Men’s basketball in the Frontier Conference has become as powerful as anywhere else in the country. In just the last two seasons, the Frontier has made five NAIA tournament appearances with four different teams, and it was less than two years ago that the Frontier produced a national champion when Rocky Mountain College captured the 2009 NAIA title.
And while the faces and names on the back of the jersey’s change around the league, the high level of basketball doesn’t. Two-time Frontier champion Westminster starts the year as the favorite to capture a third straight league crown, while UM-Western, MSU-Northern and Rocky have all made tournament appearances in the last two seasons. Add to that mix a resurgent Carroll College team, and steadily improving clubs at UGF and LC State, and 2011 has the makings of one of the most competitive Frontier Conference seasons ever.
Here’s a brief look at all of the Frontier teams in their predicted order of finish
2009-10: 13-1, 27-6.
The Griffins are led by head coach Tommy Connor and have been the most dominant program in the Frontier since joining the league almost a decade ago. And that trend doesn’t look to end anytime soon. Westminster went to the NAIA Final Four two years ago and reached the second round last year after going 13-1 in league play. And despite graduating almost 60 percent of its offense from last year’s team, the Griffins are off to a rousing start this season. Westminster enters league play ranked No. 7 in the NAIA and they have a veteran point guard to thank. Senior Michael Stockton, son of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton and 6-7 teammate Ben Walker have combined to average almost 35 points per game in non-league play, and together, they give the new-look Griffins a solid nucleus to work with. Westminster’s depth is always a factor and 6-4 sophomore Jake Orchard leads a group of talented newcomers, all of whom will make the Griffins tough to beat in this winter.
2009-10: 9-5, 22-10
The Lights are off to a solid start under ninth-year head coach Shawn Huse. And while it was a surprise Northern was picked two finish second in the league this season despite the fact the Lights returned just two players and no starters, Northern nas backed that pick up thus far. Newcomers LaVon Myers, Joe Simpson, Sean Kelly, Chris Brown, David Maddock and Ben Mitchell have gelled nicely with returnees Devin Jackson and Shaun Tatarka. But Northern will have a tough road ahead if it wants to get back to the national tournament after just missing out on the big dance a year ago. The Lights play five of their first seven conference games on the road, and while MSU-N has always been a great home-court team under Huse, it will be Northern’s ability to win on the road in January which will likely make or break the Lights’ regular season.
2009-10: 10-4, 25-10
A 25-win season and a thrilling victory over Northern in the Frontier semifinals got the Bulldogs into the NAIA tourney for the first time in over a decade last season. Now, Western hopes to back that up this year. Head coach Steve Keller has quickly turned the Bulldogs around, but he must replace almost all of his leading scorers and rebounders from a year ago. Losses like four-year starter Layne Glaus and forward JaRon Brown as well as much of the bench scoring could have been costly to the Bulldogs’ success this year. But point guard Brandon Brown is leading the league in scoring at almost 20 points per game, while newcomers Tyler Hurley, Souleymane Diedhiou and Kyle Perry have give the Bulldogs a big front line, and perhaps more importantly, given them a chance to continue the success they’ve been having the last three years.
Carroll College Saints
2009-10: 6-8, 13-16
Last year was an uncharacteristic one in Helena. The Saints suffered their first losing season this decade and finished in the bottom half of the Frontier despite 6-5 forward Andy Garland winning Player of the Year honors. But now in their second year under head coach Brandon Veltri, who took over for legendary head coach Gary Turcott a year ago, the Saints seemed to have things back in order. Garland is in his junior season and is already pouring in a double-double, while 6-8 junior Chase Goedecke has really started to come into his own. Carroll is also a young team, so more growing pains might be in store, but with young starts like Ben Cutler and a host of talented freshmen, the Saints have the talent to climb right back into the mix of elite teams in the Frontier Conference.
Rocky Mountain Battlin’ Bears
2009-10: 6-8, 12-19
Last season, Rocky Mountain College might have suffered through the dreaded national championship hangover. In 2009, the Bears were kings of the NAIA, only to lose four starters to graduation and go 6-8 in league play. Now, Rocky is in a rebuilding mode. The Bears are talented, but are trying to meld a new team together, and things haven’t been as smooth as they would have liked so far this season in Billings as the Bears enter league play two games under .500. Still, Rocky is always a Frontier power and the Bears won’t be an easy out this season, especially with returning guards E.J. Ross and Orlando Westbrooks, both of whom can score from all over the floor.
Lewis-Clark State Warriors
2009-10: 5-9, 14-15
The 2009-10 season wasn’t an easy one for LC State and former Lights head coach Tim Walker. The Warriors struggled to a sixth-place finish in Frontier Conference play, as well as a rare losing season. And after losing several key scorers from that team, one would think another tough year would be in store in Lewiston. But so far this season, LC State is the most improved team in the league, and have put together 10 wins against a tough nonconference schedule. There’s plenty of new faces helping lead the Warriors back to Frontier prominence, buts its four holdovers which lead the way. Guards Jared Giammona and Derek Gianukakis and forwards Andrew Packwood and Alex King give LC State a veteran team and a talented lineup, meaning the Warriors could be primed for a run at a Frontier title and a national tournament berth sooner rather than later.
Montana Tech Orediggers
2009-10: 4-10, 11-20
Rebuilding is a certainty right now at Montana Tech. And the program is starting at the top. Tech let go former Northern assistant coach and player Nate Larson after three losing seasons, and now Aaron Woliczko has the task of getting the Orediggers back on track. Tech also lost some key players last season and has struggled to just two wins thus far, but with forwards Kellan Hasquet and Ivan Sljivar, as well as the return of all-conference guard A.J. Paine, the Diggers’ won’t be a pushover this winter.
Great Falls Argos
2009-10: 6-8, 7-22
The Argos haven’t had a winning season since bringing basketball back to UGF nearly a decade ago. But this season, things look different in Great Falls. The Argos have continuity to go along with plenty of talent, and are currently playing some of their basketball since the school brought the sport back. UGF’s lineup is solid top to bottom, but scorers L.J. Jones, Melvin Williams and Norman Towns are as dangerous a guard trio as there is in the league. And UGF even gets deeper with Mark Celaya and Lukas Hambsch, meaning a winning season and a chance to get out of the Frontier cellar is more than just a dream this season.