Editor’s Note: This story is the sixth installment of a series spotlighting the trends in the Big Sky Conference, the challenges of playing in a mid-major league and profiling six of the premier guards in the conference. For the first installment on the league’s talented guard play, click here. For a look at the challenges of non-conference scheduling in the Big Sky, click here. For profile on Weber State senior Jeremy Senglin, click here. For a profile on North Dakota senior guard Quinton Hooker, click here.
The talent trend of the Big Sky Conference has mirrored the trend of mid-major basketball across the West. As the recruiting world continues to shrink and the investments made by universities at all levels of Division I basketball grows, the number of quality players continues to trickle down to league’s like the Big Sky.
The rise to NBA stardom by players like Rodney Stuckey and Tyler Harvey at Eastern Washington or Damian Lillard at Weber State have turned the Big Sky into a bastion for talented guards. But last season served as a prime example that elite guards sometimes aren’t enough in the increasingly competitive Big Sky.
Last season, Montana State had a pair of All-Big Sky guards in Marcus Colbert and Tyler Hall, yet finished seventh in the regular-season standings and lost in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno. Eastern Washington had Austin McBroom, the Big Sky’s leading scorer last season, but did not make it past the round of eight in the tournament.
When the dust settled, Weber State and Montana were left standing to duel in the tournament championship game. Weber State possessed talented guards to be sure — Jeremy Senglin ended up as the tournament’s MVP — as did Montana, specifically All-Big Sky point guard Walter Wright. But the men in the middle were the real X-factors for the Wildcats and the Grizzlies.
Montana’s Martin Breunig was a model of efficiency his two years with the Griz after transferring from Washington. The 6-foot-9 smooth power forward shot 65 percent from the floor as a senior, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors by averaging 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game for the 21-win Grizzlies.
Joel Bolomboy dominated the league on both ends for the regular-season and tournament champions from WSU. The 6-foot-9 specimen won conference MVP and Defensive MVP honors by averaging 18.1 points and nearly 13 rebounds per game in conference play. He ended his career by leading Weber State past the Griz and into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons. Bolomboy finished as the Big Sky’s all-time leader in career rebounds before being selected in the 2nd round of NBA Draft (pick 52) by the Utah Jazz.
“Last year was unusual,” Portland State eighth-year head coach Tyler Geving said last month. “Being in the league so long, it’s always been a guard-oriented league. I think if you want to win this league, you have to have really good guard play, consistent guard play night in and night out. But it is nice to have a guy inside you can throw it to and get an easy basket. If someone in our league can establish that along with good guard play, I think they are ahead of everybody else.”
Geving’s assessment is correct: Bolomboy was the first non-guard to win the Big Sky’s MVP since Weber’s David Patten claimed the award 10 years ago. Since Montana State post Quadre Lollis won the MVP in 1996, only Patten, Northern Arizona’s Andrew Mavis (1998), Cal State-Northridge’s Brian Heinle (2001), and Portland State’s Seamus Boxley (2005) have earned MVP honors playing in the paint.
And with the graduation of Breunig, Bolomboy, Eastern Washington’s Venky Jois and Portland State’s Cameron Forte, the Big Sky is again in search of a game-changing big man.
“Guards have always been easier to get than bigs,” UND head coach Brian Jones said in December. “I think the bigs get over recruited at our level. They should be at our level, they go higher just because they have a little bit of size or they can run a little bit or have a little bit of a skill set. Ultimately, they are probably better fit at our level.
“What we’ve always seen at this level, you are going to win with really good guards. As coaches, the teams that are starting to close the gap a little bit, it’s because they have better guard play. I know Idaho State had a big jump when they got (Ethan) Telfair. Then you can go find a serviceable big who has a motor who can defend and rebound for you, that really helps the overall picture of how teams want to play.”
Although Weber State graduated Bolomboy, the Wildcats still have a pair of formidable pivots in physical senior Kyndahl Hill and smooth sophomore Zach Braxton. Hill, the Big Sky’s Top Reserve as a junior and a one-time TCU football recruit as a defensive end, is scoring 10 points per outing and leads Weber with 7.2 rebounds per game. Braxton, a 6-foot-10, 260-pounder who serves as one of the most vocal defensive players in the league, is chipping in 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
“It’s been an adjustment without Joel, no doubt,” Weber State 11th-year head coach Randy Rahe said last month. “Any time you lose an NBA guy, it’s a hit to your team, especially at the Big Sky level. Joel made everyone’s job easier because everyone gave Joel so much attention.
“We have also struggled rebounding the ball,” added Rahe, who’s team is 2-0 to start Big Sky play. “When you lose a guy who averages 13, it’s hard to make up for that.”
Although Rahe has an explosive scorer in Senglin and has had success with scoring guards like Lillard and 2014 BSC MVP Davion Berry, he still abides by an old-school offensive philosophy.
“We are always going to play through the low post,” Rahe said. “We play inside-out basketball. It’s almost like a lost art anymore. With the way teams play with small lineups and spread you out — which we will have the opportunity to do that sometimes as well — but our philosophy will always be the same.”
Montana third-year head coach Travis DeCuire has completely overhauled his style after the departure of Breunig. DeCuire, a former All-Big Sky point guard for the Griz, has as much backcourt depth on his roster as any team in the league.
“I remember playing a team like Montana and in the past, you really prepared from keeping the ball from going inside but now, it’s a matter of keeping the ball out of the paint with their guards,” said Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder, an assistant for Rahe at Weber State for two seasons who will lead his team against Montana in Missoula on Thursday night.
Wright, an honorable mention All-Big Sky pick last season, has shifted to a role coming off the bench as a senior. Brandon Gfeller started 54 games over the last three seasons at UM but has come off the bench for all but two of Montana’s 17 games this season. Mario Dunn, an All-Big Sky performer as a sophomore two seasons ago, is now coming off the bench as a senior as well. Wright, sophomore Bobby Moorehead and true freshman Sayeed Pridgett have all taken turns starting alongside electric sophomore point guard Ahmaad Rorie and the front court of senior Jack Lopez and junior Fabijan Krslovic.
“Montana has the deepest guard corps with talent,” Jones said. “They have several guards coming off the bench that could start for a lot of teams in this league. They are morphing into what the rest of the league looks like with almost a four-guard lineup around a big.”
Two seasons ago, Eastern Washington rode Harvey’s sweet shooting and prolific scoring to its first-ever bid in the Big Dance. But Jois, a four-time All-Big Sky forward who graduated last season as the leading scorer in EWU history, played a huge role in boosting the Eagles into the tournament by doing exactly what Jones described. The 6-foot-7 jumping jack made up for his lack of shooting touch by playing with one of the most relentless motors in league history.
EWU head coach Jim Hayford echoes his colleagues when he says, “getting bigs is hard.”
“That’s why we have to go all around the world to find them,” said Hayford, who recruited Jois and five other current Eagles from Australia. “They just seem to get over-recruited at the higher levels, which means there’s a surplus of guards.”
Hayford’s Eagles have reloaded in the front court and possess as sizeable a lineup as any team in the conference. EWU landed Jake Wiley, a former Montana forward who spent the last two seasons as an NAIA All-American at Lewis & Clark State. The graduate transfer has shifted into Jois’ hyperactive role and thrived. The 6-foot-7 springy senior is averaging 14.7 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting and he’s grabbing 8.3 rebounds per night. In four conference games, he’s averaging 19.3 points and 11 rebounds per night.
“When you look at the stats the last two, three years, we are a 3-point shooting league so maybe the difference maker for us two years ago or Weber last year was having a Venky (Jois) or having a Joel (Bolomboy),” Hayford said. “We hope we have that again this year. You put really good shooting with someone that is dominant inside, you are going to win a lot of games.”
Four games into the conference season, only Sac State junior Justin Strings (15.6 points per game) and Wiley rank in the top 15 in scoring. Portland State’s De’Sean Parsons (11.9), Northern Arizona’s Jordyn Martin (11.5) and North Dakota’s Conner Avants (11.4) are the only other posts who rank in the top 25 in scoring in the Big Sky.
Players like Bolomboy, Breunig, Jois and Portland State power forward Cameron Forte (20 ppg last season) had a profound influence on the league race a season ago. While the league appears to not have an alpha big man this season, players like Wiley, Strings, UND’s Drick Bernstine and Sac State’s Eric Stutteville could make some noise before the league tournament in Reno rolls around in March.
“There are still good big guys in the league,” Rahe said. “Everyone adjusts when you lose good players, especially big guys because they have such an affect on the game. You have to play them differently than maybe you played them in the past. The league is still really, really good. A lot of teams have a lot of veterans back so the league is still extremely competitive and strong this year as it always is.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.