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)
After dropping their first four games of the season, Southern Utah looked to be headed for a fifth consecutive defeat in their game at UTSA Sunday afternoon. Nick Robinson’s Thunderbirds didn’t win a single road game in going 2-27 a season ago, and given the combination of that and their 0-4 start you’d be hard-pressed to find many who believed that Southern Utah was capable of leaving San Antonio with a win.
Fortunately for Robinson his players believed otherwise, even with faced with a 92-90 deficit with 2.5 seconds remaining in regulation. Following a Larry Lewis free throw the Thunderbirds got the ball into the hands of guard A.J. Hess, who after two dribbles knocked down a 40-footer as time expired.
Southern Utah’s last road win prior to Sunday: February 7, 2013 at Idaho State.
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.
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.
1. Weber State
2. Northern Arizona
3. Sacramento State
4. Eastern Washington
6. Northern Colorado
7. Portland State
9. North Dakota
10. Idaho State
11. Montana State
12 Southern Utah