Big Sky Preview: Montana remains preseason favorite despite Will Cherry’s injury

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 24 league, the Big Sky.

When Montana guard Will Cherry outlined his goals for his senior season a few months ago, he insisted he wouldn't be satisfied with merely making it to the NCAA tournament for the third time in his career

Cherry feels his career would be incomplete if the Griz can't do some damage in March.

Those goals are now in jeopardy as a result of the broken foot Cherry recently sustained going up for a layup during a pick-up game. Montana is hopeful he'll be back by the start of league play in mid-December, but Cherry told the Missoulian last week he'll consider taking a redshirt season if his foot doesn't heal quickly enough.

Assuming Cherry does return in mid-December, his absence will have pros and cons for Montana.

On the one hand, Montana's odds of winning enough nonconference games to potentially attain a favorable NCAA tournament seed certainly diminish without the Big Sky's leading returning scorer and reigning defensive player of the year. On the other hand, junior guard Kareem Jamar would benefit from the experience of running the team and taking on the role of go-to scorer, and sophomores Keron DeShields and Jordan Gregory would also gain from assuming bigger early season roles.

The major question mark for Montana besides Cherry's health is whether the Grizzlies can successfully replace skilled 7-footer Derek Selvig. Junior college transfer Marko Kovacevic likely would have gotten the first crack at the starting job, but he is academically ineligible pending a last-ditch appeal, which means forward Eric Hutchison or raw 7-foot freshman Andy Martin is likely next in line.

The team with the best chance to unseat Montana as league champs is the same squad the Grizzlies out-dueled last season: Weber State. Not having Damian Lillard will force the Wildcats to go with a more balanced approach, but perimeter shooter Scott Bamforth and skilled big man Mike Tresnak gives the Wildcats a strong one-two punch.

Beyond those two, there are several Big Sky programs on the rise. Northern Colorado returns two of the league's best shooters, point guard Dylan Garrity headlines Sacramento State most talented team in years and North Dakota should finish in the upper half of the league in its debut season.

Best shooter: Tate Unruh, Northern Colorado
Best playmaker: Dylan Garrity, Sacramento State
Best defender: Will Cherry, Montana
Coach on the rise: Wayne Tinkle, Montana
Coach on the hot seat: Brad Huse, Montana State
Three must-see games: 1. Montana vs. BYU, Nov. 28 (Grizz take aim at a marquee win in Salt Lake City) 2. Montana at Weber State, Feb. 14 (No love lost in this Valentine's Day rivalry game) 3. Sacramento State at Utah, Nov. 16 (Believe it or not, this is winnable for the improving Hornets)

New coaches: Bill Evans, Idaho State (had been a Montana assistant); Jack Murphy, Northern Arizona (had been an assistant at Memphis); Nick Robinson, Southern Utah (had been an LSU assistant)
Regular-season winner last season: Montana
Tourney winner last season: Montana
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 25th; 2010-11: 24th, 2009-10: 18th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2006, Montana as a No. 12 seed

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behind; Revamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgence; Which team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgence; Coastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series run; Early departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk State; Savannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year off; Balanced league will crown new champ this year

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