From veteran coaches like Bill Evans and Brian Katz to the longest tenured head coach in the conference in Randy Rahe to coaches like Brian Jones or Don Verlin who’s teams are new to the league this decade to former Pac 12 assistants like Travis DeCuire and Brian Fish to newcomers like Jeff Linder and Barret Peery, the sentiment is the same.
The Big Sky is as loaded top to bottom as it’s been since the last time a member team earned an NCAA Tournament victory.
The Big Sky Conference has the longest drought in Division I men’s basketball since it’s last win in the NCAA Tournament. In March of 2006, Larry Krystkowiak and Kevin Criswell led the 12th-seeded Montana Grizzlies past the Nevada Wolfpack.
Since that UM victory — one of a league-high four tourney titles by the Griz over the last 12 years — Weber State (3), Portland State(2) and Eastern Washington (1) have each won the Big Sky Tournament and advanced to the Big Dance. Northern Colorado’s 2011 tournament title was vacated before this season because of various violations.
The league has grown — Jones’ North Dakota Fighting Hawks and Todd Simon’s Southern Utah Thunderbirds joined in 2012, Verlin’s Idaho Vandals rejoined in 2014 — and the conference has added fresh faces like Peery, a junior college shooting star who’s now at Portland State and Linder, a Rahe disciple at Weber State who is now in his second season at UNC.
And the league has seen an influx of heralded recruiters who cut their teeth in the Power 5 now manning the Montana schools with DeCuire, formerly of Old Dominion and Cal, at Montana and Fish, formerly of Creighton and Oregon, at Montana State.
“It’s the best I’ve seen it since I’ve been here,” said Rahe, the four-time Big Sky Coach of the Year and league’s longest tenured head coach in the midst of his 12th season at Weber State, a stint that includes three trips to the NCAA Tournament. “The biggest reason is there’s more teams that have a whole bunch of veterans back from the year before. It’s a veteran league this year.
“The guards in this league are the best I’ve ever seen. Explosive, really high-quality guards and some teams have two of them. Depending on how teams finish, I think there’s five teams with potentially two all-league guards, which is really amazing for our league.”
Success from other Western mid-major conferences like the blue print created by Gonzaga and replicated by Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference or the more replicable success of Football Championship Subdivision schools like South Dakota State and North Dakota State have caused Big Sky schools to pour more resources into men’s basketball.
The driving factor is money as much as national exposure. The winner of an NCAA Tournament game earns $1,711,784 for its conference.
“Schools are starting to figure it out,” said Fish, who is in the middle of his fourth season at MSU. “They are starting to figure out that it doesn’t take a great deal of commitment to have a good basketball team. You can do it. There are a ton of good players. If you can hire guys who can recruit guys and get them there, you are building a program and you are swinging away.”
Swinging away is exactly what Big Sky teams did during the most successful non-conference push in the last decade. A year ago, only two Big Sky teams entered league play with a winning record. BSC teams combined for a 32-88 record before familiar competition began. This season, the Big Sky posted a 74-73 record against non-league competition and seven teams — Portland State, Northern Colorado, Idaho, Weber State, Montana, Montana State and Southern Utah — entered league play with winning records.
“We knew it was going to be deeper than it ever has been,” DeCuire said. “When you look back in November and December, we saw it with high-major wins. The number of teams that come in with winning records shows that our conference has made a move. We’ve caught up to some others and we have surpassed a few.”
The Big Sky currently ranks No. 18 among 32 Division I conferences in RPI, a stark improvement from the 29 to 31 range the league hovered in last season. DeCuire’s Grizzlies currently sit at 13-0 in Big Sky Conference play, sporting an RPI of 89 thanks to an 18-5 record against Division I competition. A win Thursday at Eastern Washington would tie the school record for the best start in league play. A sweep of EWU and Idaho this weekend would help Montana equal the best start in the history of the BSC. The strong push coincides with a non-conference filled with impressive performances and near misses.
The Griz beat Pitt 83-79 in overtime on November 13 for the first ACC victory in school history but Montana could’ve had a few other marquee wins. A night after beating Pitt, UM trailed by five with 3:47 left at Penn State before fading in a 70-57 loss. UM led Stanford with nine minutes to play before not making a single field goal down the stretch in a 70-54 loss. The Griz went blow for blow at Washington in a 66-63 loss to wrap up the non-conference slate.
Montana still posted a 7-5 non-league mark against one of the Big Sky’s most challenging first six weeks. UM posted a crucial win over UC Irvine, the premier team from the Big West the last four years, in Montana’s final non-conference home game. Montana enters the week ranked No. 12 in the most recent Mid-Major Top 25 poll.
“Montana has had some great wins and have looked dominant here recently,” said Verlin, Idaho’s 10th-year head coach who’s Vandals were the preseason league favorites. ”They go to Pitt and win. That’s not easy to do. That gave them a lot of confidence.”
“The conference is as balanced and as even as it’s been since I’ve been in the conference.”
Montana made up just a small portion of the impressive non-league victories by Big Sky teams leading up to the New Year. Eastern Washington posted a 67-61 win at Stanford on November 14. Idaho pounded Washington State 91-64 on December 6. Southern Utah beat Central Michigan on December 16. Northern Colorado won at Wyoming 91-84 on December 19.
Portland State wore the proverbial crown before BSC play began. Operating Peery’s vaunted high-pressure, relentless pressing and running style, PSU blitzed Utah State 83-79 in November. On Thanksgiving, the Vikings led No. 1 Duke as late as 10 minutes into the second half in a 99-81 loss at the Phil Knight 80 Tournament in the City of Roses. The next day, the Viks lost 71-69 to Butler. Two days later, PSU wrapped up the PK80 with an 87-78 win over Stanford.
The Vikings competed throughout in a 95-84 loss at Oregon on December 13. Eight nights later, Portland State pounded Cal. PSU force 26 Bears’ turnovers in a 106-81 rout.
“Those things help put you on the map in the Big Sky,” Rahe said referring to the breadth of marquee non-conference wins. “We can’t get home games in this league. It’s really hard. So you are scheduling games on the road against quality opponents. This year, we have as good of wins in the preseason as we’ve had a long time.
“The only way you get respect is by winning more games.”
Over the last few years, the league has seen an influx of recruits who are now turning into veterans. Rodney Stuckey was the first of the new wave of talented players who chose the Big Sky at least in part because of the chance to put up nationally competitive statistics. At EWU, Stuckey ranked among Division I’s leading scorers for two seasons before becoming an NBA lottery pick.
The same blueprint was not used until five years later when Rahe plucked Damian Lillard out of the Bay Area. After three standout seasons with the Wildcats, Lillard became the No. 6 overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft, the NBA Rookie of the Year and this season, an All-Star for the third time.
Despite Lillard’s talent, the Wildcats never went to the NCAA Tournament while the star was in school. Montana’s Will Cherry proved to be Lillard’s kryptonite before himself earning a brief shot in the NBA.
Since Cherry and Jamar led the Grizzlies to a 19-1 league record in 2013, the league has seen an injection of high-level talent, both guards like Weber State’s Jeremy Senglin along with posts like Weber’s Joel Bolomboy (now of the Milwaukee Bucks) and Eastern Washington’s Jake Wiley (a stint with the Brooklyn Nets).
That influx hit a crescendo with the recruiting class that joined the league three seasons ago and are now juniors. Montana State’s Tyler Hall, Montana’s Michael Oguine, North Dakota’s Geno Crandall, Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis and Weber State big man Zach Braxton all joined the league the same year.
“Who doesn’t have a great player? Everyone has one,” Fish said. “I look out here and feel like I’m in the Pac 12 again.”
“Without question there’s guys who could play in the Pac 12. (Montana point guard) Ahmaad Rorie played in the Pac 12 (Oregon). (Northern Colorado guard) Andre Spight (Arizona State) did. You talk about value for your ticket price, almost every night if you buy a ticket in the Big Sky this season you are going to get your money’s worth.”
Montana State’s Hall entered the season as the league’s preseason MVP and a mid-major receiving substantial NBA hype after a sophomore season that saw him make 120 3-pointers and average 23.1 points per game. Partly because of battling pressure, illness and injury but also partly because of the depth of the league, the Bobcats sit at 6-7 in conference play. It’s as much a testament to proliferation of talent as any other factor.
North Dakota’s Crandall did not look out of place in UND’s 100-82 loss to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament game and looked like one of the best players on the floor while pouring in 28 points as the Fighting Hawks took Gonzaga to overtime in the non-conference.
Oguine has never been the primary scoring option for the Grizzlies, yet he became the 32nd Griz to surpass 1,000 career points earlier this season. He is averaging 16.7 points per game while providing as much energy and momentum-changing ability as any player in the league.
Davis, a highly regarded point guard from Las Vegas, was among the league’s leading scorers and its leader in assists per game last season as a sophomore. This year, he’s shared the ball handling and scoring duties with senior Andre Spight, but is still averaging 15.7 points per game in league play.
Those talented juniors are now vets alongside a group of seniors that continues to break records.
Idaho’s Victor Sanders isn’t quite the sharpshooter that Hall is but his ability to play on the ball and his ability as a defender make the Portland product a pro prospect. Some speculated that Sanders might pursue a graduate transfer. Instead, he’s one of six seniors on UI’s roster as the Vandals push for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Eastern Washington senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk became EWU’s all-time leading scorer earlier this season. The league’s most fundamentally sound player is also its best one-on-one scorer. He is averaging 22.1 points per game in conference play, including a 40-point performance in a win over Sac State.
Sac State senior Justin Strings is one of the most unique matchups on the West Coast, a 6-foot-7 stretch forward with impossibly long arms who can score with both hands. He is averaging 19.1 points per game in Big Sky play and recently surpassed 1,000 points in his career.
“Our conference has gotten older and I think we have done a better job of recruiting talent, especially guard,” DeCuire said. “As you look at some of the latest hires, you have assistant coaches from bigger conferences with contacts that have allowed them to get high-level players.”
The seasoned players have been bolstered a group of upstart sophomores led by Weber State point guard Jerrick Harding and Montana State point guard Harald Frey. Harding has been shredding the league, averaging 23.1 points per game in conference play. The former Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year is one of the most efficient and lethal slashers in the country. He’s shooting 55.1 percent from the floor, 45 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 88.1 percent at the free throw line.
Frey, the reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year, has battled illness for much of the last month. But the Oslo, Norway native is still averaging 13.2 points per game and is one of the league’s most dangerous outside shooters.
“You can never put coaching over players and right now, there’s some really good players in the league,” Katz, Sac State’s 10th-year head coach said. “I look at the rosters and I say, ‘Oh my God, look at this guy, look at that guy.’ Somebody watched us the other night and they thought (Portland State seniors) Bryce Canda and Deontae North were Pac 12-level guys. I think there’s teams that have Pac 12 level guys now.
“A lot of it seems to be the transfer thing, but Tyler Hall is not a transfer, Justin Strings not a transfer, Vic Sanders is not a transfer.”
Transfers have had a significant impact on the landscape of the Big Sky as well. Wiley graduate transferred from Lewis & Clark State and earned Big Sky MVP honors in his lone season at EWU, the biggest impact of the growing national trend directly on the Big Sky.
Rorie, an Oregon transfer, has paired with Oguine to give the Griz a Pac 12-level backcourt. UM also scored big with junior forward Jamar Akoh, a former Cal State-Fullerton player who has six double-doubles in league action and is averaging 16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds in league play.
“I think transfers have been a big impact,” Rahe said. “If you look at some of the best players, they are transfers. The Rorie kid at Montana, he’s a high-level guy at Oregon. The Spight kid over at Northern Colorado is a transfer. That’s the thing people have done: gotten in the transfer market and gotten a higher talented kid that maybe you can recruit as a freshman.”
Spight, an Arizona State transfer, has given Northern Colorado a much-needed shot in the arm. The talented on-ball shooting guard has drilled 83 3-pointers and is averaging 23.4 points per game in Big Sky play, including 41 points in a win earlier this month against Montana State.
“The biggest difference I notice from the Pac 12 to the Big Sky is that the top players over here play with a lot more freedom,” Spight said. “It’s more freedom and more confidence. At the higher level, some players are afraid to make those big plays on the big stage, to shoot those shots. Over here, everyone is playing with a little chip on their shoulder and they have something to prove.”
Most teams in the Big Sky have a few transfers in their rotation with varying levels of impactful play. Idaho State’s Jared Stutzman, a Utah Valley transfer, has been one of the league’s most pure shooters and is averaging 15.6 points per game for a team right in the middle of the Big Sky pack. Portland State’s Deontae North has been suspended indefinitely and might be gone from school, but was averaging 22.1 points per game in his second year out of junior college.
Southern Utah has seen the biggest surge of transfers of any team in the league. As Simon’s second season winds down, he has added 10 transfers, including UNLV transfer forward Dwayne Morgan, BYU transfer power Forward Jamal Aytes and Seattle transfer guard Jadon Cohee.
In his third season, Northern Arizona head coach Jack Murphy rode a senior-laden group that included former junior college standouts Aasheim Dixon and Quinton Upshur to the finals of the CBI Tournament. Since then, Murphy has tried to rebuild through the high school ranks but has seen more transfers leave than come to NAU.
“Starting from scratch in this league, it’s going to be a little bit up and down,” Murphy said. “One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gone through it, it gets harder and harder to build up through the freshman ranks. You’ve gotta bring transfers in, you have to bring guys in who have played at other places.
“It happens at every level. At the highest level, guys leave early for the NBA. At our level, they leave because they feel like they are better than this level or they aren’t as good as this level or they had higher expectations.”
The talent does not stop in recruiting or transfers. It also carries over to the coaching ranks. When Krystkowiak left Montana, UM replaced him with Wayne Tinkle. When Tinkle left for Oregon State, the Griz slid in DeCuire, just the latest in a storied coaching tree that begins with Jud Heathcote and also includes coaching icons like Mike Montgomery, Stew Morrill and Blaine Taylor.
Rahe inherited a solid program from Joe Cravens and returned Weber to its highest level since the heyday of the 1970s into the mid-1980s that saw WSU make five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and nine trips to the Big Dance between 1968 and 1983. Rahe has taken Weber dancing four time, most recently two seasons ago.
Fish has helped boost attendance significantly in his first head coaching job in Bozeman. Katz has been in the league for 10 years now after a career spent mostly in the California junior college ranks. Idaho State’s Evans returned to the head coaching ranks after spending 17 seasons as the head man at Southern Utah and five more on Krystkowiak and Tinkle’s staffs at Montana.
Jones has successfully guided UND from Division I to its first NCAA Tournament berth last spring, winning BSC Coach of the Year in the process. Two seasons ago, Verlin – now in his 10th season at the helm – helped guide the Vandals to their first 20-win season since Larry Eustachy did it in 1993.
“I think there’s a lot of good coaching in this league. In fact, I can’t think of anybody that’s not a good coach except for maybe the guy at Idaho State,” Evans, the 2016 Big Sky Coach of the Year, joked. “They are organized. Some leagues are players’ leagues, some leagues are coaches leagues. The bad thing about this league is there’s some good players and some good coaches too.
“I’ve been in it nine years and it’s the toughest I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Big Sky. I think it’ a really good league. I think there are a lot of really good teams. I think any of a number of teams could win this league tournament in Reno in March.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.