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Big Sky Conference Preview: Will North Dakota repeat as league champs?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky Conference.

The Big Sky has, in recent history, been dominated by Montana and Weber State, two of the best mid-major programs out west, but in two of the last three seasons, the conference has seen someone else win the conference.

In 2015, it was Eastern Washington that won the regular season and tournament title.

Last year, it was North Dakota that pulled off a dual-league title, but it will be tough for the Fighting Hawks to pull off a repeat of that feat. Not only did they lose Quinton Hooker to graduation, but Corey Baldwin and Drick Bernstine, who is a graduate transfer at Washington State, are gone as well. Geno Crandall should be in a position to embrace the role of superstar on this roster, and the likes of returnees Cortez Seales and Connor Avants along with transfer Marlon Scott (Creighton), Dale Jones (Iowa) and Jafar Kinsey (Robert Morris via JuCo) give Brian Jones a talent infusion.

In a league with no clear-cut favorite, UND will certainly be in the mix.

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The most entertaining team in the league may end up being Montana State simply due to the presence of Tyler Hall. A 6-foot-4 scoring guard, Hall averaged 23.1 points last season while shooting better than 43 percent from three. The Bobcats return seven of their top eight scorers from a season ago – notably Harald Frey, last year’s newcomer of the year – while adding Keljin Blevins, a 6-foot-6 forward who started for Southern Miss in 2015-16. Hall is good enough to carry MSU to a win on any given night, and he’s only now becoming an upper-classmen.

Both Montana and Weber State will contend for the league title as well. The Wildcats are going to have to find someone to replace Jeremy Senglin, who was significantly underrated from a national perspective, but they may have the guy with Jerrick Harding, a 6-foot-1 lefty lead guard that averaged 9.3 points in just over 17 minutes as a freshman. Zach Braxton is back to anchor the front line, along with Utah transfer Brekkot Chapman, while freshman Doc Nelson should provide some firepower off the bench in a role similar to what Harding played last year.

Montana will be led by Oregon transfer Ahmad Rorie, who had some blow-up games as a sophomore. In a league with a number of good-to-great guards, Rorie may actually be the best point guard of the bunch. Four of the Grizzlies’ five leading scorers returning, including Michael Oguine, while Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey and Cal-St. Fullerton transfer Jamar Akoh will be eligible.

Idaho will be a team to keep an eye on. They’re not one of the traditional powers in the league, but once Victor Sanders opted to return to school after flirting with the professional ranks, Idaho will return everyone of significance from a team that went 12-6 in league play, including their Big Sky Player of the Year favorite.

After that, there seems to be a bit of a drop off in the league. Eastern Washington will return some talent, namely Latvian forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, but replacing the production of Jacob Wiley would be too much for any mid-major program. Sacramento State does get Marcus Graves and Justin Strings back, but they lacked depth before losing Nick Hornsby and Eric Stuteville. Jordan Davis had a monster season for Northern Colorado a year ago, and getting Anthony Johnson, their leading scorer in 2015-16, back healthy will be key. Portland State, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and Idaho State all finished near the bottom of the league last season and lost their leading scorers.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Hall, Montana State

Tyler Hall has a chance to be the mid-major darling of college hoops this season. A rising junior, Hall has already scored 1,317 points in his two seasons with the Bobcats, including posting better than 23 points a night as a sophomore. A 6-foot-4 guard that shot 43 percent from three on more than eight attempts per game, Hall had eight games last season where he went for more than 30 points, including a 42-point outburst against Milwaukee. I’m not saying he’s Damian Lillard, but like the former Weber State star, Hall has a chance to go from the Big Sky to the first round of the NBA Draft before it’s all said and done.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY FIRST TEAM

  • Ahmad Rorie, Montana: The former Oregon point guard had a promising first season with the Grizzlies, and he should only get better as the Grizzlies add a pair of talented transfers to a roster anchored by the redshirt junior.
  • Victor Sanders, Idaho: Sanders is the second-leading returning scorer in a league that featured six players that averaged better than 20 points last season. The 6-foot-5 senior will anchor an Idaho team that returns essentially everyone from a team that finished tied for third.
  • Bogdan Bliznyuk, Eastern Washington: Bliznyuk actually led EWU in scoring as a junior, bettering the best player in the conference last season, Jacob Wiley. A skill, 6-foot-6 wing, Bliznyuk is also a talented playmaker.
  • Geno Crandall, North Dakota: Crandall played second fiddle to Quinton Hooker the last two seasons, but with Hooker gone, Crandall should step into a starring role for a UND team with real Big Sky title aspirations.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @bigskybball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Montana State
2. North Dakota
3. Idaho
4. Montana
5. Weber State
6. Eastern Washington
7. Northern Colorado
8. Sacramento State
9. Southern Utah
10. Portland State
11. Northern Arizona
12. Idaho State

No. 17 Michigan beats Maryland 85-61 for 5th straight win

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the decisive first half, and No. 17 Michigan easily defeated Maryland 85-61 Saturday for its fifth straight victory.

Using runs of 9-0 and 16-3, the Wolverines built a 54-24 halftime lead and cruised to the finish. Michigan went 17 for 28 from the floor in the first half, including 11 for 19 from 3-point range.

The Wolverines (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten) have clinched the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, but can earn a No. 4 seed and a double bye if Nebraska loses to Penn State on Sunday.

Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 17 for Maryland, which suffered its most lopsided home loss since a 104-72 defeat against Duke on Jan 3, 1998.

The Terrapins (19-12, 8-10) were 15-2 at home and lost to Michigan on the road by just one point on Jan. 15, which made the blowout that much more surprising.

Abdur-Rahkman made six 3-pointers in the first half and also led the Wolverines with five rebounds and four assists. The senior guard cooled off in the second half, but nevertheless surpassed his previous career best of 26 points.

After Michigan rattled off 10 straight points to take a 20-12 lead, Kevin Huerter hit a 3 for Maryland before Jaaron Simmons launched the pivotal 16-3 run with a long-range jumper. Jordan Poole chipped in with a pair of 3-pointers and another by Abdur-Rahkman made it 34-18.

The Wolverines had three turnovers in their opening four possessions, but added only one more before halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: The Wolverines have plenty of momentum to bring into the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan won it all last year, and again appears ready to take on the big boys in the conference.

Maryland: A flat performance at home means the Terrapins have to win the Big Ten Tournament to extend their run of appearances in the NCAA Tournament to four.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Former Maryland WR Torrey Smith, who earned his second career Super Bowl ring this season, returned to his alma mater to promote a charity basketball tournament next month in Baltimore. Also, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the brother of Michigan football Jim Harbaugh, sat courtside.

UP NEXT

Michigan: Big Ten Tournament in New York.

Maryland: Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Mark Emmert hints at changes coming to rules regulating agents in college basketball

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Whatever changes Mark Emmert has planned, they’re going to happen quickly.

In an interview with CBS Sports prior to the start of Saturday’s college hoops action, Emmert said that the “systemic changes” that he is hoping to implement will, ideally, be in place for the start of the 2018-2019 season.

“They’re going to be putting forth their recommendations and bringing them forward during the month of April, and then the boards are going to act on them and act on them quickly,” Emmert said. “We need to act and have changes in place before tipoff of next season. Failure to do that will really erode everyone’s confidence in what this wonderful game is truly all about.”

What are the changes going to be?

Emmert didn’t spill the beans there, but it does seems like the NCAA will consider changing the rules involving agents and college basketball players. When asked why there’s a difference between the way the NCAA views hockey/baseball players and basketball players with regards to agents, Emmert said, “It makes perfect sense to me that it ought to be very different than it is now.”

This would be the smart move to make. Of Friday, I wrote a long column about how the only way to clean up college basketball is to allow players to have agents and to eliminate amateurism. This would not entirely solve the problem, but it would be a major step in the right direction.

Emmert also said that he hopes that the eligibility concerns involving the players that are mentioned in these reports will be figured out by the start of the NCAA tournament. The process for determining this is simple: Right now, the onus falls on the school. They essentially have three options:

  1. They can provisionally suspend the player, keeping them out of competition until they can determine whether or not a violation took place. This is why Collin Sexton and Jeffery Carroll missed time earlier this season.
  2. They can self-report a violation, announce that the player is ineligible and immediately apply for reinstatement with the NCAA. The player would have to make restitution for the impermissible benefits and, depending on the value of those benefits, they’d face some kind of suspension. This is like what happened with the Georgia Tech players earlier this season.
  3. They can announce that they do not believe any violations occurred, play out the rest of the season and hope that no evidence pops up that proves the guys that played were ineligible at the time.

At this time, we are still waiting to hear from Alabama on Collin Sexton, Michigan State on Miles Bridges and Arizona on Deandre Ayton and Sean Miller.

Chimezie Metu cleared to play by USC

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USC has cleared junior forward Chimezie Metu as he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday against Utah, the school announced.

The 6-foot-11 Metu is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Trojans this season as he was one of the players named in the Friday reports that linked him to NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins.

The Trojans are the latest school to allow their player to play after the reports as they follow schools like Duke and Kentucky, as they also did the same with allowing Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Knox Jr. to play.

It’s also noted in the release that USC is reviewing Bennie Boatwright’s eligibility as well even though he’s out for the season with a knee injury.

On Friday, Yahoo Sports reported a wide-scale payment operation from Miller and Dawkins in order to recruit players for Miller’s agency. The records allege that Bennie Boatwright Sr. received about $2,000. The records also allege that Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, also got $2,000.

Although the allegations look serious, Dawkins has also proven to be untrustworthy in many instances and it’s hard to tell what might be real and what might be a cover for another expense. It’s hard to prove a lot of these things presented in a business expenses spreadsheet. USC is backing Metu by saying he never received anything that would harm his eligibility as they try to make a final push at Arizona before the postseason.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

YET TO PLAY

LOUISVILLE
VIRGINIA TECH
SMU
MIAMI
LSU
TEXAS
USC
UTAH
MISSISSIPPI STATE
TEXAS A&M
WASHINGTON
ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

Marvin Bagley III returning to Duke lineup against Syracuse after knee injury

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Duke star freshman Marvin Bagley III will be available for the Blue Devils on Saturday when they play Syracuse in an ACC home game.

Bagley missed the past four games due to a knee strain that he suffered in the Feb. 8 game against North Carolina. During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils went 4-0 as their defense looked very good and senior Grayson Allen became an aggressive scorer.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of changes Duke makes with Bagley’s return. Watching Bagley’s health and seeing how many minutes he plays will be another subplot to watch against the Orange.