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Sanders, Vandals should fly high in Big Sky

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 6, 2017 07:35 PM

Last season was far from the Big Sky's finest, with North Dakota representing the conference in the NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed. Seven of the nation's worst 71 defenses resided in the league, with no team ranking better than 142nd in defensive points per game.

That top defense belonged to Idaho, which has a good chance of winning the conference. The Vandals return their top seven contributors from a year ago, including the conference's best scorer in Victor Sanders. As a junior, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard had 20.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while making 43.9 percent of his 3s.

The team did not have a dominant second scorer to pair with him, though, as forward Brayon Blake was the team's next-best scorer, going for 10 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game. Arkadiy Mkrtychyan and 6-foot-8 Nate Sherwood make up perhaps the conference's deepest frontcourt as the two combined for 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds.

The Vandals have three freshmen incoming, but their biggest addition is senior Perrion Callandret, who is back after having his 2016-17 season limited to just two games because of injury. During the 2015-16 season, he stared 23 games, averaging 14 points and four rebounds. If he can have a similar output this year, he could be the team's No. 2 scoring option.

Idaho should be one of the favorites to win the conference, led by perhaps the best all-around player in the conference in Sanders.

North Dakota is trying to follow up its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament with a second one, but that will be anything but easy with the loss of leading scorer Quinton Hooker.

The departed 6-foot guard did it all last year with 19.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 3.6 assists per game while making 44.4 percent of his 3s. His loss will force junior Geno Crandall to step up after he averaged an eye-popping 15.5 points, 4.4 assists, four rebounds and 2.1 steals.

As incredible as those numbers were, he might need to be even better this year with another backcourt mate in Corey Baldwin also out of eligibility. Baldwin was a big reason North Dakota shot 39 percent from 3-point range with him converting on 42.3 percent of his triples. He was also a double-digit scorer, contributing 10.2 points and 3.8 rebounds.

The big question with this team is 6-foot-8 Dale Jones, a graduate transfer. Many thought he would be a key to success for Iowa, but he played in just 11 games in two years at the Big Ten school due to injuries. He is a capable 3-point shooter and has good handles. The potential for him to be an all-conference player is there if he can stay healthy.

Fighting Hawks coach Brian Jones brought in a pair of transfer guards a year ago and hopes they can put this team over the top now that they are eligible. Marlon Stewart comes in after seeing close to zero minutes at Creighton, while Jaffe Kinsey was used as a defensive stopper at Robert Morris.

North Dakota has the highest ceiling and lowest floor of any school in the conference. If Jones and one of the guards can play to their potential, this team could not only go to the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps engineer a stunning upset. This team also has to potential of laying an egg and going .500. There are several unknowns on the roster.

Eastern Washington was the second-best team in the conference last year, but with coach Jim Hayfield leaving for Seattle, it could be an uphill battle for the Eagles.

The team also loses conference player of the year Jacob Wiley, who notched 20.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2.4 assists per game last year. It's a daunting task to replace him given the team's lack of depth, but it helps to have a guy who scored 20.6 points per game in Bogdan Bliznyuk, who stands 6-foot-6 yet led the team in assists with four a game and chipped in 1.1 steals and 6.5 rebounds.

If guard Sir Washington can do some distributing and find a way to build on the 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game he had a year ago, the team should have a solid rotation and be back toward the top of the conference standings. Eastern Washington will likely find itself in the middle of the pack.

Despite a 16-16 record last year, Montana showed a lot of promise and has built one of the strongest backcourts in the Big Sky. Grizzlies coach Travis DeCuire has a do-it-all player in Ahmaad Rorie to build around. The 6-foot guard led the squad with 17.6 points and 3.1 assists to go with 3.5 rebounds.

Some personnel losses make Australian big man Fabijan Krslovic all the more important. The 6-foot-8 senior led the team with 6.4 rebounds per game along with 7.6 points and 1.2 steals. Former Washington recruit Donaven Dorsey should give the lineup a spark after sitting out the 2016-17 season as a transfer. The team brings in another 6-foot-7 player via transfer in former Cal State Fullerton big man Jamar Akoh. He was a starter as a sophomore in 2015-16, averaging 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.

Montana has a chance to rise to the top portion of the conference standings.

Last year was the seventh time under coach Randy Rahe that Weber State collected 20 wins or more, finishing third in the Big Sky with a mark of 12-6 in conference. The program has the unenviable task of trying to replace the top two scorers in Jeremy Senglin and Kyndahl Hill, but there are reinforcements on the way.

Brekkott Chapman, a 6-foot-8 forward, is eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season after he decided to leave Utah. The team needs Chapman to step up, as Senglin's loss might be the most crippling of any in the conference. The guard went off for 21.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a senior, all while converting 44.7 percent of the 8.7 3s per game he took.

Last year, Jerrick Harding and Ryan Richardson both hit over 40.5 percent of their 3s, averaging 9.3 and 8.1 points, respectively. They were two big reasons the Wildcats made 41.7 percent of their 3s, which was the second-best shooting clip in the nation from distance.

Also in the backcourt will be Dusty Baker, who nailed 52.8 percent of his 3s while averaging 7.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists. The big unknown with this team is 7-foot European big man Anton Vialen, who has the physical tools to dominate but needs coaching.

Idaho and the Montana schools have this program beat on paper, but Weber State still has a solid team and should threaten the 20-win mark.

Speaking of high-scoring guards, Montana State has one in Tyler Hall, who led the league with 23.1 points per game as the team went 16-16 overall and 11-7 in Big Sky play last year. Hall took 8.8 3s per game last year and nailed nearly 43 percent. He pulled down 5.4 rebounds and dished 2.8 assists per game to go with his ridiculous scoring.

Not surprisingly, the fall off from the top scorer to No. 2 on this team is drastic, as Harald Fray averaged 12.7 points. He’s another 3-point sharp shooter, converting nearly 41 percent of his attempts while also leading the team with 3.4 assists.

With a lot of the pieces from last year returning and a candidate to be the top individual scorer in the country in Hall, this team has the ability to win the conference.

Sacramento State had a poor start to the season, but went 13-18 overall after going 9-9 in Big Sky play. With the top of the conference being so tough, it's hard to see the Hornets breaking .500 in Big Sky play, especially with two big losses in the frontcourt in 6-foot-11 Eric Stuteville and 6-foot-7 Nick Hornsby.

So, wing Justin Strings will have to be even better than he was a season ago when he averaged 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds. He’s also the main 3-point shooter on the team, making 35 percent of the 5.1 3s per game he attempted. That's important because Sacramento State ranked 338th in the country in made 3s a year ago. This team faces an uphill battle and is headed toward the bottom of the conference.

Portland State outscored opponents by 3.5 points per game, yet had a 15-16 record overall due to its inability to close out close showdowns. The Vikings went 6-11 in games decided by single digits and 0-5 in games that went to overtime. Those losses dug the grave of coach Tyler Geving, who was replaced by Santa Clara assistant Barret Peery in the offseason.

The X-factor for this team is Braxton Tucker, who was leading the team with 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds through five games last year before knee issues ended his season. If he comes back healthy and can put up those kind of numbers, this is a team that should rise up the conference standings.

Bryce Canda become the team's top returning 3-point shooter. He converted 38.8 percent of his 3s while averaging 10.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a junior.

Portland State had a losing record last year despite averaging 85.3 points per game, which was eighth in the country. It will be hard for it to duplicate that offensive output, but the win total should be higher this year, though it may not have the weapons to crack the top four of the conference due to so many of the other teams in the Big Sky also improving.

Southern Utah had a rough go of it in the first year of the Todd Simon era, going just 6-27, and the Thunderbirds must find a way to improve that record despite he transfer of top scorer Randy Onwuasor. The 6-foot-3 guard had a whopping 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game before bolting the hapless program for Texas Tech.

James McGee is the team's top returning scorer, getting 14.2 points per game last year. He is also the team's top 3-point shooter, hitting 42.3 percent of his shots from deep. The team also has a guy with lots of potential in 6-foot-8 multi-faceted forward Jacob Calloway. As a freshman, he averaged 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds while making 36.4 percent of his 3s.

Brigham Young graduate transfer Jamal Aytes should see some heavy minutes given the losses on the roster. The 6-foot-6 forward could never get solid minutes at either BYU or UNLV, which is where he started his college career, but the team at this point needs a post player and he certainly is that.

Simon also reunites with former UNLV forward Dwayne Morgan, who played just eight games last year due to injury and was suspended indefinitely in the offseason for an arrest during the spring. The 6-foot-8 forward put up 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in his injury-riddled 2016-17 campaign. Morgan will be eligible for Southern Utah for the second semester and could become its best player.

With 6-foot-11 Ivan Madunic coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 4.7 points, four rebounds and a block per game, the team should have a pretty solid stable of big men to rely on.

Simon is a good coach, but his work is cut out for him. Since winning 25 games in the 2000-01 season, the team has been at or above .500 just once. That trend will continue this year, though the team could surge in the second half off the season once Morgan is eligible.

After a promising 16-15 season for Idaho State in 2015-16, the program took a complete nosedive last year, posting a 5-26 record.

Though the team loses top scorer Ethan Telfair, getting rid of his 17 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game might actually be a good thing. The brother of Sebastian Telfair was a volume shooter who made just 34 percent of the shots he took and was awful on defense as the team allowed 80.2 points per game.

The team is hoping Gary Chivichyan can return at full strength after playing just seven games last year due to a groin injury. He made 40.5 percent of his 3s and scored 7.6 points per game. He should team up in the backcourt with Brandon Boyd, who converted 39.4 percent of his 3s and is the team's best returning scorer, averaging 12.4 points as a sophomore.

The post play should also shine a bit more with Telfair no longer in the picture, so expect 7-foot Serbian center Novak Topalovic to improve on his 10.2 points and team-high 6.3 rebounds.

Northern Arizona is hoping to get back to the form it had when winning 23 games during the 2014-15 season, as the Lumberjacks have won just 14 the past two years combined.

With all four of the team's double-digit scorers from last year gone, the sixth year for coach Jack Murphy could be his last. But guard JoJo Anderson will get help in the form of Stanford transfer Malcolm Allen, who averaged 1.9 points in three years at the Pac-12 program. It would not be shocking if this team wins five games or fewer this year.

The Jeff Linder era got off to a good start at Northern Colorado last year, though the team's 11-18 record does not reflect that.

He took over a program that was in ruin after B.J. Hill was fired in April of 2016 due to academic wrongdoings. It led to a lot of shakeup in the program, and Linder has found a young base he can build around. Point guard Jordan Davis has player of the year potential after he went off for 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a sophomore.

There will be more minutes for sophomore Jonah Radebaugh, who made 39.6 percent of his 3s and averaged 7.6 points. 5.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals. The Bears are leaning on 6-foot-9 freshman Matej Drgon to make a big impact immediately after moving to the United States from Slovakia. He had 13 points and six rebounds per game in the 2016 U18 European Championships and showed wonderful athleticism in the grainy videos that are available on him.

Northern Colorado is likely going to be below .500 unless it can shoot better at the free-throw line and share the ball better as a unit. Davis has a chance to have a monster season, but he cannot do it alone.

The Big Sky is loaded with gifted individual players who can put up gaudy numbers but do not have talent surrounding them. There are several teams that could have breakout years or get busted at the seams. Idaho is the favorite in the conference, and what happens from there is anyone's guess.

Greg Peterson's Big Sky Conference forecast:

1. Idaho    

2. Montana State

3. Montana

4. North Dakota

5. Weber State  

6. Eastern Washington

7. Portland State

8. Northern Colorado    

9. Southern Utah

10. Sacramento State    

11. Idaho State

12. Northern Arizona

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