The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

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Time to break down the Big Sky:

Recap

It's been a few years since former Weber State guard Damian Lillard lit up the west coast of the college basketball world with his high-octane style of offense, but the memories have helped the Big Sky put its basketball programs on the map. 

 
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The conference has a pretty good track record of sending someone to the league every few years (Rodney Stuckey, Lillard, Tyler Harvey, to name a few), but coaches cannot hang their hats on the names they helped graduate. It's a constant cycle.

And, if the 2015-16 season is any indication of the outlook for this year, then it's likely to be another tight race at the top of the conference.

The Grizzlies return their second-leading scorer and the third-best assist man in guard Walter Wright (5).
Montana Athletics
The Grizzlies return their second-leading scorer and the third-best assist man in guard Walter Wright (5).
In five of the last six seasons, the regular-season conference champion has been decided by one game or less (the odd year out was a two-game cushion). In each of the last seven years, either Montana or Weber State has been one of the participants in the conference championship game.

That is by no means a guarantee it'll be either of those two teams come March, but rather, it's a symbol of the parity in this conference.

Half of the teams in conference won at least 10 games a year ago, which means that a lot of these teams have the potential to make a run, be it in the regular-season or postseason slate.

Granted, last year's conference tournament featured an all-chalk matchup between No. 1 Weber State and No. 2 Montana, one that the Wildcats won 62-59. To the victor, go the spoils, and Weber State soon found itself the recipient of meeting with Xavier in the NCAA tournament. Alas, a one game stint was a bit of a short-lived trip for the Wildcats, but just getting asked to dance is a flattering offer.

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Some might tab Montana as this year's team to beat given the team's tough slog in the nonconference portion of the schedule, which includes bouts with USC, NC State, Ole Miss, Oregon and a home-and-home series with Wyoming, but the path has to go through the defending champion. For now, that remains Weber State, but things could change before March. It's a long season.

Best Player

A year ago the Player of the Year honor was taken by Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy, who has since been drafted by the NBA’s Utah Jazz. As such, a repeat performance is pretty much out of the question. But Weber State faithful need not look too far to find another POY candidate.

That’s right, Bolomboy’s running mate, Jeremy Senglin (nearly 18 points a game) will be one of the main features on offense for head coach Randy Rahe. The 6’2” guard from Arlington, Texas, led the Big Sky in 3-point field goal percentage while tallying 106 triples on the year (good enough for 10th overall in the nation). 

Eastern Washington's Bogdan Bliznyuk (32) tallied the first triple-double in the Big Sky since 2013.
Eastern Washington Athletics
Eastern Washington's Bogdan Bliznyuk (32) tallied the first triple-double in the Big Sky since 2013.
Even though scoring may be the most scintillating part of basketball, it’s certainly not the only valued asset.

Just ask fans of Eastern Washington about Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Ukrainian forward who does a little bit of everything for the Eagles. Last year’s stat line may not be so eye-popping (12.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.0 apg), but he did notch the first triple-double in the history of the school’s basketball program — not to mention the first in the Big Sky since 2013. 

Others have tallied triple-doubles since, but that shouldn’t belie the fact that Bliznyuk can impact a game from all angles. The Eagles may have lost their two leading scorers from a year ago (Austin McBroom and Venky Jois), which means the transition could be slow initially, but Bliznyuk will look to have his team right in the thick of things come season’s end.

Best Team

A repeat performance for Weber State, the defending Big Sky Champions, would seem like a tall task — especially given the departure of the 2016 Big Sky Player of the Year. However, a solid nucleus remains in the mix for the Wildcats.

Senglin will be joined by forwards Kyndahl Hill and Zach Braxton, as well as guards McKay Cannon and Ryan Richardson. This quintet logged significant playing time a year ago, and with good reason, as each made notable contributions.

Cannon and Richardson can provide some much-needed ballhandling to help out Senglin (the lone returning player who averaged double digits) in the backcourt, while Hill and Braxton should assume greater workloads in the frontcourt with the departure of the team's main big man.

Visits to play Stanford, BYU and Utah State will be a good measuring stick for a team looking to replace some veteran leadership.

Sleeper Team

This is where things get interesting in the Big Sky, and sleeper team really doesn’t do it justice. In the nature of keeping things neat, here’s one team to keep an eye on:

For the Portland State Vikings, forward Cameron Forte (19.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) has graduated and that means the holdovers from a year ago will need to step up to replace his contributions as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Good thing the Vikings boast one of the highest assist per game averages in the nation (tied for No. 12 with 17 dimes a night), not to mention an assist-to-turnover ratio that is well above average (No. 41 in the country).

Portland State guard Caelan Robinson (11) will be one of his team's main offensive options this season.
Portland State Athletics
Portland State guard Caelan Robinson (11) will be one of his team's main offensive options this season.

However, scheme can only do so much to ease that transition, which means head coach Tyler Geving will need to lean on his returning players to help instill ball security in his new recruits. Guard Calaen Robinson (10.2 ppg) will help pace the pack as one of the key pieces to the puzzle.

Honorable Mentions:

Most diehard fans of basketball in the Empire State would be remiss if they didn’t take an opportunity to bring up the famed Abraham Lincoln High School. NBA players like Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Stephenson, and Isaiah Whitehead once honed their skills in those hallowed halls.

Most recently, Idaho State’s Ethan Telfair (younger brother of Sebastian) paved his way through the program. And in his first year of college ball with the Bengals, he did not disappoint (20.2 ppg, 5.4 app, 4.0 rpg), tallying at least four assists in all but five games a year ago. Having running mate Geno Luzcando (14.4 ppg) back in the mix won’t hurt either.

Telfair made one of the plays of the season in a win over Weber State last year, putting Joel Bolomboy on skates before hitting a game-winning buzzer beater. It remains to be seen what he and the Bengals have in the tank for 2016-17.

Any self-respecting fan of Big Sky basketball would jump at the chance to mention two programs in the Gem State (that's Idaho's nickname, despite the attention it gets for potatoes). That said, fans in Moscow and Pocatello (the hometowns for the Idaho Vandals and the Idaho State Bengals, respectively) should rejoice with reason for optimism on both campuses.

Idaho has a pair of guards in Victors Sanders and Perrion Callandret (15.9 ppg, 14.0 ppg, respectively) back in the fold, and the team will be looking to build off a record that included an 11-6 record in games decided by five points or less. Trips to visit Northern Illinois (MAC), Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt), and a pair of Pac-12 foes (Washington State and Stanford) will all be good opportunities for the Vandals to test their mettle.

The Montana State Bobcats may have had an overall record that ended under .500 a year ago (14-17), but Montana State’s performance in the Big Sky conference (9-9) was far more admirable than the team’s overall record would imply.

Guard Tyler Hall finished the year with double figures in all but three games last season, en route to an average of 18+ points per game as a freshman, including two 30-point outbursts. Another year of seasoning could mean trouble for opposing defenses, despite the departure of Hall’s senior backcourt mate Marcus Colbert (16.9 ppg, 5.1 apg).

Freshman to watch

Piggybacking off of an earlier point, Montana's nonconference schedule could provide some interesting results if the Grizzlies are as good as some pundits expect. That said, some extra firepower in the form of two new faces could help come the latter stages of the season.

Sayeed Pridgett, who hails from Oakland, Calif., is believed to be a solid wing option that can shoot the basketball and contribute a number of things to the rotation for head coach Travis DeCuire. The other true freshman on this year's squad, Alphonso Anderson, will help fill the void left at forward by the departure of Martin Breunig, the team's leading scorer (18.9 ppg) and rebounder (9.0 rpg).

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