As I noted earlier, I spent some time on my travels to Washington last week reading the Big Sky's pre-season basketball prospectus. I also had a chat with Bengal Coach Joe O'Brien, who can barely contain his enthusiasm about the upcoming basketball season. I haven't seen any of the Bengal newcomers yet, so all of this is based on what I'm hearing from Coach O'Brien and a quick analysis of rosters, but here are my pre-season predictions for Big Sky b-ball:
Portland State: The Vikings return three starters from last year's Big Sky Conference champions, including MVP PG Jeremiah Dominguez. They lost two key contributors in Deonte Huff and Scott Morrison, but they redshirted three reportedly talented D-1 transfers: 6-7 Phil Nelson (Washington), 6-1 Dominic Waters (Hawaii), and 6-7 Jamie Jones (Portland). The Vikings were 13-1 at home last year, and right now, the road to the Big Sky title goes through the Stott Center until proven otherwise.
Montana: The Grizzlies have all-conference forward Jordan Hasquet back, along with two guards, Ryan Staudacher and Ceylon Elgin-Taylor, who played significant roles last season. Transfer G Michael Taylor was a part-time starter as a true freshman at EWU, 6-6 Jack McGillis is a highly-touted talent who transferred from Oregon State, and 7-0 foot Derek Selvig and 6-11 Brian Qvale provide size inside. And don't underestimate the value of adding ISU alum and former Southern Utah head coach Bill Evans to the staff. Evans brings experience and stability to a staff that is under a lot of heat for underperforming the last two seasons.
Idaho State: The Bengals roster certainly passes the eye test: four returning starters, including all BSC G-F Matt Stucki; veteran leadership in Stucki, Amorrow Morgan and Donnie Carson; size (6-11 Lucas Stein, 7-0 Davidas Busma and 6-8 Felix Caspari); and flexibility -- at least two good athletes available at every position. When I talked to O'Brien last week, he was excited about the potential of true freshman PG Sherrod Baldwin and the shooting ability of JC transfer G Kal Bay. I wouldn't be surprised to see both of them playing together quite a bit. I'm always leary about how quickly JC kids fit into a system and chemistry is a concern when you have so many different pieces to fit together smoothly. Hopefully the team will respond well to another typically-tough non-conference schedule so that Coach OB can get a working rotation down by conference time. Remember this: the key to winning the Big Sky is dominating the home court. The Bengals have to OWN Holt Arena in conference play if they are going to win the league title and host the first conference tournament in Pocatello since 1977.
Northern Colorado: Mentioning Jabril Banks (13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds) is a no-brainer, but I really liked the young players the Bears put on the floor last year -- Jefferson Mason and Taylor Montgomery, in particular. How good Northern Colorado will be depends a great deal, however, on continued growth in guard play. If Robert Palacios, Devon Beitzel and John Pena contribute more, I can see the Bears hosting a first-round playoff game.
Northern Arizona: Kyle Landry is gone, Mike Adras is back. While NAU will miss their outstanding big man, Adras always seems to have this team competitive. Josh Wilson, who has led the Big Sky in assists every year since he was a freshman, is finally a senior, and Zarko Comagic will likely improve his production as a senior. The Axers have a lot of role players back and Shayar Lee, a 6-5 true freshman who was considered one of the top prospects in Arizona last season, leads a group of 7 newcomers. Some of those new kids will have to emerge for the Axers to be a playoff team.
Weber State: It just feels funny picking the Wildcats this low, and maybe they will surprise, led by one of their five newcomers. But the "returnees" list doesn't excite too much. Daviin Davis and Kellen McCoy are the only two significant returners and neither averaged in double figures in scoring. Damian Lilliard, a 6-2 freshman guard, averaged 30 points a game in high school in Oakland, so he could bring some firepower to what looks like a rather pedestrian attack.
Montana State: Divaldo Mbunga provides a solid presence in the middle and Bobby Howard, who put 27 points on Boise State last year, then faded, has to be more consistent for the Bobcats to contend for a playoff spot. None of the returnees, quite frankly, excite me much, so JC forward Cameron Henderson is going to have to make an impact.
Eastern Washington: Kirk Earlywine's best recruiting effort was to convince sophomore G. Trey Gross to return to the team, after he originally left to go to a JC. Adris DeLeon, the 5-11 guard who put up 42 points against Northern Colorado last year,and Brandon Moore, a solid, 6-9 F, give the Eagles a nice base to build from, along with Gross. Benny Valentine, a 5-7 transfer from Texas Tech, could also provide some excitement at the PG, but it's hard to envision both he and DeLeon on the floor at the same time.
Sacramento State: What would a Big Sky Conference pre-season basketball poll be without the Hornets bringing up the rear? New coach Brian Katz will lean on Loren Leath, who averaged 13 points a game at guard, and Justin Eller, a 6-8 center, after losing Big Sky freshman of the year Vinnnie McGhee to transfer. The Hornets bring in five Juco transfers this year, always a gamble, but sometimes these mass infusions of talent pay off. They will have to for the Hornets to climb out of the cellar.
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