The hype for this men’s college basketball season is palpable around campuses throughout the Big Sky Conference. Now that media day is out of the way, opening night is officially up next and the games are about to begin.
Many different Big Sky teams will be kicking off their seasons with exhibition games, and meaningful out-of-conference games are slated to start around the second week of November. Conference play begins Dec. 28th, and the Vandals will play their first conference game against North Dakota the 29th.
Last year’s conference champions, the University of North Dakota, are picked to finish sixth this year in the conference coaches’ poll. They, along with most in the conference, will have a lot of work to do with an influx of new blood to the roster as they try to repeat last year’s performance.
“We have seven new players, so we are hoping to all learn the system together,” North Dakota head coach Brian Jones said. “As a team, we look to shoot more threes than we have in the past. I’m anxious to see our team come together. I’m interested to see how we can get the new guys to let go and buy in.”
The Fighting Hawks were ranked behind teams like Montana State, Montana, Weber State, and Idaho in the preseason coaches’ poll after a very successful 2016-17 season. Weber State, Idaho’s toughest competition according to the coaches and media, lost two important starters to graduation. The Wildcats will have to replace almost a third of their minutes and nearly 40% of their scoring lost through the graduation of guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Kyndahl Hill. Montana State also lost two of their three biggest contributors from last season and Montana will also have to replace three of last year’s starters.
In total, three of the five players given first team all-Big Sky honors have graduated, including two-time selections Senglin and North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker.
Idaho, meanwhile, will have to deal with no such roster turnover which should make for a smoother beginning of the season and a stronger performance during adversity. Much has been said of the Vandals returning six seniors, including first team all-Big Sky guard Victor Sanders.
“We’ve gotta compete everyday to get better in order to get those end results we want,” Sanders said. “We have everything we need to work hard and make the tournament and win our conference. We just have to do everything we can to prepare and work hard to take advantage of those opportunities.”
There will be plenty of learning opportunities in the Vandals’ nonconference slate. The team got a head start by playing Oregon in a scrimmage to raise money for wildfire victims. They will also get marquee tuneups with Nevada and Washington State before heading into all-important conference play.
“We’re hoping that all that leadership and hard work can propel us to a league championship and an appearance in the tournament,” Verlin said. “We’re going to have to win a bunch on the road while holding it down at home, and I think the Big Sky is as good as I’ve seen it.”
The Vandals will be well equipped to meet any challengers in the conference.
“As everybody knows as it has been widely publicized, we have a majority of our roster back. We have six seniors on this team,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. “We’re getting anxious to play someone else tired of playing against each other.”
All six of those seniors are poised to make big contributions this fall as Idaho pursues a Big Sky Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.
The narrative of returning seniors goes beyond just recreating last year’s production. Senior guard Perrion Callandret played in only two games last year before suffering a season-ending injury, but he has returned with a vengeance to help lead the Vandals.
“The guys accepted me right back, and through the preseason and open gyms we all gained the chemistry back,” Callandret said. “It was more of me getting back into the game with my conditioning and the flow of things, but other than that it was a breeze. We were playing together for a while, even before I got hurt, so it was just picking it back where we left off.”
Callandret had never played in fewer than 25 games in a season prior to the 2016-17 season, suggesting that there is reason to believe he will be able to stay healthy this year. His points, rebounds and assists totals rose every year up until last season, and further cohesion with longtime teammates and coaches should continue those positive trends.
“We do have a target on our backs, but these guys earned that preseason recognition with all they work they have put in,” Verlin said. “In the end, it only matters where you finish, but we’re going to be a very physical team and these guys are ready to prove themselves.”
Coach Verlin is rightfully concerned with the challenges posed by perennial contenders like Weber State and Montana, but Idaho is properly equipped to exceed the lofty expectations set in the preseason.
Mark your calendars for the first game against Nevada Nov. 10th, because the fun is about to begin.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonahpbaker