LWOS continues its conference preview series, with the Big Sky Basketball Preview up next. This league had a fun regular-season title race down the stretch a season ago. Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, and Montana all made pushes. However, the finish line found Eastern Washington in first. There is nothing indicating the Eagles cannot repeat in 2020-21. Still, the competition behind them has improved. EWU will be the favorites, but there are a handful of teams on their heels.
2020-21 Big Sky Basketball Preview
11. Sacramento State Hornets
Key Returners: Bryce Fowler, Ethan Esposito, Brandon Davis
Key Losses: Joshua Patton, Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa
Key Newcomers: Christian Terrell (UC Santa Barbara), Deshaun Highler (JUCO), Zach Chappell (San Jose State)
Sacramento State enters the season without its top two contributors from 2019-20. However, Fowler and Esposito seem capable of picking up the slack left behind. The Hornets are hoping transfers Terrell and Highler will help plug those holes as well. Sacramento State was more competitive than in years past, and the hope is that trend continues into 2020-21. The key will be how quickly the program can achieve roster cohesion. Until then, last place seems like a safer bet.
10. Idaho Vandals
Key Returners: Scott Blakney, Damen Thacker
Key Losses: Trevon Allen
Key Newcomers: A.J. Youngman (JUCO), DeAndre Robinson (JUCO), Kendall McHugh (JUCO)
Idaho arguably lost the biggest piece of any team in the league heading into this season. Allen was a guy who could score at will, and it will be tough to replace his 21.6 points per game. He was a big reason why the Vandals showed more fight than people are used to in the Big Sky. The key to continuing an upward trend will be for the remaining roster to figure out their roles. The first one is who can be the go-to guy. However, if Idaho can do that, finishing near .500 does not seem out of the question.
9. Idaho State Bengals
Key Returners: Tarik Cool, Malik Porter, Austin Smellie
Key Losses: Chier Maker, Jared Stutzman
Key Newcomers: Daxton Carr (Cal Poly), Robert Ford III (JUCO), Emmit Taylor III (JUCO)
Idaho State has a reworked roster that contains mostly freshmen and transfers. That is naturally going to lead to growing pains until the rotation is set in place. Cool paces the backcourt while Porter does the same for the frontcourt. Smellie also contributes in the post, making that an area of relative strength on the team. There is talent on the table, but it needs to time to come together. The Bengals seem to be a year away from being a bit more competitive.
8. Portland State Vikings
Key Returners: Ian Burke, Kyle Greeley
Key Losses: Holland Woods, Matt Hauser, Sal Nuhu
Key Newcomers: James Scott (Temple), Khalid Thomas (Arizona State), Elijah Hardy (Washington)
No other team suffered more from departures than Portland State in the Big Sky. The Vikings are without their top seven contributors from 2019-20. Thus, an almost brand new roster emerges full of transfers. Normally that means a steep learning curve, but transfers like Scott, Thomas, and Hardy have talent that should allow them to shine as they settle into the team. Due to all the new pieces, a step back is probable for Portland State, but outperforming this projection is a possibility.
7. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Key Returners: John Knight, Dre Marin, Maizen Fausett
Key Losses: Cameron Oluyitan, Andre Adams
Key Newcomers: Aanen Moody (North Dakota), Yuat Alok (UCF), Tevian Jones (Illinois)
Southern Utah’s leading scorer from last season (Oluyitan) is gone. However, the backcourt is still more than capable with senior leaders in Knight and Marin, who combined for 21.1 points per game in 2019-20. The frontcourt is a little more concerning, as there is not much depth to speak of. Fausett and UCF transfer Alok will have to shoulder a bulk of the load in the paint. The Thunderbirds will go as far as their guards can take them, but a top six finish is not out of the question.
6. Northern Colorado Bears
Key Returners: Bodie Hume, Matt Johnson
Key Losses: Jonah Radebaugh, Kai Edwards
Key Newcomers: Greg Bowie II (UTRGV), Marque English (JUCO), Daylen Kountz (Colorado)
Northern Colorado pushed Eastern Washington to the brink during the regular season. The Bears were a prime candidate for a Big Sky Tournament run before COVID-19 cancelled it. Now, the program will enter 2020-21 without leading scorer and first-teamer Radebaugh. Luckily, Hume can take over that role, though teams will also be able to key in on him with Radebaugh out of the picture. While the backcourt will be fine, the frontcourt is thin and inexperienced. How quickly the post develops will determine the Bears’ fate this season.
5. Weber State Wildcats
Key Returners: Michal Kozak, Kham Davis
Key Losses: Jerrick Harding, Cody John, Tim Fuller
Key Newcomers: Isiah Brown (Grand Canyon), Dontay Bassett (Florida), David Nzekwesi (Denver)
Weber State continues the trend of excellent scoring departing the league. Jerrick Harding leaves the Wildcats as their all-time scoring leader, surpassing program-great Damian Lillard. He was a star for this program, but a new go-to scorer must be found. Grand Canyon transfer Brown seems like a good candidate. Frontcourt depth behind Kozak and Bassett is a concern as well. However, Weber State has always been know for guard play and finds ways to stay relevant in the league title race.
4. Montana State Bobcats
Key Returners: Jubrile Belo, Amin Adamu, Devin Kirby
Key Losses: Harald Frey, Ladan Ricketts
Key Newcomers: Xavier Bishop (Kansas City), Abdul Mohamed (North Texas), Bilal Shabazz (JUCO)
Montana State was more competitive than people thought under alumnus Danny Sprinkle in his first season. Losing the all-around abilities of Harald Frey will hurt. However, Jubrile Belo’s breakout campaign last year means the frontcourt is in good hands between him and Kirby. The backcourt may be a bit shakier, relying on transfers. Still, if the guard play of this team finds a way to push those newcomer jitters, Montana State can find themselves pushing for a Big Sky title.
3. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Key Returners: Cameron Shelton, Luke Avdalovic
Key Losses: Brooks DeBisschop, Bernie Andre
Key Newcomers: Malcolm Porter (Portland), Jay Green (UNLV)
Northern Arizona enters the season looking extremely strong in the backcourt. Shelton did it all for the Lumberjacks last season averaging 14.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He is joined by Avdalovic, a sharpshooter who shot 41.3 percent from behind the arc in 2019-20. However, all of that is balanced out by the losses in the frontcourt. The guards may have to carry this team at times. Still, the talent is there for NAU to compete and possibly be there at the end of the conference title race.
2. Montana Grizzlies
Key Returners: Derrick Carter-Hollinger
Key Losses: Sayeed Pridgett, Kendal Manuel, Jared Samuelson
Key Newcomers: Cameron Satterwhite (Northern Arizona), Naseem Gaskin (Utah), Cameron Parker (Sacred Heart)
Montana is a mainstay near the top of the Big Sky. Pridgett’s graduation means the team will need to find their next star player, but Carter-Hollinger seems like the most likely candidate to take that role next. The Grizzlies are taking a bit of a gamble by using transfers to fill holes. However, Satterwhite has Final Four experience from his Loyola-Chicago days, and Gaskin comes from a power-six league. This team will develop and take lumps during any non-conference games, but should be ready to make a run when league play begins.
1. Eastern Washington Eagles
Key Returners: Jacob Davison, Kim Aiken Jr.
Key Losses: Mason Peatling
Key Newcomers: None
Normally, losing the league’s player of the year would be really concerning. However, while Peatling will be missed, Davison and Aiken are capable in their own right and are a big reason why Eastern Washington can stay at the top. Chopping off one head of a three-headed monster will just put a little more pressure on those two to carry the load. The Eagles retain most everyone from last year’s regular-season title team, making them an easy choice as the preseason favorite. However, that supporting cast may be asked to do just a little bit more to help repeat.
2020-21 Big Sky Basketball Preview Award Projections
Player of the Year: Cameron Shelton, Northern Arizona
Shelton’s numbers were already touched upon in NAU’s blurb. He is a guard that can do a little bit of everything better than almost any other player in the Big Sky. If he finds a way to up all of those averages and have the Lumberjacks fighting for a league title, he can take home this honor.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kim Aiken Jr. (Eastern Washington)
Aiken can do it all on the defensive end of the floor. He averaged 1.7 steals and one block per game in 2019-20 while also grabbing 8.2 defensive rebounds per game. Aiken also finished second in the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares as well. This award should find its way to him for 2020-21.
Newcomer of the Year: Isiah Brown, Weber State
Brown comes to Weber State with Big Ten experience at Northwestern as well as making 18 starts and averaging over 29 minutes per game with Grand Canyon last season. He should be able to average double-figure scoring while making sure there is not a huge drop-off in guard production with Harding’s absence for the Wildcats.
Freshman of the Year: Theo Hughes, Northern Colorado
Hughes is post man that hails from London. With Northern Colorado’s frontcourt situation, Hughes should see sizable minutes, providing him opportunities to make an instant impact. Still, this award could be taken home by many other potential options.
Sixth-Man of the Year: Aanen Moody, Southern Utah
This is entirely dependent on whether the Thunderbirds run with the same starting backcourt as last season. If they do, then Moody makes perfect sense here. He is averaging nine points for his career and is already used to playing this kind of role from his days at North Dakota. He can be the boost Southern Utah needs off the bench.
Coach of the Year: Shane Burcar, Northern Arizona
If Burcar has the Lumberjacks competing for a Big Sky title, he should absolutely win this honor. He coached all of last season under the interim tag, and was able to have NAU finish 10-10 and tied for fifth place in the league. Getting the program to take the next step in his first season without coaching for his life would be even more impressive.
1st-Team Projection: Jacob Davison (Eastern Washington), Cameron Shelton (Northern Arizona), Bodie Hume (Northern Colorado), Cameron Satterwhite (Montana), Jubrile Belo (Montana State)