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.

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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