The Griz head to Aggieland

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So here we go for the 32nd Griz basketball game of the season in the midst of spring football and the first-ever home opener for softball.

 

I am in the Lone Star state where officials of the National Invitational Tournament decided to ship the Griz rather than leave them with a plethora of choices on the west coast.

 

Word had it Sunday that Stanford was a possibility yet Oregon State also was in the picture although the Beavers didn't get in.

 

Boise State also a possibility but they made the Big Dance and then of course there was Colorado State. I figured Seattle also might have been in the mix but instead on the plane Monday for a Tuesday matchup with Texas A&M in College Station.

 

I have not been on the massive campus since Griz football ate a travel meal in their version of the Sky Club when Montana was headed to play Tennessee.

 

Nearly 50,000 students yearly are Aggie undergrads.

 

While extremely disappointed about failing to get into the NCAA Championship, the Grizzlies are excited to be back on the floor at Reed Arena in front of a nationally televised agenda let alone internationally on the Grizzly Radio Network.

 

This has been quite the resilient team this season rebounding from several disappointments to reach the 20-win plateau and I expect nothing different tonight (Tuesday) even after a long day of travel and a quick turnaround from the conference finale.

 

The winner meets either Central Michigan or Louisiana Tech and because they would be the lower seeded team (7-seed) the Grizzlies likely would travel to one of those sites.

 

Third in the SEC, Texas A&M lost to Auburn 66-59 in the circuit tournament and earlier in the season took unbeaten Kentucky to the wire eventually losing by a half dozen. No other team has played the Wildcats so closely.

 

Stats show the Aggies pound the glass substantially outrebounding opponents at both ends of the floor.

 

Jalen Jones grabs some seven a game matched by Kourtney Roberson in conference outings.

 

After the Kentucky loss at mid-season they captured six straight SEC games before losing to Ole Miss but won just four of nine at the end of the season.

 

Their average attendance this season was a bit more than the capacity of Dahlberg Arena.

 

Pre-game at 6:30 MDT tonight (Tuesday) with tipoff at 7 p.m.

 

 

NIT bound

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Every good thing has to come to an end.

 

But the last four-plus minutes of the Big Sky Conference Championship game left a sour taste on a Grizzly team that had overachieved yet mostly prevailed in winning 14 of 17 games to make it to the chipper.

 

Facing large deficits or overtime sessions hasn't been anything new to this group which made it through the rigors of the league schedule with a 14-4 mark and the right to host the league tournament for the third time in four seasons.

 

And a dominant effort early-on against Eastern Washington had Montana before a near capacity crowd fueled by a strong Eagle following set to claim the nets along with a trip to the big dance.

 

But somebody failed to tell Eastern Washington and they came bounding back, pushed the Grizzlies onto their heels, claimed the momentum and closed with a 17-4 run to claim the title.

 

How explosive EWU was should come as no surprise as they are loaded with offensive talent featuring the nation's leading scorer in Tyler Harvey who did not play in the earlier Eagle win in Missoula.

 

They are a robust group winning a school record 26 games and being rewarded with a 13-seed into the post season where they will face Georgetown in the second round.

 

But by claiming the league's 1-seed yet failing to win the circuit tournament title, the Grizzlies get an automatic bid to the NIT where they open in College Station against Texas A&M.

 

The Aggies lost to Auburn in the second round of the SEC Tournament and dropped three straight to Florida, Alabama and Auburn, the first two by a total of five points.

 

The game marks just the second Montana appearance in the NIT as they previously lost also in Texas to UTEP in 1995.

 

A & M finished 20-11 yet losing four of its last five sealed its fate as far as NCAA Tournament consideration.

 

They have outrebounded opponents by five-plus a game and are stingy defensively allowing but 31 percent from outside the arc and less than 40 percent from the field.

 

The Aggies are paced by the guard play of Daniel House, Jalen Jones and Alex Caruso but go big at the post with 6-9 senior Kourtney Roberson.

 

Game time is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday. 

Another crack at a league rival

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It is quarter-final time or for your pleasure, the opening round of the Big Sky Conference Men's Tournament, and it couldn't be more fitting that the Grizzlies and Weber State face off to move along.

 

Thursday's winner faces either Northern Arizona, probably outside of Montana the league's hottest team, or Northern Colorado who has won three straight.

 

The Grizzlies have had Weber's number in the league post-season winning six straight including three straight chippers and a semi-final game.

 

Actually the Wildcats haven't won at Dahlberg Arena since 2009, a nine-game streak, and this marks the 121st meeting between these perennial leagues foes.

 

Each program has won nine previous titles, the most by any school, and besides titles, each has grabbed the runner-up spot seven times.

 

Weber's 41 tournament wins is the most by any school followed by Montana's 33 victories.

 

Montana is making a 14th straight tournament appearance while the Wildcats appear for the ninth straight time and 38th visit in the event's 40-year history.

 

Dominance - Well the two teams have claimed six of the last seven NCAA berths and have hosted five of the last six tournaments.

 

Both teams prevailed in league play on their home floor, Weber by eight and Montana by 11.

 

Weber State has been unable to corral Martin Breunig - who scored 50 points in two games or Jordan Gregory who netted 30  - while the Wildcats are fueled by second-team All Conference selection Joel Bolomboy who stands seventh in league history in rebounding with 887. The junior averages double figures and ranks 15th in the nation in caroms.

 

But Weber State lost four of their last seven games and rank well back of the circuit in offense, averaging just 67.2, shooting just a bit better than 42 percent from the field and just .345 from three-point range.

 

The Wildcats are near the bottom of the circuit in turnovers and assist-to-turnover ration, while allowing opponents 46 percent from the field and about 38 percent from long range.

 

Weber State ahs been hampered by the loss of Jeremy Senglin, a league all star and last season's Freshman of the Year, who suffered a broken jaw Feb 12 and although he suited up last week did not play. He has missed six games including Montana's 74-63 victory in Missoula but scored 16 in the Wildcat home win.

Tough break

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The time is here and there's nothing better than heading into a one-game post-season tournament on a roll.

 

After being snubbed in Coach of the Year voting after his team won the league after being picked eighth in the pre-season by the coaches, Travis DeCuire takes his young charge to the floor as the No. 1 seed guaranteed post-season play.

 

But with a championship banner and accompanying ring already secure, that road to a big old pot of gold, an NCAA Championship berth, is hovering at the end of a rigorous three-day run.

 

Now mind you I would have been fine with the first-year mentor sharing Coach's laurels but to be snubbed given the circumstances leads me to believe the Montana rule applied to the choice.

 

Mind you it is my own conclusion and not in consult with anyone that at every turn opposing programs so want to "Be Like Mike" - Montana if you will - that any opportunity where they can slap the Griz up the proverbial head and bring 'em back to their level which often appears mediocre at best, they'll seize the chance.

 

Now hang on dear reader - This is not uttered by a coach or an administrator but just a humble broadcaster who is about to complete his 30th Griz year so coat these words with prejudice.

 

It seems to me to be more apparent this season given the rushing the floor at Sacramento State and the request at Eastern Washington to quietly leave the floor to the opposite corner of the floor as the locker room to avoid conflict with a championship fan rush that the Grizzlies spoiled.

 

No you didn't see Montana cut down the nets on Montana State Senior Night. Not only would it have been classless but having been there before the Grizzlies realize the significance of clipping the twine on Championship Saturday night.

 

This may well be the most contentious Big Sky Conference Tournament ever with the combined field winners of just 56 percent of league games.

 

While Eastern Washington and Montana claimed 13 road victories among them, of the other six teams only Northern Arizona won more on the road than they lost.

 

Montana has won six of seven and 12 of the last 15 but Northern Colorado boasts the top winning streak entering the tournament at three.

 

No matter the winner it promises to be a donnybrook filled with disappointment, happiness and for someone validation.

It's awards season

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The Grizzlies dominated the First Team All Conference befitting of an amazing regular season.

 

Montana placed team stalwarts junior Martin Breunig and senior guard Jordan Gregory as two of the half dozen players on the league's premier team.

 

Co-Champ Eastern Washington also garnered a pair of selections with the nation's leading scorer Tyler Harvey and junior forward Venky Jois joining Northern Arizona sophomore guard Kris Yanku and Sacramento Mikh McKinney as first-team choices.

 

Gregory has been an honorable mention selection the past two seasons but blossomed to the forefront this year by leapfrogging close to Montana's top 15 in scoring, dropping in probably the fourth most points in team history with 36 against Idaho while moving into the league's top 25 in three pointers.

 

He barely trails Breunig in scoring at just south of 17 points-per-game and recently added Academic All American to his lengthy resume.

 

Not only was Breunig accorded first-team laurels, the junior post also was tabbed the league's Newcomer of the Year after bursting onto the Big Sky Conference scene after sitting out last season after transferring from the University of Washington.

 

He has scored in double figures in all but a couple of games and his game steadily improved as Montana claimed 12 of the last 15 games en-route to the No. 1 seed.

 

As with the majority of this team, his play has improved tremendously because of his work ethic which sees him ranked tenth in the nation in field goal percentage.

 

Gregory and McKinney were the only seniors named to the first team which listed a quartet of guards among the six selections.

 

And the second team and honorable mention also was dominated by guards with Weber's rebounding machine Joel Bolomboy the only post in the second group and Idaho State's Jeff Solarin the only forward among the HM group.

 

Hard to understand is eight other guards being named ahead of sophomore Mario Dunn who averaged double figures in scoring in league play while for the season dishing off an average of four treys an outing.

 

He stands second in the league in steals, seventh in assists and 11th in field goal percentage making better than half of his shots while also corralling more than four caroms a game.

 

And while EWU's Bogdan Bliznyuk was tabbed Freshman of the Year, the recognition easily could have gone to Fabijan Krslovic, who started 22 of 29 contests, averaged just short of five points and five rebounds, and was instrumental in so many categories that do not appear on the state sheet.

 

Coach of the Year Tuesday and whether or not the league agrees I'll have the guy who should be recognized with me at 6 p.m. 

A remarkable run from Griz Hoops

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I will not go so far as to describe this men's season in Cinderella terms but it certainly to this point has been an amazing run to a third Big Sky Conference title run for the third time in the past four years.

 

Montana put a cherry on the top of the league season that saw the Grizzlies capture 13 of their last 16 games and post a 14-4 campaign to claim a share of the championship with Eastern Washington.

 

And in defeating the Bobcats for the tenth consecutive time, and claiming an 18th victory Montana rookie Head Coach Travis DeCuire matched Stew Morrill (86-87) and Larry Krystowiak (04-05) as the program's second most winningest first-year coaches, trailing only Blaine Taylor's amazing 27-4 campaign in 1991-92.

 

In claiming a sixth league road victory and the tie breaker over the Eagles, Missoula again becomes title town for the second time in three years by hosting both the men and women's event.

 

And as exceptional as a 14-4 league campaign is - winning seven of their last eight - consider that those four league losses came by a total of 20 points including the double-overtimer at Moscow.

 

The 14th win in 17 games against Montana State certainly had its share of intrigue as the Cats burst to a nine-point advantage six minutes in and in the first half played nothing like an eight-win team trailing by just four points at the break and leading for more than 13 minutes.

 

But the Grizzlies didn't balk and once they moved to the forefront never relinquished the lead which eventually grew to 20 points.

 

And as has occurred all season with this group when senior guard Jordan Gregory faltered, hitting just one of 10 from the field for a season low of six points, the remainder of the team picked up the slack connecting on more than half of their field goal attempts and as usual playing exceptional defense by holding the Cats to 10 less field goals and just 54 points.

 

This year's "X" factor was senior bench player Chris Kemp who with a career high 17 points scored more points than minutes.

 

The big-bodied post who has seen decreased playing time as the season progressed was an early insertion when Fabijan Krslovic picked up his second foul and immediately made his presence known at both ends.

 

Hitting just six of 10 free throws all season, Kemp contributed five of seven at the stripe and a six of eight field goal performance coupled with four rebounds in just 14 minutes.

 

To me Kemp's performance just underscored the character and resilience of this year's Griz team which maybe you don't remember was tabbed by the coaches in the pre-season to finish eighth.

 

There are certainly no givens in this tournament which opens for Montana with Weber State Thursday night with the winner of the Northern Colorado-Northern Arizona game awaiting the winner.

 

But this I know for sure-The Grizzlies will give all for the end-all.

What a season

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With a game to go in the Big Sky Conference regular season and the circuit tournament on the horizon, could things be more exciting?

 

The surprising-to-some Grizzlies is on the verge of making a monstrous surge to the pinnacle of the league with a win in Bozeman Saturday night.

 

Picked to finish eighth by the coaches, while the honor probably will go elsewhere, rookie mentor Travis DeCuire has to receive strong consideration as the league's Coach of the Year.

 

He has brought a Montana team replete with underclassman and starting a single senior from the growth mode of a challenging non-conference schedule to just a single victory from tying for the league title.

 

And already with 17 wins he joined the Who's-Who of former Grizzly coaches who have led their team to such inaugural heights.

 

And with a win at Montana State he will join just a quartet of previous coaches with 18 first-year wins.

 

More importantly that non-conference schedule which saw Montana win but three games currently shows three teams - Colorado State, Boise State and Davidson currently receiving Top 25 votes in the Mid major poll.

 

And perhaps you might remember Montana fell to both CSU and BSU in overtime sessions.

 

Montana's success has not gone unnoticed on the national stage as with 54 votes the Grizzlies are just seven votes from moving into the Top 25 where Sacramento State currently stands 14th and vanquished Eastern Washington occupies the 20th position.

 

With his stats Fabijan Krslovikc can make an argument to be in the running for Freshman of the year contending possibly with Idaho's Arkadiy Mkrtchyan and EWU's Bogdan Bliznyuk and the remainder of the starting quintet easily could be All-Conference selections.

 

Senior Jordan Gregory will ply for MVP while doesn't Martin Breunig have to accorded the Newcomer of the Year award?

 

But what really matters and certainly will not be overlooked is Saturday's matchup inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse where the Bobcats have drawn poorly all season.

 

The Grizzlies held the Cats to 19 first-half points in posting a 15-point decision in Missoula but with a trio of seniors playing their final collegiate game and MSU 7-22 (4-13) with nothing to lose since they are one of a trio of teams eliminated from the tournament so don't be fooled into believing Montana is overlooking Saturday night.

The post season scenario

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When the Grizzlies take the floor Saturday night in Bozeman there is a chance they will know either where they are headed for the three-game, eight-team post season Big Sky Conference Tournament or if the destination will be determined after the outcome of the Weber State-Sacramento game in Ogden

 

Because of the one-point Grizzly loss in Sacramento last month the Hornets can bring the tournament to the Sacramento campus for the first time with a victory Thursday in Cedar City.

 

But that still leaves two other teams - Montana and Eastern Washington - with an opportunity to share the league title with 14 circuit victories.

 

And with the tournament not being reseeded after first-round games, the tussle for the eventual NCAA Championship bid certainly will be hotly contested.

 

And remember if the league titlist fails to secure the bid they gain an automatic entry to the NIT and other league teams with favorable records will stand to secure a bid to a couple of other post-season events.

 

With victories over Montana State and no less than a pair of tournament wins, Montana would post a 19-win resume with victories in six of seven of their last contests and would have to be considered one of the league's hottest commodities and a possibility for a post-season home game.

 

But I certainly like the alternative - Win out from here, hang up a 20-win season and claim the automatic bid for a ninth trip to the "Dance" and a seventh visit since 2002.

 

Montana also visited the post season in 2011 when they lost to Duquesne in the CBI and in the 1995 NIT losing to UTEP in El Paso, Texas.

 

But from my standpoint tournament play began some time ago on the floor in Greeley where after winning by a bucket at North Dakota Montana claimed an exhilarating triple OT two-point decision over Northern Colorado setting the table for the stretch run that has included victories in six of the last seven games.

 

Now don't think I am overlooking a Bobcat team that the Grizzlies handled easily by 15 in Missoula in mid-January but I can tell you that the frantic atmosphere Saturday night in Cheney rounded this humble scribe into March Madness mode and all one has to do is watch the amazing comeback in Ames Iowa Monday night to realize IT'S ON!

 

Good guys end up on right side of rivalry game

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It seems it can't get more dramatic than an Eastern Washington matchup in about any sport and while from the Grizzly standpoint it is a game between adversaries separated by a few hours and 200 miles, yet for the Eagles it has developed into a what could be described bitter rivalry.

Montana has one of those but in the opposite direction down the same Interstate that has history dating back to 1897.

Now truth be known most everyone knows I am an Eastern guy but being from Spokane I also have been a Cougar as long as I can remember.

Truth be known I relish the fact that the Eagles have recently risen to prominence, have chosen to emulate some things that we do right in Missoula, and are competitive even at times on the National stage.

And if Montana chooses to minimize whether it is indeed a rivalry, so be it. It is semantics and one has to admit there just is a little extra when it comes to an Eagle-Grizzly game.

Heck I even think the red turf was brilliant and served to bring national attention to an institution that wouldn't certainly be otherwise mentioned; and face it Griz Nation, few can dispute the athletic talent EWU has had on several occasions.

I have always subscribed to the theory that few ideas are novel - just the way they are carried out - and utilization of another's best is a compliment.

Now that I have your attention suffice it to say that after the disappointment of another extra periods loss in Moscow two nights earlier, all the marbles were on the table Saturday night for Montana and the heavily favored Eagles stood to take a giant step toward securing the host spot for the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

The Missoulian's Bob Meseroll described it as the best student section of the season and while I sat across from the tumult I'd have to agree. They were creative from the get-go and on this first day of March made the afternoon a precursor to the eventuality of madness two weeks hence.

As if added motivation was required, some was made about the Grizzlies being advised to leave the floor to the locker room from their bench rather than trying to exit across the floor after the Eagle fans rushed the floor after a predicted win.

But I am going to say that after recent spats between teams and fans during post-game celebrations, I'll give the Eagles a pass believing they were more interested in safety than making a statement about what they must have believed was an obvious eventual positive outcome. 

Suffice it to say that after what I was a part of at Sacramento State when chaos ensued after the final claxon, I can personally attest that while I really remain a fan of the spontaneity that makes college basketball one of my deepest joys, court storming has become dangerous and unless some control is exercised a serious scenario accompanied by injury will ensue.

With plenty yet left on the table, this season's games have been a joy and with the circuit's parity the league tournament promises more of the same.

And wouldn't it be magical if the stars aligned and brought even additional men's hoop to add to the women's spectacle at Dahlberg Arena?

But with the way the Grizzlies perform on the post-season floor of the other league entities with titles in places like Flagstaff, Boise, Portland, Ogden and Bozeman, play on men and let the chips fall. 

A battle on the Palouse

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Given that the University of Idaho just defeated co-Big Sky Conference leader Sacramento State on Valentine's Day, the Grizzlies should need no added motivation to be stoked for the upset-minded Vandals Thursday night in Moscow.

The Vandals looked like they had righted a sloping ship when they lost only to Eastern Washington twice by three points with one of the contests needing overtime to resolve.

But after defeating Portland State and the Hornets after being blitzed in Missoula by the Grizzlies, Idaho dropped a pair to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah and now are fighting for their post-season tournament existence with a 6-8 league mark and Weber State hot on their heals.

And after hosting the Montana schools this week they finish at Weber and Idaho State.

But the Vandals have won nine of a dozen in Moscow and five of seven circuit matchups but this is the first time this season they are hosting league games in Memorial Gym which isn't exactly a neutral but it isn't the friendly confines of the expansive Kibbie Dome either.

It promises to be a battle of wills with Travis DeCuire's charge intending to slow down the high scoring Vandal attack which boasts the second highest scoring average against the Grizzlies' top defense.

Connor Hill has established himself as the most productive three-point shooter in Idaho history and with 88 treys this season is closing in on the school's single-season mark as well.

And point guard Mike Scott is a double-threat veteran averaging in double figures, one of three in the starting lineup, and almost six dimes an outing. 

Can Montana match Idaho on the boards like they did in a 14-point victory in Missoula?

Arkadiy Mkrtychyan comes off the bench for five a game in the category paced by Bira Seck with 7.4 an outing.

The Grizzlies held that duo to nine the first time around and outrebounded Idaho by one while also holding them to 24 first-half points in prevailing 70-58.

Scott paces the league in the all-important assist to turnover category while the Vandals are second in the nation in three-point proficiency while also shooting 47percent.

It is all out there for this surprising Montana team and coming off a road sweep and a quartet of road breakthroughs it's not like they haven't been there before.

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