Room to grow, but character of the team will go a long way

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Mark my words on this eighth day of January. We have not seen the true Montana Grizzly team that I have the confidence it will become.

 

For sure there is a long way to go, but there were a number of promising signs in Saturday's victory over Sacramento State, and to a man there is likely little difference in what each player believes about his teammates, his team and his coaches.

 

It starts with the team first and the importance of the name on the front of the uniform and not the one adorning the back. And that's the same for every player, whether it be a starter or the 13th or 14th man down the bench. They all contribute in their own fashion.

 

Every player, when given the chance, will be on the floor giving the utmost of their capabilities, and because of that getting the most of his effort. And every player will define what the utmost effort truly is, whether it's stripping the ball from an opponent or diving over rows of chairs to keep the ball alive.

 

Everybody gets out on the break and celebrates together, whether it be a bone-rattling slam or a soft one off the window, and when the shot clock winds under 10 seconds on the defensive end, sheer frenzy brings the court alive with the deepest of enthusiasm. That's our rock, baby, and we want it back.

 

There's more, of course, but you get the general idea. This is a young group that is going to learn that you can do anything with enthusiasm. So here we go on Thursday night, with Montana's first Big Sky road game at Eastern Washington.

Chase Reynolds

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And away we go - The 50th season of Big Sky Conference hoop is underway and with yet another new look preceding the addition of Idaho to the league next season.

And for the first time in three years, the Griz are not at least sharing a part of the circuit lead.

But a couple of things to remember: Seldom is the league title settled in January and mark my words that before this is all over the season will have been marked a marathon not a sprint.

But make no mistake about what Rams defender Chase Reynolds said during a short visit Thursday night: A team's home venue floor is getting all the more difficult to defend and the talent level of the Big Sky Conference is reaching even greater heights.

Injured part of the season the former Drummond product said it now seems almost unfathomable that he is living the dream of playing professionally after a prep career that has more than its share of "Hoosier" moments.

A deep testament to attributes like fortitude, commitment and courage, just to name a few, he proudly dons that "old-school" designed Rams helmet and joins former Grizzlies Caleb McSurdy and Trumaine Johnson in applying the coaching he took from Washington Grizzly Stadium and that relentless winning attitude to the play-for-pay ranks of the highest level of the National Football League.

Yes they are among a myriad of former circuit players that have taken that stupendous step in recent years to move to that next level, sometimes excelling, others slipping to a practice squad or eventual obscurity.

But you see they lived that dream that started in Chase's case on that school bus rolling back into Drummond from the far corners of the state in the wee hours of the morning, stiff and sore from the contact yet smiling inside knowing, albeit dreaming, that you were good enough and possessed the audacity that you could get there.

His smile Thursday night spoke volumes that any little guy just can't possess that incredible dream, but even live it to reality.

There just isn't a better guy around, who like the majority that come through this program, never will forget what they learned on those bone-chilling nights on the Riverbowl.

 

Griz earn split in first BSC weekend

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Two games in and Griz are a split in the Big Sky Conference race and headed on the road.

The Grizzlies battled through a half-dozen point deficit to build an 18-point lead and send Sacramento packing with a pair of road losses.

But while there was significant improvement in some really necessary areas, Montana was again outrebounded and gave up 50 percent from the field.

But the board deficit was less, although the Hornets are not a great rebound team, and Montana got some much-needed post play that has been severely lacking.

JC transfer Chris Kemp, who didn't even see the floor in the NAU loss Thursday night, was a demon and led the glass with a career-high seven to match an also career-high 10 points.

And while he also had three steals and a block the numbers don't paint the true picture as he was far more active than at any time this season and also contributed immensely on the defensive end in 24 minutes of playing time.

Junior Jordan Gregory played stupendously, fearlessly driving the lane for the majority of his 20 points, swiping at balls on defense, dishing off a trio of assists and grabbing a couple of the team's eight steals while corralling a quartet of defensive rebounds.

And junior Keron DeShields pushed the pace, missed just a trio of 10 shots and turned the ball over but once.

And while "Steady Eddie" Kareem Jamar moved into the top 10 in scoring with his 11th straight double figure game with 14 points, Eric Hutchinson added seven points including five-for-five free throws and Andy Martin added three paired with a block and a steal.

Point guard Mario Dunn Jr. continues to shine with four points, a quartet of rebounds and two assists against just a pair of turnovers, an area that the Grizzlies are among the nation's pacesetters.

Montana has come back of age at the charity stripe and missed but four of 23 attempts and a baker's dozen of players saw game action while the Grizzlies were shooting better than 65 percent after leading by 10 at the intermission.

Again there's plenty to build on and the road beckons for a pair this week, but there was plenty to like.

Lights out for Northern Arizona

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Northern Arizona blew the lid off the Big Sky Conference regular season by stunning two-time defending champion Montana on its own floor.

When you hardly miss a shot in the second half and a player who has connected on about one of four treys in the entire season finds his way to a quartet of long rangers in seven attempts, well you get the idea.

The Lumberjacks, who won eight league games all last season and have but four players with circuit experience, refused to be denied and after trailing by eight points at the half rebounded to an 11-point second-half advantage.

But to their combined credit the Griz refused to quit and cut the deficit to one with a buck and a half to go but the aforementioned three-point shooter Quinton Upshur answered from three and Aaseem Dixon's free throws iced the game.

Montana had not lost to a conference opponent in Missoula since 2010 - a string of 31 games -and of course fell just twice in league games the last two seasons.

Besides missing just five of 22 second-half shots, the Lumberjacks connected on nearly 59 percent from the field for the game, this by a team that came into the building shooting just 41 percent in 11 outings.

But that's what makes college basketball such a great game and in this game witnessed by nearly 4,000 fans. Northern Arizona played far above I'm sure even their expectations.

With his tenth straight double-figure performance and fourth 20-point game this season (21), Karen Jamar moved past Derrick Pope and Shawn Samuelson and into the school's top 10 career scoring list.

But even leading in rebounding with eight and assists with seven, his exploits, on this night anyway, just weren't enough to offset a hungry senior Max Jaconbson, who netted 21 and Dixon's 23-point outburst.

A 30 percent three-point shooting team , the Jacks connected on seven of 11 attempts while the Grizzlies were but 10 of 26, many late in the game to crawl close.

Junior guard Jordan Gregory was the pacesetter from outside with five of 10 treys and 17 points while Mike Weisner and Keron DeShields netted a pair each.

Sacramento State, a 15-point victim of Montana State, visit Missoula Saturday night with again the first 1,000 through the student gate admitted free.

You know, familiarizing yourself with potential players in a Big Sky Conference game usually is a whole lot easier than non-conference foes whose names you've maybe never seen before.

Northern Arizona is in town for the league opener Thursday and I must say after just nine non-league affairs, I've got to do just what the players need to accomplish and turn up my game for the starts of true counters for the two-time defending league champ.

But when one examines the Lumberjacks, who have lost their last seven road games and come to Missoula winners of three of 11 games,  I basically have an entire roster to master before the 7 p.m. tipoff where the first 1,000 through the student entrance get in free.

You see there are just four players with league experience and while second-year mentor Jack Murphy has basically seemed to have settled on his starting quintet there's just a host of players whose names and numbers need to drag me away from the bowl games and hammer into my forehead.

You surely will remember Gaellan Bewernick, the converted power-forward to wing who redshirted last year but has played extensively for NAU and 6-foot 8 senior Max Jacobson, who leads the Jacks at nearly 14 a game also has plenty of Dahlberg Arena minutes.

But while you can make no mistake I'll be ready by tipoff, beyond that I'm scrambling.

Jordyn Martin, a letterman sophomore, has started nine games for the Jacks when 6-foot10 behemoth Len Springs isn't on the floor but this team is going to be one that will have to mesh   quickly if they can climb to seventh in the league as picked by the media.

Now don't get me wrong - You know I respect every opponent and wouldn't ever fashion looking past anybody but this is not your Dad's "recruit to shoot" NAU group since they are averaging just five made treys a game and shooting just 30 percent.

But one thing you can count on, NAU will go to the glass, a spot where Montana has been deficient.

Kareem Jamar can climb into the top 10 in career scoring in just his 101st game tonight and the Griz can put up win No 99 in the last five years and that's plenty of reason to be there.

Conference season to start tomorrow

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It's been a rough non-conference season for Montana's opening opponent Thursday but while Northern Arizona has lost five of six games the Lumberjacks are bound to be stoked for the opener.

Happy New Year everybody as winners of just three of 11 non-conference matchups NAU comes into Missoula for the opener picked to finish in the bottom third of the Big Sky Conference.

And it is quite the revamped lineup for second-year head coach Jack Murphy who starts a trio of junior-college transfers and features a lineup filled with transfers and freshman.

But the Lumberjacks lost by just four at USC and played Fresno State to a four-pointer in overtime.

With five of nine league games on the road in January, it is incumbent that the Grizzlies establish the home-court dominance that has so recently fueled this program that has lost just two of 36 Big Sky games the last two seasons.

But then again in Wayne Tinkle's amazing eight-year career, the Grizzlies have lost just 31 league games and his 85 circuit victories are the most in school history and in the last five league campaigns Montana has been defeated but 17 times.

League MVP Kareem Jamar charges into his senior league season on a roll with nine straight double figure games and 69 in his 100-game career.

Not only has he been a scoring phenom, he is about to move into the top 10 in career assists.

"Ream" now trails Derrick Pope by just four points on the career scoring ladder and is but eight points from moving into the top 10 spot occupied by Shawn Samuelson.

Picked to finish second behind Weber State by the media and third behind the Wildcats and North Dakota by the coaches, the Grizzlies have won four straight after losing four of their first five.

And the lineup continues to develop much-needed depth especially with the recent emergence of true freshman Mario Dunn Jr. at the point and three-point specialist Brandon Gfeller who is shooting almost 44 percent from long range.

The Lumberjacks have been porous on defense allowing 46 percent and being outscored by seven points while turning the ball over an average of 14 times an outing. Remember, the first 1,000 fans get in free.

You still haven't seen his best

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The day's headlights are shining brightly on 2014 a day after Kareem Jamar claimed yet another Player of the Week award this time as a co-recipient after his clutch performance on the road in Moscow Saturday afternoon.

And I think the senior MVP might tell you he has not even approached playing his best hoop in leading the Griz to a 5-4 non-conference mark while netting double figures in all nine outings.

And how does that bode for the two-time defending Big Sky Conference champion?

Premier seasons get increasingly difficult to match and in the case of "Ream," who continues to move up the career scoring ladder in just 100 games, his stat line might tease you into thinking he is playing at the top of his game.

And let's just face it there were times Saturday against Idaho and in similar outings earlier in the season where coming down the lane he is simply unstoppable.

But the California senior has yet to put together a 40-minute outing and at times gets detached on the floor whether it is with the constant off-ball hounding of the opponent trying to keep the rock out of his hands or other personal distractions, he'd be the first to share with you that there's plenty of good times ahead and plenty of fuel in the tank even though he plays as many minutes of a game as anyone in the circuit.

An efficient free throw shooter there have been several times he has been lacking at the line this season and then you see a game such as the one against the Vandals when he misses his first opportunity, then sank 11 consecutive including the tying and go-ahead bucket at the game's culmination.

And he'd be the first to tell you he can play considerably more efficient on the defensive end, an area where the Grizzlies have certainly been lacking even while leading the league in field goal offense themselves.

But when his game is intact he can be as dominant a player as any that has worn the Grizzly colors and already with 98 wins in the last five seasons we've been in the midst of some kind of run.

What amazes me is that Griz hoop, with conference play underway Thursday in Missoula against Northern Arizona, remains one of the best kept secrets around - go figure.

 

A game a broadcaster dreams about

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It was one of those games that as a broadcaster you dream about - and it was a Griz victory.

Montana put a cap on 2013 by taking all but 4.1 seconds of Saturday's game to catch then pass the Vandals and spin a hush over the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

This one looked like an Idaho victory from the tip and when the Griz fell behind by 15 on the road in the final minute of the first half, you might have thought the Vandals were set to atone for the loss in Missoula earlier this month.

But you know I am a never say die kind of guy and "no hill for a climber" just couldn't have been more accurate in this one as amazing defense and a stupendous coaching strategy coupled with sheer player determination snatched this game from the jaws of defeat and set up the conference opener in Missoula against Northern Arizona Thursday night.

True freshman Mario Dunn Jr. had his hands all over the rock in the final few seconds and Wayne Tinkle held off held of fouling Glen Dean on the sideline with some six seconds remaining, trapping the pass, forcing the former Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year to call a timeout rather than turn the ball over.

Key was the in-bounds that came from the sideline, not the end-line, and with seven-footer Andy Martin in his face, Dean's inbound possibilities were diminished and Dunn was the beneficiary tipping the ball as it was going out-of-bounds to Kareem Jamar who was fouled going to the hole.

And the league MVP, who missed just his first free throw then connected on 11 straight, calmly sank a pair for the W although the Vandals had a 30-foot attempt that bounced away as time expired.

Jamar offset a career performance by Stephen Madison, who netted 35 points, with his ninth straight double figure performance with a near-career high 26 of his own and the Grizzlies connected on 18 straight from the charity stripe in the second half.

Yes it's just a non-league road win over a weakened WAC opponent but now winners of four straight, it's one more step to maturity, a victory to cherish and one that will remain in my memory for years to come,

Not making the most of an opportunity

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Make no mistake about it, a post-season game can serve as one of the most prized occasions and rewards for a college athlete.

So why do so many players just keeping screwing up the opportunity.

Now I fondly remember those days of old when New Year's Day featured the major bowl games with a pre-cursor on the previous night.

But of course now all you have to do to become what now is termed "bowl eligible" is win a half dozen Divsion-1 games because it takes that many teams to fill up the plethora of games that have "bowl" tags.

Well I have less trouble with that, since you can just completely OD on games involving teams that you may have heard of, but some of the competition and especially the game's culminations have been just flat amazing.

So I'll give you that one - If there are that many sponsors who are willing to throw that kind of money at a football game, have at it - It still probably doesn't mean I have heard of or will likely purchase your product.

But what I can't understand is the number of athletes - many of them premier performers who end up being sent home for the proverbial "violation of team rules" in advance of the contests.

I get it - Going to a game a week in advance many times in sun country and always after finals must resemble just one big "Spring Break."

But whatever happened to your teammates, your leaders, coaches who made sure curfew is at this time, this is what is suitable and appropriate and we are here to represent our program and the institution that has chosen to provide me hopefully with a college degree.

It's not necessary to list the programs or the players involved but it seems every day you read the stream at the bottom of the television and there's one more prominent player who has been given his walking papers and not allowed to perform in what for many is their final collegiate contest.

And for those skill players who have an opportunity to play at the next level, what do you suppose your potential employer is thinking but then again maybe given the level of some of the illegitimate behavior in post-collegiate competition, maybe it just doesn't matter to them.

Well it matters to me...what about you?

Big Sky Conference news and notes

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With just a pair of Big Sky Conference teams sporting winning non-conference records and the start of circuit play on the near horizon, it could be challenging at this point to come up with a league favorite.

Northern Colorado sits atop the league and is receiving mid-major voting consideration and a quartet of teams are hovering around the .500 mark but a half dozen of the league teams have had trouble grabbing a W in non-league play.

As well as the Grizzlies playing Saturday afternoon Eastern has a toughie at U-Conn while Weber State hosts Northern New Mexico and Cal Bakersfield journeys to Pocatello.

The 2-5 Wildcats are coming off a laugher (107-36) over Saint Katherine, the largest victory margin in school history as with the W Randy Rahe moved into a tie with Weber's Ron Abbeglen for eighth on the league's all-time list.

Montana's Wayne Tinkle stands tenth.

League play kicks off Sunday with North Dakota traveling to Northern Colorado in a battle of tournament semi-finalist teams from a season ago.

The Bears are the league's fourth pre-season selection while North Dakota was tabbed second by the coaches and third by the media.

The league stands 24th in last week's RPI just behind the weakened WAC with Eastern Washington's 144 the top ranking.

Montana stands fourth at 194 while the league's non-conference slate is ranked as the nation's ninth toughest.

UM junior Jordan Gregory stands second in the nation in free throw percentage missing just one of his initial 22 attempts while the Grizzlies are the 22nd best field goal percentage team (.493), far outdistancing the Cats (.469).

Montana also leads the circuit with 8.6 treys made per game and is third in the league and 39th in the country shooting .394 percent.

With eight straight double figure games this season, defending league MVP Kareem Jamar is third in scoring (18.9) behind North Dakota's Troy Huff and Eastern newcomer Tyler Harvey.

Kareem also stands second in assists per game at five an outing and is the league's active leader in scoring, rebounding and steals.

But off comes the lid Sunday and up goes the price of poker.