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2016-17 Big Sky Post-Mortem

July 19, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Experience is typically a good thing for a college basketball team. Rarely does it result in the type of leap, though, that North Dakota took in the Big Sky Conference this year.

The Fighting Hawks/formerly Fighting Sioux returned all five starters in 2016-17, though it came on a team that finished one game over .500 (17-16) the year before, tying for fifth in the Big Sky. While Hoopville had UND targeted as a team to watch coming into the season, it was still a lot to ask it to overcome traditional league powers like Weber State and Montana that led the way the year before, as well as stubborn Eastern Washington and Idaho programs regularly near the top of late.

North Dakota showed all the growth one could’ve asked for, though, winning 22 games plus Big Sky regular season and tournament titles. The latter added up to the first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament berth for the former Division II power that only became a full-fledged D-I member five years ago.

The Fighting Hawks indeed leaned on their experience, including outstanding senior Quinton Hooker and his play-alike sophomore partner Geno Crandall. Brian Jones again coached a fun, efficient offensive team to watch that overcame a four-game losing streak in December to become the Big Sky’s best team. UND even put together a credible performance in the NCAA Tournament, cutting a 16-point halftime deficit to seven midway through the second half before falling to No. 2 seed Arizona 100-82.

UND provided the brightest spot in what was collectively not a great year for the Big Sky. A No. 28 rank in the conference RPI per CBSSports.com data included an awful 11-64 record out of conference against teams inside the RPI top 200. That just 12 of those 75 games were at home is an excuse that only goes so far-thirteen more were at neutral sites. In all, just four of 12 league members posted overall winning records.

It wasn’t for lack of entertainment value. The Big Sky finished sixth of 32 Division I conferences in scoring. Six of the top 29 scorers in the country played in the Big Sky, including Southern Utah’s Randy Onwuasor (fifth) and Tyler Hall of Montana State (seventh) in the top 10. The 12 member schools also were involved in a combined 40 overtime games, including 16 games between conference teams that went to OT.

Final Standings:

Big Sky Overall
North Dakota 14-4 22-10
Eastern Washington 13-5 22-12
Weber State 12-6 20-14
Idaho 12-6 19-14
Montana 11-7 16-16
Montana State 11-7 16-16
Sacramento State 9-9 13-18
Portland State 7-11 15-16
Northern Colorado 7-11 11-18
Northern Arizona 6-12 9-23
Idaho State 3-15 5-26
Southern Utah 3-15 6-27

Conference Tournament
Long one of the more exclusive of conference tournaments, the Big Sky invited every postseason eligible team to its event for the second straight year, with only Northern Colorado not on hand due to its self-imposed postseason ban. The tourney also was held at a neutral site in Reno, Nev., for the second straight year.

The first two rounds saw just one upset and only two games decided by less than 13 points. The upset was one of the wilder conference tournament games of the season, as No. 11 Southern Utah toppled 6 seed Montana State 109-105 in triple overtime in the first round. Randy Onwuasor scored 43 points, and the Thunderbirds won a Big Sky tourney game for the first time in their five years in the league before being eliminated by No. 3 Weber State 90-70 in the quarterfinals. Other than that, the lone game going down to the end was fourth-seeded Idaho edging 5 seed Montana 81-77, with Victor Sanders hitting the go-ahead jumper with 1:33 left.

North Dakota rolled past No. 8 Portland State 95-72 in the quarterfinals, and the top seed then had an eventful semifinal against Idaho. UND took a 26-9 lead in the first half against a team it walloped by 23 points in the regular season, but then saw the Vandals roar back to take a 50-44 lead midway through the second half. The Fighting Hawks upped the ante with an 18-1 run to presumably take control, but Idaho fought back one more time and tied it on two free throws by Chad Sherwood with 2:08 left. Geno Crandall made a pair of foul shots, though, and Corey Baldwin hit a dagger three-pointer as North Dakota held on for a 69-64 win. The second semifinal saw No. 2 Eastern Washington jump to an early 12-point lead on 3 seed Weber State, but the Wildcats fought back, tied it at halftime and used a 13-2 run in the final six minutes, emerging in a game that had 10 ties and seven lead changes and going to an 80-72 victory.

North Dakota was involved in another game of runs in the final, but the No. 1 seed looked like it might be cooked when Weber State went on an 13-0 run in the second half and eventually built an 11-point lead with just over seven minutes to play. The Wildcats still led by six with 51 seconds left, but the Fighting Hawks forced a turnover and a missed shot and tied it with seven seconds left on Crandall’s transition lay-in. UND then scored on six of its seven possessions in overtime, with Crandall and Quinton Hooker combining for 10 of its 12 points in an eventual 93-89 win. Hooker finished with 28 points to be named tourney MVP, while Crandall also added an outstanding all-around line with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Jacob Wiley, F, Sr., Eastern Washington
Defensive Player of the Year: Jonah Radebaugh, G, Fr., Northern Colorado
Freshman of the Year: Harald Frey, G, Montana State
Newcomer of the Year: Randy Onwuasor, G, Jr., Southern Utah
Top Reserve: Cortez Seales, G, So., North Dakota
Coach of the Year: Brian Jones, North Dakota

All-Conference Team
Tyler Hall, G, So., Montana State
Quinton Hooker, G, Sr., North Dakota
Victor Sanders, G, Jr., Idaho
Jeremy Senglin, G, Sr., Weber State
Jacob Wiley, F, Sr., Eastern Washington

Season Highlights

  • North Dakota made its first-ever trip to the Division I NCAA Tournament, highlighting four Big Sky teams playing in the postseason. Eastern Washington was eliminated by eventual CBI champion Wyoming, while both Idaho and Weber State won a game before being knocked out of the CIT.
  • Weber State’s Jeremy Senglin led NCAA Division I in three-pointers made with 132, while Montana State’s Tyler Hall was fifth in the same category with 120. Senglin and Hall also were 2-3 behind Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene in triples per game with 3.88 and 3.75, respectively, and Senglin was fifth in three-point percentage (44.7%).
  • Southern Utah guard Randy Onwuasor finished fifth in the country in scoring averaging 23.6 points per game, while Hall was just two spots behind him in seventh at 23.1 ppg. Eastern Washington’s Jacob Wiley also ranked sixth nationally in field goal percentage (64.3%) and eighth in blocked shots/game (2.76).
  • Weber State also ranked second in the nation as a team in three-point percentage (41.7%), behind only Marquette, while Portland State was No. 2 in the country in steals with 9.9 per game and fourth in turnover margin (+4.9 per game).
  • Eastern Washington’s Wiley and Bogdan Bliznyuk both scored 45 points each in the Eagles’ wild 130-124 triple-overtime win over Portland State Feb. 4. The Vikings’ De’Sean Parsons (35) and Deontae North (30) also both eclipsed the 30-point mark in the game.

What we expected, and it happened: We thought North Dakota was a team to watch coming into the season, and indeed UND won its first Big Sky regular season and tournament titles on the way to its first NCAA Division I Tournament bid.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Idaho State, like North Dakota, also looked like a team ready to contend for the title after a fourth-place finish-ahead of UND-the year before. The Bengals had an awful year, though, getting overpowered inside and sinking back to the bottom of the Big Sky in a 5-26 season.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Eastern Washington was pegged for a second straight mid-pack finish after its 2015 NCAA Tournament appearance, but the Eagles behind high-scoring Jacob Wiley and Bogdan Bliznyuk were a contender for the Big Sky title and finished a close second to North Dakota.

Team on the rise: Montana State. The Bobcats are going to be a hot pick this year with most of their team returning led by the outstanding Tyler Hall, and they also get a touted, proven transfer in former Utah Valley forward Konner Frey.

Team on the decline: Idaho State. A year ago the Bengals were in the category above this, but the Bengals were the lone conference team to seriously regress a year ago, and now lose top player Ethan Telfair.

2017-18 Big Sky Outlook
North Dakota might be poised to become a perennial power in the Big Sky if it were sticking around. Alas, the school only has one more year left in the league, as UND will move to the Summit League in the 2018-19 school year, a move that makes geographic sense with longtime rivals North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State plus Nebraska-Omaha already there.

This year, the Fighting Hawks have a reasonable chance at a repeat. Though Hooker, three-point marksman Corey Baldwin and valuable frontcourt man Drick Bernstine are gone, Crandall returns. Connor Avants also should pick up even more frontcourt production, and Cortez Seales should blossom into one of the league’s best players if he can stay healthy. Weber State also could emerge as a favorite. A frontcourt with Utah transfer Brekkott Chapman plus Zach Broxton is a load in the Big Sky, and while the loss of scorer and three-point bomber extraordinaire Jeremy Senglin should not be taken lightly, Ryan Richardson and Jerick Harding are poised to pick up some of that load.

Montana State will be a chic pick to make a run at the title, but the Bobcats need a lot better frontcourt play to take a big step. They’ll get some from the transfer Konner Frey, who along with Hall plus sophomore Harald Frey will make for an excellent trio. Like MSU, Idaho also brings back an experienced roster and has an alpha dog lead guard in Victor Sanders, but whether anyone else on the roster can score consistently enough to elevate the Vandals is a question. It’s possible senior guard Perrion Callandret could help with that if he can return to health after a knee injury that limited him to two games last year.

Montana should never be counted out, and the Grizzlies certainly have a backcourt to compete with Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie. Eastern Washington will be fascinating to watch with Shantay Legans moving over one seat on the bench to replace Jim Hayford. Legans still has Bliznyuk, but he does not have Big Sky POY Wiley. Similar can be said about Portland State, which picked up the pace as much as almost any school over the last two years but now goes through a coaching change and adds 7-foot-1 center Ryan Edwards from Gonzaga to a team that was more perimeter than post oriented in the past.

Sacramento State brings back a quality backcourt with Marcus Graves and Justin Strings, though the Hornets were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last year. The remaining teams hope for improvement, but opportunity for advancement appears limited.

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