How the Cats stack up

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Even given a miserable start that has seen Montana State mired in the Big Sky Conference cellar, there has been no tweaking of their starting lineup.


But you know how it goes with the cross-state matchup and you can bet both of these first-year coaches are intent on starting their careers with victories over their arch rival.


Montana State visits Dahlberg Arena losers of eight consecutive games against the Grizzlies and they haven't won in Missoula since 2009 when they broke another four-game slide.


In other words no member of their current roster has ever been successful against Montana and that's just what Travis DeCuire would like to see continue.


You see back when he was the team's point guard Montana State was successful against Montana just once and that came in overtime as Blaine Taylor teams were dominant.


But while no current Grizzly has tasted cross-state defeat all that will matter little Saturday night when rosters mostly filled with out-of-staters face off.


The Cats have relied on the same starters in all four league games and basically the same quintet that have compiled a 3-13 mark have seen about the same amount of court tile as they compiled during the non-conference.


But the aforementioned Michael Dison, a senior guard from Houston has raised his game a level and with an 18.8-point average is among the league's scoring leaders.


Aside from Dison's 5 carom average parlayed with 6-9 senior Eric Norman's seven board average, MSU is rebounding by committee and the Cats have outboarded league opponents on the offensive glass to stand even through four games.


Big Sandy 250-lb senior Blake Brumwell starts but plays just an average of 20 minutes a game, while 6-8 junior Danny Robison from Billings West also gets a starting nod from first-year mentor Brian Fish and contributes almost 10 points and more than four rebounds in an average of about 26 minutes a game.


Dison scored 15 in a pair of Griz wins last year, a four-pointer in Bozeman and a three-pointer in Missoula while guard Jordan Gregory countered with a double-figure performance in both games.


With a pair of home games for both teams next week, this is an opportunity for Montana to keep pace with the league leaders and for Montana State to crawl into league tournament contention.

The old foe returns to Missoula

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After sporting just a one-point advantage eight minutes into the game, the Grizzlies got on message and walked away with a second straight victory, Montana's seventh in 15 outings.


After connecting on double-figure treys (a combined total of 26) in the last two games, high scoring Montana is focused on building additional league momentum by sending Montana State to an ninth straight loss.


The Cats are winless on the road and mired in the Big Sky Conference basement after being swept by Idaho State and Weber State.


But Montana State led the Bengals by 19 and fell by just a slim margin in Ogden as maybe the Wildcats fell victim to the Grizzly jinx, putting all their focus on Montana only to step back a bit in the next game.


Now no coaching staff is ever going to tell you a game against one opponent is any different than another but I've seen it occur so many times I know such a thing sometimes occurs.


It's not much different than looking past an opponent - Montana Tech for example - with a home league game against the cross-state rival next on the agenda.


That did not happen to the Griz Tuesday night.


It is indeed something one has to be aware of even though the company line always is that it can't happen to your team.


The Bobcats have been challenged to score the ball - averaging just north of 61 a game and even a bit less in four league losses - and are shooting less than 39 percent for the season.


Montana State in winning just three of 16 games has been outscored by almost double digits yet have done a decent job off the glass.


They are led by Michael Dison who in four league outings has averaged almost 19, about six better than his season average.


The difference for Dison has been three-point efficiency as he's connected on half of his 30 attempts and is shooting 47 percent in league play, far better than his overall field percentage.


But while the Bobcats show a quartet of players in or near double figures, aside from Dison there has been a lack of a go-to guy.


Home teams have won 15 of 22 thus far but 16 of 22 league games have been decided by 10 points or fewer.


It promises to be a heck of a title chase.    

It's hoops tonight vs Tech

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Secure with the initial conference road victory, the Grizzlies entertain Montana Tech Tuesday night right in the middle of Bobcat week.


It was less than a sedate bus ride Saturday night from Pocatello after Montana routed Idaho State and claimed a 10th straight victory over the Bengals.


And the night started with not a growl but a roar as Brandon Gfeller drilled a trey from the left baseline less than thirty seconds in as Montana led the game throughout.


But "G" was far from done as the sharpshooter who has taken just eight shots from inside the arc all season drilled the next five from long range, three in the game's first two minutes, as the Grizzlies methodically built first a double-digit, then a 20-plus point advantage.


And it wasn't as if it was just the Colfax sophomore who had the touch from long range, as a quintet of other Grizzlies netted at least a single trey with  Montana connected on a season-high 15 of 27 from outside the arc.


Montana missed just nine of 28 first-half field goal attempts to win for the third time in four conference games to sit just a game of the pace of the league leaders.


Gfeller cooled a bit but still hit seven of a dozen to net a career-high 23 points to lead all scorers as the Grizzlies advance their season mark to 8-12.


What was most impressive to me was the number of made treys that came from teammates assists as Montana dished 21 dimes on 29 made field goals.


The Bengal defense was completely ineffective and the Grizzlies made sure ISU high scorer Chris Hanson was bottled up as the senior connected on just three of a dozen from the field, two of the Bengals three treys and just eight points about half of the 1,000-point scorer's season scoring average.


There were individual career bests posted in at least six categories.


Montana Tech comes to Missoula riding a seven-game winning streak, two of which came on the opening weekend of Frontier Conference play.


The Orediggers are a high scoring lot (77.2), pound the boards for about seven more caroms than their 16 opponents and connect on close to 48 percent from the field.


With seven players on the Tech roster from Montana it promises to be an interesting evening.


Pre-game is on the air at 6:30 p.m.  

History on the line & one of the greats

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The grizzlies are looking to end the regular season dominance of Weber State at Dee Event Center.


It could be said, while he didn't actually get credit for it, Wayne Tinkle picked up his first collegiate coaching victory in Ogden Utah in 2004.


Head Coach Pat Kennedy had been suspended for a game for criticizing officials and Tinkle, then an assistant, piloted the Grizzles to a 58-55 victory to start a five-game winning streak in what was just a 10 win season.


Since then the Wildcats have defeated Montana 10 consecutive times with the only exception in 2009 when the Anthony Johnson-led Grizzlies rebounded from a 20-plus-point deficit to capture the league tournament.


The cupboard isn't exactly empty as they return league Defender of the Year and one of the nation's top rebounders in Joel Bolomboy and Freshman of the Year Jeremy Senglin.


But now a word about the Sunday passing of broadcasting legend Stuart Scott.


While sometimes I doubt this with the new breed, there is not a print or electronic journalist who wants to be a part of the story or event they are covering.


Yet all of us enjoy imparting a bit of our own style, pizzazz if you will, that doesn't just entertain but also separates our description apart from that of anyone else.


Well that certainly was true for Stuart Scott who brought to the airways not a different style but a new language unfamiliar to a profession that was yet and still isn't multi-cultural.


And he did so in spite of a corporate culture that criticized his pomp and tried to rebuke his efforts.


And in so doing he broke ground for not just a legion of journalists of ethnicity attracted to the profession by watching him but a following of athletes who only wanted to have their feats be recognized by his words.


And he did this so eloquently and professionally, without again being the story, that with his death we see some of his descriptions will remain immortal.


And how he lived, oh how he lived with the dreaded disease.


You won Stew and now enjoy the other side of the pillow.

On the road to Weber

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On your radio on the road courtesy of Beach Transportation heading to Ogden Utah and given the recent weather considerations, I just could not be more comfortable that slouched in the seat, a movie blaring over the television speakers and quite frankly I can fall asleep before they close the door on either a bus or an airplane.


Sometimes though that is much to the chagrin of the shoulder of my seatmate but well that's just for another time.


There is no dispute that reigning Big Sky Conference champion Weber State has been a dominant force in the league.


Weber State Head Coach Randy Rahe has just enjoyed a wealth of success in Ogden and while the Grizzlies in the conference tournament in 2013 and 2012 and in the semi-final round in 2011 had his number, the Wildcats have been a terror in league games.


In his ninth season the diminutive Rahe is the only circuit coach in history to claim a quartet of Coach of the year honors and despite starting 0-2 on the road this season he has won 70 of 90 league games in the last five-plus seasons.


He is second on the league's all-time conference win list with 106, only the fifth to exceed the Century mark, stands fifth in all-time victories and his teams have captured double-figure circuit wins in each of his seasons.


Under Rahe, Weber State has captured four regular season crowns and a pair of titles while advancing to at least the league semi-final round all eight of his seasons.


Like Montana, Weber State has won nine Big Sky titles but is virtually unbeatable at raucous Dee Events Center where legions of fans virtually hang from the stands over the top of the team's benches.


But fans you don't graduate guys like Davion Berry, Kyle Tresnak and Jordan Richardson without it taking a toll. They represent 38 points-per-game and along with Jeremy Senglin and Joel Bolomboy started every Wildcat game last season.


So in the purest sense this Wildcat team that was picked to repeat as league champ is like Montana, a work in progress and catching them in Ogden early in the league season is probably a bit of an advantage.


We'll scout the game tomorrow.   


Griz hoops head to Weber

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The basketball show returns to the airways Tuesday night from Brooks and Browns in Missoula as long as this beleaguered scribe can figure a way out of his football-field length driveway.


And after the Grizzlies jumpstarted their season with a pair of league wins last week, it's down the road for counters with defending league champion yet surprising 0-2 Weber State Thursday and Idaho State on Saturday.


Weather played havoc with getting teams back to their home campus after Saturday games but that's just life on the road in the Big Sky Conference.


There were superlatives aplenty over the weekend in Missoula as the Grizzlies allowed a season-low 48 to Northern Colorado which was averaging about 75 then withstood a decent shooting performance by North Dakota winning by 11 points after leading late in the contest by 17.


The inside-outside duo of senior Jordan Gregory and junior Martin Breunig again provided the scoring punch in both games but what jumped off the stat sheet for me was rebounding, especially on the offensive end.


Montana claimed 21 of their 72 caroms on the offensive end, a third more than the two opponents while out-boarding North Dakota and Northern Colorado by a total of 17.


Those stats from a team that came into the weekend being outrebounded by more than three an outing.


Combine that with a defense that stiffened to the tune of allowing the two opponents just 41 percent from the field and an average of 55 points and you might see why I was excited.


But two games certainly don't make a season and while no disrespect is intended those two opponents probably will finish in the bottom half of the Big Sky Conference.


Holding home court in league play is a necessity and with three of the next four league tilts in Missoula after this week's road trip, there's a real opportunity to get a leg up on the circuit before the halfway pole.


Senior wing Mike Weisner missing the last five games with an ankle injury has allowed the emergence of Fabijan Krslovic and Jack Lopez also has seen increased time off the bench while senior Chris Kemp has stepped nicely into a starting spot.


What's not to like but Dee Event Center in Ogden where the Griz haven't won during the regular season since Pat Kennedy's tenure, now that will be a measuring stick.

New Year hoops around the Big Sky

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An early Happy New Year as it is here - Opening tip for the 2015 Big Sky Conference campaign.


The league's dozen teams get after it starting Thursday afternoon with an early measure of competitiveness with powerhouse Weber State making the trek to Cheney to face off with the high-flying Eagles.


The significance of course is that Weber is the prognosticator's pick to repeat as league champ and Eastern Washington has the best non-conference record, is unbeaten in six home games and was tabbed to finish as the league runner-up.


The Wildcats have beaten EWU seven straight times and have claimed a half-dozen consecutive victories at Reese Court.


Idaho will host cross-state rival Idaho State in the Vandals initial Big Sky Conference game since 1996 while here in the Treasure State there are new mentors both in Bozeman and Missoula with of course Travis DeCuire and Brian Fish making their circuit debuts both at home.


In Missoula Northern Colorado is coming off an 11-9 league record in a season where the Bears won 18 games, lost the circuit chipper at Weber and advanced to the post-season where they fell to Texas A&M CC.


But traditionally they have struggled on the road where they won but four of 15 games last season.


The Bears are winless in five road contests this season and must replace rebounding giant Derrick Barden (7.8), three-point specialist Tate Unruh (41 percent), and journeyman starter Connor Osborne.


But while the Bears are but 5-6, they boast the league's top two field goal shooters in seniors Tim Huskisson and Dominque Lee and one of the league's finest guards in Tevin Svihovec who leads league returnees with more than 1,100 points parlayed with 270 assists and 88 steals in 100 games.


The Bears lead in field goal percentage (.495) and while Lee is one of the top defensive rebounders (4.8 p/g), the Oakland senior has been on a tear the last five games averaging north of 15 and a dozen caroms while claiming a double-double (19/10) against Jacksonville State.


UNC just fell to highly-regarded UC Davis 73-63 in a rare scenario in Greeley and show additional tough losses to Colorado State, Colorado, New Mexico State and Wyoming.


Game time at Dahlberg Arena is 7 p.m.


Griz return home for league opener

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Montana is hoping that some home cooking will be a factor as the Big Sky Conference season starts in earnest Thursday night in Missoula.


The lid comes off the second season and the first league campaign for Travis DeCuire.


And with five league tilts and a single non-conference matchup at Dahlberg Arena in the first 24 days of January, it is a prime opportunity for Montana to get a leg up so to speak on the potential of good league tournament seeding and a subsequent post season berth.


And the Thursday-Saturday openers are against teams in Northern Colorado and North Dakota who prognosticators picked in the bottom half of the league.


But then again remember coaches tabbed the Grizzlies as the eighth best team while the media had a little better memory of Montana's past play in selecting them just a point back of Sacramento State in the fifth spot.


Of course the Achilles of having early league home games is finishing with six of the last 10 on the road.


After the Bears and North Dakota come to town, four days later it's on the bus to Ogden for a Jan 8 game, then back north for the road finale in Pocatello on Saturday and a middle-of-the night return bus trip to Missoula.


There are a couple of new twists this season.


On the Tuesday of the sometimes single Bobcat game (Sat, Jan. 17), Montana faces Montana Tech in a non-conference matchup.


Also instead of Portland State being matched with Eastern Washington, with the addition of Idaho to the basketball league, the Vikings are now paired with Sacramento State while the Vandals join Eastern Washington as travel partners.


EWU has lost three of the last four games but the Eagles are just one of the few league teams with a winning record and several have substantial losing marks.


Teams will play seven league members twice and the four remaining teams just once. That means Montana faces Northern Arizona and Southern Utah,   Portland State and Sacramento State once.


Eight teams advance to the league tournament at the arena of the regular season champion which will no longer have a first-round bye and there will be no reseeding of teams after each round.









Big Sky hoops stats

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So here it is New Years week and leagues are wrapping up the non-conference season and gearing up for in some cases the toughest run of the years and for others far less the quality of opponents than they have faced in December.

For the Grizzlies, back in the fold in Missoula, it's a little bit of both as I am not so sure that anybody expected Montana's opening opponent, Colorado State, to be unbeaten in December, but the victories have come few and far between especially given a pair of double-overtime heartbreaks.

And while pre-season prognosticators had a sense that Eastern Washington would be near the top of the standings they might not have anticipated Weber State would head into conference play under the break-even mark.

But consider this - Wildcat opponents have a combined RPI going into the last week of the year at 80, EWU's schedule shows opponents at 62 while although Montana's strength of schedule leads the league at 40 but their combined RPI is just 126.

That leaves Montana opponents third in the Big Sky Conference with a 201 RPI, well back of league-leading Eastern Washington's 37 and just ahead of Weber State, which is sixth a spot back of the Grizzlies.

Of interest is as a whole the Big Sky is 22nd among 33 leagues, behind the Southland and just ahead of the Big South on a list headed by the Big 12 and the Big East.

So with league play opening Thursday conference wide I thought it would be interesting to see how league teams and individuals fared in the national stats mainly because there are a pair of instances where circuit teams are pacing the nation.

At just north of 43 percent new league member Idaho, which was an original Big Sky team, leads the nation in three-point proficiency, while making about eight an outing just back of Montana in a league category led by Eastern Washington at 9.6 per-game.

EWU's Tyler Harvey leads the nation with 4.25 treys an outing while shooting .468 in a category led by Southern Utah's James McGee at an amazing .563.

Meanwhile after converting 17 of 18 free throws, Weber State moved atop the national ladder at 79 percent which is well atop the league standings.

Just a taste as to what you might expect as the conference moves forward this week.

The league opener is Northern Colorado Thursday, yes New Years Day night at 7 p.m.

The Big Sky in the new year

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Nature's reflective beauty awaited me Christmas morning Thursday as the sun enlightened Flathead Lake straight out my office window.


I had wondered why I was up in the dark far earlier than usual but as the pink sky broke through a thin cloud cover, there was little doubt I had been nudged to open my eyes to be welcomed by the skiff of snow that fell the previous night that served just to beautify my little gully to the north that provides respite for myriads of the local deer population.


We approach the end of the year, but just the beginning of my 30th Big Sky Conference campaign.


I am pleased that since league tilts open on New Years Day at least the Grizzlies are host in the friendly confines while the Lady Griz find themselves in Colorado and North Dakota which given weather combined with airports packed with holiday travelers can make getting to and from game sites as challenging as the evening's competition.


It is kind of rare to spend the opening of a new year away from family and friends in a strange city and hotel room but it certainly is not unprecedented since even in my now fading memory of Lady Griz past I recall one or two of those situations and any way being surrounded by a team of any kind always is a healthy situation.


But never would it have been in Colorado or North Dakota for either team since those schools weren't yet a part of what was then the Mountain West Conference for the women and the men's Big Sky.


In efforts to keep the Big Sky Conference not just viable but strong the league has been expanded to its current form of a dozen teams, mainly said Commissioner Doug Fullerton in a recent interview, to keep other leagues from cherry picking the 51-year old circuit and weakening the product.


And while that has been a success yet in Fullerton's mind not yet a completed project - he envisions possibly two leagues rather than divisions managed out of a central location - in football at least where schools don't play each other on a yearly basis, it has eliminated some healthy rivalries.


But I suppose with change others will emerge and any way beating any kind of Cat can't be anything but a good feeling. 

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