SARNIA, Ont. — The Big Sky Conference has undergone some big changes this off-season.
For starters, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks are now officially members of the Summit League, leaving the Big Sky Conference after the 2017-18 season. North Dakota’s departure now puts the Big Sky at 11 teams for the upcoming season.
Many of the remaining teams will also look considerably different, as star players from across the league have moved on in their careers. Whether it was due to graduation or transfer, some familiar names have left the Big Sky Conference. With that said, there are now plenty of opportunities for new players to become the faces of the conference, and there are plenty of candidates around the league.
There are still star players in the league, but the Big Sky is home to some talented players who have flown under the radar so far in their respective careers. One in particular put up massive numbers a season ago, but barely grabbed attention from the national media.
Here are 10 returning players who will be names to know this season in the Big Sky Conference.
Note: Players like Ahmaad Rorie, Jordan Davis, Tyler Hall, and Michael Oguine weren’t listed because people should be familiar with their names by now.
Jerrick Harding – Weber State Wildcats
2017-18 Stats: 22.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.1 spg; 53.0% FG, 42.5% 3PT, 88.2% FT
Weber State is one of the more consistent programs in the country, regardless of conference. Year after year, they’re right in the thick of things in the Big Sky Conference, and are always a legitimate threat to win the conference title and advance to the NCAA Tournament. With the exception of the 2014-15 season, where they finished seventh in the Big Sky, the Wildcats have finished at least third or better under head coach Randy Rahe. Since Rahe took over as head coach in 2006-07, Weber State has made nine post-season appearances.
The Wildcats look poised to make another post-season appearance this season, and they will be led by arguably the best player you’ve never heard of: Jerrick Harding. As a sophomore in 2017-18, Harding finished inside the top 15 in the nation with 22.0 points per game. When you factor in his shooting percentages of 53% from the floor, 42.5% from three-point range, and 88.2% from the free throw line, Harding was one of the most effective and efficient players in the country. Look for Harding to continue his impressive play into his junior season, as he is on pace to becoming the next star out of Weber State.
Mason Peatling – Eastern Washington Eagles
2017-18 Stats: 7.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.2 bpg; 52.5% FG
The 2018-19 season begins the post-Bogdan Bliznyuk period for Eastern Washington, as the star forward graduated following the 2017-18 campaign. The native of Lutsk, Ukraine surpassed the 2,100 point mark for his career during his senior season, and will undoubtedly go down as one of the best players in Eastern Washington history. Now, the Eagles are left to replace his production, and that’s a significant void that won’t be done overnight.
Forward Mason Peatling finished second on the team in scoring last season, averaging 7.7 points per contest. His 5.6 rebounds per game are tied for the highest mark of any returning player (Jesse Hunt). The large discrepancy in points between Peatling and Bliznyuk shows just how much he meant to the program. The 6’8” Peatling will take on a much bigger role in 2018-19 with the Eagles, and that should lead to steady increases in production across the board. Peatling did post five double-doubles in conference play last season, including 19 points and 13 rebounds against Montana State.
Jamar Akoh – Montana Grizzlies
2017-18 Stats: 12.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.9 spg; 57.0% FG
The Montana Grizzlies are considered by many as the front-runners in the Big Sky Conference for the 2018-19 season, and for good reason. The pair of Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine are back to lead the way, but there is a slew of talent behind them that adds depth to the roster for the Grizzlies. One of those players is Jamar Akoh, who put together a strong season that went overlooked by many. The native of Rancho Cucamonga, CA is back for his senior season and ready to lead Montana to the Big Dance.
Last season, his first with the Grizzlies after transferring from the Cal State Fullerton Titans, Akoh finished third on the team in scoring after averaging 12.8 points per contest. His 6.6 rebounds per contest also led the Grizzlies, while he was second on the team among their regulars with a shooting percentage of 57%. Akoh gives the Grizzlies size up front, and his production forces defenses to stay honest, which in turn opens things up for both Oguine and Rorie on the back-end. Akoh had 23 games with double-digit points a season ago, including a 34-point outburst against Northern Colorado.
Brandon Better – Southern Utah Thunderbirds
2017-18 Stats: 12.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.9 spg; 38.0% FG, 38.4% 3PT
Coming into the 2017-18 season, there was an elevated level of optimism surrounding the Southern Utah program. While the Thunderbirds made strides as a program, they still finished below the .500 mark and missed the post-season. Now, they are going through a bit of a roster turnover, as Jadon Cohee transferred out of the program and Jamal Aytes graduated from the program. However, the Thunderbirds bring back Dwayne Morgan and Brandon Better, who led the team in scoring last season, and that’s good news for Southern Utah in a Big Sky Conference that’s changed rather significantly from a year ago.
Better was one of four Thunderbirds to average at least 12.2 points per game a season, and his per game average of 12.8 led the team. In 31 games, he shot 38.4% from three point range, and 38.0% overall from the floor. Better hit three or more three pointers on 13 occasions over the course of the year. He had six games with 20 or more points, and 19 games overall with double-digit points. When the long ball is falling, Better can put up points in bunches. Him and Morgan will form one of the better tandems in the Big Sky Conference this season.
Holland Woods – Portland State Vikings
2017-18 Stats: 10.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.5 spg; 39.7% FG, 79.1% FT
In non-conference play, the Portland State Vikings caught headlines early in the season at the PK80 Invitational. They entered the event with a perfect 4-0 record, and while they were major underdogs on their side of the bracket, they fought hard against both the Duke Blue Devils and Butler Bulldogs before eventually closing the event with an 87-78 win over the Stanford Cardinal. At the forefront for most of the season for the Vikings was freshman guard Holland Woods, who is one of the top rising stars in the Big Sky Conference.
With the departures of both Deontae North and Bryce Canda, Woods is the top returning scorer for the Vikings (10.5 ppg). He led the team with 5.6 assists per game on the year, while committing just 2.6 turnovers per night out. He recorded an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.2-to-1, recording 191 assists to 88 turnovers. While he is one of the top playmaking guards in the conference, Woods can also fill up the basket on any given night, as evident by his 19 games with double-digit points and four games with 20+ points. When he gets hot from the field, Woods can take over a game on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a rising star in the NCAA, and a name that you’ll want to remember.
Jalen Sanders – Northern Colorado Bears
2017-18 Stats: 9.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.4 bpg; 58.2% FG
Northern Colorado is home to one of the most exciting guards in all of college basketball, in the highly athletic and immensely talented Jordan Davis. However, they have more talent on their roster that goes underappreciated on a national level. With the graduation of Andre Spights, the Bears will look for another player to step up and compliment Davis on both ends of the floor. Fans should look no further than sophomore guard Jalen Sanders as the potential next man up for the program, as he enjoyed a strong freshman season in 2017-18.
Sanders was one of six players to appear in all 38 games for the Bears last season, as they won the 2018 CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Sanders averaged 9.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season, finishing fourth on the team in scoring and tied for second in rebounding. He posted 10 points and six rebounds in the Bears’ 76-71 win over the UIC Flames in the CIT Championship Game. Over the course of the year, Sanders showed that he has the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor, whether it was on the glass or by putting up points. The future is bright for the product from Denver, CO, and he looks to be in for a big year this season as a sophomore.
Harald Frey – Montana State Bobcats
2017-18 Stats: 13.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 0.8 spg; 42.8% FG, 37.4% 3PT
Montana State is home to one of the top guard tandems in the country, in leading scorer Tyler Hall and Harald Frey. Both are back in the mix for the Bobcats this season, and will be looking to help the program make it back to the post-season for the first time since 2002. Under head coach Brian Fish, the Bobcats have made quite the turnaround over the last four seasons. The duo of Hall and Frey have played a big part in the turnaround over their two seasons together.
Frey came to Montana State as a freshman in 2016-17, and burst onto the scene by averaging 12.7 points and 3.4 assists per contest. He followed that up by averaging 13.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game last season as a sophomore. Frey is effective from the field, shooting over 42% from the field in both of his seasons so far with the Bobcats. He opened up last season with a 29-point effort, which was a sign of things to come for the native of Oslo, Norway, as he finished the season with 22 double-digit point efforts. He struggled a bit over the final three games, recording a combined 14 points, but all signs point to Frey finding his groove early on in 2018-19.
Jordan Tolbert – Sacramento State Hornets
2017-18 Stats: 10.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg; 40.7% FG, 40.2% 3PT
Like Eastern Washington with the loss of Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Sacramento State Hornets won’t quite look the same as they will be beginning life without star forward Justin Strings, who was a model of consistency up front over his collegiate career. Now, the Hornets have a big hole to fill up front, which will present opportunities to some of their key returnees in the front court. However, they will need the back court to take on an expanded role to help replace the offensive production, and that’s where guard Jordan Tolbert comes into the mix.
Tolbert was the third leading scorer for the team last season, and the top scoring guard. He averaged 10.1 points per game over his junior season, which was also his first at the Division I level. The native of Houston, TX also averaged 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists, while shooting above 40% from three-point range. Tolbert came to Sacramento State from Western Texas Junior College, where he was an all-conference selection after averaging over 11 points and five assists per game in under 20 minutes of court time per night. He will take on an expanded role as a senior in 2018-19 as the Hornets look to bounce back from a down year in 2017-18.
Jared Stutzman – Idaho State Bengals
2017-18 Stats: 14.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.6 spg; 56.7% FG, 52.0% 3PT
Quietly, the Idaho State Bengals have a ton of offense on their roster for the 2018-19 season, as they return their top two scorers and three of their top five overall. The loss of forward Novak Topalovic by way of transfer hurts the depth up front, but their back court remains strong with the return of both Brandon Boyd and Jared Stutzman. They have had talent in recent years, but haven’t been able to turn that into much success in the race for the Big Sky title. Idaho State fans are hoping that changes this season.
Stutzman put up some impressive numbers in his first season with Idaho State after transferring from the Utah Valley Wolverines following the 2015-16 campaign. Stutzman tied Boyd for the team lead in scoring, averaging 14.9 points per contest while averaging just shy of 33 minutes per night out. Stutzman was one of the most effective three-point shooters in the country, hitting on 52% of his attempts from long-range. He finished tied for third in three point shooting percentage in the country with Connor Burchfield of the William & Mary Tribe. The junior from Idaho Falls, ID will look to build off his breakout season a year ago and help the Bengals move up in the big Sky standings.
Brooks Debisschop – Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
2017-18 Stats: 5.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.9 spg; 39.3% FG
Simply put: the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks lose a lot of talent from last year’s team. Both JoJo Anderson and Torry Johnson transferred out of the program, while the likes of Gino Littles and Karl Harris have graduated, leaving holes across the roster to be filled. There are returnees on the roster that will see their roles expanded drastically this season, which could lead to big production jumps.
One player that could be in for a significant role with the Lumberjacks this season is junior forward Brooks Debisschop. The 6’9” forward from West Linn, OR averaged 5.2 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds per game last season in just over 27 minutes of court time per night. While his numbers won’t blow you away, he did show flashes of what he is capable of last season. Debisschop posted 13 points and 13 rebounds on the road against the South Florida Bulls in non-conference play, which was one of his three double-doubles for the year. He also pulled down 18 rebounds against Idaho State on February 1st. The Lumberjacks need somebody to step up and take a leading role this season, and that could very well be Debisschop, at least in the front court.
Five More to Watch
Brandon Boyd – Idaho State
Deante Strickland – Portland State
Brekkott Chapman – Weber State
Nate Sherwood – Idaho Vandals
Dwayne Morgan – Southern Utah
Follow along with each conference as it’s released on Twitter, as we have created a #TakeNote moment that will have each player listed as the articles are released.
– T. Bennett