Thursday, October 18, 2007

Big Sky Conference Preview


The Big Sky Conference was wide-open heading into last season, and not much changed during the course of the season. Weber State and Northern Arizona tied for the league title, both going 11-5, as NAU won seven of their last eight, and WSU dropped two of their last four. By virtue of sweeping NAU, Weber State got the #1 seed. Montana finished only one game back of those two, and seven of the league’s nine teams finished .500 or above. Weber won the conference tournament, pulling away from NAU in the second half, before dropping its NCAA Tournament opener to UCLA. Remember, only six teams make the conference tournament, even though it doesn’t make sense and cost Eastern Washington’s Rodney Stuckey, one of the nation’s best players, a chance in the postseason last year.

Favorites: Montana returns four starters from a team that finished third in the conference. Leading the way for the Grizzlies is the inside duo of Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet, one of the best post combos in the entire country. Strait is very efficient shooting the ball around the basket, and is also a solid scorer and rebounder. Hasquet is another all-conference player who can score inside and outside. In the backcourt, Freshman of the Year Cameron Rundles returns, as does Matt Martin. JC transfers Ceylon Elgin-Taylor and Sean Watson will fight for minutes. Weber State, the defending league champions, loses the conference Player of the Year in David Patten, but returns three starters. Juan Pablo Silveira is an all-conference candidate at guard, and is one of the best shooters in the league. He combines with Dezmon Harris to form a solid backcourt. Daviin Davis will also see ample time on the perimeter. Inside, Tyler Billings and Arturas Valeika also return for the Wildcats. Both players should improve.

Contenders: Portland State has arguably the best trio in the conference, and that will carry the Vikings a long way. It starts in the backcourt with Dupree Lucas and Deonte Huff, both all-league players. Lucas is poised for a huge season, while Huff is a good rebounder as well as scorer. PSU does need to find a point guard, though, but transfers Andre Murray and Jeremiah Dominguez will compete. Scott Morrison is one of the best big men in the league, while Julius Thomas and Rhode Island transfer J.R. Moore will fight for a starting job. Northern Arizona loses three starters from a team that tied for the regular-season title and lost in the championship game, but the Lumberjacks still have plenty of talent to go around. Josh Wilson, one of the best distributors in the country, runs the show from the point. JC transfer Jermaine Bishop is expected to push for a job in the backcourt once he returns from injury, as will Nathan Geiser. Up front, Ryan McCurdy and sixth man Kyle Landry form a very solid forward duo. Both need to improve, though.

Sleepers: Montana State lost three starters, but the key to its season will be a player who didn’t start last year—Carlos Taylor. He was the team’s leading scorer last year despite coming off the bench. He will be flanked in the backcourt this year by Casey Durham, a solid distributor, and Mecklen Davis, a good all-around player. Up front, Branden Johnson and Danny Peipoli return, while JC transfers Marcus Blackshire and Divaldo Mbunga will push them for time. Idaho State looked like a solid team at times last year, but it was inconsistent and the loss of its three leading scorers does not help. Matt Stucki and Logan Kinghorn return, though, giving the Bengals a good place to start. Austin Kilpatrick also returns have seeing extended minutes last year. The newcomers will make an immediate impact, led by guard Rich Jackson and big man Lucas Steijn.

Rounding out the Pack: Sacramento State finished the season on a high note by beating Weber State in the regular-season finale, and will look to carry that momentum over to this season. The Hornets are led by guard Loren Leath, one of the better shooters and scorers in the Big Sky. Joining him in the backcourt will be double-figure scorer Kris Groce and Roderick Adams. Up front, Justin Williams leads the way, with redshirt junior Randy Adams and a mix of returnees and newcomers fighting for minutes. Eastern Washington has to replace one of the best players in the country in guard Rodney Stuckey, an NBA early-entry who was drafted in the first-round and arguably the best player in Big Sky history. No single player could replace him, but the Eagles will try to find someone on its roster, despite only one returning starter. Marcus Hinton is the best player in the backcourt, although JC transfer Adris Deleon will push for a starting job. Brandon Moore and Kellen Williams are the mainstays up front. Northern Colorado had one of the best inside-outside combos in the conference last season in guard Sean Taibi and center Kirk Archibeque, but went only 4-24 overall. Led by those two, the Bears are hoping to improve this season. Thanasai Panagiotakopoulos returns at the point, while Will Figures can score. Jefferson Mason will start up front next to Archibeque. Newcomers Monice Garrett, a point guard, and Jabril Banks, a forward, could start immediately.

Prediction: The Big Sky does not have the star power it had last year with Rodney Stuckey in the conference, but it will feature another close race for the title, and plenty of quality performers. Montana has the best post duo in the league, as well as a solid backcourt, while Weber State is the defending champion, and Portland State has ample talent among its top three. Don’t count out Northern Arizona, either. In the end, though, I have to go with Montana because of its inside-outside balance, and the fact that no one in the league will be able to stop both Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet.

Player of the Year: Andrew Strait, PF, Montana

All-Conference Team:
G- Dupree Lucas, Portland State
G- Juan Pablo Silveira
F- Jordan Hasquet, Montana
F- Andrew Strait, Montana
C- Kirk Archibeque, Northern Colorado

Second Team:
G- Josh Wilson, Northern Arizona
G- Cameron Rundles, Montana
G- Deonte Huff, Portland State
G- Loren Leath, Sacramento State
C- Scott Morrison, Portland State

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