The Big Sky puts out a good basketball product, at least from a competitive standpoint. Of all the mid-majors, this one might be hidden the most in terms of having so much working against it. The footprint is in the two western-most time zones and largely overshadowed not only by the Pac-12, but also the Mountain West and West Coast Conference. It has produced a few splashes over the years and little more, but within its own little world is a good product.
As tends to happen, some familiar faces were among those at the top. Weber State and Montana continue to be mainstays, as they are the two programs with the all-time best records both overall and in conference play among current members. In fact, they are the only current members whose Big Sky records are over .500 all-time. Save for 2014-15, when Weber State finished a surprising sixth, both teams have finished in the top three in the conference every year since 2008-09. The two have also combined for 19 conference titles, with no one else having more than four.
What they couldn’t do in 2015-16 is lead the conference to great non-conference success. Big Sky teams went 57-63 to finish near the bottom in conference RPI, though it is their best non-conference record since they had an identical mark in 2009-10. No team finished in the top 100, with Weber State leading the way at 108. Only two others were even in the top 200. Other than wins over Arizona State and Washington State, good wins were hard to come by, though Big Sky teams did go 7-7 against teams from the Mountain West, which was down this season.
In a demonstration of how conference RPI doesn’t say much about postseason play, five teams reached postseason play, though only one managed to win a game. Xavier quickly dismissed Weber State from the NCAA Tournament, while Montana and Idaho lost close games in the first round of the CBI and North Dakota lost a tough overtime game to UC Irvine 89-86 in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Eastern Washington broke through for a 79-72 home win over Pepperdine in the CBI, but like Montana they would then have to go to Reno to take on eventual champion Nevada, and they lost 85-70 to end their season.
The conference appears to have some good talent coming back next season, so there is some reason to think it will be better. The conference will see 14 of its top 20 scorers return, and the same numbers apply for rebounders. Only three of the top ten in assists were seniors this past season, and transfers didn’t hurt the conference much as a whole, though a couple of teams saw good players leave.
After the season, two schools had coaching changes. Nick Robinson was let go by Southern Utah, replaced by former UNLV assistant and interim head coach Todd Simon. Later, once it seemed the coaching carousel was about to settle for good, Northern Colorado terminated the contract of B.J. Hill due to an NCAA investigation into the program. Jeff Linder, most recently an assistant at Boise State for six seasons, was hired to replace him.
The Big Sky Tournament was held at a single predetermined site this time around, with Reno being the host city to begin a three-year run. Even so, there weren’t a lot of upsets to be had – just two of the 11 games, in fact, saw the lower seed win. There were plenty of good contests, though, as only three games were decided by double digits.
The first round saw No. 8 Portland State edge No. 9 Northern Colorado 74-67, then No. 5 North Dakota beat No. 12 Southern Utah 85-80. No. 10 Sacramento State pulled off the only upset of this round, knocking off No. 7 Montana State 79-75, then No. 6 Eastern Washington closed out the day by pummeling No. 11 Northern Arizona 74-52.
Top seed Weber State got the quarterfinals going by eking out a 78-74 win over Portland State, followed by the biggest blowout of the tournament, No. 5 North Dakota having a shockingly easy time against No. 4 Idaho State 83-49. No. 2 Montana scored the last double-digit win of the tournament next, a 70-53 decision over Sacramento State, then No. 3 Idaho closed out the day with a 76-73 win over Eastern Washington.
The semifinals were both good contests, with Weber State needing overtime to knock off North Dakota 83-78, then Montana closing out Idaho 81-72.
The championship game was a dandy, with runs and momentum going back and forth. Weber State ran out to a 14-point lead past the halfway point of the first half, but Montana grabbed the momentum and closed within 41-38 at the break. Bolomboy was quiet offensively, scoring just four points all game, but the guards made sure he didn’t have to score by going 6-12 from deep to lead a 63.6 percent shooting half. The second half was more of a slugfest, and Weber State led by one in the final minute when Jeremy Senglin was called for a charge. Montana missed a three-pointer with just seconds to go, then Weber State got a quick basket out of bounds to go up by three. A desperation shot to tie at the buzzer was no good, and Weber State escaped with a 62-59 win and another Big Sky championship.
Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy, Weber State
Rookie of the Year: Ethan Telfair, Idaho State
Coach of the Year: Bill Evans, Idaho State
Top Freshman: Tyler Hall, Montana State
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy, Weber State
Top Reserve: Kyndahl Hill, Weber State
All-Big Sky Team
Joel Bolomboy, Sr. F, Weber State
Martin Breunig, Sr. F, Montana
Quinton Hooker, Jr. G, North Dakota
Venky Jois, Sr. F, Eastern Washington
Jeremy Senglin, Jr. G, Weber State
Ethan Telfair, Jr. G, Idaho State
- Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy was the only player in the conference to average a double-double and also was among the nation’s leaders in double-doubles with 24.
- Idaho was the only team in the conference to post a winning road record overall (8-7).
- Conference Newcomer of the Year Ethan Telfair was a unanimous first-team selection after finishing second in scoring and leading the conference in assists and steals.
What we expected, and it happened: Weber State was right there all along and ended up taking the conference championship. With Bolomboy and Senglin leading the way, everyone expected this.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Northern Arizona and Southern Utah were picked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the preseason poll and expected to give the frontrunners a run for their money. They finished tied for the cellar with a 3-15 conference mark.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: On the flip side, Idaho State was picked dead last in the preseason poll, and by a good margin. They finished fourth and look primed to contend next year.
Team(s) on the rise: Idaho State. Next year, a finish like what they had this past season won’t surprise anyone. Besides Telfair, they also bring back key players Geno Luzcando and Kyle Ingram. Telfair and Luzcando were the top two players in the conference in steals this past season and should give opposing backcourts all kinds of problems next season.
Team(s) on the decline: Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks are a long way from the Ben Howland days when they contended often, and after a tough year this year it doesn’t look much better for next season at first glance.
2016-17 Big Sky Outlook
The conversation for favorites next season should begin with the old stalwarts in Weber State and Montana along with a relative newcomer to the conversation in Idaho State.
Montana may be the favorites if Mario Dunn has fully recovered from a scaphoid fracture that required two surgeries, one of which kept him out for the first month of last season. Walter Wright and Michael Oguinne made immediate impacts in his stead, so the Grizzlies will have the best backcourt in the conference if they have all three healthy. Martin Breunig is no small loss, but he’s the only senior lost off last season’s team and a few other teams lose at least one key inside player as well. Weber State is in a similar boat, as Bolomboy was their only senior and Jeremy Senglin should be a conference Player of the Year candidate to lead the way.
Idaho State may not be far behind with its backcourt of Telfair and Luzcando along with most of the team returning. The Bengals may have figured some things out by the end of the season and should start better this time around. Not helping is that four players transferred, including spot starter Al- Faruq-Bey.
If Idaho can replace Chris Sarbaugh at the point, the Vandals could contend. North Dakota could be the sleeper, as they return the conference’s third-leading scorer in Quinton Hooker and third-leading rebounder in Drick Bernstine, while Geno Crandall had a promising freshman season. Montana State has some talent returning in the conference’s top freshman, Tyler Hall, as well as Zach Green and Quinton Everett.
Eastern Washington is a bit of an unknown after losing the dynamic duo of Austin McBroom, the conference’s leading scorer, and Jois. Portland State had a few tough losses this past season, but may have a longer road ahead after Isaiah Pineiro transferred to San Diego in addition to Cameron Forte finishing his eligibility, and three other players also transferred. Northern Colorado could have been a sleeper contender as they didn’t have a senior in 2015-16, but they will be a team in transition after the sudden coaching change and NCAA investigation, as well as the transfer of three players including Jordan Wilson. Sacramento State has enough coming back to move up a little in the standings.
The Big Sky figures to have a nice race for the top, then a tournament well worth watching. If the returning talent comes through early on, they may also turn this into a better RPI and continue to get teams into the postseason as well.