Thursday , Nov , 02 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big Sky Conference

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) –
OUTLOOK: The top teams in the Big Sky Conference should all look familiar, with
plenty of big names returning to the top finishers from a year ago. But one
thing that will not look so familiar will be some of the gentlemen holding the
clipboards. Five teams enter the 2006-07 season with new coaches, all of whom
carry the burden of bringing some new ideas — and, of course, some wins — to
programs in need of a spark. That, and a new team has been added to the
conference. Montana State welcomes Brad Huse; Randy Rahe heads to Weber State;
Joe O’Brien takes over at Idaho State; Wayne Tinkle grabs the reigns at
Montana; and Tad Boyle is in charge at Northern Colorado, the Big Sky’s newest
team. With that, there is plenty of uncertainty as far as what to expect from
several schools this season. NCAA regulations prevent Northern Colorado from
being eligible for a regular season title, as well as postseason play. Perhaps
the most interesting coaching change to keep an eye on is at Montana, where
Tinkle takes over for Larry Krystkowiak, who took a job as an assistant with
the Milwaukee Bucks. All eyes will be on Tinkle to see if the new head man can
get Montana, which returns several key starters, to a third straight NCAA
Tournament appearance. The Grizzlies will likely battle it out with Northern
Arizona and Eastern Washington for the conference title. Portland State returns
four starters from a squad that finished strong last year. Idaho State will go
as far as all-conference guard David Schroeder will take it. Weber State,
Sacramento State, Montana State and Northern Colorado are programs that must
learn to crawl before they can walk.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Northern Arizona, 2. Montana, 3. Eastern
Washington, 4. Portland State, 5. Idaho State, 6. Sacramento State, 7. Weber
State, 8. Montana State, 9. Northern Colorado


NORTHERN ARIZONA – Last year’s regular season champ returns the lion’s share of
its offensive firepower. With plenty of weapons back in the fold, the
Lumberjacks are poised for another run at the Big Sky title. Last year, the
‘Jacks won 12 of their 14 conference games during the regular season. Leading
the charge this year will be all-conference forward Ruben Boykin Jr., who
averaged 13.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg a year ago. He will be counted on to hold down
the front line. Fellow senior Tyrone Bazy (11.5 ppg) is a solid player at
guard, while point man Josh Wilson should have a better feel for the offense
with his freshman season now in the rearview mirror. Last year, Wilson averaged
a team-leading six assists per game, though he also turned the ball over nearly
four times per tilt. His ability to take care of the ball and run the offense
will be key for the Lumberjacks’ success. Having Steven Sir out on the
perimeter to drain threes is an added bonus. Sir, who is the school’s all-time
leader in three-point percentage (.489), was granted another year of
eligibility. Forward Ryan McCurdy started 22 games last year, though coach Mike
Adras is no doubt counting on the 6-9 junior to improve upon the 4.2 rpg he

MONTANA – The Grizzlies have really turned a corner the last few years, winning
the conference tournament title in each of the past two seasons. Montana is
searching for its third straight invite to the NCAA Tournament after upsetting
Nevada in the first round last year. Over the summer, coach Larry Krystkowiak
decided to try his hand at the NBA level. In his place steps Wayne Tinkle, a
former Grizzly who is well respected by the Montana community and has also
spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach. As for the make-up of the
team, 6-8, 245-pound forward Andrew Strait draws the most attention. Last year,
he shot an impressive 61.4 percent (11th in the nation) while averaging 16.6
ppg and 6.4 rpg. He will team with Jordan Hasquet (6-9, 245 pounds) to form a
rather imposing front line. Matt Martin, who led the team in assists and
steals, returns to the backcourt along with 6-6 swingman Matt Dlouhy (7.4 ppg,
3.7 rpg).

EASTERN WASHINGTON – Mention Eastern Washington basketball these days and one
name comes to mind. That name is Rodney Stuckey, the conference’s reigning
Player of the Year. It’s hard to dissect which is more impressive, the fact
that he outscored every Big Sky player from the past 30 years by averaging 24.2
ppg (eighth in the nation), or that he did it as a freshman. In either case,
all eyes will be on Stuckey this season, as he tries to give an encore from his
national Freshman of the Year season. However, some other players must step up
if the team is going to make its second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance,
considering the team’s leading scorer for the final 27 games of the season was
Stuckey. The coaching staff is high on a trio of guards who are new to the
team, but the burden will fall more to the five other returning players with
starting experience to produce. Paul Butorac (10.3 ppg and a school-record 51
blocks) and Kellen Williams (8.0 ppg) provide some additional scoring punch,
while Matt Penoncello and Neal Zumwalt are legitimate three-point threats.

PORTLAND STATE – Beyond the expected top three finishers in the Big Sky, it’s
anybody’s game. And one of those anybodies are the Portland State Vikings. The
strength of the Vikings lies in the frontcourt with returning starters Juma
Kamara (11.4 ppg) and Scott Morrison (9.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) back in the fold.
Morrison is a solid shot blocker from his center position, while Kamara is able
to draw defenders out to the perimeter after leading the league by shooting 53
percent from three-point range in 2005-06. The Vikes will also have their point
guard back, as Ryan Sommer returns after averaging 10.2 ppg and nearly four
assists per game. That trio helped fuel a late-season run in which the Vikings
won their final four games to get into the conference tournament. Beyond those
three, however, Portland State is a young squad. For the Vikings to improve
upon last year’s 12-16 record, some of the new faces will have to step up.

IDAHO STATE – Had David Schroeder not been granted another year of eligibility
by the NCAA, who knows what kind of a mess new head coach Joe O’Brien would
have found himself in when he took over during the offseason. Although
Schroeder had three seasons cut short due to knee injuries, he is within only a
few trips down the hardwood from becoming the school’s all-time leader in
three-pointers. Last year, he averaged 15.4 ppg. Logan Kinghorn is the only
other returning starter, though he averaged just 6.8 ppg. Akbar Abdul-Ahad had
originally declared early for the NBA draft despite starting just one game,
though he later decided another year of college ball was in his best interest.
He did manage to lead the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio and free throw
shooting. Another player who figures into the starting lineup is John Ofoegbu,
a Texas Tech transfer who sat last season out due to NCAA regulations.

SACRAMENTO STATE – The Hornets are looking to build upon the program’s best
season in 15 years. Head coach Jerome Jenkins has instilled a winning attitude
in his players, and that attitude has his team looking beyond last season’s 15
wins. The success of this year’s squad rests mainly on the shoulders of All-Big
Sky selection Alex Bausley, who averaged 13.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg. DaShawn Freeman,
the conference’s all-time steals leader, has moved on, but sophomore guard
Loren Leath, who is a dangerous three-point shooter, returns after averaging
11.6 ppg as a freshman. Six of the team’s top eight scorers are back for
another season, including seniors Haron Hargrave (8.6 ppg) and Clark Woods (7.3
ppg). Only three teams have reached the Big Sky Tournament in each of the last
four seasons, and Sacramento State is one of them.

WEBER STATE – New head coach Randy Rahe was busy filling an empty cupboard
during the offseason, as former coach Joe Cravens picked a good time to move
on. Only two years removed from a 26-6 season, the Wildcats have fallen on hard
times. Last year, the team failed to make the conference tournament for the
first time since 1980-81. With just three players back from last year’s dismal
squad, Rahe brought along seven juco transfers. The most promising of that
group is Arturas Valeika, who originally hails from Lithuania. He stands at 6-9
and possesses solid ball skills, though it remains to be seen how he fits in
with Rahe’s plans. The team lost its top two scorers, and nine lettermen in
all. Among the few who actually played for the purple and white last year is
David Patten, who averaged 10.8 ppg but will be pushed by Valeika at power
forward. Beyond that, the ‘Cats are without a single post-up player on the

MONTANA STATE – Though Montana State finished an even 15-15 last year, the odds
are stacked against the Bobcats to do the same here in 2006-07. After all, the
team’s top four scorers are gone. Despite coming off the bench last season,
Derrick Edmonds is the top returning scorer, though his 8.8 ppg hardly demanded
any double teams. Other notable returnees include Nick Dissly (7.2 ppg), Casey
Durham (6.1 ppg) and Ted Morris (5.2 ppg). But the new coaching staff was not
ready to head into a new season without some reinforcements. Brad Huse did what
he could bringing in players over the offseason, even adding a pair of players
in October. Huse has added seven new faces, including four juco transfers.
There is certainly some talent among those signed by Huse, but the team lacks a
bona fide scoring threat capable of consistently creating his own scoring

NORTHERN COLORADO – The Bears are playing in a brand new conference with a
brand new coach. Forgive the preseason pundits if that combination does not
elicit visions of championship banners hanging from Butler-Hancock Sports
Pavilion. Handling the clipboard for the Bears this season will be Tad Boyle.
The good news is that four starters return. The bad news is that those four
played on last season’s dismal 5-24 squad. Still, big things are expected from
junior Sean Taibi, who averaged 15.3 ppg a year ago. Beyond that, however, the
roster is loaded with freshmen who will be thrown into the fire from the
season’s opening. Should the Bears turn some heads under coach Boyle, they
would not be eligible for a conference title or NCAA Tournament berth until
next season.