Let the tourney begin

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There is nothing left for the Montana Grizzlies to do but win because the alternative of course is the completion of the 2013-14 campaign.

It 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.

 

And the Grizzlies know more than their share about tournament action especially in the last two years as they waltzed to the Big Dance.

 

But 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.

 

But 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 national stage.

 

But 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.

 

The 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.

 

Ironically both teams have claimed a tournament title here at Dee Event Center with Montana claiming the 2010 championship and Portland State winning in 2009.

 

In fact Portland State and Montana have teamed to win five of the last six tournaments.

 

Kareem 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.

 

The 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

 

PSU 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.

 

It promises to be a thriller.

No telling with these two teams playing

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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 six-point verdict.

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.

Mick's take on the all-conference team

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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 honors.

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 spoils."

The difference is Berry's Wildcats claimed two more victories, the league title and No 1 seed and host spot into the post-season affair.

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 first-squad selections.

But in my opinion the starkest oversight, and no doubt because of the fourth-seed, was the relegation of Jordan Gregory to honorable mention status.

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 assist-turnover ratio.

Must deal with the draw

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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 bracket.

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 three-peat.

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 goals.

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 (27-54).

 Guard Quinton 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.

The second time battling Sacramento State

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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 than seven.

They are ball hawkers grabbing almost seven steals an outing.

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 Portland.

But it may all come down to Saturday when six teams, including Montana, finish up in the afternoon.

One final week to decide this

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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 post-season tournament.

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 tournament berth.

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 in.

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.

Southern Utah looking to be the spoiler

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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 Colorado.

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?

No room for a Saturday night lull

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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 Southern Utah.

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 schedule.

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 possibility.

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.

Time to watch the Sky play out

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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 since 2006.

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 Thursday.

Amazingly three games separate the second place team from the 10th spot.

Time for the home stretch

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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 fruition.

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 run.

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 tournament.

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 ball.

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.