Editor’s note: This story is the first 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.
Scan the list of the Big Sky Conference’s leading scorers from a season ago and you will see a league that returns 20 of its top 30 men’s basketball players when it comes to putting the ball in the basket.
Take a closer look and one will find that every single one of the top returning scorers plays on the perimeter save Sacramento State junior swingman Justin Strings (15.5 points per game) and North Dakota junior power forward Drick Bernstine (9.7 points per game). And even Strings is a threat from behind the arc; the lanky 6-foot-7 wing hit 60 3-pointers last season.
With the release of the Big Sky’s preseason all-conference team, the expectations from around the league are for a conference completely dominated by backcourt talent once again. North Dakota senior Quinton Hooker was chosen as the preseason MVP and the other five preseason all-league players were guards.
“I think guards win nationally,” said Montana third-year head coach DeCuire, an all-league guard for the Griz in the early 1990s. “If you look at any team that is winning in any conference tournament, it comes down to guard play. The difference between wins and losses for us in March was guard play.
“Top to bottom, each team has a guard who can compete for all-conference and that’s why the league race is going to be competitive and entertaining.”
DeCuire’s roster features Walter Wright, an honorable mention all-league selection in his first year playing Division I last season. The former junior college transfer was named to the preseason All-Big Sky team entering his senior season. And Wright might not even be the best guard on his team.
The Griz roster also features Ahmaad Rorie, a former highly touted recruit who committed to DeCuire at Cal before DeCuire took over at his alma mater. Instead, Rorie played his freshman season for Dana Altman at Oregon before transferring to Montana. He sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. He is eighth among Big Sky players by averaging 15.1 points this season.
Weber State senior Jeremy Senglin, Idaho State senior Ethan Telfair, Idaho junior Victor Sanders and Montana State sophomore Tyler Hall made up the rest of the preseason all-league teams.
“You look at that six guys on that list and there could’ve been eight or 10 other guys on that list because our league is very deep and very good,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said. “Those six guys are now just on everybody’s bulletin boards for trying to go after them and trying to make a name against them.”
When North Dakota first joined the Big Sky in 2012, Brian Jones and his team entered a league the UND head coach observed as a “big-big league” where teams played a more traditional style of two guards, two forwards and a center. Posts like Venky Jois at Eastern Washington, Mathias Ward at Montana, Derrick Barden at Northern Colorado and Kyle Tresnak at Weber State ranked among the Big Sky’s premier players.
“Our first year in the league, I thought was more traditional of a high-major style of ball with a traditional four – power forward and a traditional center,” Jones said. “Part of me thinks we’ve helped that evolve to where it’s a little more small ball, more ball screens involved.
“That’s the evolution of the game. If you watch the NBA, the game has changed so much. What our coaches have done in this league has changed with the game. If you don’t it will leave you behind.”
Hooker, the 2013 Minnesota Mr. Basketball honoree as a senior at Park Center High in Minneapolis, averaged 20.3 points per game in league play last season thanks to shooting 52.3 percent from the floor, including 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. He scored 38 points in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno to push top-seeded Weber State to overtime before UND fell 83-78.
The 6-foot, 205-pounder is a blend of strength and smarts, a smooth player who can score efficiently from all over the floor. This season, he is averaging 17.1 points and 3.6 assists during UND’s 5-4 start.
“Going into each and every game in the Big Sky, I know it’s going to be an exciting and competitive matchup,” Hooker said. “I know it’s something I’m looking forward to and other guards are looking forward to. It’s a mindset to know that it’s going to be a battle but it’s fun. Going out there and playing the sport we love is why we play.”
Weber State center Joel Bolomboy helped lift the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons by earning the league’s MVP and Defensive MVP honors. He’s now with the Utah Jazz.
Senglin’s performance in the Big Sky Tournament helped buoy Weber into the Big Dance. The four-year starter drilled seven 3-pointers against UND in the semifinals, including a game-tying make with 12 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period. He scored six of his 31 points in overtime to push Weber into the championship game.
In the BSC title game against Montana, Senglin out-dueled Wright and Michael Oguine, scoring 20 points to earn tournament MVP honors and lift Weber to a 62-59 victory.
“When you know you are about to go against somebody on the other end who wants the same thing or the world knows they are on the same level as you, that jumps up your game a little bit,” Senglin said. “But everyone I step on the court with looks the same to me.”
Senglin was a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season by averaging 17.9 points and 2.8 assists in his first season playing off the ball. The 6-foot-3 NBA prospect led the league by hitting 43.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and his 106 ranked second to Eastern Washington senior Austin McBroom’s 115 triples.
This season, the Arlington, Texas native is averaging 18.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting and he has hit 40 of his 84 3-point attempts (47.6 percent).
Fish spent 27 years coaching under successful head coaches like Billy Tubbs and Dana Altman. Fish made stops at Marshall, Kansas State, Creighton and Oregon with Altman with a stint at TCU under Tubbs in between.
“I’ve been recruiting for 26, 27 years now and a long time ago, I didn’t see a lot of Big Sky assistants and coaches on the road recruiting because they didn’t have the financial resources to do it,” Fish said. “Now you walk into a gym and you see everyone in there including Big Sky coaches trying to get players.
“The pool of guards is just that much bigger, especially out West, and that’s trickling down to our level.”
Fish has himself one of the top young players in the country in Hall. The 6-foot-5 combo guard from Rock Island, Illinois is one of the premier shooters in the conference and the country. Hall averaged 18.6 points per game during his rookie year, including 20.3 in conference play. Hall shot 44.2 percent from beyond the arc in conference play and hit an MSU freshmen record 96 3-pointers.
“There are some elite guards in this league,” NAU head coach Jack Murphy said. “Jeremy Senglin is as good as it gets in this league or any conference. Quinton Hooker is the preseason MVP in our league. And Tyler Hall at Montana State is absolutely amazing. I picked Montana State to win the league before the year and that has a lot to do with his talent.”
Hall leads the league with 23.5 points per game, including 42 in a loss to Milwaukee, tied for the top single-game output in NCAA Division I this season. Hall’s scoring output ranks fifth in the country. He scored 32 points against Washington State and 32 earlier this week in a loss to South Dakota.
Telfair made a huge splash in his first year in the Big Sky last season. The former JC transfer joined the Bengals, perennially one of the league’s cellar dwellars, and lifted the team to the No. 4 seed in the BSC Tournament and a first-round bye.
The younger brother of Coney Island legend Sebastian Telfair and the cousin of Stephon Marbury led the league in scoring (23.9 points per game) and assists (5.6 assists per game) during conference play to earn Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors.
“It’s very difficult for people at our level to get big kids,” Idaho State veteran head coach Bill Evans said. “There’s been some transfers that weren’t playing in the Mountain West that ended up in the SEC. I think you win with guards at any level. There’s some really, really good guards in the Big Sky. The ones who made the all-league team are just six of them.”
The competitive 5-foot-11 slashing guard had some of his best games against the Big Sky’s best competition. He scored 37 in a loss to North Dakota. He scored 30, including a buzzer-beater to lift ISU to a 69-68 win over Weber State. He scored 25 and 35 in a season sweep of guard-heavy Portland State. He dropped 30 against Montana, 31 against Montana State and 31 against Eastern Washington in the final three games of the regular-season to help the Bengals clinch a bye.
“All the good guards definitely helps your level of play,” Telfair said. “Every game I come out no matter who we are playing and I know I have to come in and compete. I know there’s a target on my back so guys get up for the game was well. When I play against, guys like Quinton Hooker, Jeremy Senglin, Walter Wright, I know those are high-major guards as well. They just play in the Big Sky. They can play at any level just like I can.”
Through the non-conference, statistical trends continue to point toward a guard-dominated league with Big Sky play set to open 10 days from now. Randy Onwuasor, a powerful 6-foot-3 shooting guard who transferred to Southern Utah from Texas Tech before last season, is second in the league in scoring at 22.4 points per game. Eastern Washington’s Bogdan Bliznyuk is playing “point forward” for the Eagles and has thrived in multiple areas, ranking third in the league at 21.7 points per game to go with 6.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
Northern Colorado sophomore Jordan Davis has taken his game to the next level it appears after a strong freshman campaign. Under first-year head coach Jeff Linder, Davis is averaging 20.7 points and a Big Sky-best 5.6 assists per outing.
“He’s sort of a Russell Westbrook version of the Big Sky,” said Linder, who takes over for B.J. Hill, who was fired in the off-season. “He can get downhill on anyone.”
Senglin, Sanders (17.3 ppg), Hooker, Rorie, Portland State senior Calaen Robinson (15.0 ppg) and Strings (14.7 ppg) make up the rest of the top 10. Wright has struggled to learn to play with Rorie but has come on as of late. He is averaging 10.7 points per game for the Griz.
When Idaho first came into the league in 2014, the Vandals were guard-oriented with sharp shooters like Connor Hill and Mike Scott leading the charge. The style struggled to acclimate to the WAC but fit right in to the Big Sky as the Vandals took eventual BSC Tournament champion Eastern Washington down to the wire in the first round thanks to Hill’s hot hand.
Last year, the Vandals rode the versatile play of Sanders and point guard Perrion Callandret to a 20-win season and a berth in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
“We came from a league that is heavy with post players and a lot of big bodies,” Verlin said. “It has been an adjustment for us. But we have some real quality guards in our program. As you see in the preseason all-conference team, it’s dominated by guards but the teams that have won it have had a dominant big guy from Bolomboy to Jois to (former Montana big man Martin) Breunig. If you can get one of those guys and get one of those guys to produce, it gives you an inside track on the conference title.”
Eastern Washington lost a few of the Big Sky’s best guards over the last two seasons. Two years ago, EWU earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth behind the sweet shooting of Tyler Harvey. The southpaw left a year early for the NBA and was drafted in the second round. McBroom came to EWU as a graduate transfer from Saint Louis and he led the Big Sky in overall scoring at 21.2 points per game.
Now the script has flipped. McBroom is gone as is Jois, meaning Eastern will adjust its style. But the Eagles still have Bliznyuk, one of the league’s most completely players along with sharp-shooting wing Felix Van Hofe. The Eagles also return diverse senior Julian Harrell, who like Bliznyuk can also play the point. And Eastern adds jumping jack Jake Wiley, a long and athletic forward who started at Montana’s basketball program before trying his hand at football for a season, eventually spending two years as a first-team NAIA All-American at Lewis & Clark State and joins EWU for his final season.
“I talked to my guys when the all-league was released and had to explain why we were doing some things defensively because the top six guys are all guards,” EWU head coach Jim Hayford said. “We are going to have to do some things to get the ball out of their hands. When I saw the list, I kind of liked it because the strength of my team is the opposite of all those other teams.
“It’s hard to get good big guys in the Big Sky or any mid-major for that matter. If you are a good big guy coming out of high school, you are going to get recruited high major. The pool of players is a lot bigger at the skill positions. We have a lot of good coaches in this league that are good recruiters and good evaluators of talent. Those six guards are all high-major guards playing in a mid-major league because the pool of talent across the country is that much bigger.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Right Reserved.