Weber State Wildcats

Travis DeCuire
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (AP Photo)

Big Sky Preview: Montana, Weber State lead the way

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky.

After a 2013-14 season in which eight teams managed to win at least ten games in conference play, there was more separation in the Big Sky pecking order in 2014-15. The number of teams with ten or more league wins was trimmed to five, with Montana and Eastern Washington finishing tied for first at 14-4 and Sacramento State and Northern Arizona a game behind the Grizzlies and Eagles at 13-5.

Jim Hayford’s Eagles managed to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, winning at Montana in the Big Sky title game, but he has a lot to replace with four starters from that team having moved on including high-scoring guard Tyler Harvey. That leaves senior forward Venky Jois as the lone returning starter, but fellow forward Bogdan Bliznyuk could be one of the Big Sky’s breakout players after averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with their personnel losses EWU has the potential to be a factor in the Big Sky race.

As for the favorites, a Montana team led by forward Martin Breunig and guards Mario Dunn and Brandon Gfeller can certainly make that claim even with the graduation of leading scorer Jordan Gregory. Travis DeCuire’s first season as head coach at his alma mater yielded a share of the Big Sky regular season title and a trip to the Postseason NIT. The question now is whether or not this talented group can go a step further than they did in 2014-15, as they fell at home to EWU in the Big Sky title game.

Another team to keep an eye on is Weber State, which returns the tandem of guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Joel Bolomboy. In total five of Weber State’s top six scorers (four starters) from last season are back, meaning that the pieces are in place for the team to rebound from last season’s 13-17 record. The Wildcats struggled on both ends of the floor but especially offensively, shooting just 45 percent inside of the arc and ranking 258th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

But Randy Rahe’s squad was young, with a number of players getting used to new roles. With a season of experience under their belts, Weber State can make a leap up the Big Sky standings.

Jack Murphy’s Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who won 13 league games last season, return two of the Big Sky’s best players and as a result are capable of contending as well. Guard Kris Yanku emerged as one of the conference’s top point guards as a sophomore, and with forward Jordyn Martin serving as the team’s defensive anchor (Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year last season) NAU can overcome the fact that they lost three starters from last season’s CIT finalists.

Southern Utah may be able to take a step forward in Nick Robinson’s fourth season at the helm, as they return five of their top six scorers led by senior wing A.J. Hess. The middle of the Big Sky won’t lack for intrigue, which is usually the case for the conference. Five teams won between seven and ten conference games last season, with the best offensive team of that quintet (Northern Colorado) finishing at the top of that group. Yet while in seasons past those teams were fighting for a conference tournament berth, they’ll only be fighting for seeding as the format (all 12 teams qualify) and location (Reno, Nevada) of the tournament have changed.

Prior to last season either Montana or Weber State won four of the last five Big Sky tournament titles (2011 being the exception), and at least one of those two has played in the last six championship games. Given the talent back at both programs, the 2015-16 season could see one of those two traditional powers holding the Big Sky trophy come March.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “It’s either Montana or Weber State. Montana lost (Jordan) Gregory but they have some guys coming back, and Weber State has more experience after last season. The talent on both of those teams make them the ones that will be the favorites to win the league.”
  • Sleeper: “They lost some guys but I like Northern Arizona. (Kris) Yanku is one of the best players in our league, and he can score and distribute the basketball. And they’ve got the league’s Defensive Player of the Year (Jordyn Martin) back as well. Jack Murphy’s done a good job rebuilding that program.”
  • Star to watch: “He’s going to have more attention on him because of the guys they lost, but Venky Jois might be the best player in the conference. He’s a handful to stop in the post, and he rebounds and passes well too.”

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martin Breunig, Montana

In his first season on the court for the Grizzlies, the former Washington forward emerged as one of the top players in the Big Sky. Averaging 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and shooting better than 59 percent from the field, Breunig was one of three players to be a unanimous All-Big Sky selection.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: A first team All-Big Sky selection as a junior, Jois is the most experienced returnee for Jim Hayford’s Eagles.
  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State: Bolomboy averaged a league-best 10.2 rebounds to go along with 13.3 points and 1.7 blocks per game last season.
  • Kris Yanku, Northern Arizona: One of the conference’s top freshmen in 2013-14, Yanku averaged 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game last year.
  • Jeremy Senglin, Weber State: Senglin averaged 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSkyMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

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

Broken jaw to sideline Weber State sophomore guard four weeks

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Thursday night Weber State suffered a 60-56 loss to Southern Utah, falling to the Thunderbirds for the second time this season. What makes matters worse for Randy Rahe’s team is the fact that they’ve lost sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin for four weeks after he suffered a broken jaw in the second half of that game.

Senglin, who was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year last season, is Weber State’s leader in both scoring (16.0 ppg) and assists (3.4 apg).

“I couldn’t feel worse for Jeremy,” Rahe said in a release announcing the news. “He’s an extremely tough and competitive player and I know how hard it is for him to not be able to play and help his team. Our main concern is to get him healthy. He will bounce back from this and has a very bright future with us.”

This is obviously a big loss for the Wildcats, who at 5-7 in conference play aren’t a lock to qualify for the Big Sky tournament. The top eight teams in the 12-team conference get the opportunity to compete for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and Weber State is currently tied for seventh with Portland State.

Without Senglin, guards Richaud Gittens and Chris Golden will be asked to do even more down the stretch offensively.

Juwan Major’s dunk one of the highlights in Southern Utah’s win over Weber State

Nick Robinson
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Southern Utah picked up its second consecutive Big Sky victory on Saturday, as they beat preseason favorite Weber State 70-60 in Cedar City with Tyler Rawson and Casey Oliverson scoring 16 points apiece to lead the way. The win was a big one for Nick Robinson’s program, especially when considering the fact that the Thunderbirds hadn’t won consecutive conference games since February 2013.

One of the highlights in Southern Utah’s second conference win of the season (they only won one in 2013-14) was Juwan Major’s dunk on Weber State big man (and in this play, weak side defender) Joel Bolomboy. The dunk was part of a 14-0 second half run that turned a 46-all tie into a 60-46 Southern Utah lead the Thunderbirds would not relinquish.

Video credit: Southern Utah Athletics (h/t Big Sky Conference)

Weber State hits 40-foot buzzer-beater to end first half, last-second three to beat Oral Roberts, 62-61 (VIDEOS)

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The Wildcats trailed by six with 41 seconds left, but went on a 6-1 run to top Oral Roberts at home, 62-61. Jeremy Senglin hit a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2.4 seconds left. The Golden Eagles committed a violation while inbounding the ball on the ensuing possession.

“I thought we were down three to tell the truth,” Senglin said in the post-game press conference. “So, I just came off the screen and they kind of cheated, so I crossed back. I shot better going off the right, so I crossed back to the right, and just shot the three.

“Thought we tied the game, honestly. But I didn’t know that put us up until I looked up.”

The Golden Eagles missed 2-of-6 free throws in the final 59 seconds.

Senglin finished with nine points. His shot topped teammate Richaud Gittens, who hit a 40-foot buzzer-beater to end the first half, which tied the score at 24-all heading into the break.

No longer supplementary pieces, two Texans will lead the way at Weber State

Randy Rahe
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source: AP
Weber State head coach Randy Rahe (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

In eight seasons at Weber State, head coach Randy Rahe has won 169 games (just over 21 wins per season) but prior to the 2013-14 campaign the Wildcats made just one NCAA tournament appearance under his watch. Thanks in large part to four seniors, led by Big Sky Player of the Year Davion Berry, that changed, with Weber State winning the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles. With their eyes on a repeat the Wildcats begin the season with just one senior, but their returnees have plenty of experience when it comes to contributing to a championship run.

The question for Weber State: can those supplementary options step forward into primary roles? The good news for Weber State is that the staff has done well on the recruiting trail in recent years, and players who hail from Texas make up nearly one-third of the roster entering the 2014-15 campaign. Looking for talent in areas they may not have hit hard in the past is something many programs do. In the case of Weber State, they’ve worked hard to build relationships within Texas and the efforts have paid off.

“We always want to be recruiting Utah first, going after the same guys who are going to BYU or Utah or Utah State. We don’t want to settle,” Rahe told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “We’ve had a harder time beating those schools for some guys, so we’ve gone to Arizona where we’ve had some success and northern California where we’ve gotten guys like Damian Lillard, Davion Berry and Frank Otis.

“But we decided that we needed to go to another spot, and I told my assistant Phil Beckner [who’s now with the Oklahoma City Thunder], ‘I want you to dive into Texas and see what you can do.’ He did a great job of establishing inroads and getting to know people. The first guy we got out of there was Joel Bolomboy, who we found at an early age. By the summer before his senior year he was 6-foot-9 and all of a sudden Clemson, Auburn and New Mexico (were interested). But he hung with us and showed a lot of loyalty, and since then we’ve kept going down there.”

Bolomboy is one of two Texans who were a part of the starting lineup last season, with sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin being the other. Bolomboy contributed 8.7 points and a Big Sky-best 11.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Senglin accounting for 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists at the off-guard position. Both were recognized by Big Sky coaches for their efforts at the end of the season, as Bolomboy was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and Senglin winning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors.

Due to the departures responsibilities will change for both, especially for Senglin as he’ll be asked to move into the role of primary ball-handler.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Big Sky Conference Preview

“He didn’t have to be the main guy as a true freshman. He could fit in, and he filled that role really well,” Rahe said of Senglin. “This year obviously his level of responsibility in our program has to go up. From a scoring standpoint we’re probably going to need a bit more from him, and we’re going to need more from a leadership standpoint. I think he can be a very good point guard, and everything has to kick up another notch for him. Now he’s got more responsibility, and he’s going to have to mix in the scoring and getting his teammates involved.”

The process of moving into the role of primary ball-handler can be a difficult one, because there’s a lot more that goes into the process than simply thinking that one has to pass the ball more. The understanding of when to get your teammates the ball and where they should get the ball is key, as is the need to understand when it’s time to pursue your own scoring opportunities and when it’s time to run something to get someone else a shot. Senglin gained experience in both perimeter roles during his high school years, including a stint alongside Emmanuel Mudiay with the Texas Select program, and those are experiences Weber State expects to serve Senglin well as he adjust to a different role.

In regards to Bolomboy, his ability as both a rebounder and defender has been present since he arrived on campus, as he tallied 7.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2012-13 despite not starting a single game. The key for Bolomboy this offseason was to expand his game, and despite getting just a week and a half with Ukraine’s national team before suffering a bone bruise in his knee he was able to work on becoming a more consistent offensive player.

source: AP
Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy (AP Photo)

Last season, 45.3% of Bolomboy’s field goal attempts were two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com, and he made just 28.6% of those shots. The short amount of time Bolomboy worked under Ukraine head coach Mike Fratello helped the junior add some polish to his offensive skill set, and according to Rahe, the improvement has been noticeable since his leading rebounder returned to Ogden.

“He was playing with older guys,” Rahe said when asked how the summer experience helped Bolomboy. “He was being coached by coach Fratello, who is a great coach and knows what he’s doing. For us, it was great because now he hears another voice. It was good for him to hear some of the same things we’ve been telling him but from someone else, which kind of reinforces what we’ve been trying to get him to do.”

Bolomboy isn’t going to be a player who hoists up 20 shots a night, and that’s fine. Weber State doesn’t need him to be that kind of player. But they did need him to use this offseason to improve his offensive skill set, because in addition to Berry the Wildcats lost their second-leading scorer in Kyle Tresnak (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and a key contributor in Jordan Richardson (7.1, 2.3, 2.5 apg). With those losses, not to mention fellow senior Byron Fulton and junior Royce Williams, Bolomboy’s progression from supplementary offensive piece to primary option is one of the biggest storylines for Weber State as they look to repeat as Big Sky champions. What’s helped matters is the fact that Bolomboy has worked incredibly hard on his game.

“Joel is an extremely hard worker,” Rahe noted. “He wants to be as good as he can possibly be. When we first got Joel as a freshman, he was always very athletic and rebounded at a high level because of his athleticism, but he needed a lot of skill work. His ball-handling, his passing, his shooting, which then (if improved) would help him get a better feel for the game and how the game was played. His skill level and feel for the game as a freshman was not very good, so those were the two areas that we really tried to hit hard.

MORE: All of NBCSports.com’s conference previews can be found here

“Just improving his overall skill level and ball-handling; the better you can handle the ball, the better you feel about the game and you see the game better,” Rahe continued. “He’s really come a long way. He’s starting to feel the game better and his skill level has gotten very good for a 6-9, 235-pound player. He can now shoot the ball from three and we’re allowing him to do that, and he can now make plays off the bounce as well.

“He’s really come a long way in two years, and a lot of it has to do with his overall work ethic and how good he wants to be.”

Bolomboy and Senglin are the two players most will focus on when assessing the Wildcats’ chances of retaining possession of the Big Sky title due to the roles they filled a season ago. But it’ll take a lot more than just two players to accomplish that goal, with players such as sophomores Richaud Gittens and Kyndahl Hill also in spots where they’ll be able to contribute more. A team that was led by five seniors a season ago will have just one in 2014-15. But even with the relative lack of experience the standards within the program don’t change, with Rahe having three areas that he focuses on every season.

“The things I always worry about before every season are: 1. How tough are we?” Rahe said. “Are we going to be tough enough mentally? Physically? That’s something we try to hang our hat on up here. 2. How hard we’re going to play; and 3. how together we’re going to be. Those three areas are things that we try to keep consistent every year. It’s those intangibles that come through for us, and I believe that we have enough talent to be competitive.”

2014-2015 Season Preview: Weber State won’t lack for challengers in Big Sky

Weber State's Joel Bolomboy (AP Photo)
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Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The favorite to win the Big Sky 2014-2015 won’t come as a surprise, despite the fact that the program in question lost four seniors from last season’s NCAA tournament team. Randy Rahe’s Weber State Wildcats enter the season looking to make consecutive NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since their run of three straight from 1978-80. Gone are Big Sky Player of the Year Davion Berry, key contributors Kyle Tresnak and Jordan Richardson, and Royce Williams (transfer) and Byron Fulton. However even with those losses the Wildcats return some talented pieces, led by junior forward Joel Bolomboy and sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin. Bolomboy was an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection last season, but he’s poised to make a sizeable jump after leading the conference in rebounding (11.2 rpg).

As for Senglin, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year (10.9 ppg) will slide over into the role of primary ball-handler with Berry having moved on. Weber State will be more balanced this season when it comes to scoring, as they lose a player in Berry who factored into more than 30 percent of their possessions in 2013-14. Adjustments will need to be made, with Richaud Gittens (6.9 ppg) and Kyndahl Hill (4.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg) among the returnees who will need to step forward. But even with that being the case, Weber State is more than capable of winning the Big Sky again.

As for the competition, this will be a balanced race once again. Last year seven teams won between ten and 12 conference games (the Big Sky has a 20-game schedule), with the two teams that finished 10-10 (Eastern Washington and Sacramento State) failing to qualify for the postseason tournament. Both the Eagles and Hornets should qualify without much trouble this season, with Jim Hayford welcoming back four starters led by guards Drew Brandon and Tyler Harvey (21.8 ppg) and forward Venky Jois. In total EWU returns its top five scorers from 2013-14, which will make the Eagles a formidable group from an offensive standpoint. If they can get a little better defensively, Eastern Washington will be a contender.

As for Sacramento State, their experienced guard tandem of Dylan Garrity (13.2 ppg, 3.6 apg) and Mikh McKinney (16.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) will be asked to lead the way. McKinney was a first team All-Big Sky selection in 2013-14 with Garrity receiving honorable mention status, and with guard Cody Demps and forward Zach Mills also returning the Hornets welcome back their top four scorers from a season ago. Two other players to watch for the Hornets: senior forward Alex Tiffin and sophomore center Eric Stuteville. Sacramento State broke even on the boards last season thanks to a group effort (seven players averaged between 3.1 and 4.2 rpg), and if Stuteville (5.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Tiffin (4.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) can step forward the Hornets will be better for it.

Northern Arizona is another team to consider, with head coach Jack Murphy doing a good job of rebuilding the program. Senior guard Quinton Upshur (15.3 ppg), who was the conference’s best newcomer last season, and fellow guards Aaseem Dixon and Kris Yanku will lead the way offensively with Yanku manning the point. Add in leading rebounder Gaellan Bewernick (5.9 rpg), and the Lumberjacks have the pieces needed to contend. Montana, even with the loss of do-it-all guard/forward Kareem Jamar, will be formidable and the same can be said for Northern Colorado, Portland State and Idaho as well.

The top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament, with the regular season champion playing the role of host. And just like last season, the race for those spots won’t lack for suspense this winter.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Idaho
Out: None

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington

Harvey averaged 21.8 points per game overall last season, and he was even better in conference games (23.8 ppg) of the Eagles. And in addition to being one of the best scorers in the country as a sophomore Harvey was also one of its best shooters, shooting 44.3% from the field, 43.3% from three and 89.7% from the charity stripe.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Mikh McKinney, Sacramento State: In addition to the 16.6 points per game, McKinney was also third in the Big Sky in offensive rating amongst players who factored into at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions in 2013-14.
  • Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona: Upshur was the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, averaging 15.3 points per game.
  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State: Bolomboy’s already a high-level rebounder, and he made strides in expanding his offensive skill set this summer.
  • Jeremy Senglin, Weber State: Sacramento State’s Dylan Garrity was another option, but the pick is Senglin due to his solid freshman year and what he can do in moving to a primary ball-handler role as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @bigskybball

PREDICTED FINISH

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