is nothing left for the Montana Grizzlies to do but win because the alternative
of course is the completion of the 2013-14 campaign.
is indeed conference tournament time and in leagues around the country teams
are vying to win and move to the next round with the allure of an NCAA berth
hanging in the balance.
the Grizzlies know more than their share about tournament action especially in
the last two years as they waltzed to the Big Dance.
it is quite a different scenario this season here in Ogden as Montana fell from
vying to repeat by claiming a share of the league title won by Weber State all
the way to the No 4 seed where Thursday they face No. five seed Portland State.
vital parts of this group have NCAA experience and know the taste of Selection
Sunday just three days away and the thrill and excitement of competing on the
it will be anything but an easy proposition against the Vikings who jumped up
and bit league titlist Weber State in the next to last game to enhance their
tournament chances to face the Grizzlies for the first time in the tournament.
Viks have won five of their last six games as have the Grizzlies but Portland
State is in the midist of a three-game winning streak and riding high.
both teams have claimed a tournament title here at Dee Event Center with
Montana claiming the 2010 championship and Portland State winning in 2009.
fact Portland State and Montana have teamed to win five of the last six
Jamar is the two-time defending tournament MVP while the Vikings are led in
scoring by DaShaun Wiggins, the league's top reserve, who started only 6 games
but led PSU in scoring at close to 13 an outing.
Viks won in Portland by a trey in triple OT in a game Montana felt they let get
away in regulation while Montana prevailed in single OT by a half dozen
head coach Tyler Geving was an assistant when they last won the crown while
Wayne tinkle is 9-4 in the tourney with three titles.
promises to be a thriller.
If history is any indication, Thursday night's Big Sky
Tournament first-day finale should be a doozy.
We are just a day away from the three-day run to
determine who will represent the Big Sky Conference in the "Dance."
What is that they say?
You are the champion until someone proves otherwise and
while Weber State claimed the regular season crown it is the Grizzlies who are
the two-time defending league tournament champions.
And don't think for a minute they are about to surrender
the title easily.
But in the opener against Portland State, well since it
took four extra five-minute sessions in two overtimes for the two teams to
split a pair of games, it promises to be a knuckle buster.
It was a three overtime affair in the Rose City and most
recently, on Feb 8, an additional five minute period brought the Grizzlies to a
So in this win and move-on scenario, look for
back-and-forth action with an unpredictable outcome.
Weber State will play the lowest remaining seed which if
North Dakota and Northern Arizona hold court would be Montana, if that is, the
Griz can dispose of the Vikings.
The last time out, overtime was dominated by Keron
DeShields, who scored all but two of Montana's 13 extra-session points and
matched Kareem Jamar with 19.
But forward Kyle Richardson got loose for 25 on 10-of-15
from the field and registered a double-double with a dozen, or just about
one-third, of the Viking rebounds.
Much like Montana, Portland State plays small-ball with
no big force in the low post and while they dominated the Griz on the offensive
board last time, for the season rebounding has been a liability.
But while they come off the bench with the big presence
of 6 foot 10 Brandon Cataldo, their reserves have been deficient, although
backup guard DaShaun Wiggins netted 11 last time around.
The Vikings tend to give up a lot of points and surrender
a high shooting percentage both inside and outside the arc making it incumbent
for the Grizzlies to take some advantage of second-side opportunities.
Mike Weisner had 16 on six of seven and three for three
from trey-land last time and his emergence was key in Montana's five-game
winning streak which ended Saturday in Flagstaff.
Let's see if we can get that slipper to fit.
There is little doubt that when you win the league you
are going to get added recognition from the league's coaches.
Big Sky regular season champ Weber State claimed three of
the six league individual awards in voting released Monday.
Swing-guard Davion Berry became the eighth Wildcat player
and the first since Damien Lillard to claim the circuit's Most Valuable Player
And while there certainly is an argument for Montana's
Kareem Jamar to three-repeat, the senior still reigns as a two-time tournament
MVP and that's all still on the table.
And Jamar is just the 22nd player in league
history to be accorded first-team honors three times.
Berry scored .4 points more per game than "Ream" but
Kareem out-rebounded the senior by more than a carom a game and equaled him
with four assists an outing.
But you know it's long been known "to the victor goes the
The difference is Berry's Wildcats claimed two more
victories, the league title and No 1 seed and host spot into the post-season
Jeremy Senglin is the freshman of the year after hitting
40 percent from three and averaging 11.3 points a game and Weber sophomore Joel
Bolomboy, who led Weber State to the best defensive stats in the league, was
the conference's best defender.
Bolomboy is fifth in the nation in rebounding at just
short of 11.
Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey, North Dakota's Troy
Huff, Northern Arizona's Quinton Upshur, the league's newcomer, and Mikh
McKinney of Sacramento State rounded out the first team.
Jamar, Huff, Berry and McKinney were unanimous
But in my opinion the starkest oversight, and no doubt
because of the fourth-seed, was the relegation of Jordan Gregory to honorable
Basically the first squad was made up entirely of guards
in a league that certainly was guard laden as Weber's Kyle Tresnak was the only
true center honored and he was second team.
But Gregory's contribution certainly deserved more accord
than honorable mention which he shared with Keron DeShields.
He stood 10th in scoring, just short of 14 per-game, was
second from the free-throw line at 87 percent, shot 44 percent overall and 38
percent from three, was eighth in minutes played and had a 53-38
Inconsistencies that have plagued the Grizzlies often
this season proved to be their undoing in the season finale and the resulting
defeat to Northern Arizona not only cost them two pairing positions but also
put them quite possibly on the champion Weber State side of the tournament
Here it is on the eve of a bus trip to Ogden, Utah, for
the seven-team Big Sky Conference Tournament where Montana will try to
But in quite a different scenario this season as Montana
enters the tournament on a foreign court and dropping to the number-four seed
after seeing a five game winning streak come stumbling to an end in Flagstaff.
The result leaves the Grizzlies to face five-seed
Portland State in the first round nightcap and unless there is an upset in one
of the first two games if they win would be destined to face the Wildcats in
the semi-final round Friday night.
And while the Vikings and Grizzlies have split games they
have played an extra 20 minutes against each other since both games were
decided in overtime sessions.
While both teams came out slow Saturday afternoon, the
Grizzlies trailed by but five points even after connecting on just five field
And in a game Montana never led they scratched and clawed
to a tie at 30 with about 16 to play.
But the Lumberjacks went on a 14-3 run and while the
Grizzlies cut the lead to one at the halfway mark, they could never get over
the hump in losing by 20 and only scoring 47 points.
They suffered their worst shooting game of the season
(28.9 percent) and were completely dominated on both boards (40-21) as the
Jacks won for the fourth consecutive game.
The Griz bench was outscored 32-9 with no reserve scoring
more than three while Kareem Jamar led Montana scoring with 15, the only
Montana player in double figures.
NAU snatched 15 offensive rebounds with put-backs and
second opportunities contributing to their 50 percent shooting from the field
Upshur paced three Lumberjacks in double figures as they match Montana's 12-8
league mark but along with North Dakota both have the tie breaker over Montana
to claim the two and three seed.
Last time around the Grizzlies survived a hot shooting
Sacramento State team with a torrid offensive performance of their own in
recording a 12-point victory.
Montana completes the regular season with road contests
at Sacramento and Flagstaff.
Even though they were outboarded and made but five treys,
the Grizzlies missed but eight shots in the second stanza in scoring 45 points
and claiming an 82-70 victory.
Even though the Hornets shot 54 percent they scored but
27 first-half points and trailed by 10 at the intermission.
The first time around was a game of guard scoring for Montana
as Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields combined for 51 points. or
60 percent of the offense with "Ream"
leading the way with 20.
Chris Kemp began his late-season surge with a then-career
high 10 to go along with seven rebounds and the Griz as usual took excellent
care of the orb with just nine turnovers.
But the Hornets buzz at home, winning 10 of 11 overall
and seven of eight conference outings in the always-active Nest.
They shoot 44.5 percent and average almost 70 while
giving up the same amount.
Sac State takes good care of the basketball and fill it
up from three averaging more than six a game, but they allow opponents more
They are ball hawkers grabbing almost seven steals an
One forte may be rebounding, not exactly a Griz strength
yet ever improving.
The Hornets have been outrebounded in just one a game,
while Montana is minus five in that regard.
Picked in the pre-season to finish seventh and eighth by
the coaches and media, Sac State has lost two straight to fall into a four-way
tie with a 9-9 mark and still battling to get in the tournament so there is a
lot on the line this week for the Hornets.
Portland State, Montana State and Eastern Washington are
tied with the Hornets for that sixth spot with ISU a game away.
The Bengals certainly could enhance their chances by
picking up a W at Eastern especially with league champ Weber State traveling to
But it may all come down to Saturday when six teams,
including Montana, finish up in the afternoon.
Well we're right down to it and even with North Dakota's
victory over Northern Colorado Tuesday, there's a whole lot to be determined in
this Big Sky Conference race in the last week preceding the seven-team
The two hottest teams in the circuit, that's right
Montana and North Dakota, claimed victories already this week but while UND
clinched a tournament spot and either a two or three seed, with 11 wins the
Grizzlies are just knocking on the door and not yet assured seeding or even a
With a pair of road games if the Grizzlies were to fall
twice and complete the regular season 11-9 a myriad of tie breaking
possibilities would exist especially given that Sacramento, Thursday's
opponent, has nine wins, and Northern Arizona, the finale is now 10 and 8.
North Dakota and Montana both have four-game winning
streaks while Northern Colorado fell for the fourth straight time.
Even Idaho State, with just eight league wins, has an
outside chance to get in and unseat teams above them in the standings with
closing wins over both Eastern Washington and Portland State, both teams with 9
and 9 marks.
Already with the host spot secure, Weber State also
finishes up on the road at Portland State and Eastern, while North Dakota could
match the Wildcats with wins as they finish at Southern Utah.
But Weber owns the tie breaker and thus the host position
and No. 1 seed.
After being swept by Montana, the Bobcats are fighting
for their proverbial life with road games at Northern Arizona and Sacramento
and with a 9 and 9 mark looks to at least have to split to have a chance to get
Getting to the 20-win pinnacle looks possible for Weber
and NAU, now with 16 and with a good road showing Montana can climb the hill
with a good tournament performance but it's bleak for anyone else leading one
to believe that the tournament champion, as I've written here before, could be
facing one of the two so called play-in games.
And that's sure not favorable for the conference and
would be a first.
But it is what occurs when the middle of the league is
comprised of teams who beat up on each other.
The Thunderbirds are still winless and headed to Missoula
for a Saturday contest but it wasn't for a lack of trying.
Southern Utah missed a shot at a streak-breaking victory
in regulation in Bozeman but fell in overtime to the Bobcats.
And thus speaks the Big Sky Conference this season as a
team with the nation's longest losing streak at 25 games takes the Cats to a
five-pointer in overtime.
And with the victory Montana State, Montana's final home
game of the season Monday night, evened their season mark and moved to 9-8 in
league, a half game back of the Grizzlies.
And since Eastern Washington dropped Northern Colorado,
Weber State not only broke the home win consecutive game record of Montana but
also clinched no worse than a tie for the league title.
The Bears fall for the first time this season at home
after 14 straight victories.
With a victory over Southern Utah Montana could inch
closer to the second spot while the Wildcats can clinch the tournament host
spot Saturday with a victory over Northern Arizona.
Southern Utah's Achilles has been lack of scoring. They
average but a league-worst 59.4 an outing, the result of being the worst
shooting team (.431) in the circuit.
But Montana won by just eight Jan. 30 in Cedar City and
if Thursday night is any indication second-year coach Nick Robinson still has
the Birds playing hard.
And talk about incentive - they can still figure into
this league race since after Montana they host North Dakota and Northern
It would be easy for this Griz team to look past SUU with
the Bobcat game right on the horizon and Tinks said on the radio Tuesday night
it is something the coaching staff talks about with their group, not something
that goes unsaid.
The Thunderbirds start a single senior, Jaren Jeffrey in
the post, along with a quartet of underclassman.
Sophomore forward A.J. Hess leads the T-Birds in scoring
at 9.1 with no player in double figures.
Casey OIiverson leads from the field at 55 percent and
has seen starting time at both the four and the five.
In Cedar City, the Griz trailed by three at the half but
missed just seven of 20 attempts after intermission but didn't secure the
margin until about three minutes remaining.
It's senior night and the final home game for league MVP
Kareem Jamar and fifth year senior Eric Hutchison.
And it's Fan Appreciation Night as well from 4:30-6:30 in
the East Auxiliary Gym. Now really who doesn't enjoy a $1 hotdog?
When you are just three games better than even and
fighting for your post-season livelihood you'd thinking facing a team with the
nation's longest losing streak wouldn't be much of a challenge.
The Grizzlies have a call-in-the-score game against the
Thunderbirds in Missoula right?
Well really nothing could be further from the truth as
after 24 straight losses going into Thursday's game against Montana State and
being the only Big Sky Conference team already eliminated from post-season
tournament possibilities, the Montana trip is of the utmost of importance to
It's their Super Bowl, their Masters, their NCAA
Tournament, it's their season maker.
And I can vividly remember in 1999 under the tutelage of
Don Holst when the Grizzlies were facing a Sacramento State game with a lofty
losing streak against league opponents - the numbers have faded but it might
have been 38 straight - when the Hornets decisioned the Griz by three in the
midst of our own seven-game losing streak.
Now while it is true you can't find the Thunderbirds
listed in the top few of any team or individual statistical category and they
stand last in the nation in RPI yet fourth in the circuit in strength of
But they played Montana to an eight-point game less than
a month ago in Cedar City while holding Montana to one of its lower offensive
outputs of the season (69 points).
And quite frankly this Montana team has not shown the
prowess that they could afford to look past anybody but with the Bobcats in
town two days later in a rare Monday matchup, just like in Bozeman, I suppose
while damn if I understand, that taking Southern Utah for granted is a
You see there are peaks and lulls during a basketball
season and while not to demean Idaho State in any way, but some of the
lackadaisical effort against the Bengals might have come as a result of an
emotional performance against Weber State two days earlier.
ISU had four games in eight days with a short bench but I
agree with Tinks that at times it looked like the Grizzlies, with a long bench,
were the fatigued team.
To win the tournament you need to play well three
consecutive nights and you can't just turn on the switch. Like I often say:
It's not yet crunch time but you can see it right down the street.
Big Sky Conference teams have combined for just 26 road
victories thus far this season and it is not a surprise that while the
circuit's two front runners have a combined 10 losses, both Weber State and
Northern Colorado are perfect in eight games at home.
And like Montana with four games remaining in the regular
season, the Wildcats and the Bears are home for a pair of contests this week.
Weber State looks to clinch at least a tie for the title
with games against suddenly upstart Sacramento State and Northern Arizona while
Northern Colorado tries to gain a split with Eastern Washington and Portland
State, teams they lost to earlier in the season.
The Wildcats (15-9) have moved into 25th in the Mid-Major
poll while Northern Colorado (10-6) continue to receive votes. Coming into the
week, only a quartet of league teams have winning records.
If the Wildcats sweep and Northern Colorado loses one
game, Weber clinches the outright title and the host spot for the seven-team
tournament that starts March 13.
The surprise team of league play certainly is Sacramento
State, which was picked seventh and eighth in pre-season polls. The Hornets are
10-2 in the Hornet's Nest and face Montana the last week of the regular season.
They've won seven straight conference home games, the
program's longest Division-1 streak, and at 9-7 are tied for third with Montana
and North Dakota. If they finish at .500 or above it would be the first time in
Sacramento State's D-1 history and a trip to the tourney would be their first
But it's a crucial stretch for the Hornets since like
Eastern Washington they play three games this week.
The league moved up a spot in RPI this week but still
rank just 25th with the Grizzlies in the league's third RPI position behind
Weber and UNC.
Saturday night's opponent, Southern Utah, after winning
their first game have lost a nation-leading 24 straight with a game at Bozeman
Amazingly three games separate the second place team from
the 10th spot.
The Grizzlies are in the midst of quite a run and it
couldn't come at a better time as the Big Sky Conference race winds to
With a quartet of games remaining in the regular season
and winners of six of their last eight, yet still just in a three-way tie for
third, Montana has positioned themselves by building momentum for the stretch
No one that I have talked to can remember when there has
been this much parity in the league this late in the season and especially
notable to me is the Idaho State team just defeated by one Saturday holds wins
over Weber State and Northern Colorado, the top two teams in the circuit.
But what is even more interesting is that at 7-9 those two
marquee wins may not have an opportunity to figure into the tiebreaker since
the Bengals will have to finish strong to even make their way into the
Home court may figure prominently and of course so will
who you play in the last 20 percent of the schedule.
The Grizzlies have winless Southern Utah at the end of
this week in Missoula, then the Bobcats at Dahlberg Arena two days later before
hitting the road with the finale at Sacramento and Flagstaff.
The growth and added maturity of this Griz team over the
last few weeks has been encouraging and a testament to the patience of a
coaching staff which hasn't had the easiest job this season.
Mario Dunn Jr. continues to amaze me and although he
failed to register a bunch of steals in the Idaho State game, his cat-like
quickness and sudden emergence as an outside offensive threat is paying
dividends and causing opponents nightmares.
But this run goes deeper than any single player and while
league MVP Kareem Jamar often is offensively unstoppable just go down the
roster and you can pick out a myriad of contributions on both sides of the
But kudos to you the Griz faithful for vocally supporting
this endeavor and turning Dahlberg Arena into an imposing atmosphere fueled by
student-athletes gathered behind the north bucket-the north end zone "wackos"
if you will of the Adams Center.
And you have two more chances ... I sincerely hope you'll
choose to be a part of it all.