Projected order of finish
1. Weber State (17-3)
2. Montana (16-4)
3. Northern Colorado (13-7)
4. North Dakota (12-8)
5. Portland State (11-9)
6. Eastern Washington (10-10)
7. Sacramento State (9-11)
8. Montana State (8-12)
9. Northern Arizona (5-13)
10. Southern Utah (3-15)
11. Idaho State (2-14)
Preseason Player of the Year
G Will Cherry (Montana) – 15.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.6 SPG (11-12)
The senior two-time unanimous selection is the league’s newest Damian Lillard, its newest Devon Beitzel, its newest Rodney Stuckey. Except he’s not because, well, he’s been producing since his sophomore season. A summer injury (more on that later) will impact his status, but he should be back by Big Sky play. If he’s not, or if he’s hobbled, it might be a Peyton Manning-injured situation: talk of him getting MVP votes if the Griz should happen to spiral downward.
Preseason Coach of the Year
Wayne Tinkle, Montana
The biggest issue, aside from the Cherry situation, is what to do with everyone else not named Cherry or Kareem Jamar? Mathias Ward is the lone frontcourt player with extended experience, but you can bet Tinkle, a career Euroleague/CBA center will mold the rest of the frontcourt in his image.
Sr. G Will Cherry (Montana) – The best defender in the Big Sky hands down, Cherry has developed a mid-range game to go with it. Plus he can get to the basket like few others in the conference.
Jr. G Kareem Jamar (Montana) – 13.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44% 3FG – Jamar can hurt you many, many ways. Jamar is listed as a G/F, and has a game which lends itself to both mid-range and the near low-post.
Sr. G Scott Bamforth (Weber State) – 14.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.4 APG – One of the best pure shooters in the league, Bamforth has to step up his mid-range game and free throws (a still-solid 87.5 percent, 105-of-120) as Weber looks to replace NBA point guard Damian Lillard.
Sr. F Collin Chiverton (Eastern Washington) – 13.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 41% 3FG – Chiverton netted close to 14 points a game while wrestling with a foot injury all of last year. He’s healthy now, which could be lethal for the Eagles as Jim Hayford probably will let Chiverton shoot the lights out every night.
Jr. C Kyle Tresnak (Weber State) – 10.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 54% FG – Tresnak is the best post scorer in the conference, hands down, and can play with his back to the basket like traditional centers should. His weakness is rebounding – a 6-foot-10 body, even by marginal standards, should average more than 3.8 rebounds per game. (Tresnak, a 32-game starter, averaged less than power forward Byron Fulton, who came off the bench.)
Out: Joe O’Brien, Deane Martin (Idaho State); Mike Adras, Dave Brown (Northern Arizona); Roger Reid (Southern Utah)
In: Bill Evans (Idaho State); Jack Murphy (Northern Arizona); Nick Robinson (Southern Utah)
What was and what will be
Montana was the Big Sky’s NCAA Tournament entry last season after going 15-1 in conference play and winning the conference tournament. UM’s regular-season title was 20 years after its last outright title was secured, and the Grizzlies went 25-7 overall as head coach Wayne Tinkle won Coach of the Year honors and its backcourt duo of Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar were named to the Big Sky All-Conference First Team.
Damian Lillard was the talk of the conference, and rightly so: he’s playing in the NBA now. Though league runner-up Weber State lost him – and a couple other key cogs – the Wildcats have continually been a Big Sky tournament/title game mainstay. The program has a league-best 455 wins and has played in the tournament championship four times in the last half-dozen seasons.
As the season unfolds, the Big Sky expands to 11 teams; it will expand to a full-fledged 12 in 2014-2015. For now, the tournament gets an extra team and just the No. 1 seed (instead of Nos. 1 and 2) will receive a bye. Newcomer North Dakota comes in from the Great West with a balanced and experienced team and has a chance at the expanded tournament field, and several people were bullish on Sacramento State at a recent coaches conference call.
Eastern Washington Eagles (15-17, 8-8)
Projected starting 5: F Jordan Hickert, F Collin Chiverton, F Jaylen Henry, G Jeffery Forbes, G Justin Crosgile
Dearly departed: G Cliff Colimon (16.5 ppg, 66 3-pointers, 160 assists, 52 steals); F Cliff Ederaine (10.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 96 assists, 41 blocks, 43 steals); F Laron Griffin (8.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 23 blocks, 26 steals)
We’re back, baby: G Chiverton (13.9 ppg, 88 3-pointers, 36.7% FG), G Forbes (6.9 ppg, 31 steals, 48 assists, 62% FG)
Welcome to your new home: G Justin Crosgile (St. Joseph’s; 5-11, 170 pounds), the junior is expected to slide into starting point guard role after sitting out last season; Hayford also has collected a quartet of Europeans (transfer Martin Seiferth and true freshmen Fredrik Jorg, Venky Jois and Thomas Reuter) for his roster.
Games to watch: Non-conference, at Washington State (Nov. 10). Conference stretch, Jan. 17-26 (at North Dakota, at Northern Colorado, at Southern Utah)
Predicted finish: 10-10, Big Sky quarterfinalist. Eastern lost three very good starters and have a very young roster this season with a lot of new faces and interchangeable parts save for Chiverton, who should be the go-to scorer/leader.
Idaho State Bengals (9-21, 7-9)
Projected starting 5: G Andre’ Hatchett, G Melvin Morgan, G/F Chris Hansen, F Dejan Kostur, F Nnamdi Ezenwa
Dearly departed: F Chase Grabau (12.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 93 assists, 52 steals, 50.6% FG, 37.3% 3-point); G Kenny McGowen (14.7 ppg, 66 assists, 67 3-pointers, 32.5% 3pt, 37.9% FG); G Abner Moreira (7.2 rpg, 6.2 ppg, 14 blocks, 45.8% FG)
We’re back, baby: G Hatchett (7.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 13 blocks), G Morgan (12.2 points, 57 3pointers, 39.6% 3pt, 83 assists, 55 steals)
Welcome to your new home: Hansen (19 ppg, four rpg) is one of five transfers for new head coach Bill Evans. He is the only sophomore; there is one senior (Neveij Walters) and three juniors. Freshman Clint Thomas, an Idaho native, is the sole non-transfer.
Games to watch: Non-conference, at Oregon (Dec. 8). Conference stretch, Jan. 24-Feb. 2 (at Montana, at Montana State, at Northern Colorado, at North Dakota)
Predicted finish: 2-14, miss the Big Sky tournament. The Bengals lost four of their top five players from last season, which isn’t very helpful. Don’t know if Morgan can do it on his own; they just lost Sherrod Baldwin for the first semester due to academic ineligibility. It might be a long season, but they were predicted to be horrible last year, too.
Montana Grizzlies (25-7, 15-1)
Projected starting 5: G Will Cherry, G/F Kareem Jamar, F Mathias Ward, F Eric Hutchison, F Spencer Coleman
Dearly departed: F/C Derek Selvig (9.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 38 pointers, 43.7% 3pt, 87 assists, 35 blocks); F Art Steward 9.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 33 steals, 52.8% FG 113 FGs)
We’re back, baby: Cherry (15.8 ppg, 105 assists, 83 steals, team leader FG, 3pt, FT makes); Jamar (13.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 20 blocks, 36 steals, 49 3ptrs, 147 FGs, 92 FTs); Ward (10.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg53.8% FG, 129 FG)
Welcome to your new home: F Spencer Coleman (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 56 3ptrs,75% FT 66-88) is one of five newcomers to the Griz; transfer C Marko Kovavevic (JuCo, 6-11, 230) should be another key contributor. UM also has two redshirt Montanans (Morgan Young and Nick Emerson) who can contribute the way Shawn Stockton and Jordan Wood did – by doing the little things, like being a defensive specialist or harasser. Emerson has ability to put up points, too.
Games to watch: Non-conference, vs. BYU in Salt Lake (Nov. 28) or Feb. 23 at BracketBuster. Conference stretch, Feb. 14-March 4 (five road games, including BracketBuster)
Predicted finish: 16-4, Big Sky Tournament champions. OK, so how won’t they win the Big Sky regular season title? For one, Cherry is out indefinitely with a broken foot and Mathias Ward has no rebounding pedigree through his career so far. Why they’ll turn it around and win the Big Sky tournament – head coach Wayne Tinkle has an overall record of 116-71 (.620) and has guided the team to two NCAA tournaments in his seven-year tenure. The Griz have been to the postseason three seasons in a row, no reason to stop now.
Montana State Bobcats (12-17, 7-9)
Projected starting 5: G Antonio Biglow, G Xavier Blount, G Christian Moon, F Eric Norman, C Paul Egwuonwu
Dearly departed: G Rod Singleton (7.3 ppg, 105 assists, 61 FT, 75.3% FT, 40% FG); F Shawn Reid (10.6 ppg, 73.8% FT, 62 FTs, 101 FG); F Tre Johnson (8.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 29 blocks, 96 FG, 45% FG); C Mohamed Fall (7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 51.7% FG, 78 FG)
Welcome to your new home: Biglow (6-0, 165) redshirted last season after going through NCAA issues and has been considered MSU’s best player since he was signed back in February of 2010. Averaged 22.4 points per game as a JuCo sophomore; he’s one of seven new people Brad Huse has on his roster.
Games to watch: Non-conference, at Oregon State (Nov. 25) or Feb. 24 at BracketBuster. Conference stretch, Feb. 14-28 (four road games, including BracketBuster)
Predicted finish: 8-12, miss the Big Sky Tournament. Where to begin? For the second straight year, Brad Huse brings in seven new players (variety of reasons, from graduation to NCAA to extra scholarships). That is a big issue, unless you ask Huse. The Missoula native is going into the final year of his contract, but that doesn’t seem to bother him: Eighteen of the 22 seasons he’s been a head coach, he had one year to prove himself.