Big Sky Conference Preview: Weber State headlines, but league is strong up top

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky Conference.

Last season, the Big Sky once again came down to a battle between conference heavyweights Weber State and Montana, with the Wildcats, led by league Player of the Year and eventual second round draft pick Joel Bolomboy, winning the regular season and tournament titles.

Bolomboy is now gone, as is Montana’s star big man Martin Bruenig, which, in theory, would lead you to believe that the conference should be wide open this season.

And while it should be more competitive at the top, the Big Sky title will likely run through Ogden, Utah, again.

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For my money, Randy Rahe’s Weber State team is once again the favorite to win the league. As good as Bolomboy was last season – 17.1 points, 12.2 boards, two-time defensive player of the year – it was Jeremy Senglin, another first-team all-Big Sky performer, that was the program’s leading scorer. Rahe’s teams tend to thrive when he has a superstar guard on the roster (ask Damian Lillard), and Senglin should be ready to fill that role. As far as replacing Bolomboy is concerned, that’s not going to be possible to do. He was that good. But 6-foot-9 sophomore Zach Braxton showed promise as a freshman, and 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Jordan Dallas, a former three-star recruit, will be ready to go.

Throw in senior Kyndahl Hill and sophomore McKay Cannon, and the pieces are their for Rahe’s program to repeat.

Montana is going to have an even tougher time replacing the production of Bruenig on the interior, as Travis DeCuire doesn’t have as much size in the pipeline. What he does have, however, is a stable of guards that should be able to play a more uptempo, small-ball style. Walter Wright (13.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) is back for his senior season while Michael Oguine and Bobby Moorehead both return after promising freshman seasons. Throw in Oregon transfer Ahmad Rorie, a former top 100 prospect that spent last season as a practice player, and DeCuire has the most balanced perimeter attack in the league.

That won’t, however, guarantee Montana a spot in the top two, not with the amount of talent that returns for some of the other contenders in the conference.

Take North Dakota, for example. The Fighting Hawks improved from 4-14 to 10-8 in league play last season, and they did so with a rotation that included four freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors. Quinton Hooker (20.1 ppg, 3.5 apg) carried much of the load last season and did it in a hyper-efficient manner, and with sophomore Geno Crandall returning in the back court and Drick Bernstine back to anchor the front line, UND will be thoroughly in the mix.

As will Idaho, who returns their top six scorers from a team that won 20 games and went 12-6 in the Big Sky last season. Victor Sanders and Perrion Callendret are the two names to know, but the guy to keep an eye on is Brayon Blake. A third-team JuCo All-American, Blake averaged 21.2 points last season for North Idaho. For a team that finished well below the other contenders in offensive efficiency, that’s the kind of scoring boost that could make a difference.

The last two teams to really keep an eye on will be Idaho State and Montana State.

Idaho State is home to the league’s most exciting talent: Ethan Telfair, a Coney Island native and the younger brother of Sebastian Telfair. He averaged 20.2 points, 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals as a junior in his first season of Division I basketball, playing the starring role as the Bengals went from being predicted to finish last in the conference to the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky tournament. They lose a key role player in Ben Wilson, but the rest of the roster is back.

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire disagrees with a call in the first half of an NIT first-round college basketball game against Texas A&M Tuesday, March 17, 2015, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Montana State loses Marcus Colbert, a second-team all-league player, but they return Tyler Hall, a sophomore guard that is the next superstar in the Big Sky. Hell, he may already be the best player in the conference. As a freshman, Hall, a 6-foot-4 off-guard, averaged 18.7 points while shooting 43.1 percent from three on more than 200 threes attempted. He’s going to score a lot of points in his career, but if the Bobcats are going to improve on their 9-9 mark in Big Sky play last season, they’ll need to find a point guard to replace Colbert and someone to man the paint.

Beyond that, there seems to be a fairly clear-cut delineation between the top and bottom halves of the league. Portland State finished below .500 in the conference last year and lost Cameron Forte. Eastern Washington, who may play the most exciting style of basketball on the west coast, lost Venky Jois to graduation a year after Tyler Harvey turned pro as a sophomore. They’re in rebuilding mode. Northern Colorado returned everyone from last season except their head coach, who was fired in the wake of an NCAA investigation. Sacramento State is not yet ready to contend, and Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are destined to once again compete to avoid finishing last in league play.

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PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jeremy Senglin, Weber State

There is a legitimate argument to be made for every single player we have listed as first-team all-Big Sky to be named the Preseason Player of the Year, but we’re going with Senglin for two reasons: He’s a proven star on a proven team that is the favorite to win the league and, with the loss of Bolomboy, has a real chance for increased production. You’d do worse than betting on Randy Rahe to find a way to get his stars to succeed.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Quinton Hooker, North Dakota: Coming off a season where he averaged 20.1 points, Hooker is the star of a UND team that could push for a conference title.
  • Ethan Telfair, Idaho State: He was unreal individually last season, and it led to totally unexpected team success. What’s he have in story as an encore?
  • Tyler Hall, Montana State: It’s a law in the college hoops world that, when you average 18.7 points as a freshman, you’re a preseason first-teamer as a sophomore.
  • Walter Wright, Montana: Someone has to be the spark and replace Bruenig’s production for Montana this season.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @bigskybball

PREDICTED FINISH

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