D2 Men's Update - A GNAC Preview
The Great Northwest Athletic Conference is always highly competitive. For example, last season every team had at least five conference wins, and the last place regular season team, Alaska, went on a magical March run, winning the conference tournament and advancing to the final of the West Region of the NCAA D2 Men's tournament. Let's preview how each of the 10 squads stack up going into this season.
The Nanooks of Alaska have some questions to answer coming into this season. Greg Sparling’s squad only has two players that played in more than 20 games returning, in Abdullahi Mohamed and Tybenn Sturm. Sparling was active in the transfer portal and the recruiting scene, as the Nanooks have a whopping 12 new faces. If the new talent cohesively connects for Alaska, it could turn some heads for the second year in a row.
Legendary coach Rusty Osborne faces an interesting challenge this season, with all five starters from last year’s team gone. There is one thing for sure about an Osborne coached team: it will make shots. Junior guard Caleb Larsen seems poised to contribute to that this year, shooting 42.6% from long range last year in a reserve role. Similar to their state rivals Alaska, the Seawolves were also active in the transfer portal, welcoming in a versatile group of seven transfers. With all the new and returning talent in Anchorage led by Coach Osborne, one of the finest coaches in Division II, the Seawolves have a lot to look forward to this year.
The Wildcats of Central Washington are coming off a 17-win season last year, but lost four of their five top scorers from a year ago. Senior forward Matt Poquette returns, coming off a junior campaign that saw him average 12.8 points a game, while also being the Wildcat’s leading rebounder and shot blocker. The other returning starter is sweet shooting sophomore guard Colby Gennett, a career 46.2% shooter from beyond the arc. Coach Brandon Rinta has brought in a trifecta of transfers from the Division I level, including Radford transfer Camron McNeil, a crafty wing who will look to help power the Wildcats to another winning record.
MONTANA STATE BILLINGS
The Yellowjackets and coach Mick Durham look to bounce back from a losing season last year. Senior guard Carrington Wiggins will need to be a catalyst. Wiggins averaged 17.2 points per game a season ago, and achieved first team all-GNAC honors. 6 '10" sophomore big man Emmanuel Ajanaku is back after an exciting freshman season where he led the Yellowjackets in rebounds and anchored the best scoring defense in the GNAC. Durham brought in a talented transfer guard in senior Abdul Bah, who averaged 14.3 points a contest last season at Rocky Mountain College. These three, along with Durham’s defensive coaching prowess, should make any matchup with the Yellowjackets a challenge.
Nighthawks coach Paul Rush has not had a losing season at the helm in five seasons as the head coach in Nampa. They return a good amount of their core, including backcourt tandem Kobe Terashima and Tru Allen, the freshman of the year in the GNAC last season. 6 '9 forward Gabriel Murphy, who racked up seven double-doubles last season, and led the GNAC in field goal percentage also returns. Defense is the Nighthawk’s identity, and transfers Aaron Murphy and Yaru Harvey will use their athleticism to create havoc on that end of the court. The Nighthawks finished a game short of a regular season title last year, and they will certainly be in contention to win it this season.
The reigning regular season champs and GNAC coach of the year Aaron Landon’s season was defined by shooting, and that trend will probably recur this season. The Saints shot 42.5% from long range last season, fourth in Division II, and return five players that shot over 40% from 3. Second team all-conference guard Kyle Greeley is the leading returning scorer at 13.3 points per game, and sophomore guard Jaden Nielsen-Skinner is also back after leading the GNAC with 5.4 assists per game. Tyke Thompson, Champ Spencer, and Christian Haffner are returning players who shot over 41% from beyond the arc last season. The Saints were tabbed at number 1 in the preseason poll, and look to repeat as regular season champs.
Ten new faces join coach Grant Leep and the Falcons squad this season. Among all these new faces, versatile junior forward Shaw Anderson will look to anchor the Falcons and improve on his impressive sophomore season. Transfer guards Casson Rouse and Maui Sze will lead the newcomers, with both offering playmaking and shooting for the Falcons. An interesting player to keep an eye on is South-Sudanese freshman center James Agany, who’s athleticism at 6' 10" will become a useful asset to Leep.
Replacing the production of Julian Roche will be a challenge for Steve Hanson and the Red Leafs. Junior guard David Penney will look to improve on his impressive sophomore season, and senior wing Jahmal Wright’s athleticism will always be an asset for Hanson. The transfer portal was generous to the Red Leafs, bringing in burley guard Eric Beckett and a pair of talented, lengthy big men: Victor Radocaj and Georges Lefebvre. Despite being picked ninth in the preseason poll, Coach Hanson says, “We believe our worth will be shown on the court and our team is excited to get started.” This determined approach will define the Leafs’ toughness on the court this season.
Senior leadership and production will be key for the Wolves this season. Coach Wes Pifer brings back his three leading scorers from a year ago, a season in which they had a disappointing 9-18 record. Improvement will be expected in Monmouth, with sweet shooting senior guard Cameron Cranston at the forefront, fresh off an 18.1 point per game scoring season. His fellow seniors, guard Yosani Clay and forward John Morrill-Keeler, will help with the playmaking, rebounding, defense, and leadership they bring. Senior transfers Elihu Cobb and Daisone Hughes should help contribute to one of the oldest teams in the GNAC, and what looks to be one of the most improved.
Guards Daniel Hornbuckle and D’Angelo Minnis will look to handle the offensive load for coach Tony Dominguez, while also forming one of the best backcourts in the conference. The third guard to complement that may be transfer Matthew Mayes, a menacing defensive presence. The frontcourt is stocked with transfers, with Jonathan Ned, Wyatt Watson, and Liam Clark looking to stabilize the frontcourt in their first year with the Vikings. The older talent in Bellingham should make the Vikings a contender for the conference title, which would be their second one in the last three seasons, and would secure Dominguez’s fourth conference title in ten years as the head man.
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