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.

Merry Christmas and next up is Idaho

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A Merry Christmas Griz morning to you from that load of elves that bring you some 400 words of Griz Biz on a daily basis

It always seems like such a short holiday break as UM players branch out to the different corners of the west to share holiday cheer with their families.

And of course for those who can't make it back to the far corners of the country, well they are more than taken care of with nearby teammates and coaches.

But before you know it that Beachliner diesel will be warmed up and jockeying for seats for the short jaunt to Moscow will begin.

It is a bit of a rare rematch in such a short 18-day period with the Vandals, winners of two of three over Big Sky opponents Portland State and Idaho State since falling to the Grizzlies Dec. 11.

Idaho slipped past the Vikings in Portland by one , then just also slipped past the Bengals in Pocatello by three earlier this week.

A couple of days later they dropped a 10-point decision in Los Angeles to Cal State Northridge to stand six and seven on the season with four of those losses and a half dozen of those games on the road.

They also show a victory at UC Davis but probably their top outing was a 67-66 loss to neighboring Washington State.

So the Vandals actually have lost five of their last eight games.

Stephen Madison was an early horse against Montana in Missoula but while he scored nine early points in the post chasing around Kareem Jamar defensively eventually slowed him down on the offensive end.

But Madison is still by far Idaho's leading rebounder (7.4) and leads the Vandals in scoring (16.1) and blocks.

The Vandals are especially strong on the offensive glass, have been outshot by just a few percentage points and turn the ball over about as much as their opponents.

Ironically however the Vandals had just five turnovers in the 79-69 loss at Northridge while the Matadors only gave the ball away eight times themselves.

The difference though was rebounding where Northridge grabbed 14 more caroms and outshot the Vandals.

This is a 2 p.m. game Saturday not like 7 p.m. as your schedule shows so join us for pre-game at 1:30 p.m.

Merry Christmas and next up is Idaho

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A Merry Christmas Griz morning to you from that load of elves that bring you some 400 words of Griz Biz on a daily basis

It always seems like such a short holiday break as UM players branch out to the different corners of the west to share holiday cheer with their families.

And of course for those who can't make it back to the far corners of the country, well they are more than taken care of with nearby teammates and coaches.

But before you know it that Beachliner diesel will be warmed up and jockeying for seats for the short jaunt to Moscow will begin.

It is a bit of a rare rematch in such a short 18-day period with the Vandals, winners of two of three over Big Sky opponents Portland State and Idaho State since falling to the Grizzlies Dec. 11.

Idaho slipped past the Vikings in Portland by one , then just also slipped past the Bengals in Pocatello by three earlier this week.

A couple of days later they dropped a 10-point decision in Los Angeles to Cal State Northridge to stand six and seven on the season with four of those losses and a half dozen of those games on the road.

They also show a victory at UC Davis but probably their top outing was a 67-66 loss to neighboring Washington State.

So the Vandals actually have lost five of their last eight games.

Stephen Madison was an early horse against Montana in Missoula but while he scored nine early points in the post chasing around Kareem Jamar defensively eventually slowed him down on the offensive end.

But Madison is still by far Idaho's leading rebounder (7.4) and leads the Vandals in scoring (16.1) and blocks.

The Vandals are especially strong on the offensive glass, have been outshot by just a few percentage points and turn the ball over about as much as their opponents.

Ironically however the Vandals had just five turnovers in the 79-69 loss at Northridge while the Matadors only gave the ball away eight times themselves.

The difference though was rebounding where Northridge grabbed 14 more caroms and outshot the Vandals.

This is a 2 p.m. game Saturday not like 7 p.m. as your schedule shows so join us for pre-game at 1:30 p.m.

One last tune up before Conference

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Here it is just about conference season for the two-time defending champion Grizzlies but there have been some rough spots in this eight game non-conference season.

 

Happy Christmas Eve to you and go grab someone you care about and give em a big hug right now - No really I mean it.

 

The 4-4 Grizzlies grab just a bit of personal time before jumping on that Beachliner Friday morning and heading to Moscow, Idaho, for a rematch of the 11-point game in Missoula a couple of weeks ago.

 

And this marks the non-conference finale with Big Sky Conference play against Northern Arizona on the schedule next week.

 

This will again mark a good test for a Griz team with a quartet of new players and while returning the league MVP in Kareem Jamar and plenty of starting experience has a ways to go before finding themselves up to the rigors of what promises to again be a highly competitive Big Sky Conference schedule.

 

There were a half dozen ties and four lead changes the first time around and while Montana had five players in double figures led as always by Jamar they were as usual outrebounded although they did shoot well at the charity stripe.

 

Connor Hill is a penetrating load and led the Vandals with 24 points but had Idaho not been 7-of-18 at the free throw line you can bet there would have been quite a different outcome.

That also would have held true had Montana not nailed 9-of-18 treys against Idaho's 7-in-16 attempts.

 

But it was a breakout game for freshman guard Mario Dunn who netted a career-high 11 points and has scored 25 in his last three outings.

 

Mark my words Montana's guard line is the best in the league and there's little doubt Jamar is the circuit's top player but that may not be enough for a repeat championship.

 

You might recall UM-Western just shot 51 percent and scored 74 against a partially-uninspired Montana team that after eight games should be fine-tuning not searching.

 

You know I am the eternal optimist and have complete faith in where this outstanding coaching staff will take this team but Idaho Saturday afternoon would sure be a fine place to get started and a fourth straight win heading into league play also would be a welcome boost.

My weekend watching football

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Ok so I have a confession to make.

 

As most of you know by now I am a Spokane guy and thus naturally some would figure since I attended Eastern Washington back in the NAIA college Savages days, I would be an Eagle, right?

 

Well sure, I was pulling for the Eagles Saturday on the red turf and what a valiant effort they made in losing in the semi-final round at home for the second straight season. I really didn't think anybody could stop the Eagles offensively at the game's culmination but I also didn't expect their defense to surrender the winning drive.

 

But congrats to Eastern for being in the final four for the second consecutive season and I'm with you as far as seeing Vernon Adams and Cooper Kupp for even more matchups.

 

But I digress.

 

The game I really had trouble with was Colorado State vs. Washington State.

 

You see I am a life-time Coug who grew up climbing the fence - that's right climbing the fence - to watch the then Pac-Six Cougars tangle with California powerhouses UCLA and USC at then Memorial Stadium (now Joe Albi) in west Spokane.

 

Of course former University of Montana Athletic Director Bill Moos, a Coug alum, is a longtime pal and the WSU AD and former Griz defensive coordinator Mike Breske, another good friend, holds the same position in Pullman.

 

But then you have upstart Colorado State which is headed by Sentinel alum Jim McElwain who came from Nick Saban's Alabama staff to the head Ram job and has sent Fort Collins on its ear by taking them to a bowl game in just his second season at the helm.

 

The McElwain's have strong Missoula and Montana ties - one sister Janie Haight works in UM Athletics and a second, Mary Sullivan, is a former UM athletic trainer.

 

There was no doubt in my mind that the former Eastern Washington quarterback and Bobcat, Fresno State, and Alabama offensive coordinator would bring CSU to the forefront but let's face it to score 18 points in about the last three minutes, then pull out a Boise-like Statue-of-Liberty for the win will forever forge a place in Bowl history.

 

And besides I've been Couged for years.