Dunks and downfalls of men’s basketball

Dontay Bassett goes for a layup against the Montana Griz.

What looked to be Weber State University’s destination to lose early in the year, the 2021-22 Big Sky conference men’s basketball season came down to a close four-way race. Following Montana’s dramatic win, it’s time to look at things to consider next season.

Montana State University
Strengths: Last season, Montana State took home the Big Sky title and it’s hard to doubt their chances of repeating. Big Sky MVP Jubrile Belo is back for his senior season along with a majority of their title-winning team. What made the Bobcats strong last season was their good offense and phenomenal defense. Montana State had the best win-margin of anyone in the conference, something that experienced coach Danny Sprinkle will look to replicate.

Weaknesses: As bullet-proof as this team looks, there are a few players the Bobcats will miss. All-Big Sky first team member Xavier Bishop and All-Big Sky honorable mention Amin Adamu will not return to the lineup. Bishop played a key role in facilitating last season’s offense, averaging 13.9 points per game. Belo will need smart replacements at the guard position to repeat his successful previous season.

University of Northern Colorado
Strengths: After hitting a few rough patches and losing streaks last season, the Bears peaked at the perfect time to provide them with an exceptional playoff spot. Northern Colorado was just shy of taking home the Big Sky title last season and their chances of reaching that title game this year are high. Many felt that graduate-student guard Daylen Kountz was the rightful Big Sky MVP last season after leading the conference in scoring. Back for another run with a solid lineup, it’s easy to categorize this team as contenders.

Weaknesses: Kountz and guard Matt Johnson II are both back for another run as graduate students. The Bears are stacked in the backcourt, but it’s their frontcourt that makes games against Montana State and Weber State challenging. Although Northern Colorado beat both teams once each last season, the matchups were extremely close. This team needs an All-Big Sky caliber big man.

Weber State University
The Wildcats are the most difficult team to predict in the conference. Weber State lost All-Big Sky members like Koby McEwen and Seikou-Sisoho Jawara along with two powerful big men in Dontae Bassett and JJ Overton. But those losses pale in comparison to the loss of the dean of Big Sky basketball. After Randy Rahe’s 15-year tenure, his longtime assistant Eric Duft now has the reins.

Strengths: Forward Dillon Jones gives this team a lot of stability, along with players like Alex Tew and Dyson Koehler who showed phenomenal growth last season. Weber State also loaded up on new talent in Keith Dinwiddie Jr., Louie Jordan and JJ Louden. This team is young and talented enough to pose a dynasty threat if developed correctly.

Weaknesses: As stated previously, this team has multiple unknowns. Guard Junior Ballard is the only senior on the team and he didn’t play for the Wildcats last season. There’s no reason to doubt this team’s ability to create a great system, but it’s possible that Weber State is built more for 2023-24.

University of Montana
Strengths: Coach Travis Decuire’s roster was designed to force close contests last season. With statistically the best defense in the league, the Grizzlies were only behind Montana State in scoring margin. All-Big Sky second team forward Josh Bannan is back for his junior season, giving Montana an advantage in starting the season strong with stars who know the team’s system.

Weaknesses: This is a team with a few statistical weaknesses. Their defense is phenomenal, but their offense struggles, only averaging 72 points per game. Despite holding teams to low scores, the Grizzlies averaged the least amount of rebounds per game. This is a team that needs to capitalize on possessions and fast-break opportunities.

Eastern Washington University
Strengths: After a horrendous four-game losing streak, the Eagles tore up the Big Sky and struck fear into the hearts of the high-seeded teams. The most popular sleeper pick from last season, Eastern Washington finished 1 point away from an upset against Northern Colorado. Breakout guard Steele Venters is returning after receiving All-Big Sky second team honors last season, giving Eastern Washington a chance to replicate last year’s explosive offense.

Weaknesses: The Eagles offense made this team tough to match up against last season, but losing All-Big Sky third team member Linton Acliese III and Rylan Bergersen could pose challenges for Eastern Washington. This is also a team that needs to remedy their struggles on defense after finishing as the most overall scored-on team in the Big Sky last season.

Portland State University
Strengths: It’s not uncommon for a young team to finish .500 overall like Portland State did last season.That said, this team won big games last year, sweeping Northern Colorado and beating Weber State. Coach Jase Coburn’s lineup was unpredictable last season, but coming back with a better knowledge of the team’s system, the Vikings may be the new sleepers in the Big Sky.

Weaknesses: Out of all the teams in the Big Sky, Portland State was 6th in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. They’re good on both sides of the court, but not great at either. What could help is some efficient 3-point shooting, something the team struggled with last season. A strong presence around the perimeter could be exactly what this team needs to create a more comfortable scoring margin.

Sacramento State University
Strengths: When bringing up Sacramento State last season, it was impossible not to bring up Bryce Fowler. Despite being the third highest-scoring player in the Big Sky, Fowler’s offense wasn’t able to outshine the Hornet’s efforts on defense. Coach David Patrick has developed a defense that’s able to compete with the likes of Montana State and Weber State, something that can be carried on to this season.

Weaknesses: It’s baffling to hear that even with Fowler averaging 19 points per game, the Hornets struggled on offense. Losing Fowler is the worst thing that’s happened to this team. The Hornets might not be able to replace Fowler so quickly, so they may need to develop a more aggressive post-game that leads to high-percentage shots inside the arc along with free-throws, something they got the least of last season.

University of Idaho
Strengths: Although the Vandals were a weaker team in the conference last season, they hit it big on a three-game win streak against Weber State, Montana, and Eastern Washington. It’s easy to look at Idaho’s poor offense and dreadful defense, but this team feels more like a fixer-upper than a hopeless mess. For example, Idaho plays a great 3-point game, and they’re decent when it comes to rebounds. If Coach Zac Claus plays his cards right this season, he’s potentially made a Big Sky sleeper.

Weaknesses: As previously stated, this team had a poor offense and a dreadful defense last season. The Vandals had the second worst margin of any team in the Big Sky. When they win, it’s usually a close game, but when they lose, they get nearly blown out. It’s a fixer-upper of a team, and it could take a while to see progress in this team’s development.

Idaho State University
The Bengals don’t have many wins to look at, but what they do have is fairly interesting.

Strengths: Idaho State beat the likes of Montana and Northern Colorado last season. Their decent defense was able to pull their struggling offense to victories in certain games. Coach Ryan Looney’s roster has seven freshmen, but also plenty of returners who’ve had experience in his system. Expect center Kolby Lee to be a contender for Big Sky Newcomer of the Year.

Weaknesses: It’s hard to point out the strengths of a team who finished at the bottom in win margin. Idaho State doesn’t shoot or defend shots proficiently. If Lee pans out, it might be a good idea to run the offense through him and defend the three more closely. Idaho State might have what it takes to win, but they need to keep scores low.

Northern Arizona University
Strengths: The Lumberjacks had a mid-tier defense last year in stopping field goals. They were also able to shoot from well beyond the arc. Northern Arizona’s may not be title contenders yet, but they could be on their way if they’re able to create an effective system.

Weaknesses: Northern Arizona finished in the bottom three in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and margin. This weakness shined through as they placed at the very bottom of those categories. They were far from being a .500 team last year and there’s a good chance they don’t develop into one this season.

Weber State will start their in-conference season at home against Northern Colorado on Dec. 29.