye, Joey Quigley and Jordan Salley should have the opportunity to earn minutes inside. If those three can have an impact in the paint, Sacramento State should be more consistent within league play.
6. North Dakota
2011-12: 17-15 (6-4 Great West); lost to Drake in the first round of the CIT
Loss of note: F Pat Mitchell (10.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Brian Jones’ Fighting Sioux begin their inaugural campaign in the Big Sky on the heels of back-to-back postseason tournament appearances, and they’re more than capable of competing for a conference tournament berth. And with seven juniors and four seniors that’s the least fans should expect of this group, which returns four of its top five scorers from last season with three of them being perimeter players. Guards Aaron Anderson (11.0 ppg) and Jamal Webb (9.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) will start in those two spots alongside wing Troy Huff (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and interior presence Brandon Brekke (9.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg) will man the middle.
The question in the starting lineup is who slides into the role vacated by Mitchell, who was the Sioux’s third-leading scorer. Junior college transfer Ryan Salmonson is one possibility, and senior Doug Archer should have the opportunity to earn more playing time after averaging just over five minutes per game in 24 contests last season. North Dakota doesn’t have a great deal of depth inside but they do on the perimeter, as junior Josh Schuler and senior Jordan Allard will also factor into the rotation. If North Dakota can improve upon their rebounding numbers (they were second in the Great West in rebounding margin but that was a -0.6) they can turn some heads in their first season in the Big Sky.
7. Portland State
2011-12: 17-15 (10-6)
Losses of note: G Charles Odum (19.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg), F Chehales Tapscott (14.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg), C Nathan Lozeau (7.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
To say the least the Vikings have to account for the loss of three key players from last season’s 17-win squad, most notably Odum and Tapscott. The one thing to note about those two is despite leading the team in shot attempts and clearly being the focus of opposing teams, both shot better than 52% from the field. You don’t replace that level of production overnight. So who steps up? Three seniors, guards Lateef McMullan and Michael Harthun and forward Renado Parker are the most likely answers to that question with them being Portland State’s leading returning scorers from last season.
McMullan also led the team in assists with an average of 2.8 per contest, but don’t be surprised if Washington State transfer Dre Winston slides into that role in spots.
Two key newcomers for PSU will be juniors Aaron Moore and Lamont Prosser, who will need to help make up for the rebounding production lost with the departures of Tapscott and Lozeau. Portland State may have five juniors and five seniors, but head coach Tyler Geving has some big questions that need answering in 2012-13. Portland State’s offensive work allowed them to get away with some things defensively while winning ten Big Sky games last year, but with Odum and Tapscott gone they’ll need to shore things up on that end if they’re to duplicate that success.
8. Montana State
2011-12: 12-17 (7-9)
Losses of note: G Shawn Reid (10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg), F Mohamed Fall (7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg), F Tre Johnson (8.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), G Rod Singleton (7.3 ppg)
Dismissals, transfers and the NCAA ruling that Fall was out of eligibility made for a tough off-season for head coach Brad Huse, one tough enough that the program had to postpone its trip to Canada. But they did receive some good news late, as SMU transfer Eric Norman was cleared to play immediately. The 6-9 forward doesn’t have much experience but his size will help a team that desperately needs it. Seniors Xavier Blount, Christian Moon and Jamie Stewart will return to lead the way offensively, but the losses of Reid and Johnson could make things tougher for the Bobcats offensively. But while Montana State wasn’t the most efficient team offensively it was the defense that was the biggest issue.
Opponents shot 45.6% from the field last season, and with their top two shot blockers (Fall and Johnson) leaving that number could rise a bit more if the Bobcats don’t tighten things up. Juniors Antonio Biglow (who had to redshirt last season), Flavien Davis and Calen Coleman will all have the opportunity to earn playing time in their first season on the floor and truth be told they’ll have to if Montana State is to reach the conference tournament. MSU also welcomes four freshmen, and with the number of question marks this team has inside Ryan Shannon and Danny Robison will need to be competitive in the post. There’s definitely talent on this roster, but the question is whether or not the Bobcats will have all their ducks in a row come November.
9. Southern Utah
2011-12: 14-17 (8-10 Summit League)
Losses of note: G Ramell Taylor (11.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), G Ray Jones Jr. (9.9 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.0 rpg), F Matt Massey (8.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Southern Utah is the other newcomer to the Big Sky, and even with two of their top three scorers back from a season ago this could be tough sledding for new head coach Nick Robinson. He’ll need to account for the losses of Ray Jones Jr., Matt Massey and Ramell Taylor, with those three being three of Southern Utah’s top four rebounders. Jackson Stevenett, who led the Thunderbirds in both scoring and rebounding last season, returns as does fellow senior Damon Heuir. But after those two there are many holes to be filled, with junior wing Wade Collie being the only remaining player to have started a game last year and he started just four.
Junior center Jayson Cheesman will be one of the bigger players in the Big Sky in his first season at SUU and the Thunderbirds will need him to earn playing time. The same goes for senior forwards Tyson Koehler and Julian Scott, who averaged a combined 4.9 points per game in 2011-12. The question for Southern Utah inside isn’t so much size but rather productivity when you take away Stevenett. It’s a given that he’ll produce but who steps up to help out? And frankly the question is the same on the perimeter outside of Heuir. If Robinson and his staff can find some answers maybe the Thunderbirds can pull off a surprise or two, but it’s going to be tough sledding for them in year one.
10. Northern Arizona
2011-12: 5-24 (1-15)
Losses of note: G James Douglas (12.2 ppg), F Durrell Norman (9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Last season was a rough one for the Lumberjacks, who saw head coach Mike Adras dismissed early in the season and they limped to a one-win campaign in Big Sky play. Enter former Memphis assistant Jack Murphy, who while young has a great deal of experience at both Memphis and Arizona. But how will he account for the departures of Douglas and Norman, two of NAU’s top three scorers last season? The good news is that Gabe Rogers, Michael Dunn and the versatile Stallon Saldivar all returned to Flagstaff, and that should help matters for the Lumberjacks. But they’re all perimeter players, which means guys who didn’t provide much last year and newcomers will need to produce inside.
Junior center Len Springs provides size at 6-10, and the LA Trade Tech transfer will be a player they lean on for production. Junior Max Jacobson missed 12 games last year due to injury and senior Ben Olayinka averaged just 8.8 minutes per game, but both will need to raise their levels (and remain healthy) if NAU is to show any improvement. From a statistical standpoint the Lumberjacks were a “John McKay special” in that while they weren’t good offensively, they made up for it by not being good defensively either. With freshmen Blake Hamilton, Dewayne Russell and Jordyn Martin on board there should be a positive outlook on the future with Murphy in charge (and these guys could earn minutes this season too), but 2012-13 is shaping up to be a rough campaign.
11. Idaho State
2011-12: 9-21 (7-9)
Losses of note: G Kenny McGowan (14.7 ppg), G/F Chase Grabau (12.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), F Abner Moreira (7.2 rpg, 6.2 ppg)
Bill Evans takes over for the Bengals and boy does he have his work cut out for him. Losing the top two scorers from last season leaves quite the void, and with six newcomers it could be tough to get everything to mesh in the beginning. Five of those newcomers do have college experience however, as they all played at the junior college level last season. Junior guard Tomas Sanchez was a nice late addition to the Idaho State roster, as he averaged 13.4 points and 7.2 assists per game at Fresno City College last season. He’ll help the Bengals from a distribution standpoint, as they ranked 8th in the Big Sky in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio last season.
That could result in the team’s leading returning scorer, senior Melvin Morgan, getting more chances to work off the ball despite being just 5-11. Morgan averaged 12.2 points per game as a junior, and his 2.8 assists per game led the team. And despite winning seven conference games the Bengals weren’t a very good rebounding team either, as they ranked last in rebounding margin and opponents managed to grab more than 34% of their missed shots. With Moreira gone guys will need to step up, and that includes Avibakuro Preh and Neveij Walters. 7-4 Jakub Kusmieruk is Idaho State’s lone interior returnee, and he played just 10.7 minutes per game last season. Idaho State had its moments last year, but the losses of McGowan, Grabau and Moreira look to be too much to overcome in 2012-13.
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