College Basketball: Big Sky Preview

The Big Sky Conference has had some of the bigger stars in mid to low major college basketball over the last few seasons. The obvious example is Damian Lillard, who went from star at Weber State to star with the Portland Trail Blazers, but just last year the nation’s leading scorer was none other than Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey. And even this season there will be multiple guys who should step up and turn whichever contender wins the Big Sky into a upset threat in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Chief among those stars is Montana senior Martin Breunig. Not the biggest name in the league, he nonetheless had a very efficient season for the conference champions. The Germany native shot 60.7 percent on the season from two, had an impressive 20.2 percent defensive rebounding rate, and was fourth in the Big Sky in percentage of his team’s shots taken. He had 23 points and 17 rebounds in Montana’s conference title game loss to Eastern Washington, and also 16 points (on 7-8 shooting) against a very good Boise State team last November.

Next is Eastern Washington senior Venky Jois, who, despite being overshadowed by Tyler Harvey, managed to be the second best shot blocker in the conference and a top 100 shot blocker nationally, all while shooting 60.5 percent on twos. His usage rate was actually a bit higher than Harvey’s (highlighting how good Harvey was) so I’m not as concerned about his efficiency numbers falling off as I was about some other guys who need to take big steps forward next season.

Last but not least is Weber State senior Joel Bolomboy. Bolomboy, a native of Russia, is already Weber State’s career blocked shots leader and the senior to be was one of the better rebounders in the country last season, ranking 48th in offensive rebounding and 56th in defensive rebounding. He shot just 47 percent on 2-pointers, but it is worth noting the 6-9 forward made 36.6 percent of his 41 3-point attempts.

As for which team will take home the crown, last year’s regular season champion Grizzlies look like the favorites again. Montana ranked 28th nationally in effective field goal percentage last season and returns most of the players responsible for that lofty ranking. The Grizzlies will be pushed again by Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona, and Sacramento State, who finished second and tied for third respectively. Both Northern Arizona and Sacramento State rely heavily on veterans, and heavily on a team based attack rather than one built on star play. The Hornets finished within striking distance of Eastern Washington for the best offense in the league, while Northern Arizona was the only team other than Montana who had a respectable defense last season. Of the two, the Hornets figure to take the bigger step back: Sacramento State finished fourth nationally in 3-point percentage, but its two biggest marksmen (Mikh McKinney, 42 percent and Dylan Garrity, 41 percent) are gone. Each took more threes than the rest of the team combined, so the Hornets will have to take a big step forward defensively to keep up with the league’s best.

I will only break the fourth wall once during these previews, and only be a homer once during these previews, and it is right here. The sleeper team in the league might be my alma mater, North Dakota. Formerly known as the Fighting Sioux, North Dakota made the conference title game two years ago before struggling with a young group last season. However, a 4-0 European trip coupled with expected big steps forward from some young guys could give North Dakota a boost and maybe propel them into the latter stages of the conference tournament. Junior point guard Quinton Hooker was one of the best point guards in the league despite not having a lot of talent around him, and redshirt freshman Geno Crandall has been talked about as the team’s best player. North Dakota will also welcome in Adam McDermott, cousin of Doug, as a freshman, and the staff is reportedly high on Cortez Seales, who had offers from both MAC and Sun Belt teams. North Dakota is thin up front, but Carson Shanks showed promise as a freshman and could give North Dakota the interior defender they need to compete in the Big Sky.

The champion of the league will be at a disadvantage compared to previous seasons: the conference tournament is moving to Reno rather than being hosted at the league champion, which will hurt the atmosphere and likely remove a lot of the advantage that comes from winning the league. From a money standpoint it is probably a positive, as the Big Sky is incredibly spread out and last minute flights to places like Missoula aren’t exactly cheap, but from a competitive standpoint it makes it less likely that the league’s best team will make the NCAA tournament, decreasing the chances of an upset.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Montana

2. Northern Arizona

3. Eastern Washington

4. Weber State

5. Southern Utah

6. North Dakota

7. Sacramento State

8. Northern Colorado

9. Idaho

10. Portland State

11. Idaho State

12. Montana State

All Conference Team

1. Venky Jois, Eastern Washington

2. Martin Breunig, Montana

3. Kris Yanku, Northern Arizona

4. Quinton Hooker, North Dakota

5. Jeremy Senglin, Weber State