The Wildcats have set their sights on a bigger prize this season, hoping they don't falter at an inopportune time as they try to make even more of an impact in March in a more significant tournament in order to show the rise of the Big Sky.
While Weber State figures to be the team to beat this year, there are other programs that should shake things up over the next several months, namely Montana, North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
Always a formidable opponent, the Grizzlies won a Big Sky-record 19 conference games and lost just once in league play last season, which means the program has posted a 34-2 mark in such challenges the last two campaigns. Having played in four consecutive Big Sky Conference Championship games also gives Montana an edge over most of the league.
With a solid core of returning players and one of the top scorers in the league in Troy Huff, North Dakota doesn't plan on playing second fiddle to anyone and should give both Weber State and Montana all they can handle. The team is in just its second year in the conference, which means some opponents are still trying to figure them out.
Northern Colorado brings back three players who are accustomed to scoring in double figures more often than not, so the Bears are more than prepared to get into up-and-down games with any other club that might think they can keep pace.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Weber State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Weber State, 2. Montana, 3. North Dakota, 4. Northern Colorado, 5. Montana State, 6. Eastern Washington, 7. Northern Arizona, 8. Sacramento State, 9. Portland State, 10. Southern Utah, 11. Idaho State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WEBER STATE: Winners of 10 or more conference games in seven straight seasons, a Big Sky record, the Wildcats should have that extended to eight years in short order as they are again considered a top-tier team in the league. Head coach Randy Rahe has a program that has appeared in three of the last four conference title games, so the level of experience and confidence should be overflowing. Bringing back seven letterwinners, the Wildcats will be leaning heavily on Davion Berry who was not only an All-Big Sky First Team selection, but was also chosen as the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring with 15.2 ppg. Also helping to shoulder the load will be Kyle Tresnak, a Second-Team All-Conference performer who averaged 11.8 ppg as he shot 57.0 percent from the field. One glaring loss for the team however, is Scott Bamforth who was second in scoring with 14.0 ppg and was the leader with 103 three-point baskets, an area that will have to be addressed. One of the top reserves in the conference, Joel Bolomboy (7.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) figures to be even more integral this time around for a Weber State team which ranked first in the nation in field goal shooting (.506), first in three-point shooting (.416) and second in three-point defense (.282) last season.
MONTANA: There is quite a bit of youth on the Montana roster this season, with only two seniors in Kareem Jamar and Eric Hutchison, and yet the team is still expected to be a serious contender as it hopes to bounce back from being pummeled by Syracuse in the 2013 postseason, 81-34. Jamar, the only player to have started every game for the Grizzlies, did it all for the team as he led the group with 5.9 rpg and 129 assists over the course of 32 outings. The forward was also second in scoring with 14.2 ppg, trailing only Mathias Ward who appeared in only 24 games and is not longer with the squad. Playing 35 minutes per game, Jamar made good on a decent 71.0 percent of his team-high 145 free-throw attempts, a critical piece of the puzzle for Montana as the team finished fifth in the country with 76.7 percent accuracy at the charity stripe. Guard Jordan Gregory (8.2 ppg) will be helping to show the youngsters how to handle the action out on the perimeter at the offensive end of the floor where he delivered a team-high 41 triples.
NORTH DAKOTA: Now in his eighth season with North Dakota, head coach Brian Jones has the luxury of bringing back four starters from a team that played well at home (13-1) but stumbled in a big way on the road (2-14), as it finished one game under .500 overall (16-17). Huff has to be considered one of the top performers in the league again this season after posting 19.2 ppg and clearing almost seven rebounds per outing, but he won't be out on an island for North Dakota with the likes of Aaron Anderson (13.3 ppg, 3.3 apg), Josh Schuler (9.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg), and Jamal Webb (9.7 ppg, 4.2 apg) helping to shoulder the load. Not to minimize his importance, but the only starter the team lost was Mitch Wilmer who was responsible for 5.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg, nothing that can't be replaced by one or two players. With seven seniors to provide guidance and leadership, North Dakota is preparing for a much better outcome this year because after 2013-14 the roster will be turned over quite a bit so it is important to strike while the iron is hot.
NORTHERN COLORADO: Last season, the Bears kicked things off with a monstrous 127-81 win over Southwest New Mexico, but after that the wins were much harder to come by, mostly because the non-conference schedule was so difficult. Granted, Northern Colorado did eventually split 20 league bouts, but by then the damage had already been done and the squad finished with an overall mark of just 13-18. Now in his fourth season, head coach B.J. Hill has the luxury of bringing back top scorer Derrick Barden who was responsible for 13.5 ppg overall and 15.0 ppg in league play, not to mention pacing the program with 8.8 rpg overall while shooting an impressive 54.3 percent from the floor. Clearly a dominant force in the paint, Barden also tried his hand at being a three-point threat, but his 47.2 percent success on the outside should not keep him from his primary duties closer to the rim. Tevin Svihovec (11.9 ppg) is also another viable scoring threat for the Bears, but it will still be tough to fill the void left by Tate Unruh (13.5 ppg) who was easily the best perimeter sniper with his 92 conversions on 215 attempts.
MONTANA STATE: The Bobcats got off to a weak start in 2012-13, winning just once in six games out of the gate, making it that much harder to be relevant at the end. The team did log 10 conference wins in 20 games, but on the road there were just three league victories, and those were the only wins away from home overall for head coach Brad Huse and his crew. Huse does have four seniors and three juniors on the roster moving forward, but still he is missing his top scorer from last year, Christian Moon, who cranked out 13.8 ppg as he shot 41.0 percent from 3-point range. Tied for the team-high with 26 starts a season ago, Flavien Davis (11.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) gives the squad some punch in the paint, although not as much as Paul Egwuonwu (6.7 rpg). Egwuonwu also contributed 9.2 ppg and was first on the team with 25 blocked shots, almost half of their 51 rejections overall. Challenging shots was a real test for MSU though, as the group ranked 332nd in the country with just 1.7 bpg. Out on the perimeter, they also dropped the ball by allowing foes to shoot 38.0 percent (335th) and yet the Bobcats managed to place first in the conference and 21st nationally with a turnover margin of plus-3.1 per game.
EASTERN WASHINGTON: Now entering his third season with the Eagles, head coach Jim Hayford is tasked with trying to figure out how he could have a team that ranked 11th in the nation last season with 5.7 blocks per game, but also place 309th in rebounding margin with minus-4.2 rpg. It is an odd dichotomy to see a team be as active as it was when challenging shots initially, to also see them have trouble finding the ball once it came off the rim. The good news for 2013-14 is that Venky Jois, the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year last season, returns to provide a big presence in the paint. Jois was not only one of the top scorers for the squad with 12.3 ppg, he was first on the glass with nine rebounds per outing and was second in blocked shots with 66. Another one of the four starters returning for EWU is Martin Seiferth who played limited minutes as the only player to start all 31 contests, finishing with 8.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 68 rejections. Then again, when you consider he shot only 49.5 percent at the free-throw line, having him on the floor at crucial times was not always a smart move. While Jois and Seiferth handle the action on the inside, Parker Kelly (9.5 ppg) hopes to remain a heavy influence behind the three-point line where he was 40.1 percent successful.
NORTHERN ARIZONA: Losing four straight games to close out 2012-13 had to have left a bad taste in the mouths of the Lumberjacks, so you'd expect the squad to have bigger aspirations for this coming campaign. The team was just 8-12 in conference and 11-21 overall, winning just four times in 17 true road tests, so there is improvement that can be made in many areas, not the least of which is on defense after the squad ranked 11th in the league and 329th in the country with 75.3 ppg allowed. Northern Arizona was outscored by an average of 8.5 ppg, 324th in the country, which means head coach Jack Murphy has his work cut out for him at both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, the job is being made that much harder with the loss of Gabe Rogers, the leading scorer from last year who produced 17.9 ppg as the only one who started all 32 games for the 'Jacks. On a more positive note, DeWayne Russell does return after stepping up in a big way as a freshman with 14.4 ppg, and while he was second on the unit with 3.2 apg, he was also guilty of 3.1 turnovers per outing, another area that coach Murphy needs to address moving forward. A 59.4 percent shooter from the floor, Max Jacobsen (9.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is a solid bet when he has his hands on the ball in the paint.
SACRAMENTO STATE: An alum of Sacramento State, head coach Brian Katz has had some tough years as the leader of the basketball program. Last season, the Hornets produced a record of just 8-12 in league action, tied for a sixth- place finish, and came in a game under .500 overall (14-15), yet that's still a step in the right direction for Katz who has a career mark of just 42-102 in five seasons at Sacramento State. This year the team has to find replacements for three starters, but from a positive standpoint the Hornets still have Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, a guard tandem that has the talent to contend against any other backcourt duo in the Big Sky. Garrity, an honorable mention All-Big Sky performer, started all but two of the 28 games in which he appeared, posting 11.6 points, 5.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds per outing. With 40.8 percent accuracy behind the three-point line and 86.1 percent shooting at the free-throw line, defenses have to pick their poison when it comes to slowing Garrity down. McKinney, one of two players to start every game for the Hornets last season, accounted for 12.3 ppg and another 2.6 apg. Unfortunately, beyond those two standouts the Hornets don't have another returning player who averaged better than three points per game, so expect a rough season in the Golden State.
PORTLAND STATE: One of two teams in the Big Sky Conference to finish with single-digit victories overall, Portland State figures to have yet another difficult campaign in 2013-14. Last season, the Vikings won just three games outside of conference play and posted a 5-15 league ledger, the latter tying the team with Idaho State for last place in the standings. Head coach Tyler Geving knows that his team has the ability to be successful, after posting a 17-15 mark just two years ago, but with only two returning starters PSU will be put to the test each and every time it hits the hardwood. Senior forward Aaron Moore will draw plenty of attention from opponents after leading the program in scoring (13.2 ppg), rebounding (7.1 rpg) and blocked shots (26) while being named All-Big Sky Honorable Mention. While Moore takes care of business in the paint, Gary Winston should be shaking things up out on the perimeter where he led the league in three-point shooting at 47.0 percent. Andre Winston figures to get more playing time as one of the other key returning scorers (7.0 ppg), but there's no guarantee he'll be able to break into the starting lineup for a team that struggled on defense with 72.8 ppg allowed (310th nationally).
SOUTHERN UTAH: A few years back the Thunderbirds were members of the Summit League, but they've since made the transition to tougher competition in the Big Sky and last year head coach Nick Robinson took his lumps as SUU finished sixth in the standings. On a positive note, the Thunderbirds became the first Big Sky team to win its first three league games in its first season in the conference since Boise State made it happen more than four decades earlier. The T'Birds ranked second in the conference and 30th in the nation last year in blocked shots with five per game, but that aggressive play also worked against the group as they were whistled for 23.3 personal fouls per outing, second-most in all of Division I. Teams could expect to score significant points against Southern Utah as the squad gave up 71.9 ppg (297th in the nation), which is an area that also needs to be cleaned up for 2013-14. But before the Thunderbirds can address their defensive issues, they have to find replacements for Jackson Stevenett (17.6 ppg) and Damon Heuir (15.5 ppg, 96 assists) who carried the team at the other end. Unfortunately, the top returning scorer for the group is Jayson Cheesman (6.8 ppg) who, while being a primary rebounder with six boards per game and leading the group with 60 blocked shots, he shot only 40.4 percent from the floor.
IDAHO STATE: One of the weakest scoring teams in the nation last year, ranking 336th in Division I with a mere 57.0 ppg, the Bengals figure to have similar struggles this season, perhaps even more so. The squad has lost top scorer Melvin Morgan (12.0 ppg), but considering he shot only 35.4 percent from the floor, 27.3 percent behind the three-point line and was responsible for 95 turnovers, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Head coach Bill Evans does retain both Chris Hansen and Tomas Sanchez, the other two double-digit scorers who were responsible for 11.4 and 10.3 ppg, respectively, and in their cases they both shot better than 34.5 percent from beyond the arc. Sanchez had some issues with turnovers (78) as well, but at least he was able to compensate by handing out a team-best 112 assists and also lead the program with 46 steals. Andre Hatchett (9.2 ppg) is back for another turn at Idaho State, but his mere 20.0 percent shooting from 3-point range and 54.8 percent at the charity stripe has to improve. The Bengals also need to find someone other than Hatchett (4.7 rpg), a guard, to lead the way on the glass this time around or else they are destined to rival their feeble 6-24 record from a year ago.