OUTLOOK: The Big Sky was a two-team race last season, with Montana and Weber State running neck-and-neck to the end. When the smoke cleared it was the Grizzlies earning the conference title with a 25-7 overall record and a near flawless 15-1 league ledger. The Wildcats matched Montana's impressive 25 victories, but came up just short in-conference at 14-2.
It looks like more of the same in 2012-13, as both Montana and Weber State are viewed as the teams to beat.
North Dakota looks ready to compete in its first season in the Big Sky, after placing second in the Great West a year ago, highlighted by an overtime win against Big Sky champion Montana.
Other teams that will jockey for position behind Montana and Weber State are Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, Sacramento State, Montana State and Portland State. Four of the five teams posted double-digit wins last year, although it was only the Pilots who finished with a winning record.
Bringing up the rear in the conference are Southern Utah, Idaho State and Northern Arizona, all of which will be led by new head coaches.
The Thunderbirds are the other new team to the conference after going 14-17 overall and 8-10 in the Summit League in 2011-12. The Bengals posted just nine wins a year ago in a tumultuous campaign that saw their head coach resign midseason, while the Lumberjacks struggled to a conference worst five total victories.
The new-look Big Sky in 2012-13 will see seven teams compete in the conference tournament. All tournament games will be played at the site of the regular- season champion.
MONTANA The Grizzlies won a conference-best 25 games and almost ran the table in the Big Sky, winning the conference crown with a 15-1 record. Wayne Tinkle's squad certainly has a good chance of repeating, thanks in large part to the return of two of the conference's best players in senior guard Will Cherry (15.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.3 apg) and junior guard Kareem Jamar (13.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.9 apg). Cherry, a two-time All-Big Sky First-Team honoree, was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year in 2011-12. However, he is currently sidelined with a foot injury and may not play until December. Jamar was also a All-Big Sky First-Team member last year and certainly has the talent to pick up the slack in Cherry's absence. He will get help from senior forward Mathias Ward (10.9 ppg). Adding to the team's overall potency is juco transfer Spencer Coleman (6-6 forward), who was an All-American last season with averages of 15.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
WEBER STATE The poster child for consistency, Weber State has won 10 or more league games in six straight seasons, including 14 Big Sky wins a year ago. Despite the loss of the Big Sky Player of the Year and All-American Damian Lillard (24.5 ppg), who was the sixth overall pick in the NBA Draft, Randy Rahe's Wildcats are once again one of the favorites to win the league crown. The team loses three starters from last year's team overall, but the two remaining are certainly a nice nucleus to work with. Senior guard Scott Bamforth (14.5 ppg) and junior center Kyle Tresnak (10.0 ppg) both earned all- conference honors a year ago. There is a nice mix with seven returners and nine newcomers on the roster. Key reserves include junior forward Byron Fulton (7.2 ppg) and sophomore guard Gelaun Wheelwright (5.6 ppg), while Weber State's wildcard could be junior swingman Davion Berry, who sat out last season as a transfer, after being tabbed a Division II All-American as a sophomore at Cal State Monterrey Bay.
NORTH DAKOTA North Dakota took second place in the Great West a year ago, but once again turned it up when it counted the most, winning its second straight conference tournament. Any thoughts about not being able to compete in the new league were dismissed with last year's 88-81 overtime win against Montana. Brian Jones' team won 17 games a year ago and that number is certainly a realistic goal this time around. Jones returns four starters, which accounted for over 60 percent of the team's offense, led by junior swingman Troy Huff (13.1 ppg). Junior guard Aaron Anderson (11.0 ppg) also posted double figures, while fellow juniors Jamal Webb (9.5 ppg) and Brandon Brekke (9.2 ppg) finished just under that mark. Newcomers of note include Texas Tech transfer Jaron Nash (6-8 forward) and juco transfer Alonzo Traylor (6-7 forward).
EASTERN WASHINGTON Jim Hayford's first season with Eastern Washington was certainly a step in the right direction, as the team went 15-17 overall (five wins better than the year before), 8-8 in-conference, and won its first Big Sky Conference Tournament game since 2006. Making it two straight successful runs in the postseason is the ultimate goal, but Hayford certainly has some obstacles to get past to deliver on that. Last year's squad was a veteran bunch, but four seniors have moved on. The team boasts of two returning starters, three players who redshirted a year ago and six newcomers. Senior forward Collin Chiverton (13.9 ppg) is the go-to-guy this season after earning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year a year ago. Senior guard Jeffrey Forbes (6.9 ppg) anchors the play in the backcourt. The hope is that Saint Joseph's transfer Justin Crosgile (5-11 guard) and Oregon transfer Martin Seiferth (6-10 forward) can add quality depth both up front and in the backcourt.
NORTHERN COLORADO The Bears took a step back in 2011-12, posting a disappointing, although not completely surprising 9-19 overall record, including a meager seventh place finish in the Big Sky, after representing the league in the NCAA Tournament the year prior. Heading into the new campaign, there is a great deal of optimism in Greeley, as Northern Colorado returns its top three scorers from a team that led the nation in three-point accuracy last season (.444). The perimeter game will once again be a strength for B.J. Hill's squad, spearheaded by junior Tate Unruh (11.3 ppg) and sophomore Tevin Scihovec. Throw juniors Paul Garnica (9.3 ppg) and Emmanuel Addo (9.6 ppg) into the mix and there is plenty of scoring depth. Unruh shot a scorching .462 from behind the arc last year and trailed only Garnica (.485) in that category. Adding to the firepower is a bona fide frontcourt presence in juco transfer Derrick Barden, who earned All-American honors after averaging 19.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game in 2011-12.
SACRAMENTO STATE The Hornets went a modest 10-18 overall and 5-11 in Big Sky play, but Brian Katz has Sacramento State heading in the right direction, as last year marked the first time the team finished with double-digit wins since the 2006-07 campaign. It was really a tale of two halves for the Hornets, who started the league slate 0-8, but finished 5-3. With the top five scorers back, another step in the right direction is certainly attainable. Of those five, three were double-digit performers in forward Josh Dickson (12.4 ppg), swingman Joe Eberhard (11.1 ppg) and guard Jackson Carbajal (11.1 ppg). Center Konner Veteto (9.0 ppg) and point guard Dylan Garrity (8.1 ppg) weren't far behind. Newcomers of note that could vie for minutes include freshman Cody Demps (6-4 guard) and sophomore Mikh McKinney (6-1 guard).
MONTANA STATE The team that takes the floor in early November for Brad Huse certainly isn't the one he expected, as center Mohammed Fall (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) lost his senior year (eligibility) and Shawn Reid (10.6 ppg) transferred out. Both were to be key pieces to the puzzle for Montana State, following a season in which the Bobcats went 12-17, including a 7-9 mark in the Big Sky. All is not lost however, as the team does have a nice nucleus returning with three quality starters in guards Xavier Blount (11.7 ppg) and Christian Moon (10.4 ppg) and forward Tre Johnson (9.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Jamie Stewart (9.1 ppg) showed great promise in 12 games before losing eligibility a year ago, but he is back in the fold and should add scoring punch to the backcourt. A great deal is expected of juco transfer Antonio Biglow as well. The 6-0 junior was named the Southern California Junior College Player of the Year after averaging 22.4 ppg in 2011.
PORTLAND STATE The Vikings went 17-15 last season and finished third in the Big Sky at 10-6. Matching those numbers would be a huge surprise for a team that returns just two starters and loses a pair of All-Big Sky First-Teamers in Charles Odum (19.1 ppg) and Chehales Tapscott (14.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg). Fourth- year head coach Tyler Geving will certainly have his work cut out for him in 2012-13. The backcourt this year is well-stocked with Lateef McMullan (9.4 ppg), Michael Harthun (8.6 ppg) and Gary Winston (6.5 ppg) all poised to contribute on a daily basis, while forward Renado Parker (9.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) looks like the top playmaker up front. The hope for Geving is that some of the new blood on the team can fit in and contribute right away, including a couple of big bodies in Lamont Prosser (6-8, 275) and Aaron Moore (6-8, 215). Juco transfer Marcus Hall (6-4 guard) should help in terms of scoring, while Washington State transfer Dre Winston (6-1 guard) is a defensive specialist.
SOUTHERN UTAH The Thunderbirds, who closed out their stay in the Summit League with a 14-17 overall mark and an 8-10 league ledger, begin their new life in the Big Sky with a new coach at the helm, as Nick Robinson takes over for the retired Roger Reid. Robinson has been left with some talent to work with in returning senior starters Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir. Stevenett, a 6-4 forward was a Second-Team All-Summit League honoree last season, pacing Southern Utah in both scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (5.7 rpg). Heuir has the ability to help in a number of areas after averaging 10.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 2011-12. There isn't a whole lot returning in terms of significant contributors outside of Stevenett and Heuir, so the team will need some newcomers to make immediate impacts. Those likely to do so include 6-6 freshman guard A.J. Hess, who was the Arizona Small Schools Player of the Year (19.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.8 bpg), 6-11 juco transfer Jayson Cheesman and 6-0 freshman Drake Thomas (5.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), the team's point guard of the future.
IDAHO STATE Longtime Southern Utah head coach and recent Montana assistant Bill Evans takes over in Pocatello as the new head coach for Idaho State. The Bengals won just nine games last season, but seven of them came in-conference. Idaho State used its fifth-place finish in the conference to get into the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in three years. While the team does return two starters from that squad in Melvin Morgan (12.2 ppg) and Andre Hatchett (7.4 ppg), Evans is going to put his stamp on this team, one that will be more defensive-minded. There is some depth at the point, as Morgan is going to share time with juco transfer Tomas Sanchez (6-3, 185). Joining Hatchett out on the wing is another solid juco transfer in Nnamdi Ezenwa (6-6, 204). The frontcourt is a mystery heading into the season, but optimism is high on players like Jakub Kusmieruk (7-4, 265), Neveij Walters (6-6, 240), Dejan Kostur (6-8, 215) and Avibakuro Preh (6-9, 220).
NORTHERN ARIZONA Following a miserable 5-24 record that saw the Lumberjacks post only a single Big Sky victory, Northern Arizona heads in a different direction under first-year head coach Jack Murphy. An assistant at Memphis the last three seasons, Murphy may find his foray into Big Sky action a bit rough, especially since last year's Big Sky Freshman of the Year James Douglas (12.2 ppg) has transferred. The Lumberjacks do have some talent to work with, including senior guards Gabe Rogers (10.2 ppg), Stallon Saldivar (6.7 pg, 4.9 apg) and Michael Dunn (6.8 ppg). There is no proven performer up front. Juco transfer Len Springs (6-10, 220) may be called on to man the low post, but his defensive game is much better than his offensive game at this time.