Frontier Basketball Preview: Deep and talented Frontier is wide open
Race to the Frontier Conference championship will be entertaining to see
Last updated 1/8/2015 at 2:02pm
Year-after-year, there's little doubt that the Frontier Conference men's basketball championship is one of the hardest titles in NAIA basketball to win. The league is just so balanced, and so tough, that the climb to the top is steep and difficult.
And this winter, it won't be any different. Night-after-night, teams will beat up on each other, in physical, defensive-minded games, and the team that plays the best defense will be the team that rises to the top.
In their last season of Frontier basketball, the Westminster Griffins were picked to unseat defending champion Rocky Mountain College for the Frontier championship. However, if the non-conference season is any indication, then the league title is anybody's for the taking.
"It's going to be another one of those season's in the Frontier," Northern head coach Shawn Huse said. "There won't be an easy game in the entire league. It looks like every single team I this league could beat any other team on a given night. It's that tough."
And it will be that tough. Westminster, Rocky, Northern and Western might be perennial favorites, but Lewis-Clark State is off to the best start of any team in the conference. Then there's Montana Tech and Carroll College, two teams that finished at the bottom of the league a year ago. Those two are a combined 20-8 this season, while the Great Falls Argos just beat then No. 1-ranked Cal-State San Marcos three weeks ago.
So once again, the Frontier conference is going to be a blood-bath, a continuous heavyweight fight, and it will be fun to watch and see who's left standing when the final bell sounds in late February.
Here's a look at the Frontier team-by-team, in their predicted order of finish.
2014-15 Record: 7-6
2013-14: 11-5, 19-13 (T2nd in Frontier, NAIA tourney)
Head Coach: Adam Hiatt (4th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Jordan Pryor, 6-2, G; Colton Moon, 5-11, G; Nick Jenson, 6-6, F; Quincy Bair, 6-5, Jr. After a couple of unlike-Westminster seasons, head coach Adam Hiatt has the Griffins looking once again like a Frontier title contender. And this will be their last chance to win the league title because in 2016, Westminster will be an NCAA Division II program. But for now, the Griffins are a talent-rich squad that will be tough all season long. Transfer Kenny Woodard and holdover Jordan Pryor average 13 points each and give the Griffins a talented backcourt that also included veteran Colton Moon. Forward Quincy Bair also gives the Griffins a stout presence on the inside. Westminster will play a fast-paced brand of basketball, as they average 80 points per game, and after playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in all of the NAIA, the Frontier, as good as it is, won't seem too difficult.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN COLLEGE
2014-15 Record: 11-3
2013-14: 12-4, 23-8, 1st in Frontier, Frontier champions, NAIA tourney)
Head Coach: Bill Dreikosen (15th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Tyree Anderson, 6-3, G; Sian Lane, 6-0, G; Malachi Roberts, 6-4, G. The Battlin' Bears are the defending Frontier champions. They are loaded with talent, and they have the longest tenured coach in the Frontier in Bill Dreikosen. So, a repeat Frontier title should be in the cards in Billings. But, with as deep as the league is, that will be easier said than done. Rocky did graduate some key pieces to last year's team, but the Bears return senior guard Tyree Anderson, an NAIA All-American and the Frontier Preseason Player of the Year. Malachi Roberts is also back for the Bears, but replacing 6-10 forward Joel Barndt won't be easy. But even without Barndt in the pain, RMC is as explosive as it gets. The Bears averaged 90 points per game in non-conference play, and if they can keep that pace up in league play, there's no doubt, the Frontier championship will likely go through the Fortin Center in Billings.
2014-15 Record: 11-5
2013-14: 11-5, 23-9 (T2nd in Frontier, NAIA national tourney)
Head Coach: Shawn Huse (13th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Corbin Pearson, 6-6, F; Jesse Vaughan, 6-5, F; Trevail Lee, 5-9, G; Nicholas Blount, 6-3, G. The Lights were picked third this season, and are coming off a second-place finish in the Frontier and a fourth straight trip to the national tournament last spring. But veteran head coach Shawn Huse has a much different team this season. He lost a host of veteran leaders from last year's squad, including leading scorer Alfie Miller, and fellow guards Alan Brown and Roshawn West. The loss of Will Perry in the paint was also big for the Lights. Senior Corbin Pearson, a two-time All-Conference standout, and Jesse Vaughan are MSU-N's two returning starters, while the backcourt is all new. Trevail Lee, Warren Edmonson and Jermaine Graves, join holdover Nick Blount, and together, those four will be called upon to continue Northern's trends of being one of the best defensive teams in the country, as well as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation. If the Lights do those two things as well as they have in the past, then another trip to Kansas City is certainly within their grasp.
2014-15 Record: 14-2
2013-14: 8-7, 22-10 (5th in Frontier)
Head Coach: Brandon Rinta (4th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Brady Bagby, 6-3, G; Eric Diouf, 6-8, F; Jamaal Thomas, 6-7, F; Jake Wiley, 6-6, F. The Warriors struggled in league play a year ago, but those struggles could be over this season. They come into the Frontier with the best non-conference record in the league in a national ranking. LCSC graduated key scorers last season, but head coach Brandon Rinta has reloaded. Holder over Brady Bagby is the team's leader in the backcourt, but three transfers have given the Warriors new life. They added a pair of University of Montana drop-downs in Jake Wiley and Nick Emerson, while sophomore transfer Eric Diouf (6-8) is a monster in the paint. Add in the return of Jamaal Thomas and the Warriors are one of the biggest and most athletic teams in the Frontier. And it's showing on both ends of the floor. So far, LCSC is averaging a whopping 95 points per game, while leading the conference in rebounding and field goal defense. So, with all of the new talent, and the size that other Frontier teams just don't possess, the time to make a run at a league championship is certainly now in Lewiston, Idaho.
2014-15 Record: 12-3
2013-14: 9-7, 16-12 (4th in Frontier)
Head Coach: Steve Keller (8th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Jordan Overstreet, 6-2, G; Dexter Williams, Jr., 6-4, F; Stephen McCall, 5-8, G; Shyke Smalls, 6-0, G. The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth this season, but somebody forgot to tell them that. Through December, Western is yet again looking like a true Frontier power. Under Steve Keller, the Dawgs have been to five straight Frontier semifinals, and are hungry to return to the national tournament after missing out a year ago. Western will rely heavily on the leadership of veterans Jordan Overstreet and Kris Castro, but the addition of 6-4 forward Dexter Williams Jr., has given Western a new dimension on offense. The Bulldogs did lose a ton of size in the paint from a year ago, and they'll play smaller this season. But Keller has adapted and Western now looks like one of the favorites to challenge RMC for the league title.
2014-15 Record: 9-5
2013-14: 5-11, 13-15 (7th in Frontier)
Head Coach: Patrick O'Herron (5th Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Adam Greger, 6-7, F; Paul Engstrom, 6-7, F; Brandon Rydberg, 6-3, G; Antonio Snow, 6-2, G. It seems no matter how talented the Montana Tech Orediggers are, they just can't crack the upper half of the Frontier standings. Year-after-year, Tech is a scrappy, hard-nosed team, and one that the rest of the league hates to play. But this winter, Tech has a chance to truly turn the corner. The Orediggers' style of play is an advantage. They are patient and deliberate on offense and they fight for every inch on defense. But they also have one of the best scorers in the league in senior Adam Greger, who averaged 18 points per night so far. They also have added size in 6-7 Paul Engstrom, 6-5 Marcus Payne and 6-7 Trent Thompson. Add to that, veteran scoring guards Antonio Snow and Brandon Rydberg, and the Diggers are as talented as anyone in the conference. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out how to win big games in conference play, and if Tech can do that a few times on the road this season, then there's no reason why the Diggers can't contend for a league title and a rare berth in the NAIA tournament.
UNIVERSITY OF GREAT FALLS
2014-15 Record: 11-3
2013-14: 8-8, 18-13 (6th in Frontier)
Head Coach: Anthony Owens (1st Season)
Outlook: Key Players: T.J. Harris, 5-10, G; Marcus Hurn, 5-11, G; Matthew Hurn, 6-0, G. If Montana Tech can't quite get over the hump every year in the Frontier, then things have even been more frustrating for UGF. Over the past six seasons, no one in the Frontier has started each season with more promise than the Argos. And this winter is no different. New head coach and former Argo Anthony Owens has the Argos playing like a team full capable of winning the Frontier title. And they're doing it without two-time Frontier MVP Marcel Towns, who graduated last spring. But Owens has pieced together an outstanding and athletic team, led by point guard T.J. Harris, as well as the 1-2 scoring punch of Marcus and Matthew Hurn. The emergence of Sigman Farmer III, as well as a deep and talented bench has given the Argos one of the deepest teams in the Frontier, and like they did under Steve Silsby, they are playing some of the best defense in the conference heading into league play. UGF allows a Frontier-best 57 points per game. Now however, the trick is winning win it matters. The Argos have been in the position to make a push towards the Frontier title and an NAIA tourney berth many times before, but they have faltered in February too many times in the recent past. If Owens can reverse those late-season fortunes, the Argos might finally have the dream season they've been waiting for.
2014-15 Record: 11-3
2013-14: 4-12, 9-19 (8th in Frontier)
Head Coach: Carson Cunningham (2nd Season)
Outlook: Key Players: Zach Taylor, 6-0, G; Jake Hollifield, 6-5, F; Oliver Carr, 6-6, F. If any more proof is needed that the Frontier is about the toughest league in the NAIA than look no further than Carroll College. The Fighting Saints are picked to finish last in the Frontier, yet they enter league play with an 11-3 record, and have played a brutal non-league schedule that included a game at Pac-12 powerhouse, the University of Utah. The Saints have the leading scorer in the league in Zach Taylor, while 6-6 freshman Oliver Carr is playing like a senior. In his second year at the helm, former Purdue star Carson Cunningham has put a strong team together in Helena, and after three really difficult years, 2015 will likely see Carroll return to the forefront of the Frontier. And by the looks of how talented the Saints are, and how well they're playing, at the very least, it's highly doubtful they'll be the last-place team in the league come late February.