Player of the Year: Tyler Hall, G/F, Jr., Montana St.
Coach of the Year: Don Verlin, Idaho
Newcomer of the Year: Brekkott Chapman, F, R Jr., Weber St.
Freshman of the Year: Karl Nicholas, F, Montana
Key Returners: Victor Sanders, Perrion Callandret, Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, Chad Sherwood, Nate Sherwood, Brayon Blake, Jordan Scott, Trevon Allen
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Scott Blakney, Geno West
Postseason Projection: NCAA – 15 or 16 seed
Outlook: Fact or fiction: Don Verlin (Idaho’s coach) has a twin brother, Ron Verlin, who coached Pacific from 2013-2015, until he was fired amidst a 1-7 start to his third season with the Tigers. Ron was fired in part because during that poor start, the Verlin brothers played against each other and covertly switched benches between the under-12 and under-8 minute TV timeouts in the first half. However, an attentive Pacific alumnus noticed the exchange and brought it to the administration’s attention, and that, coupled with the Tigers’ 31-42 record under Ron, led to his firing.
What do you think? Fact or fiction?
Okay, fine, everything following the first sentence is my “twin coaches” fan fiction. But still – even the first sentence is wild! There were twin brothers occupying two of the 351 D-I college basketball head coaching jobs in the entire country! Luckily for Don, he’s had far more success in Moscow than Ron did at Pacific, and this is likely the best team he’s ever had.
Watching Idaho film last year, the first thing that jumps out at me is, “why is that stud 6’5 lanky wing playing point guard?? Don’t they have someone else who can facilitate and get him the ball?” Alas, the Vandals did not – starting point guard Perrion Callandret missed the year with a knee issue, and freshman Trevon Allen wasn’t quite ready for the role, forcing all-conference star Victor Sanders to take over primary ball-handling duties. Callandret’s injury lingered somewhat into the offseason, but indicators are that he’ll be fully healthy this year. His ability to get in the lane will be a welcome addition, allowing Sanders to do what he does best – run off screens, hit shots, and attack against scrambling defenses. His impact on the offense is profound, even without someone to set the table for him:
One unexpected benefit of Callandret’s absence is that the Vandals had to find other ways to score, which led to using Arkadiy Mkrtychyan and Brayon Blake as post up threats and hubs for the offense. The Big Ark really came on down the stretch, averaging just under 13ppg over the season’s final 9 contests, and his presence helped open up looks for Chad Sherwood and Sanders on the perimeter. With another year of seasoning (and most of his time spent off the ball), Allen could also develop into a weapon from deep.
In addition to what should hopefully be a more efficient offense, the Vandals will need to make some strides in their compact, lane-clogging defense. When in man-to-man, the Idaho defense resembles a pack line, content with giving up threes in order to dominate the paint and the defensive glass. They’ll make you work late into the shot clock for a quality shot, much akin to Virginia and other pack line squads. Jordan Scott is a ferocious individual defender, a versatile 6’6 wing who can guard 1-4 (sometimes 1-5, depending on the opponent) and bother guards with his length, and Sanders is a deft reader of passing lanes, which gives the D some spice.
Verlin will mix in quite a bit of 3-2 zone, too, mainly to keep his bigs out of foul trouble. Blake, Mkrtychyan, and do-it-all glue guy Nate Sherwood (Chad’s younger but larger brother) all averaged 4.4+ fouls per 40 minutes, so keeping them on the floor is crucial. Sherwood’s impact transcends the counting stats in the box score – on a pure per possession basis, the Vandals were +0.08 last year, compared to -0.04 without him, per Hoop Lens.
Bottom Line: Verlin will be trotting out one of the most experienced teams in all of college basketball, with a rotation featuring six seniors and a redshirt junior. Geno West and Garrett Kingman are the freshmen with a chance to crack that core, but the Vandals will likely live and die with their upperclassmen. With players this talented, that should be a recipe for success.
2. Montana St.
Key Returners: Tyler Hall, Harald Frey, Sam Neumann, Devonte Klines, Zach Green
Key Losses: Quinton Everett
Key Newcomers: Konnor Frey, Keljin Blevins, Lassi Nikkarinen, Isaac Bonton
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: Ky, Matt, and I often talk about the pitfalls of previewing certain teams and falling in love with their offenses. The O-ratings are so high! They fire threes like crazy and make them at an elite rate! They spread the floor with a bunch of guards and are a nightmare to guard! Unfortunately, these teams often hit the snooze button on defense, ultimately leading to a disappointing year relative to their expectations. Montana State finished 271st in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency last year, a flaw that often undid their bountiful offense.
But at the same time…Tyler Hall and Harald Frey and Sam Neumann’s O-ratings are so high! The Bobcats fire threes like crazy and make them at an elite rate! Coach Brian Fish’s system spreads the floor with a bunch of guards, making them a nightmare to guard!
In all seriousness, that elite trio is extremely easy to swoon over. Following in the footsteps of Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey, Hall might be the best high-volume shooter in the entire country. What separates him is his ability to shoot off the dribble; over 1/3 of his 115 makes were unassisted. He’s likely an NBA player for that stroke alone, and his developing off-the-bounce skill and court vision makes him 3MW’s Preseason Player of the Year (as he should be in almost every publication, with mild apologies to Victor Sanders, Jordan Davis, and Bogdan Bliznyuk). And don’t just trust my gushing praise – look how much worse the Bobcats became with him off the floor:
To contextualize that data, think about it this way. With him on the court, they were +6 points per 100 possessions, which equals a competitive Big Sky team. Without him, they were -19 points per 100 possessions – Alabama A&M, the worst team in the entire country, was only slightly worse at -22 points per 100. He’s that important!!
His supporting cast is skilled and fits snugly into Fish’s offensive scheme. Frey is another lights out shooter who should handle the point; the rest of the team thrives off the gravity that those two have. Neumann is an efficient inside scorer who can also knock down a perimeter shot, freshman Isaac Bonton is a purebred bucket-getter, and Devonte Klines and Zach Green excel at knifing into the over-extended defense’s gaps.
And yet, there is still the issue of defense. Fish mixes in some zone in hopes of confusing offenses slightly, but they’re still often able to get any shot they want. The high volume of threes (and long rebounds) leads to transition opportunities, Montana State’s bigs fouled at a calamitous rate; every player over 6’6 committed at least 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. Opponents took more than 1 free throw for every 2 field goals attempted, and the easy points were simply too much to overcome at times. More experience should help (they were 299th in the statistical measure of it last year), as will increased depth via transfer wings Konnor Frey (Utah Valley – no relation to Harald) and Keljin Blevins (Southern Miss) plus having Joe Mvuezolo healthy for the entire year.
Bottom Line: The appeal here is simple: Hall is an NBA player in a league that rarely produces talent at that level, and the offensive abilities of his supporting cast are impressive. Fish needs to settle on a defense that will work; Konnor Frey, Blevins, and a healthy Mvuezolo give him three bigger guards that should hopefully not get roasted off the dribble quite as frequently. With the star power on this roster, I fully expect them to be in the midst of the conference race come late February.
3. Weber State
Key Returners: Zach Braxton, Jerrick Harding, Cody John, Dusty Baker, Ryan Richardson
Key Losses: Jeremy Senglin, Kyndahl Hill
Key Newcomers: Brekkott Chapman, Trevon Ary-Turner, Riley Court, Doc Nelson, Michael Kozak
Editor's note: After this writing, it was revealed that Cody John will miss the season. Richardson steps into the starting lineup, but the Wildcats' guard depth will be tested.
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: It’s a little baffling to me that Randy Rahe is still toiling at Weber State. In 11 seasons in Ogden, Rahe has won the Big Sky outright five times, made three NCAA Tournaments, and sent Damian Lillard and Joel Bolomboy to the pros, all while amassing a staggering 141-49 (74.2%) record in league play. That’s 17 more Big Sky wins than anyone else in the 54-year history of the conference. His teams play with the understanding of how basketball is currently trending (shoot an abundance of threes, don’t let the other team shoot any), consistently displaying disciplined defense and skilled offense. So why are schools like Washington St. recycling retreads like Ernie Kent? Again I say: baffling.
Luckily for Wildcat fans, Rahe has stayed the course, and although he loses some serious star power with the departure of Jeremy Senglin, he should have yet another competitive team with pieces to fit into his system. He traditionally plays a two-big system to ensure Weber dominats the defensive glass, and although Zach Braxton fits the mold of a Rahe big, his counterpart will be a new breed. Brekkott Chapman is now eligible after transferring from big brother Utah, and his shooting ability adds an entirely new dimension to the ‘Cats attack. Michal Kozak, a 6’8 freshman from the Czech Republic, is an extremely intriguing addition as well – he’s extremely skilled offensively with a smooth stroke and good footwork.
Breaking from tradition, Rahe played some four-guard lineups last year with Dusty Baker (non-terrible baseball manager edition) playing the nominal four-spot, and while those lineups exhibited excellent offense, the defense tended to struggle. Using Hoop Lens data, I looked at how the team fared with one- and two-big lineups last year (including now-departed Kyndahl Hill):
The offense with Braxton as the lone post was aces; unfortunately, opponents feasted as well, particularly in the paint and on the glass. Playing Chapman as a 6’8 stretch four with some rim protection skills potentially unlocks a lineup that combines the best of both worlds: the beautiful offensive spacing afforded by having four knockdown shooters, plus two relatively effective presences in the defensive paint.
The notable outlier from that graphic is the “Neither big on the floor” option. Five-out lineups would likely continue to be dominant on offense, but I question the sustainability of that defensive number going forward; I doubt Rahe looks to it very often, although Chapman as the lone big man could be fun.
Of course, the other key factor in Rahe’s system is the extended, run-you-off-the-line perimeter defense I alluded to above. The guard corps of Jerrick Harding, Ryan Richardson, Cody John, Baker, and freshman Trevon Ary-Turner isn’t chocked full of elite athletes, but they’ll execute the system, and they should be able to do so with added confidence in the increased depth behind them. The returners were lights-out from deep last year (aside from John), and Ary-Turner has a silky lefty stroke, so the “bombs away” tradition will continue. One last wild card is Riley Court, who spent two years on a Mormon mission.
Bottom Line: There’s little reason to doubt that Rahe will once again build a Big Sky contender in Ogden, and with a deep group of guards, a stout center in Braxton, and my Newcomer of the Year pick in Chapman, he may find his way back into the Big Dance this year. If he does, he may finally take the leap out of the Big Sky.
Key Returners: Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine, Sayeed Pridgett, Fabijan Krslovic, Bobby Moorehead
Key Losses: Walter Wright, Jack Lopez, Mario Dunn
Key Newcomers: Donaven Dorsey, Jamar Akoh, Lars Espe, Niko Bevens, Karl Nicholas, Timmy Falls
Editor's note: Donaven Dorsey will miss the season due to injury (sustained after this writing). Sayeed Pridgett likely starts again, and my bullish opinion on Karl Nicholas just got even stronger.
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: Montana is on one hell of a run of success in the Big Sky – under Larry Krystowiak, Wayne Tinkle, and now Travis DeCuire, the Grizzlies haven’t finished below .500 in league play since 2004. Considering the next best streak is Eastern Washington, who went 7-13 in 2012-13, that’s outstanding – and it won’t be ending this year.
Over the last three seasons under DeCuire, that success has stemmed from a deliberate tempo and an efficient offense predicated on multiple ball-handlers who take care of the rock and knock down shots. They’re patient and methodical, working the ball inside and out in an effort to get the best shot possible. Without a true back to the basket threat last year, though, they rarely used the post up (roughly half as much as 2015-16, per Synergy).
Unfortunately, this year’s roster doesn’t really have one, either. Fabijan Krslovic and CSU-Fullerton transfer Jamar Akoh are similar physical presences – solid rebounders and defenders – but neither has the post moves to draw defensive attention. That means that once again, the Grizz will be reliant on the creation of their guards.
Former Oregon transfer Ahmaad Rorie and hyper-efficient junior Michael Oguine will anchor the offense, and their complementary games make them a tough matchup. Rorie has a feathery shooting stroke from deep and the midrange, while Oguine’s thin 6’2, 170-lb. frame belie his aggressive, attacking game that earns him copious trips to the foul line. Rising sophomore Sayeed Pridgett is a midrange scorer, although he may be forced to the bench with the arrival of some talented newcomers.
The mix of wings/forward should allow the Grizz some defensive versatility. Donaven Dorsey, a transfer from Washington, and freshman Karl Nicholas are both high-level athletes at 6’7, and both may start right away. Nicholas is a future star in both the Big Sky and Grizzly dunk highlights, while Dorsey provides a balanced offensive game (can knock down threes). If Montana rises to the top of the league, it will be because these two guys became studs right off the bat. Their added athleticism should also help Montana continue to own the defensive glass, a DeCuire staple. The man-to-man scheme is largely conservative in nature, but Oguine will make life miserable for plenty of opposing guards this year.
Bottom Line: Montana has a wide range of outcomes, owing largely to their reliance on the high-upside newcomers. They could win the league if it all comes together, but without a true interior offensive threat, there’s some downside as well. DeCuire is an excellent coach, though, and with him, Rorie, and Oguine, the floor is still another above-.500 Big Sky season.
5. North Dakota
Key Returners: Geno Crandall, Cortez Seales, Conner Avants
Key Losses: Quinton Hooker, Drick Bernstine, Corey Baldwin
Key Newcomers: Marlon Stewart, Aanen Moody, Dale Jones, Jaqwan McCauley, Jafar Kinsey
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: In its penultimate Big Sky season, North Dakota captured its first ever NCAA Tournament bid at the Division I level, knocking off Weber State in a wild tourney final before falling to Arizona as a 15 seed. What will the Fighting Hawks (man, I’d really prefer to call them the NoDaks) do in their finale before heading to the Summit League? It all depends on how they recover from ABC television star and all-conference stud PG Quinton Hooker (man, no one is gonna get that TJ Hooker reference – why do I even know that? Am I going insane?).
Coach Brian Jones, the program’s maestro who has guided it through the D-I transition, will continue his transition onslaught. The Hawks attempted the 25th-most shots in transition last season, using a dual point guard lineup featuring Hooker and Geno Crandall pushing the ball relentlessly off both makes and misses. Crandall is a skilled scorer and creator, capable of getting to the rim or finding shooters spotting up on the wings. His new running mate in Jones’s system will be Creighton transfer Marlon Stewart, a silky shooting guard who appears to be a perfect fit to replace Hooker. He couldn’t find the court in Omaha, but he should thrive in his new surroundings. Aanen Moody, two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in North Dakota, will find immediate minutes as well, both on and off the ball; his innate scoring ability will be apparent from Day 1.
Off the ball, Cortez Seales returns as a perfect wing slasher in UND’s attack; he really excels when Crandall gets him the ball on the wing before the defense is set. Jafar Kinsey can also provide some skill in the open court, and if cautious opponents sag too far off in fear of his quick first step, he’ll happily fire away from deep (35% on a high volume in the JUCO ranks).
The team’s bigger worry is on defense, where the shot-blocking of Carson Shanks and the defensive rebounding of Drick Bernstine covered up a lot of the team’s other deficiencies. Jones will need major contributions from Josh Collins, an undersized junior, and sixth year Iowa transfer Dale Jones, whose Big Ten career was derailed by injuries. If Jones is healthy, this projection is almost certainly too low; he could be one of the conference’s best big men. Conner Avants will earn some free points on the offensive boards, but he’s no Bernstine on the defensive end.
Crandall returns as a harassing perimeter defender, using his length to make life miserable for opposing PGs, and Jones favors an extended man-to-man to take away the three. Kinsey looks like a difference-maker on this end, and fellow JUCO transfer Jaqwan McCauley could give Jones a fungible piece who can switch and guard multiple positions.
Bottom Line: Last year’s squad found an excellent balance between attacking on offense and maintaining a competent defense; it helped that the Hawks were veterans to Jones’s system (ranked 3rd in minutes continuity compared to 2015-16). This year, they’ll need to incorporate some new pieces, and without any seniors in the rotation (aside from the ageless Jones), North Dakota will be a handful for its new Summit League foes in 2018-19.
6. Eastern Washington
Key Returners: Bogdan Bliznyuk, Sir Washington, Ty Gibson, Cody Benzel, Mason Peattling
Key Losses: Jacob Wiley, Felix Von Hofe
Key Newcomers: Benas Griciunas, Tyler Kidd, Jacob Davison, Jack Perry
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: When a successful coach leaves a program, hiring an assistant can help ease the transition. The players are familiar with him (and vice versa), cutting down on possible transfers, and the continuity in system should help keep an experienced roster competitive from one year to the next. Most importantly, though, it makes my job as a previewer easier, since I don’t have to theorize how the old pieces will fit into a new system! So a big shout out to the Eastern Washington administration for turning to assistant Shantay Legans following Jim Hayford’s journey west to the big city (Seattle U).
That means a likely continuation of Hayford’s spaced, three-point-focused offense. The Eagles have had the luxury of playing through a highly-skilled big for several years now (first Venky Jois, now Bogdan Bliznyuk), and last year’s team took that to the extreme by relying on the 6’6 Bliznyuk to be the primary ball-handler. Bliznyuk is comfortable enough in that role, but he becomes a lot more deadly as an offensive fulcrum around the elbow, allowing shooters like Ty Gibson, Cody Benzel, and freshman Jack Perry to get open looks around the perimeter. The presence of paint monster Jake Wiley also helped draw attention last year, but expect a return to the three-point barrage style this time around. Freshmen Brendan Howard and Richard Polanco look like ready-made candidates to fill the “versatile forward” slot when Bliznyuk goes to the bench (and graduates at the end of the year).
For Big Bliz (it’s not a great attempt at a nickname, whatever) to play more at the elbow, though, another primary ball-handler will need to emerge. The most likely candidates are Sir Washington and Luka Vulikic, with the freshman Perry as a dark horse option. Both returners are bigger guards, and though neither showed much dynamism with the ball last season, whoever wins the job will simply need to get the ball over halfcourt and initiate the free-flowing system.
The offense will need to rack up points, because the stat indicators for defense under Hayford were as red as the Eagles’ football field (click that link for the field, see defensive ranks below):
Hayford’s squads ranked in the country’s bottom 75 in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the last 5 seasons, and turning to an assistant does not give Mr. Pomeroy’s system reason for optimism. Unless Legans opts to try something other than the conservative man-to-man system (featuring a roster lacking in athleticism, relative to most Big Sky opponents), the defense will continue to hemorrhage baskets. A small hope is Charlotte grad transfer Benas Griciunas, a 7-footer whose sheer size, along with rising sophomore Mason Peattling, gives the Eagles some hope for competent interior defense and rim protection. JUCO transfer Tyler Kidd, though small at 5’11, could make a difference as a harassing on-ball defender, as well.
Bottom Line: The presence of a stud like Bliznyuk and the system continuity with Legans give EWU hope for success despite the departures of Hayford and Wiley, but the defensive questions and a talented top half of the league keep my expectations tepid for this year. Legans sounds thrilled to be coaching in Cheney, so he should continue to build for a competitive future, even if his tenure starts off slower than he’d hope.
7. Northern Colorado
Key Returners: Jordan Davis, Anthony Johnson (redshirted), Chaz Glotta, Jonah Radebaugh, Ibrahim Sylla, Tanner Morgan (redshirted), Kai Edwards
Key Losses: DJ Miles, Jon’te Dotson
Key Newcomers: Andre Spight, Jalen Sanders, Matej Drgon
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: When I interned in Denver during the summer in 2012, I was still an infantile midmajor basketball fan, which led to my utter confusion that so many "UNC" graduates had moved out to Colorado. At first I just assumed it was because of the potential legalization of recreational marijuana, until I finally learned that graduates from Greeley had co-opted the “UNC” acronym from the Tar Heels. I’m still not a large fan of the shared acronym, but at least it’s better than “ISU,” which is shared by something like 20 different teams in Division I (I think it’s actually four - Illinois St., Idaho St., Indiana St., Iowa St.).
On the court, the Bears have a wealth of returning talent. Eight players with starting experience return, and while I’m reasonably sure that starting eight players at once would be some sort of violation, that experience should benefit a UNC squad that wasn’t able to beat any of the conference’s top half finishers. Due to a 2016-17 postseason ban, Anthony Johnson and Tanner Morgan redshirted to avoid losing their final year of eligibility to a postseason-less year. Johnson led the team in scoring in 2015-16 (including a UNC-high 37 points in a game), and along with do-it-all point guard Jordan Davis, he gives the Bears some true star power.
Davis is a dynamic creator who spent the offseason getting buckets for international basketball powerhouse Azerbaijan in the U20 European Championships. Davis’s ability to get into the lane at will keys the offense, a unique talent that second-year coach Jeff Linder has found a way to fit into his structured motion offense. Unfortunately, Davis (and the rest of the team) is extremely turnover-prone, and the Bears’ inability to knock down the myriad threes they take limited the offense’s efficiency. Wing shooters Chaz Glotta, Jonah Radebaugh, and newcomers Jalen Sanders (freshman) and Andre Spight (Arizona State transfer) will fire away, and distributing more shots to them would hopefully boost the offense.
Linder did a remarkable job of turning around the team’s defense – in the two years prior to his tenure, UNC finished 349th and 348th in KenPom’s defensive rankings, but in Linder’s first season at the helm, they jumped 132 spots to 216th. Playing a relatively packed in man-to-man, the Bears focused on limiting second shots and trying to force isolation. Big men Kai Edwards and Ibrahim Sylla were the rocks of this strategy last year, and Morgan’s return and integration into the new scheme should only help matters. Roberto Vercellino, who cracked the starting lineup late last year for a bit, and freshman Matej “Enter the Drgon” Drgon (he’s not actually called that, I made it up) provide depth.
Bottom Line: With so many returning players and a couple talented newcomers to boot, Linder’s squad has the potential to make a significant rise up the standings. As the rotation enters its second year in his motion offense, they should hopefully take better care of the ball, and the overall depth will help in a relatively talented season for the Big Sky. After not beating any of the Top 6 last year, I had a hard time pushing them into the top half, but the potential is certainly there.
8. Portland St.
Key Returners: Deontae North, Bryce Canda, Braxton Tucker, Traylin Farris, Brandon Hollins
Key Losses: De’Sean Parsons, Zach Gengler, Calaen Robinson
Key Newcomers: Deante Strickland, Devyn Wilson, Holland Woods, Ryan Edwards
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: At last we have come to it…the dazzling, storied program of Portland State, the centerpiece of the PK80 Tournament! Thousands will pour into Portland, Oregon, to see the Vikings take on a small program from North Carolina, the “Duke Blue Devils.” Okay, fine, they aren’t the star attraction – even our beloved Kenny Pomeroy is calling their matchup with Duke a “Semi-Away” game, despite the fact that Portland State is, ya know, in Portland:
Scheduling minutae aside, Portland State may actually be worth a watch this season. According to new coach Barret Peery, they’re going to play at a breakneck pace, and with some promising new pieces joining a deep stable of returners, they’ll likely go 10ish deep in the rotation.
Peery has expressed a desire to press on defense, something his predecessor, Tyler Geving, tried to incorporate last year. The team’s two peskiest perimeter defenders graduated, but Deontae North, Brandon Hollins, and JUCO newcomer Deante Strickland should force their fair share of turnovers. Hollins is a ‘tweener forward that seems like an ideal fit at the top of a 1-2-2 press or a 1-3-1 zone, should Peery choose to play more of a zone trap look.
The offense is going to be heavily reliant on transition looks, and with the lightning quick Strickland likely taking over at the point, the offense will be in high gear. Bryce Canda and freshman Holland Woods give Peery some weapons on the perimeter, and Traylin Farris profiles perfectly as a rim running big who can score efficiently inside and beat more lumbering bigs down the floor. Braxton Tucker is another superb option in that role, but his career has been ravaged by injury, and it may be risky to rely on him for more than spot minutes. JUCO transfer Jamie Orme provides some insurance if Tucker is hindered once again.
Speaking of lumbering bigs, Gonzaga grad transfer Ryan Edwards is an extremely tantalizing piece. A little-used reserve for the powerhouse Zags, he and his 7’1, 290-pound frame likely won’t fit into the transition attack, but for stretches where Peery chooses to slow the tempo, Edwards can be a difference-maker. His sheer size will change the way opponents attack the rim, and his touch at the rim could make him an Isaac Haas-like presence in the Big Sky.
Bottom Line: Peery has been a journeyman coach thus far in his career – this is his 12th different job in 22 years – but he’s been highly effective in his two previous head coaching gigs (at JUCO powerhouses College of Southern Idaho and Indian Hills), so the upside is there. He would likely jump at the chance to coach a more distinguished school, but if he is able to succeed enough in Portland to attract the attention of larger programs, Viking fans and athletic officials will likely be perfectly satisfied with the hire. The high degree of turnover on the roster makes me hesitant to predict too large of a jump up the standings, but it’s entirely possible.
9. Southern Utah
Key Returners: James McGee, Jacob Calloway, Ivan Madunic
Key Losses: Randy Onwuasor, John Marshall
Key Newcomers: Jadon Cohee, Jamal Aytes, Jamal Jackson, Dre Marin, Brandon Better, Dwayne Morgan (in December)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It is a contractual obligation for us at 3MW that we must mention Jayson Cheeseman when previewing Southern Utah. His (relatively small) role in helping the Thunderbirds rattle off a series of covers in January/February 2014 (despite finishing the year 2-27 overall) will forever make him a legend in our hearts – as will his elite hair/mustache combo:
Okay, I’ve satisfied that requirement. This year’s team faces an interesting challenge, as the late departure of Randy Onwuasor as a grad transfer left them without their primary scorer and facilitator. Last year’s offense revolved around him, often deteriorating into him attacking in isolation from 28 feet out while his teammates watched. Being so reliant on one player can have that effect at times, and I’d argue that the rest of the roster will be better served having to step into larger roles. The on/off numbers showed this last year, too, as the team was 0.05 points per possession better on offense with him off the floor - surprising, no?
The Thunderbirds also have several talented newcomers to help ease the loss of their star. Seattle transfer Jadon Cohee, JUCO transfer Brandon Better, and freshman Dre Marin all can handle some lead guard duties, and with the prolific shooting of James McGee returning on the wing, SUU should have a more balanced, potent backcourt. Jacob Calloway, a versatile 6’8 forward, has the potential to be a difference-maker offensively as well.
The T-Birds’ problem last year was that they simply couldn’t stop anyone. The defense ranked 349th in the country per KenPom’s efficiency rankings, as opponents racked up shooting numbers of 55% from 2 and 40% from 3. SUU just didn’t have the athletes to make opponents uncomfortable, and coach Todd Simon hopes that the influx of new talent will allow him to extend his defense a little more – not so much for steals, but to force more difficult shots. Two forwards should allow them to switch a little more, JUCO Jamal Jackson and BYU grad transfer Jamal Aytes. Both are bigger and more athletic than most of SUU’s rotation last season, and both should also be a major boost in the rebounding department.
The ultimate wildcard is UNLV transfer Dwayne Morgan, who will be eligible in December. Quite simply, Morgan is too talented for the Big Sky, and if he has his head on straight (that "if" should be in size 72 font), he can dominate the league on both ends of the court. I'm not sold he'll be in the lineup at all times (whether it's injury or discipline struggles), but when he is, Simon needs to unleash him.
Simon frequently played a porous 1-3-1 zone last year, which constantly gave up open corner threes and gratuitous chances on the offensive glass. They simply weren’t very disciplined on this end, jumping at any shot fake and seemingly playing without an edge. Ivan Madunic gives them some promising size inside (and he was a decent shot-blocker), but he’ll need a lot more help from Aytes & co. if the T-Bird defense is to improve.
Bottom Line: The slight Ewing Theory potential on offense as the team’s scoring options become more numerous is probably offset by the defense continuing to be a sieve. Simon did well to bring in the newcomers he was able to find, but the team’s effort level will need to raise before any progress is made on that end. SUU likely settles towards the bottom of the league again, with the hope that the younger transfers and recruits can start building something for the next two years.
10. Idaho St.
Key Returners: Geno Luzcando, Brandon Boyd, Novak Topalovic, Gary Chivichyan
Key Losses: Ethan Telfair, Robert Jones
Key Newcomers: Blake Truman, Sam Dowd, Lyle Sutton, Jacob McCord
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Like the team I have finishing just above them (Southern Utah), Idaho State loses an extremely high volume lead guard who dominated the offensive touches (Ethan Telfair), which often led to his teammates becoming overly reliant on him to create shots. There were a few notable differences from SUU, though, and they seem to contradict each other: Telfair was significantly more inefficient than Onwuasor (91.7 O-rating vs 103.2), and the Bengals’ offense got worse without Telfair on the court, not better. That would suggest that Onwuasor actually had better teammates who were able to emerge without his presence, while ISU completely lost all creativity without their star. If that’s the case…this is going to be a long year.
Brandon Boyd and tiny JUCO Sam Dowd should take over the ball-handling duties, though it remains to be seen how well that works. Side note: lots of places have Dowd listed as "Nate," but the official team roster says Sam, so that's what I'm going with! Boyd only posted an 8.3% assist rate last year, disastrously low for someone that will be asked to create, but he can point to Telfair’s greediness with the ball as an excuse. At 5’7 and lightning quick, Dowd can get nearly anywhere he wants on the court, but he won’t be able to score much, even in a smaller league like the Big Sky.
When not watching Telfair play iso-ball, the Bengals often looked inside, and playing through the post might be a good idea this year. Novak Topalovic proved to be an effective option, and at 7’0 tall, his size and promising passing ability (he had the same assist rate as Boyd!) opens up a plethora of options for the offense. Shooters Gary Chivichyan and Balint Mocsan would get plenty of spot-up opportunities, and Geno Luzcando is a slasher who would excel given the chance to attack closeouts.
Coach Bill Evans favors playing zone, particularly a matchup-y 1-1-3 (think Baylor, but without the size and athleticism all over the court). The Bengals inability to stop opponents in that alignment (poor rotations and closeouts, no defensive rebounding) eventually led him to abandon the zone later in the year:
Ideally, the newcomers will pick up the zone quickly, as Evans would prever to give opponents an unfamiliar look relative to other teams in the league. Losing Telfair might have a net positive effect again here, as his poor leadership (he left the team for three games early in the year) likely torpedoed a defense predicated on communication and working as one unit. JUCO transfers Blake Truman and Jacob McCord, along with Kyle Ingram, who is returning from injury, will be counted on to reinforce defensive glass around Topalovic.
Bottom Line: After a tumultuous year that fell far short of expectations, Evans is banking on the “new year, new me” philosophy. None of the newcomers are shoo-in starters, an issue given the returning core went 6-26, but without Telfair’s borderline ball-hogging and questionable attitude, perhaps the team can find a way to exorcise last year’s demons.
11. Sacramento St.
Key Returners: Justin Strings, Izayah Mauriohooho-le’afa
Key Losses: Eric Stuteville, Nick Hornsby, Trevis Jackson
Key Newcomers: Christian Perez, Calvin Martin, Jordan Tolbert, Jamion Wright
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Fun Sacramento State fact – just-graduated big man Eric Stuteville was taken as the first pick in the NBA G-League (D-League) on October 21st – pretty cool for the program! Unfortunately, his departure hurts the actual college team, as his size and interior scoring ability perfectly encapsulated the team identity. Coach Brian Katz’s squad does return some important pieces, but replacing Stuteville (and rebounding guru Nick Hornsby) will be a tall task.
The Hornets are something of an anomaly in the Big Sky due to their focus on scoring inside the arc and crawling tempo (slowest in the conference last year). They prefer to keep games in the halfcourt, employing a four-out, one-in offense that is predicated on having a post threat in the middle. Joshua Patton, a burly 6’8 sophomore who proved to be a load on the block in limited minutes, should step right into that role. He scored 0.968 points per post up possession last year, per Synergy, ranking him in the 83rd percentile nationally; if he can maintain that efficiency, the Hornets offense may not fall too far. JUCO newcomer Calvin Martin has the potential to take on the Hornsby role as a rebounder at times.
The four-out part of the offense is slightly more settled, with wing shooter Izayah Mauriohooho-le’afa and ‘tweener forward Justin Strings both returning. Strings is a potential all-conference wing, bringing a versatile game that allows him to stretch defenses with shooting plus attack the rim with ferocity. Although the Hornets don’t rely heavily on making three-pointers, they do need the threat of the 3 to prevent defenses from collapsing on the interior. The loss of point guard Marcus Graves to a back injury may be a sneaky help for that after he bricked his way to a disastrous 6/55 (11%) (!!!!) conversion rate from downtown last year, but his playmaking will be a glaring absence. Mauriohooho-le’afa rarely shot the ball last year, but he will step into a larger role as a sophomore, and Katz should encourage him to be more aggressive this year. He’s also the guy Katz will stick on the numerous high-scoring guards in the league.
Beyond those two, the team should will need to find a point guard and some depth around the perimeter. JUCO Christian Perez could be a sort of “Strings Lite,” another 6’7 guy with the ability to draw out big man defenders. Jeff Wu, Jiday Ugbaja, Jordan Tolbert, and Jamion Wright will all fight over the guard minutes – my best bets are on Wu, who should be fully healthy after dealing with injuries last year, and Tolbert, a point guard who can actually offer some shooting to replace Graves (though there’s a corresponding trade-off in creation ability).
The Hornets will mix in zone relatively frequently to give opponents a different look (26% of the time, on average, over the last four seasons). That neuters the Hornets’ strong rebounding to an extent, though, and leads to giving up many perimeter jumpers. When they miss, that works out great – but opponents canned over 38% of their threes last year, a concerning figure.
Bottom Line: Without the stout Stuteville patrolling the paint, the Hornets may struggle to dominate the paint the way they have the past two seasons. Patton is promising, but he couldn’t stay on the court last year, a glaring issue for a team with very little post depth. Strings and a more aggressive Mauriohooho-le’afa should win them a few games, but in a league full of high-scoring offenses, Sacramento State may struggle to keep up.
12. Northern Arizona
Key Returners: JoJo Anderson, Brooks DeBisschop, Kye de Laveaga, Torry Johnson
Key Losses: Ako Kaluna, Mike Green, Marcus DeBerry, Jaleni Neely
Key Newcomers: Malcolm Allen, Gino Littles, Ruben Fuamba, Karl Harris
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Northern Arizona has a couple of mostly-unique advantages as a program: first, it’s located in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level (yes, over 1,500 feet higher than Denver) – it’s the second-highest D-I school in the country, trailing only Wyoming. The thin air gives the home team an advantage, having trained in it all year. Second, the Lumberjacks play under this behemoth:
The Walkup Skydome also hosts the football team, so NAU should also have a leg up since they’re used to shooting in the cavernous dome.
Alas, coach Jack Murphy seems oddly hesitant to truly crank the tempo, even though the guard-heavy Big Sky is conducive to such pace; the Lumberjacks ranked 289th in the country in percentage of shots taken in transition. Similarly, NAU shot the ball horribly last season, which also negates advantage #2 as well.
On the other hand, this year’s team should have a more skilled, deeper backcourt, so both of those items could see some correction. JoJo Anderson got his feet wet as a freshman, showing an incredible propensity for getting to the rim. He’ll be helped by three newcomers (although one is a familiar face for NAU fans): Torry Johnson (missed last season with a torn ACL), Malcolm Allen (Stanford grad transfer), and Gino Littles (UTSA transfer). Johnson and Littles are also highly adept at penetrating and drawing contact – expect the ‘Jacks to score plenty of points at the charity stripe. Allen never got much of a chance to play in Palo Alto, but a move to the Big Sky should give him a new lease on his basketball life. Littles and Johnson also offer some shooting, albeit at low volumes.
With such poor shooting, Murphy unleashed his team on the offensive glass last season – a stark change from 2015-16. The Lumberjacks went from worst to first in offensive rebounding rate; despite the loss of the two starting big men, three returners flashed the ability to maintain the rim attack. Brooks DeBisschop (doubles as a solid rapper handle), Isaiah Thomas (no, not that one – or the other one), and Aziz Seck all give Murphy some interior options, and JUCO transfer Ruben Fuamba averaged a double-double at his previous stop as well. NAU’s transition defense suffered mightily as they focused on earning second chances, though, and they’ll need to strike a delicate balance between the two to avoid getting torched.
Fuamba will also be vital to the team’s interior defense. It was already Charmin-soft last year, and the team’s defensive efficiency plummeted to a catastrophic 1.22 points per possession without big men Jordyn Martin or Ako Kaluna on the court last season (and both are gone). That’s red alert, evacuate-the-premises-level terrible – and the burden to fix it will largely fall on Fuamba’s shoulders.
Bottom Line: The backcourt is surprisingly talented for a potential last-place Big Sky team, and Murphy showed the ability to compete in the conference just a few years ago (13-5 conference record in 2014-15). If he can figure out to best deploy Allen, Johnson, Anderson and Littles, I’ll look silly for having the ‘Jacks in the cellar. Unfortunately, someone has to finish there.