Replacing the leading scorer in college basketball, particularly at a mid-major Division I school, seemed like an impossible task entering the season. In terms of pure statistical production, Eastern Washington has seen Austin McBroom plug right in.
Tyler Harvey poured in 3-pointers at an astounding rate during the last two seasons ripping nets throughout the Big Sky Conference. The EWU star entered the NBA Draft a season early, leaving a void of a 23-point per game scorer for an Eagles team looking to qualify for the Big Dance for the second straight season.
Eastern Washington’s Big Sky Tournament victory last season put EWU on the national map. It also made the Cheney, Washington school seem appealing to McBroom, a Los Angeles native who spent the last two seasons as a reserve at Saint Louis who was looking for a fresh start for his fifth and final season.
“I saw what they did last year, went to the tournament so one of my main goals was playing for a coach that wanted me, needed me and had confidence in me and a team that was going to win and go to March Madness,” McBroom said earlier this season. “Playing for a coach like (Jim) Hayford who lets me be me and knock down shots with confidence is huge.”
Although EWU has failed to reach last season’s level — the Eagles enter this week’s Big Sky Tournament in Reno as the No. 6 seed and on a four-game losing skid — McBroom’s production has almost reached Harvey’s. The graduate transfer is averaging 21.5 points per game, the top overall mark in the Big Sky and 17th nationally. He has knocked down a Big Sky-best 106 3-pointers and is shooting at a 42.2 percent clip from beyond the arc.
“We don’t want to build our program with transfers but when you build it with four-year guys and one develops to the point where he leaves early for the NBA, we had to go get a transfer,” Hayford said. “Austin McBroom has exceeded all expectations. Austin wanted an opportunity to lead a fast-break offense. We are free and open with how we play. The offense has been a great fit for him. He’s shooting the ball at a very high level.”
The evolution of the Big Sky as a league that can draw star graduate transfers, impact junior college transfers and stud freshman alike has been on full display this season.
McBroom and Portland State power forward Cameron Forte, a graduate transfer from Georgia, have been two of the league’s most productive players.
Point guard Ethan Telfair, a transfer from Redlands (Oklahoma) Community College, has pushed Idaho State from cellar dweller to a team that earned the No. 4 seed in this week’s tournament and the accompanying first-round bye. Montana point guard Walter Wright, an explosive mighty mite from Snow (Utah) College, has helped the Griz manage life without Jordan Gregory and earn the No. 2 seed heading into the post season.
“When you look at Idaho State, I’m not sure there’s a better player in the league than Telfair,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said. “I was so impressed with how he controls the game. Forte at Portland State puts up some of the best numbers in the league. McBroom at Eastern Washington puts out outstanding numbers. If a couple more of those guys come into our league this year, think about how good our league will be.”
The future of the league is also bright because of a collection of star freshmen. North Dakota’s Geno Crandall has emerged as one of the league’s most aggressive defensive players and a key perimeter scorer for a UND team that takes the No. 5 seed into the tournament.
Montana State shooting guard Tyler Hall has burst onto the scene, one of four players to average at least 21 points per game during conference play. Hall has drilled an MSU all-time record 95 3-pointers in his first season as the Bobcats have gone from bottom of the league to the seventh-seeded team in the BSC tournament in Fish’s second season.
Weber State has had the luxury of bringing Kyndahl Hill, a starter for all 30 games as a sophomore last season, off the bench this season because of the emergence of freshman center Zach Braxton. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound moose is averaging 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 30 starts for the regular-season Big Sky champions.
Northern Colorado’s young roster is sprinkled with young players, including Jordan Davis, a starter since the third game of the season and one of the rising star guards in the league. NAU has been similar to UNC if not quite as successful, starting four true freshmen, including standouts Torry Johnson, Marcus DeBerry and Mike Green.
Outside of Hall, Montana’s Michael Oguine has been arguably the most impactful freshman this season. Oguine is scoring in double figures (13.1 points per gamein conference play) and executing some of the league’s best perimeter defense for a squad that won the regular-season Big Sky title three of the last five seasons.
“I think our league is setting up to be an outstanding league the next few years and we have to get that information out to people. We’ve got some really, really good players,” said Fish, who has been beating the drum to publicize the league’s youth for at least two months. “If you were to vote an all-conference freshmen team and an all-conference sophomore team, you’d have some pretty good players on there. I’m not sure I’m qualified to say this but I don’t think the league has seen 10 under classmen as talented as there is right now.
“We all talk about (former Weber State and current Portland Trailblazers star) Damian Lillard but there are some guys in here that are going to play at the next level. If you guys pay attention, they will be there.”
Standout sophomores include EWU’s Bodgan Bliznyuk, the BSC Freshman of Year a season ago who notched the first triple double the league has seen in 2013 earlier this season. North Dakota features versatile sophomore forward Drick Bernstine, a transfer from Denver University who is third in the league in rebounding. Sacramento State lanky forward Justin Strings, Southern Utah smooth shooter James McGee and Idaho State’s super-efficient shooting guard Geno Luzcando can also be counted among the league’s star sophomores.
Forte has been one of the league’s most productive big men, a smooth southpaw who averages 20.1 points on 61.3 percent shooting and pulls in 10.1 rebounds per Big Sky game, providing the league’s best spark off the bench. McBroom has knocked down shots with more prevalence than any guard in a guard-oriented league.
But Telfair has been perhaps the league’s biggest impact newcomer. The younger brother of former NBA first-round draft pick Sebastian Telfair and the cousin of former New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury has been haunted by a gun charge he picked up as a minor. His winding road from Coney Island, New York has led him to Pocatello, Idaho, a place where he has thrived as he’s helped turn the Bengals around.
The smooth, explosive point guard is averaging 24 points per game in league play, tops in the Big Sky, and 20.3 points per game overall. He also leads the league in assists per game in conference play (5.7 per game) and his 202 free throws made and 232 free throws attempted are the most in the BSC.
“No one has made an impact in our league this season as big as the Telfair kid has made at Idaho State,” said North Dakota head coach Brian Jones.
Many wondered where Montana would turn with the graduation of Jordan Gregory and the off-season hand surgery endured by junior Mario Dunn. The Griz have not missed a beat, sliding Wright and Oguine into the starting lineup and chasing another championship banner.
“We knew the expectations coming here and we have tried to meet them,” Wright said earlier this season. “Michael compliments my game so much because he’s a slasher. He can get off his own shot. He can create shots for me. That’s something I’ve never had in the past, a guard who can create for me and we play off each other like that.”
Hall and Oguine have already begun to forge a rivalry within the league’s fiercest rivalry. In Montana’s 80-72 win in Bozeman earlier this season, Oguine and Hall jawed back and forth as Oguine gave Hall more problems with his defense than just about any player in the league. The athletic UM stud also contributed offensively, scoring 21 points, including five points in the final 3:10 of the game.
“He’s a great player,” Oguine said. “After the game, we said we would see each other down the road. He’s a great player and he’s pretty tough to guard but I take it as a challenge. We will compete and make each other better so I would take it as a budding rivalry.”
In the rematch in Missoula, the battle stayed just as heated as the duo once again battled with Oguine once again coming out on top. Hall drilled seven 3-pointers and surpassed 30 points for the second time this season but Oguine poured in a career-high 27 points as Montana earned an 87-78 win.
“They are both special basketball players,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said. “I would never take anything away from Tyler Hall. He’s a special basketball player and he is going to score a ton of points at Montana State. I think Mike’s role is different. Mike knows he’s not going to get 20 shots every night and we are not calling a play for him out of every huddle. And he’s going to guard the best player on the other team. I don’t think Tyler’s being asked to do that.”
The top three teams in this week’s tournament — Weber, Montana, Idaho — and five of the top seven teams feature a starting lineup with at least one freshman. Several coaches, including Fish, Jones and Northern Arizona’s Jack Murphy point to the fact that the new tournament format has allowed for more flexible lineups. With all 12 teams guaranteed to make the tournament field, head coaches are not as hesitant to roll the dice with young players.
“A lot of it is coaches not being afraid to play young kids,” Jones said. “I think that’s huge. I’m looking at Montana’s freshman (Oguine) and man, he’s always been really good but he’s gotten to a different level now. Tyler Hall, I’m biased because he’s from my high school in my hometown (Rock Island, Illinois), I knew he was going to be a special talent, but he’s borderline unstoppable. We have some impact freshmen. Coaches are not afraid to play these young kids because they are that talented.”
Hayford’s Eagles put together a special season a year ago, complete with a school-record 26 wins, including victories over Indiana at Assembly Hall and over Montana in Missoula in the Big Sky Tournament championship game. His roster featured players like Harvey and hyperactive power forward Venky Jois, players who signed with EWU out of high school and started right away in Cheney.
“It’s hard that first year,” Hayford said. “When Tyler Harvey and Venky Jois were freshmen, we went 10-21. That’s hard. But if you suck it up and take that, the results down the road are a whole lot better and it also helps you create culture in your program, which is the No. 1 factor to success.
“More and more coaches are deciding to build it with four-year guys. That was our model and we made the NCAA Tournament last year. When I took the job, I looked at who the two most successful programs are and it’s Montana and Weber and they have the best track record of developing four-year guys. There are some new coaches in the league saying that’s what they want to do too. The Big Sky is only going to get better and better.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.