As I try to forget last night's disappointing end to the men's basketball season, I am already doing what all good Bengal fans do so well --looking ahead to next year. What are the Bengals' prospects for next season, and who else will be in contention in the Big Sky Conference?
Well, as Montana State has shown us, nobody really knows how this bizarre league will evolve, and next year may be even more unpredictable than normal. There are seven teams that look, at least on the surface, to be very much in the same situation -- one or two stars returning, and a nice supporting cast coming back. How younger players develop and what newcomers emerge (like Montana's Anthony Johnson did this season) will go a long way toward separating what looks like a very crowded -- and competitive -- field. (Especially if the league elects to reduce the post-season tournament to four teams.) This is my first guess at how the Big Sky preseason poll will look, based on returning players.
1. Portland State. The Vikings lose some good players in Jeremiah Dominguez and Andre Murray, but they return all-league guard Dominic Waters, forward Phil Nelson who has star qualities, steady post players Julius Thomas and Jamie Jones, and Donotas Visockos, a 6-10, 235-pound center who transferred in from Southern Mississippi but got hurt this year. The Vikings will still be able to shoot the three, but they could be a much better post team next year, as well.
2. Montana. There will always be questions about this program as long as Wayne Tinkle is the head coach, but the Griz return Johnson, who will undoubtedly be the pre-season player of the year, as well as starters Ryan Staudacher and Jack McGillis. They also have a couple of 7-footers in Brian Qvale and Derek Selvig, and a 6-7 redshirt Mathias Ward who has generated a lot of buzz.
3. Weber State. The Wildcats lose two major contributors in POY Kellen McCoy and Daviian Davis, but they still return four talented starters in first-team all-league Damian Lillard, Kyle Bullinger, Nick Hansen and Steve Panos, plus depth off the bench in Trevor Morris and Darin Mahoney.
4. Idaho State. The Bengals lose Matt Stucki, one of their leaders, on and off the court, and Lucas Steijn, who was playing as well as any big man in the league by the end of the season. They return plenty of experience and talent in all-league Amorrow Morgan, Chron Tatum, Austin Kilpatrick, Demetrius Monroe and Donnie Carson. The only newcomer for certain is freshman three-point specialist Eric Segert. The Bengals are also hoping 6-7 athletic forward Rolando Little will get eligible, giving them another dimension up front.
The real keys for how far the Bengals can go next year, however, may be two guys who spent much of the end of the season on the bench -- Deividas Busma (above) and Kal Bay. Can Busma develop the way Steijn did at the end of his career? He certainly has the athletic ability to be a force in the Big Sky, and his 20-point, 10-rebound performance against Long Beach State provided us with a tease of what could be if he can stay out of foul trouble and continue to develop. Bay, who broke bones in his hand twice in the last year, has to stay healthy enough to show the talent that got him recruited originally to a Big 12 school. Finally, Sherrod Baldwin's development at the point guard will be another key to the Bengals' season. If he can improve as much as Amorrow Morgan did between his freshman and sophomore seasons, ISU will again have a deep and versatile line-up.
5. Northern Colorado. The Bears lose Jabril Banks, the only non-guard on the first-team all-league squad, but they return all the other key contributors to a team that really came on at the end of the year -- Will Figures, John Pena, Devon Beitzel, Mike Proctor, Taylor Montgomery and Chris Kaba.
6. Montana State. The Bobcats looked like the worst team in the six-team Big Sky tourney when the regular season ended, but then they came together to shock Montana and Weber State on their respective home courts. Was that performance real, or was it just a momentary fluke? MSU will return four key players off that team, including Bobby Howard, Will Bynum, Erik Rush and Brandon Johnson, as well as promising 6-10, 270 C Cody Anderson. They'll miss big man Divaldo Mbunga.
7. Northern Arizona. It was a nightmare year for the Axers, who blew four double-digit leads, lost their all-time assist leader to injury and dismissed two contributors for violating team rules. Still, there is some good, young talent returning, including all-league sophomore G Cameron Jones, and two of the better returning big men in the league, Shane Johannsen and Josh Lepley. Mike Adras has a long history of success in Flagstaff, I would expect the Axers to recover and compete.
8. Eastern Washington. I have to think this is the last chance for Eagles head coach Kirk Earlywine, who has been on the outside looking in at the tournament for the last three seasons. EWU returns leading scorer Benny Valentine and top rebounder Brandon Moore, but they are going to have to develop a much stronger supporting cast.
9. Sacramento State. It's so hard to avoid the cliche joke, so what the heck, here we go: the good news is the Hornets return 12 players; the bad news is....well, you know Sac State finished with two wins this past season. Center Justin Eller is the only returning player who impressed me when I saw the Hornets this year, but you never know if some of the younger players will grow into contributors.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.