Sunday, October 8, 2006

Big Sky Conference Preview


The Big Sky Conference had a very good season overall, and finished at #17 in the RPI, their highest total in years. Northern Arizona jumped out to an 8-0 conference record and ended up winning the league by two games over Montana. Two other teams finished at least .500 in the league. However, all eight teams were competitive and every team had at least four wins within the conference. The conference tournament demonstrated that parity, as the games were decided by an average of 7 points per game. Like the regular season, though, it came down to the top two teams, but this time Montana got the better of NAU, winning the automatic bid. Once in the NCAA Tournament, the Grizzlies represented well for the conference, upsetting #5 seed Nevada in the first round, and giving Boston College a decent game before falling. Don't be surprised if you see a similar look to the standings this season.

Favorites and Contenders: There are several options to go with at the top of the conference. Northern Arizona seems like the best one to me. The Lumberjacks won the regular season championship last season, and return five of their top six scorers from that team. They are led by the best inside-outside combo in the conference in guard Tyrone Bazy and forward Ruben Boykin. Bazy was the Big Sky's Newcomer of the Year a season ago, and is a good scorer and a solid rebounder. Boykin is an all-conference player who can dominate a game with his ability to score inside and rebound very well. Joining Boykin up front is returning starter Ryan McCurdy, who provides decent scoring and rebounding, and Kyle Landry, who could be poised for a big season in the starting lineup. Alongside Bazy on the perimeter is point guard Josh Wilson, who is one of the best passers in the conference. Sixth man Steven Sir might be the best shooter in the Big Sky. He averaged over 11 points per game last season off the bench. Eastern Washington had a surprising season last year, finishing third in the conference. The Eagles return something the rest of the conference can't match: Rodney Stuckey. The explosive sophomore guard is a potential All-American who can dominate a game in a variety of areas. The Conference Player of the Year is an outstanding scorer who could end up leading the nation in points, but can also rack up rebounds and steals. He can also distribute the ball. That's not all EWU has, though. Also on the perimeter is returning starter Matt Penoncello and highly touted JC transfer Marcus Hinton. Up front, Paul Butorac leads the way. He is an all-conference candidate and is a solid scorer and rebounder. Kellen Williams is a good scorer in the frontcourt, as is Jake Beitinger. Both should increase their production. Montana has enough talent to repeat last year's conference tournament championship, but they need to replace all-conference guard Kevin Criswell. However, one of the best big men in the mid-major world returns for the Grizzlies in Andrew Strait. He is a load to stop on the interior, and can take over a game in the paint. Also returning as starters in the frontcourt are Jordan Hasquet and Matt Dlouhy, both solid scorers and rebounders. One of them might come off the bench this season, though, as JC transfer Gus Chase is welcomed into the fold. He was ranked in the top tier of forwards last season by various publications, and should make an immediate impact. The Grizzlies have questions in the backcourt. Matt Martin should increase his production now that he is a full-time starter, while Bryan Ellis will also see added minutes.

Middle of the Road: Portland State can be a real sleeper in the conference race. They return arguably the top frontcourt in the Big Sky, returning all three starters. The Vikings are led by Anthony Washington, a potential all-conference selction. He is poised for a big season on the low block. Scott Morrison complements Washington nicely in the post, leading the team in rebounding. Juma Kamara is the team's leading returning scorer, and he is a tough matchup up front for Portland State. Ryan Sommer is a very good point guard who provides outside balance for the Vikings. On the wing, three newcomers will vie for time: Portland transfer Sean Smith, JC transfer Deonte Huff, and Xavier transfer Dupree Lucas. Sacramento State had a season of mixed emotions last year. They came into the season with high expectations, but only finished 5-9 in the conference and fifth in the Big Sky. However, with an overall record of 15-15, the Hornets finished with their first non-losing season in their D-I history. This season looks similar to last season, in terms of position in the conference. Alex Bausley leads the way for the Hornets. He is an all-conference forward who is a very efficient player on the offensive end and can also rebound well. Justin Williams will likely start next to him after coming off the bench last season, while Randy Adams also contributes up front. Haron Hargrave and Clark Woods return as starters in the backcourt, while sixth man Loren Leath could step into the starting lineup and have a big year.

Rounding Out the Pack: Weber State is going to look like a completely different team, as new coach Randy Rahe signed a nine-man recruiting class for the Wildcats. The best of the lot will be forwards Arturas Valieka and Tyler Billings, who could fight for starting positions right away. Daviin Davis might win a job in the backcourt as well. However, the returnees aren't that bad themselves. David Patten is a potential all-conference forward, as he averaged double-figures last season and is also a solid rebounder. The leading men returning in the backcourt are senior wings Dan Henry and Chauncey Shelton, who both came off the bench last season. Montana State was expected to compete for a league title last season, but did not play to their potential and finished 4th in the Big Sky with a .500 record. The Bobcats lose their top three players from that team. Returning in the backcourt are Derrick Edmonds, who could have a big year scoring the basketball, and Casey Durham, who started last season and is a very good passer. Newcomer Mecklen Davis is expected to play right away and contribute. Up front, Nick Dissly will become a top scoring option and should improve his production. Ted Morris and JC transfer Adrian Zamora will battle it out down low for a starting job. Idaho State finished tied for last place a year ago and will have to fight in order to finish higher than that this season. One bright spot for the Bengals is all-conference guard David Schroeder. He is an excellent scorer who is also a decent rebounder. He will have to carry Idaho State this season. Akbar Abdul-Ahad also returns in the backcourt. He inexplicably entered his name into the NBA Draft after last year, but smartly removed it. Logan Kinghorn is another returning starter in the backcourt. He rounds out a good backcourt for the Bengals. However, Idaho State doesn't have anyone up front that is expected to make an impact, which will keep this team at or near the cellar of the Big Sky. In their first season as a non-Independent in Division I, Northern Colorado is going to have trouble being much of a contender within the conference. They went 5-24 last year as an Independent, but return four starters. Sean Tiabi is a very good scorer in the backcourt, while center Kirk Archibeque is a potential all-conference-caliber big man. He can score inside and is one of the best rebounders in the Big Sky. Dwayne Birden and Matt Kline return as starters on the perimeter. Kline was one of the top assist men in the Independents last season.

Prediction: This could be an exciting season at the top for the Big Sky. There are three teams with a legit shot at winning the league and it could go down to the last week to determine a champion. Moreover, a marquee player returns in Rodney Stuckey, who will attract NBA scouts to Big Sky games for the first time in years. As for the standings, I think that Northern Arizona is going to take the title. Although EWU has Stuckey, and Montana has Andrew Strait, NAU has better balance with the inside-outside combo of Tyrone Bazy and Ruben Boykin. This could be a conference to watch this season.

Player of the Year: Rodney Stuckey, SG, Eastern Washington

All-Conference Team:
G- Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington
G- David Schroeder, Idaho State
F- Alex Bausley, Sacramento State
F- Ruben Boykin, Northern Arizona
F- Andrew Strait, Montana

Second Team:
G- Tyrone Bazy, Northern Arizona
F- Paul Butorac, Eastern Washington
F- David Patten, Weber State
C- Anthony Washington, Portland State
C- Kirk Archibeque, Northern Colorado

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