Recently in GrizTrax by Mick Holien Category
It's game day for the Grizzlies although since they're the fourth and last game of the session, it's a waiting game.
The 13th seed Grizzlies go looking for respect on the national stage with a date against 19th ranked Syracuse.
And such respect won't come easily as the Orange of course will be seen to have the upper hand and expected to move into the tournament's third round against either Mike Mongomery's Cal Bears or UNLV.
It will take a superior performance for Montana to be hanging around at the night's culmination but even though they lost to three NCAA qualifiers, Colorado State, then South Dakota State and Davidson in overtime, Will Cherry's absence in part or all of three contests figured into the failing outcomes.
And since BracketBuster, Montana has played with even a higher level of confidence in disposing of every opponent and now have won 21 of the last 23 outings.
Rebounding of course has not exactly been a Griz forte and Syracuse crashes the boards hard especially on the offensive end where Montana has proven especially deficient.
While the Orange ignited in the Big East tournament to play their way into the title game before flaming out against Louisville, they have struggled late in the season after a 19-1 start, losing seven of their last 15 games and five of their last eight.
But four of the losses were to Georgetown and Louisville, with Marquette and Connecticut thrown in for good measure.
And except for victories over Seton Hall and Pitt they have struggled recently from three-point range making eight of 29 against the Hoyas in a pair of games and but two of 18 versus DePaul.
Now while Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Fame coach who has been at the helm at Syracuse for 35 years, 30 of which have resulted in NCAA appearances, the Orange has a bit of a history of vulnerability in first-round games against double-digit seeds.
And while the Grizzlies are a decided underdog you know how that the crowd in San Jose will react if they smell Montana can compete.
And don't anybody tell the dynamic Cherry-Jamar duo they aren't capable of playing at this level.
It is media responsibility day at the NCAA Tournament here in San Jose where the Grizzlies close out the nightcap with a 13-4 matchup against the powerful Orange of Syracuse.
We're right in the middle of Montana's tenth appearance at the national tournament.
This is my seventh trip to the Big Dance since 1997 and I fondly remember the last game in San Jose when Montana gave Steve Alford's New Mexico team all they wanted, even leading at halftime, before falling by five.
Montana was a 14-seed in 2010 and Brian Qvale cherished the national stage powering in 26 points and pulling down a Baker's Dozen caroms.
That was four years after that magical performance as a 12-seed when an Andrew Strait led team defeated Nevada in the first round in Salt Lake City before running into a buzz saw in falling to Boston College.
This certainly is a season of parity in college basketball and prognosticators have been quick to predict upsets will occur in the ranks of seeds 12, 13 and 14.
And playing in the west with a short hop here to California and in the nightcap which will tip off around 11 p.m. for the Easterners from new York.
But remember Syracuse is playing at a high level after a less than spectacular regular season (10-7).
They were kicking Louisville around in the Big East Championship game last week at Madison Square garden before the Cardinals put together an amazing second-half run to claim the tournament title and eventual No 1 overall seed.
Six days after being blitzed by Georgetown 61-39, the Orange shot just 36 percent but upended the Hoyas 58-55 in overtime in the Big East semis.
That was after beating Pitt, a team they lost to by 10 in the regular season, by connecting on 12 of 19 treys.
The Orange are dominant on the boards (plus 4), force a bevy of turnovers and are ball-hawkers who are certainly accustomed to the big stage and are of course led by a Hall of Fame Jim Boeheim.
Syracuse starts a single senior and can feature as many as three underclassmen in the starting five.
Is there an Achilles?
Now after the speculation, joy and enthusiasm that surrounds the NCAA Selection Show, it's on the road once again for a Montana team that stopped just long enough in Missoula to run the league table with a pair of regular-season victories, then verified their season-long effort by claiming the circuit tournament for a second consecutive season.
It was 27 days between home games for this team, but Montana made the most of the Big Sky season's home close by focusing on that singular number of one.
While Syracuse of course represents the challenge of the season, I want to take the time as we wing via charter toward San Jose - do you know the way - to celebrate what has been in my mind during a monstrous repeat season.
Talk about making their way through a season of impediments and the challenge of a non-conference schedule that opened with an eventual NCAA team in Colorado State.
I vividly remember when during a football halftime show Wayne Tinkle told me that first team all conference guard Will Cherry had broken his foot and the player expected to contend for the starting center role had been ruled ineligible.
While I always remain confident of the team's fortunes, I have to admit when I went to the roster to see who might fill those roles; I anticipated a rough go especially against the level of non-conference competition.
And then of course the rigors of the expanded Big Sky Conference with unpredictable road trips and quality competition from new entrants North Dakota and Southern Utah let alone the usual league contending suspects.
But somebody forgot to tell our young players parlaying their efforts with the Griz juniors, all-everything Kareem Jamar and post Eric Hutchisson, that there was anyone in the circuit that could hang with the defending champs.
And what a roll they are on - Interrupted only by a Valentine Day hiccup at Weber State and a squeaker in overtime at Davidson, these Grizzlies have been unbeatable to claim a third NCAA berth in the last four seasons.
Wayne Tinkle not only is the only coach to win 20 games in four straight years but also becomes the first mentor to take a team to three NCAA Championships.
Let's face it. It just can't get any better than this.
There certainly was not much of an opportunity for the Grizzlies to relish their superb Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship before they were welcomed to the land of big-time basketball with the NCAA Championship announcements some 19 hours after confetti rained from the ceiling to celebrate a second straight berth to the Dance.
Pleased were the Grizzlies when they learned they are a 13-seed to the Show and staying west to San Jose, California, but maybe not so ecstatic when they filled the line below the Orange of Syracuse in the East region.
The fabled Cuse program makes a 30th trip to the National event after falling 78-61 to overall No 1 seed Louisville in the Big East finale, no really the real finale, at Madison Square Garden.
Legendary veteran Jim Boeheim's group is extremely stingy on defense allowing less than 38 percent from the field and a percentage more than 60 points-per-game.
Syracuse is 26-9 and finished but 10-7 in the powerful Big East before playing their way through the tournament to the title game.
In the tournament the Orange defeated Seton Hall, then slipped past powerful Pittsburg by three and won an overtime thriller 58-55 over Georgetown to move into the title game.
But they've lost five of their last nine to slip to a No. 4 seed.
They have a quartet of players averaging in double figures led by C.J. Fair (6-8) who averages 14.4 and better than seven rebounds while also shooting close to 50 percent from three-point range.
Guards Brandon Triche (6-4) and Michael Carter-Williams (6-6) also are both scoring in doubles and have shot a horde of treys.
They play without a true post but with more than ample size on the wings.
But of course Montana players are excited at the prospect and broke into a prolonged robust cheer when the pairings appeared on television screens through the Press Box where the travel group watched Sunday's festivities.
The Grizzlies, who will play the late game from San Jose on Thursday, will leave Missoula Tuesday with team member and coach's interviews scheduled for Wednesday along with a one-hour public practice session which is required of all participating teams.
It's the third time to the NCAAs in the last four years for this Wayne Tinkle led group (25-6) which qualifies for a 10th NCAA Tournament.
Big Sky Conference runner-up Weber State played its way into the first league semi-final Thursday by running away from Northern Arizona with 48 second half points while shooting 57 percent.
In a battle of new league entrants three-seed North Dakota also utilized a sound second half hitting all but eight of 23 shots in disposing of Southern Utah.
That sets up the first semi-final Friday night with the "No Niks" taking their 16-15 record against 15th ranked Weber State, winners of 12 straight and having posted a 25-5 mark.
The Wildcats have advanced to at least the semi-finals in all seven of Randy Rahe's seasons and have not suffered defeat since Montana turned the trick by two points in Missoula in late January.
Meanwhile the Grizzlies have qualified for the post-season league event for 12 consecutive years and faces off with Northern Colorado.
The now 13-17 Bears decisioned Montana State 69-56 dominating the second stanza by shooting almost 59 percent after taking just a two-point advantage to the Intermission.
In capturing a fourth straight game the Bears beat MSU at the foul line hitting 14 more throws as the Cats were signaled for 10 more personals.
The guard tandem of Tate Unruh and Tevin Svihovec paced the Bears with 23, or a third of their points, while they pounded the glass by committee with a trio of players with more than seven boards and winning the defensive glass by a dozen.
While Montana holds a pair of victories over UNC it certainly hasn't occurred easily with an 8 point decision in Greeley and a 10-pointer in Missoula in a game that the lead changed hands seven times.
Derrick Barden was the huge difference in Greeley with 21 points and an amazing 15 caroms with Unruh and Svihovec combining for 38.
But that was countered by games of 26 and 21 for Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry as the Grizzlies enjoyed their second highest scoring conference game of the season in netting 85 points.
Not only did they shoot 56 percent for the game but they connected on a dozen treys with the Jamar-Cherry duo combining for seven.
In Missoula Jamar led three Griz in doubles with 18 to go along with eight rebounds, three steals, three blocks and seven assists.
Montana versus Northern Colorado at 8 p.m. Friday night. See you there.
The pairings for two Big Sky Conference semi-final games will be set in Missoula today and for the life of me I can't pick out who might advance to face regular season league champion Montana.
With the new league format six teams are in action in Missoula to open the three-day tournament event to determine which team advances to the "Big Dance.'
You might think No. 7 seed Northern Arizona is in tough against league runner-up Weber State in the opener but consider that the Wildcats just snuck out of Flagstaff with a two-point decision earlier this month and we all know about Gabe Rogers, who has scored in double figures in 16 straight games and leads the circuit in scoring.
But the Wildcats sport the nation's 11th-longest win streak at 11 and rank first nationally in three categories.
It seems as if the No. 3 seed North Dakota and No 6 seed Southern Utah, both new league members who made the field, are teams headed in opposite directions.
The "No Niks" won their last four league games by a total of 21 points to finish with a respectable 12-8 record while the Thunderbirds are on a four-game slide including a loss by seven at North Dakota.
The nightcap features a pair of 10-10 teams in Northern Colorado and Montana State.
The Bobcats have won their last two but come into the tournament without double-figure scorer Xavier Blount, while the Bears ran the table in their final three games but with wins over non-qualifiers Eastern Washington and Portland State and at home over Southern Utah.
Before that Northern Colorado lost a one-pointer in BracketBuster at UC Davis and a two pointer at home to North Dakota.
Looking at comparable scores UND and Southern Utah split home-and-home, as did Montana State and Northern Colorado.
All this seems to indicate that the Grizzlies, scheduled to face the lowest remaining seed, should play the winner of the Bobcat-Bear matchup.
With the pair of home victories to cap the regular season and as of Monday, Montana moved past Weber State in the RPI by five points.
That could be bolstered somewhat though with both Davidson and South Dakota State winning conference tournaments and advancing to the NCAA.
Enjoy it. It's tournament time
The Grizzly basketball team just could not have received much more recognition than the All-Conference selections announced this week.
The basketball marathon in title town starts Wednesday with a trio of women's Big Sky Conference tournament games.
Of course the men and the women, as number one seeds and regular season champions, have to wait until Thursday to see who they match up with Friday in the second of two semi-final games.
But back to the men's accolades.
Montana guard Will Cherry caps his regular season with an amazing third straight selection to the first team and additional selection, even with the games missed, as the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
And for the second straight year junior Kareem Jamar is accorded first-team laurels and is one of two unanimous selections and also was recognized as the league's top player - can you say MVP?
Jamar is one of four juniors on the first team and joins North Dakota's Troy Huff as unanimous selections.
League runner-up Weber State also placed a pair of players on the first team as senior Scott Bamforth made it for the second straight year and was joined by JC transfer Davion Berry, who also was recognized as the Newcomer of the Year.
Steady Eddy Montana senior Mathias Ward, who led the Grizzlies in scoring and stands some fifth in the circuit in that regard, also could well have made the first team but received second unit recognition, joining two Southern Utah players and athletes from North Dakota, Northern Colorado and Weber post Kyle Tresnak.
Ten players were accorded honorable mention status including Montana super soph Jordan Gregory, who was joined by Venky Jois of Eastern Washington, the league's top rebounder, who also was named the league's Freshman of the Year.
With senior forward Frank Otis also being accorded honorable mention honors, Montana and Weber State had eight of the 23 players so honored.
All 11 league teams were represented on the three elite lists which included just 10 seniors.
Nine of the league's schools were represented by players with remaining eligibility with Montana, Weber state, Northern Dakota and Northern Colorado leading the way with two each.
It is certainly hard in the midst of it all to put in perspective what Wayne Tinkle, his staff, and players have accomplished during this record-setting hoop season.
But suffice it to say, it's tournament time in title town and this is for sure a week to behold.
The Montana basketball radio shows are tonight on your local affiliate starting at 6 p.m.
And what a pleasant night it would be if the entire hour was spent with you calling in and asking all the questions and passing along your congratulations on this amazing season for both programs.
Toll free at 877-401-9151.
Yesterday afternoon came the great news that Kareem Jamar was named Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, just a few hours after receiving Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors.
And what a week "Reem" had in helping Montana to three straight wins to cap off a remarkable 19-1 conference season.
In victories over Montana State, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona, Kareem seldom saw the pine and scored 50 points, corralled 11 rebounds, dropped 13 dimes, and just for good measure blocked a shot and picked up a couple of thefts.
In 20 league games Jamar has played just short of an average of 35 of the games' 40 minutes while shooting 50 percent and averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds.
And with 411 points this year, he now sports 1,064 placing him just six points from the program's top 20.
And now with 227 dimes, it won't be long until he breaks onto the top 10 career list for assists and he's also pulled down close to 500 rebounds.
And with 20 blocks and 27 steals, well you get the picture right?
With the 10-game absence of Defensive Player of the Year Will Cherry and the loss of Mathias Ward after 24 games this season, Jamar's contribution has simply been invaluable in winning 19 of their last 21 games and posting thus far a 23-6 record.
But as the Grizzlies await their Friday opponent in the second of the tournament's two semi-final games, there's no looking in the rearview mirror but just ahead to grabbing the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Crown the once-beaten Montana Grizzlies undisputed Big Sky Conference regular season champions for the second consecutive season.
The season's best crowd of better than 6,000 rocked the Dahlberg Arena rafters when the Grizzlies, after an uninspired first half, pounded Northern Arizona to claim a 19th victory in the last 21 games and again bring the circuit tournament back to Missoula.
Wayne Tinkle becomes the first head coach in a fabled Montana basketball history to win back-to-back titles and host the tournament.
The Grizzlies last hosted back-to-back championships in 1990-91 and 1991-92 but under two different coaches, Stew Morrill and Blaine Taylor.
Boding well for Montana is in both of those seasons they ran the tournament table and moved on to the Big Dance.
Now the tournament's seventh seed at 8-12, the Lumberjacks will play Weber State (18-2) in the event opener Thursday afternoon.
After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half and down by eight at the intermission, the Grizzlies exploded out of the locker room much to the delight of a raucous crowd who with the Bobcat win already realized both tournaments were headed to the Garden City.
The defense mostly shut out post Max Jacobson, who had his way in the first half, and held the Lumberjacks to but six field goals and 18 points.
While Spencer Coleman didn't lead the team in scoring - those honors went to Will Cherry - he performed admirably at both ends with nine points, a near-career high eight rebounds, three blocks and a pair of assists against a single turnover.
That has been the Modus Operandi for this group which seems able to pick each other up and continuously finds a spark to lead to success.
Kareem Jamar and Mike Weisner joined Cherry in double figures as Montana scored 39 second-half points while connecting on more than half their field goal attempts.
While this four-year group now has won 91 games, the second season kicks off for Montana Friday night as they host the tournament's lowest remaining seed in the 8 p.m. nightcap.
While anything but a season of league parity, it's still difficult to predict who that might be but a rematch with the Bobcats could well be on the horizon.
But for now some time of much needed rest for a well-deserved league champion.
The long road to hosting the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament continues Thursday with the first of two home games to cap off the regular season.
It's the Hornets of Sacramento State first on the agenda on the closing week of league play to determine not just a league titlist but the host for the seven-team post season.
Now 13th ranked in the Mid Major poll and the winningest four-year team in history, the Grizzlies also sport a 24-game regular season winning streak against conference opponents and have defeated 27 straight league teams in Missoula..
And with 21 wins and four straight 20-win seasons intact and becoming the first league team ever to win 17 games, the records just keep piling up.
But that means little on Thursday as Montana tries to take one more step to hosting the league tournament for the second straight season, something that hasn't been accomplished since the early nineties.
But they face that task without leading scorer Mathias Ward who had surgery this week to put a pin in his foot and will be lost for the season.
The condition of Defensive Player of the Year Will Cherry has improved to such an extent that there is a chance he could return to limited action this week and approach full strength by the circuit tournament starting next week.
The win at Cedar City completes a road season that matches last year's phenomenal run with a single road loss as the Grizzlies also became the first league team to win nine road games.
Of course some of those records are influenced by the league expanding to 11 teams this season.
The Grizzlies initially faced Sacramento State way back in December on the opening weekend of league play slipping past the Hornets 61-60.
The Hornets crashed the boards hard in that one, outrebounding Montana by double digits, and hauled down 10 more off the offensive glass.
But hot shooting (58 percent) by the Griz in the second half preserved a half-time lead and eventually clinched the narrow victory.
All but eight of the Hornets games this year have been decided by single digits and a half dozen were one pointers.
After opening with wins at Utah and Central Arkansas, Sacramento State has lost nine straight road games and are in a four-way tie for the league's fifth spot.
Five league teams have 10 losses and one of them will fail to make the league tournament.
In his seven year tenure at the helm of the Grizzlies, Wayne Tinkle has had his way with the cross-state rival winning 10 of 14 matchups.
But make no mistake about the Cats, who are struggling to be a part of the seven-team league post-season tournament, they'll be huntin' Grizzly Saturday night in Bozeman.
Saturday matches teams that headed in different directions after the last time they met in Missoula in mid-January.
That first meeting certainly was a barn burner with the score being tied a half dozen times and an equal number of lead changes.
Marcus Colbert had a chance to close out Montana but missed a second free throw with 27 seconds to go in regulation that would have secured a four-point, two possession MSU lead.
Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar missed trey attempts but Montana claimed the offensive board and after Spencer Coleman's tap-out off Cherry's miss, and a Tinks time out, Mike Weisner drilled a trey with three seconds to go to send the game to an extra five minutes.
Montana never trailed in overtime, building as much as a seven-point advantage and eventually sealed the outcome with Jordan Gregory and Cherry's pair of free throws.
The Grizzlies remained unbeaten after eight and the Cats dropped to three and 4.
But while Montana has won seven of nine since then, the Cats have struggled, losing more games than they've won and stand perilously close to failing to qualify for the league's seven-team post season event.
But the Bobcats can score it and have a quartet of players, including Antonio Biglow off the bench, that average in double figures.
Montana got after the offensive boards the first time around and they did it mostly by keeping the ball alive with seven offensive team rebounds resulting in 12 second-chance points.
Montana made six of its nine three pointers in the first half to take just a one-point advantage to the locker room but their defense was less than adequate and in regulation MSU shot 51 percent from the field.
But the Grizzlies scored off transition four times and netted 17 off a dozen Cat turnovers.
Christian Moon hurt Montana the first time around and is shooting better than 50 percent while averaging 13.
Prepare for yet another knuckle buster.
A basketball season is replete with challenges and how a team deals with adversity provides a large indication on just how a season transpires.
The Grizzlies, as I'm sure you know by now, are just a game short of a fourth consecutive 20-win season.
But while that's all exceptional what is most concerning is facing Saturday night's game at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse without the team's two senior starters representing more than a third of the team's offensive output.
Post Mathias Ward and guard Will Cherry will make the bus trip to Bozeman but apparently won't be in uniform for the 287th matchup between the cross-state rivals.
And that probably means they'll also not be available for Monday's game at Southern Utah.
There are three games in six days next week to end the Big Sky Conference season and counting the Bobcat clash the Grizzlies will close with a quartet of games in eight days.
That's a tall order given any scenario but of course proving even more difficult with the expected loss of two-fifths of their starting lineup.
But don't expect to hear any whining from this group, which until injuries struck, boasted the best depth in the league.
Sophomore Jordan Gregory has started 14 games and played 36 minutes contributing 12 points and five rebounds against Davidson and Keron DeShields added nine in playing a bit more than half the game and also has started six games.
Spencer Coleman has blossomed in a starting role and is shooting 57 percent in league while averaging seven points and Mike Weisner is a make short of 50 percent from three-point range off the bench.
And of course Kareem Jamar, who just made the 1,000-point club with 28 points in the BracketBuster game, sometimes, like Will, is just undefendable.
Add to the mix Hutch (Eric Hutcison) and Andy (Martin) along with Kevin Henderson and I for one remain confident this team can run the proverbial table to a second consecutive Big Sky crown.
But the Bobcats are tough in Bozeman and only lost in overtime in Missoula after Weisner's try to it to an extra period.
Ward and Cherry contributed 23 points the first time around but the Cat's three-guard alignment will help Montana and remember Jamar was within three caroms on a triple-double in the first meeting.
It's getting to be crunch time
There is little doubt that teams with losing conference records will be included in the seven team Big Sky Conference Tournament.
The real question will be just how many sub-standard marks will be part of the field.
The season is winding to completion with just 21 games remaining.
Of course the number-one seed and post-season tournament host has yet to be determined with Montana and Weber State just a game apart and each with two homes games and a pair of road games remaining.
Ironically both teams have Northern Arizona and Sacramento State remaining on their agenda with the Wildcats meeting the duo on the road Thursday and Saturday of this week and the Grizzlies facing them next week at Dahlberg Arena.
Montana also is on the road this week and Monday for games in Bozeman and Cedar City, teams that have impressive home records.
The Bobcats (7-9) have won five of seven at Brick Breeden Field House while Southern Utah (8-8) , a half game out of third place, have lost just twice in eight outings at home.
Sacramento State also has been impressive at home in posting a 7 and 9 overall league mark. The Hornets also have lost just twice in eight outings while Northern Arizona (7-9) is just four and four in the Skydome.
While Idaho State literally is out of the field with four wins against a dozen losses, five-win Portland State could virtually climb the ladder with wins this week over visiting North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
The No Nicks with a tenth or 11th win with just one or two remaining would virtually clinch a spot.
The Bobcats, losers of five straight, face a rare road trip to Southern Utah Thursday before facing the Grizzlies Saturday while Montana returns the favor by heading out of Bozeman to go to Cedar City for a Monday game.
It's no surprise that although the Grizzlies remain ahead of Weber in the Mid-Major poll, with the win at Oral Roberts the Wildcats moved slightly past the Grizzlies in RPI by two spots.
That will only figure into the equation if the two teams tie for the league lead with the Grizzlies falling to MSU.
Home from a 5000-mile roundtrip journey south for BracketBusters, it's back to the league wars as the Big Sky Conference regular season winds to a close.
The culmination of the league season is less than two weeks away with plenty of uncertainty but everything on the table for the Grizzlies.
A win shy of the coveted 20-win mark for the fourth consecutive season, Montana faces the possibility of games Saturday against Montana State and Monday at Southern Utah with two-fifths of its starting lineup unavailable.
And it's not lost on me that injuries to Mathias Ward and Will Cherry, named this week a finalist for the Lou Henson Award for the sport's best mid-major player, also sideline the program's sole seniors at a pivotal time in what remains a promising season.
While the X-rays on Cherry's ankle injured against Davidson Saturday afternoon fortunately proved negative and Mathias Ward's arch injury is coming along, there sure remains the possibility that neither or one of the two will be available for the team's final two road games of the regular season.
And while the loss of their floor contribution is worrisome in itself, so also is their leadership since both players have been on the floor in more than 100 games in their four and five-year career.
At the end of regulation and through most of Saturday's overtime BracketBuster loss, the Grizzlies fielded a team with Kareem Jamar the sole upperclassmen joined by four sophomores.
And while that certainly bodes well for the future and they performed admirably given the circumstances, any team losing a pair of starters at this point in the season surly is a concern.
Add to the mix facing your cross-state rival on their floor, then leaving the following day for a rare Monday matchup in Utah and - well you get the idea.
But depth has been crucial for this Montana team's success all season and it easily could be argued after the arduous experience gained over some 25 games, there isn't any underclassman on the roster.
But let's not look past Saturday night.
With a 76-71 victory in Missoula, Tinks is 10 and 4 against the Cats whom admittedly at 7-9 are not yet by any means assured a playoff spot.
The Cats lead the series in Bozeman-We'll just see.
To say that Saturday's Griz BracketBuster opponent is on a roll - well that's just an understatement.
Jetting to Charlotte, North Carolina, the hotbed of college basketball, then a short jaunt up the road to Davidson.
Picked to finish first in the South Division of the Southern League, the Wildcats have been anything but disappointing and it is anything but unusual for the program headed by Bob McKillop for the last 24 seasons.
He's the SoCon's winningest coach (445-278) and in each of six of the last 10 seasons, the Wildcats have won 20 games or more.
But it's not just hoop at Davidson.
All 78 of the seniors that McKillop has coached have graduated and since 2003 all his teams have perfect APR scores of 1,000 which simply is remarkable.
And it's a family affair.
All three of his children attended the school and his son, Matt, who played there, has been an assistant since 2008. Son Brendan played four years for his Dad while one daughter helps with summer camp.
And Davidson certainly doesn't shy away from competition. Montana will be the fifth team that participated in last year's NCAA Tournament that the Wildcats play this season.
Last year's non conference schedule was ranked as the nation's fifth toughest.
During their 10-game winning streak they've outscored opponents by nearly 19 a game and drubbed some league competition by scores of 70-38 (The Citadel), and 87-52 (Appalachian State).
More than anything the Wildcats are well rounded.
While 6-foot 10 Jake Cohen plays effectively inside, he also goes to the perimeter and is connecting on better than 40 percent from three-range.
DeMon Brooks and Nik Cochran also are in doubles but Swede Chris Czerapowicz, JP Kuhlman, Tyler Lakinoski and Clint Mann all contribute more than seven a game.
The Wildcats take 38 percent of their shots from outside the arc and connect on 37 percent, totaling 31 percent of their offense from long range.
They score an average of 73 yet allow just 63, but in league play they're a bit better than that and allow just 58 an outing.
And while the Big Sky Conference will furnish the referees for the game, you can't let Davidson get to the stripe where they lead the nation making 17 a game and a robust 81 percent.
Pre-game at 12:30 from North Carolina on Saturday
The road never is an easy proposition but early flights in a crackerjack box aircraft for a hop across the country for a game that doesn't count in the overall league scheme of things - Well you know the deal.
The final round of the BracketBuster format is on for Saturday.
And with the Grizzlies dominating the Big Sky Conference and in the midst of a long winning streak, the nation's second-longest at the time of the selection process, and on the rotation to be a BracketBuster road team, Montana was sent packing a couple of time zones away for a prime-time matchup with one of the Mid-Major's top teams.
Riding an 11-game winning streak, Davidson already has clinched the Southern Conference Division title for the ninth time in the last dozen years.
With losses in three of their first seven games, the Wildcats now have won 16 of their last 20 games.
At the Old Spice Classic in December they defeated Vanderbilt and West Virginia before falling to then 17-ranked Gonzaga and lost two of four in January, first to Duke then at Furman.
During the current win streak they simply have dominated opponents.
Davidson is outscoring opponents by 18 per game, making almost half their field goal attempts and continue to be the top free throw shooting team in the country at some 83 percent.
Canadian guard Nick Cochran has missed five of 100 attempts to also pace the nation from the charity stripe. Dating to last season, the British Columbia product is 111 of 117 from the stripe.
Returning five starters, the Wildcats now have four players on the floor who have scored more than 1,000 points.
The late season surge is nothing unusual for the North Carolina program.
Since 2003-04 they've played their best hoop in the season's dog days losing just 12 times in 74 games in February.
And they seldom lose at Belk Arena.
In 10 years they've lost 18 times at home, including just six times in the last three seasons.
Forward DeMon Brooks , the league's player of the year and an honorable mention All-American a year ago is averaging 13 plus and 6-10 Jake Cohen is pacing the Wildcats at better than 14 an outing.
But in conference games, Davidson has seven players contributing more than seven a game.
Quite a challenge for Montana.
The loss at Weber State affected little Montana's RPI or the team's rating in the Mid major poll.
The Grizzlies dropped just a single spot in the national poll and stand as the Nation's 13th team down just one position from a week ago.
Montana's Saturday BracketBuster opponent, 19-win Davidson, is ranked 11th and in the midst of a 10 game winning streak.
BYU, which defeated the 19-win Grizzlies, is 14th while with the defeat of Montana, Weber State climbed back into the poll at No 22.
South Dakota State, with 21 wins and an overtime victor over the Grizzlies, stands 17th on the list which is dominated unanimously by Gonzaga which stands third in the Major Poll.
With an overtime win over third-place North Dakota, Northern Arizona climbed into a fourth place tie in the Big Sky with Sacramento State, Montana State, and Northern Colorado, all at 7 and 9.
It's been all about the also-rans beating up on each other that has muddled the approaching post season.
Sacramento State and Southern Utah were the weekend's losers.
The Hornets dropped games to both North Dakota and Northern Colorado and fell from .500 and a possible third-spot berth into the quagmire of teams battling even to get in.
And the thunderbirds fell to .500 with losses in Portland and Cheney.
Meanwhile, Northern Colorado got well with home wins over NAU and Sacramento State to crawl from also-ran into the possible playoff mix at 7 and 9.
Portland State, an upset 31-point home winner over third-place Southern Utah and Idaho State appear out of the tournament mix although if they won out with four left stand an outside chance of qualifying.
On Monday the Vikings kept Eastern from moving into a fifth place tie by beating the Eagles for their fifth win against 11 defeats.
Northern Colorado, a game back of third, entertains North Dakota, one of a pair of third place teams, on Wednesday before the entire league participates in the last round of BracketBuster games.
The league really comes down to being able to win road games.
Only Montana and Weber have winning road records between them winning 13 times against a trio of losses.
The remainder of the nine teams has won just 15 of 71 outings.
With a chance to catch their breath, the back-on-the-winning track Grizzlies take a respite from Big Sky Conference play but face the daunting task of traveling across the country to face BracketBuster foe Davidson.
It's the first time the Wildcats are on the Montana agenda.
The game comes really at an inopportune time with a quartet of games left in the league season to determine the host spot for the tournament as after seeing their record-setting league winning streak stopped at the hands of Weber State, the Grizzlies sport just a one game lead over those other Wildcats.
And Montana faces the daunting task of hitting the road for another two games against first Montana State, then Southern Utah before returning to the friendly confines where they still sport a 24-game league winning streak,
That also sets a new circuit mark breaking the standard established by Idaho from 1980-83.
Both the Bobcats and Southern Utah are fighting for playoff seeding with the Thunderbirds virtually assured of a post-season spot while after being swept last week with nine losses MSU has to take care of some business to assure a playoff position.
The home opponents awaiting Montana, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State, also appear to be playoff teams battling for seeding in the new seven-team format.
Remember every team except the league champion plays the first night with winners advancing and it really appears teams with losing league records may qualify for the league post season.
Weber State also faces a long trip traveling to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet Oral Roberts and both Montana and Weber could benefit greatly in the RPI and the post-season thoughts of the selection committee if they won the league tournament and were looking for seeding help.
You'll remember it could be argued that Montana's win in BracketBuster over Oral Roberts in 2005 boasted their notoriety and resulted in a 12-seed.
The Grizzlies then upended Nevada to move into the second round where they lost to Boston College.
And with their next victory Montana also will move into hallowed ground as Wayne Tinkle will become just the second Griz coach to claim four straight 20-win seasons matching Mike Montgomery from 1982-86.
But first up the 2,500 mile trip to North Carolina for Saturday afternoon's 1 p.m. tipoff.
There are always a couple of games that are circled on the calendar before a season begins.
There's the cross-state matchups and maybe an alleged rival here and there but the game Thursday in Ogden always shaped up to be of prime importance no matter how the season transpired leading up to the matchup between the Big Sky Conference men's basketball super-powers.
High flying, league leading and 12th ranked Montana travels to Dee Events Center where they have not defeated Weber State in a regular season game since 2004.
But that night was a memorable occasion for now seventh year head coach Wayne Tinkle since then head guy Pat Kennedy was suspended by the league for the game and young assistant Tinkle handed the reins of a Griz team was on a 7 game losing streak.
And while he didn't get credit for the game, the 58-55 winning decision over the Wildcats which started Montana on a five-game league winning streak certainly was a sign of things to come.
Now win or lose of course for Montana this is not a game to determine league superiority since the Grizzlies have a two-game lead in the conference race but a Montana win would virtually assure the title and host spot with four games to play.
The two teams are very close in RPI, which is used in the tie breaker formula if head-to-head and record against teams in descending order is even, and because Montana is 12th ranked a Wildcat win would be quite beneficial to their situation.
In the midst of four games in eight days, after Thursday Weber has three of their last six at home,
It shapes up as a battle between not just of the best records in the league but the top teams in a lot of categories.
They are one-two in scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin and field goal percentage while Weber defends field goals a bit better.
The Wildcats are a torrid three point team with loads of weapons and the two rivals are one-two in three-point defense.
In order to prevail Montana has to get Weber's big bodies off the glass, get to the three-point shooters and somehow limit transition.
But conversely the Wildcats, because of the Montana balance, are trying to figure out who to key on.
I have a hunch this won't be the last time these two teams see each other and because of their home records that puts even more importance on Thursday night.
Tipoff at 7:05 p.m. with the pre-game show at 6:30 p.m.
There won't be any home cooking in the latter part of the next three weeks as the Grizzlies face the challenge of continuing a record winning streak, establishing yet another and virtually clinching the regular season league crown with the bus trip this week to Utah and Southern Idaho.
It's been over a year (Jan. 14, 2012) since Weber State claimed a decisive league victory over Montana, the only loss the Grizzlies would sustain through last year and to this point in 2013.
But it is a tall order at Dee Events Center where the Grizzlies haven't won a regular season game since 2004 but claimed the tournament championship there over the Wildcats in 2010.
With a pair of road victories, Montana also would tie the league road mark for consecutive wins with 13 set ironically by Weber from 1967-70.
This is the 12th straight trip to the league post season for the Grizzlies who at 18-4 also stand on the cusp of a fourth straight 20-win season.
By beating Idaho State Monday night, Weber State clinched a seventh straight tournament appearance and won a 14th consecutive regular season t game.
And league home teams have been in command winning 55 of 77 games thus far.
But the now 12th ranked Grizzlies have ended the Wildcat's national post season hopes the last three seasons in the league tournament.
The Wildcats are another of those three-point phenom teams.
At 42.5 they stand second in the nation in proficiency and third in field goal defense allowing less than 27 percent.
They make seven a game against Montana's 7.2 per outing.
The Wildcats outshoot Montana by three percentage points from the field about the same differential in three point percentage.
With a pair of wins last week Weber moved up seven spots in RPI to 136 while the Grizzlies two wins just left them stagnant at 118th.
There remain eight Division 1 teams with unbeaten marks but no team has as many victories as Montana (14) which stands tied with Memphis and trailing only Akron in consecutive wins.
With his next steal Will Cherry will move into a tie for second on the league's all-time theft list with Nevada's Kevin Soares at 255. With a minimum of seven games to go that is well back of the league record held by Sacramento State's DeShawn Freeman at 283.
One more step to back-to-back titles and the host spot for the 2013 Big Sky Conference Tournament, Montana is on the verge of the first of three straight road trips before the league finale in Missoula in early March.
It was an amazing weekend with two wins in Missoula over Northern Colorado and North Dakota and the Adams center had the feeling of days of old as close to 10,000 fans were on hand for games of record-setting proportion.
The Grizzlies tied records Thursday then engraved their name by breaking a pair of long-standing league records by a dominating performance over the "No Nicks."
If 27 straight home victories over league opponents isn't impressive enough since no team had ever done that, now with 25 straight in the regular season and 24 straight at home and at 14-0 Montana certainly already has made this a season to remember.
But there's plenty left on the table starting with Thursday night in Ogden when the Grizzlies look to win their 12th straight conference game and none more important than the Wildcats, the last team to beat Montana on the road in January last season.
The Griz also sport the nation's second longest win streak trailing only Akron by one game and matching Memphis.
And while several teams are unbeaten and stand atop their conference, Montana has more wins at the top of a circuit than any team in the country.
The fact that the Grizzlies have ended Weber's season in the last three post-season tournaments, twice eliminating any chance the Wildcats had to make it to the Big Dance adds even more intrigue to Thursday's matchup.
The Wildcats are dominating the league's offense as the top scoring (76.6) and shooting (51 percent) unit while Montana holds league opponents to 62.8 points and paces the league in both free throw percentage (.775) and assist-to-turnover margin (1.3).
A look at the stats from the entire season shows Weber State leading in seven categories while Montana paces in just free throws and assist to turnover ratio.
The telling and possibly most concerning statistic is rebounding where Weber State outrebounds league opponents by almost six a game.
The Wildcats lead the league averaging better than 6,100 fans and drew nearly 8,700 for the BYU game.
I hope the evening lives up to hype that is bound to fill the week.
I'd be the last one to place more importance in one game before another and seldom have been in win-or-else position until the post season but let's face it, Thursday's game in Missoula has its own share of importance.
That other Big Sky Conference Bear, you know the one from Northern Colorado, ventures to Dahlberg Arena tonight.
And with a victory over UNC to complete the season sweep, Montana not only equals a few records but sets the stage for establishing all-time league marks and equaling last year's amazing win streak.
With a dozen straight victories the Grizzlies trail only Akron by one in win streak and with 23 straight conference wins the Grizzlies are one away from tying the league mark established by Weber State almost four decades ago.
A victory over the Bears and the Grizzlies move a game from equaling the 14-game school-record winning streak they set during last year's amazing championship season.
But of course even more important is a given - a victory Thursday makes the Grizzlies the first team to clinch a spot in the league tournament amazingly with seven games to play.
But there's no room for error in the remainder of this league race and there certainly will be no looking past NorthernColorado on this night even though the Griz claimed an eight-point victory in Greeley.
The Bears feature a rebounding machine in Derrick Barden who leads the circuit in league games at better than 10 caroms an outing while averaging almost 13 ponts an outing.
He scored 21 points and added 15 rebounds the first time around and mark my words the junior from Detroit is a beast on the offensive glass.
Sophomore Tevin Svihovek had 19 in the last meeting between the two teams while Tate Unruh shoots better than 50 percent from outside the arc in conference games and is averaging almost 14 points.
But the difference this time around will be junior Paul Garnica who is 24 of 42 from three-point-range in conference games and is a deadly 90 percent from the charity stripe.
He was not a factor in Greeley but is now playing his best.
They lead the league in made treys and shoot 45 from outside the arc while the Griz are stingy in that regard.
A battle of wills and I'll take Montana's Will in this one.
The Grizzlies continue to receive accolades as they reach double figures in league wins for the fifth straight season under Wayne Tinkle.
Montana now stands 14th in the latest Mid Major poll as while 10-2 Weber State continues to excel with a pair of double-digit wins but fell out of the top 25.
Now with 10 wins the Wildcats mark the first time in Big Sky Conference history a team has reached double-figure wins in seven straight seasons.
The now 12-0 Grizzlies jumped past South Dakota State, one of four teams to beat Montana this season while BYU, another team to get past the Grizzlies in the non-conference schedule jumped to No. 8 while Montana BracketBuster opponent Davidson stands No. 19.
Montana continues to pace the circuit in RPI moving up a few spots to 118, some 18 spots ahead of Weber State but Montana's strength of schedule lags behind six other league teams led by Northern Arizona.
The Big Sky Conference continues to languish on the list of 33 D-1 leagues standing 28 out of 33 including Independents.
They stand only ahead of the Mid-Eastern, Big South, SWAC, and the Great West.
And while a Griz win over Davidson in a BracketBuster matchup could have an impact on post-season seeding, it is interesting to note that the Southern League in which the Wildcats compete is ranked just ahead of the Big Sky in RPI.
There are plenty of streaks the Grizzlies stand to impact with home wins against Northern Colorado and North Dakota.
The Grizzlies, one of 13 D-1 schools without a conference loss, not only can break the league mark for consecutive circuit wins but they also are just a game short of tying the regular season home win record set by Idaho from 1980-83.
And with a win Thursday night Montana would become the first league team to clinch a spot in the post-season tournament.
Are you going to be part of Grizzly history?
If coming off six conference road wins is not enough, Montana's 12 consecutive wins now matches the longest winning streak in Division One and sets up what could be a record setting scenario in Missoula.
While this season's winning streak at the start of conference play establishes a team mark, the 14 consecutive wins Montana captured in last year's title run set the school standard.
But now with 23 straight regular season conference victories the Grizzlies entertain first Northern Colorado on Thursday then North Dakota Saturday with the chance to set the all-time Big Sky Conference regular season consecutive win mark and tie last year's school record for straight wins.
But all that is to cherish at another time as this Montana team still with a two-game lead in the conference race is far more focused on the task at hand, winning the regular season in order to host a second straight league tournament.
And while Montana has not lost to a conference opponent in Dahlberg Arena since 2010, this team fully realizes there are no givens, only uncertainties, and each opponent represents their own challenge as they attempt to be the team to upend the league leader.
Nothing brought that more to light than Saturday night in Cheney when Eastern Washington, without arguably their best player and league leading rebounder Venky Jois who was injured, burst out of the gate hitting three straight three pointers and led by nine points five minutes in.
After reducing the Eagle lead to five, the Grizzlies ran off 19 straight points and held a 12-point halftime lead and never were further challenged.
Ironically after the first burst of treys, Eastern Washington netted just once more and while they closed to eight points once in the second stanza the outcome was in little doubt as the Grizzlies ran their mark against league opponents to 29-1 since last season.
Senior guard Will Cherry's performance was unparalleled and at times he was simply not defendable.
Not only did he tie with Mathias Ward for scoring honors with 13 but he dropped seven dimes against no turnovers and grabbed six rebounds.
And again a spectacular job at the charity stripe hitting nine of 11 and the Griz have missed just nine of their last 67 attempts.
With the majority of the remaining Big Sky Conference schedule on the road where few teams other than Montana and Weber State have been successful the Grizzlies have their work cut out for them.
But with a two-game lead at the halfway mark Montana has put itself in prime position for a week-by-week, game-by-game run for the roses to another championship.
The Grizzlies Wednesday wing their way to the Rose City of Portland for a rematch against a Portland State squad that after Monday's 11-point decision in Cheney has lost four straight.
But while the Vikings are winless on the road in 10 games including six straight league games, PSU plays quite differently on its home floor where they won all but one of four outings.
But already with seven league losses, yet now mired in the league basement with three other teams, the Vikings have to put together a bit of a second-half run to push themselves into the top seven for the league tournament.
And with three games in six days this week, two left with Montana and Montana State, for the Viks at least the time is now.
The score of the first meeting between these two teams certainly is deceiving as the Grizzlies led by 17 four minutes into the second half and led mostly by double digits late into the game before PSU made a game-closing run to cut the deficit to seven at the final outcome 62-55.
The Vikings led only once early on but the Grizzly defense cinched down just enough to pull out a 20th victory in 25 games in Missoula .
And while Montana did not shoot effectively in the second half and PSU actually made six more field goals and connected on better than 54 percent of their shots, the triumphant trio of Grizzly scorers - Mathias Ward, Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry - put this one to rest for a fourth straight league victory.
Although turning the ball over an uncharacteristic five times, Cherry dished off seven dimes, connected on nine of 11 throws and led the offense with 16 points.
This time around stopping Aaron Moore will be paramount as last game the JC transfer registered a double-double - 14 points and 11 rebounds - after scoring 17 two nights earlier against the Bobcats.
Game time Thursday night is 8:30 Mountain.
In the final poll of Mid-Major teams last season the Grizzlies at 25-6 were ranked 16th.
And after back-to-back home wins last week voters pushed the Grizzlies from 23rd to No. 16.
Probably in because of a two-point nail bitter victory over 22nd ranked Weber State, the 14-4 Grizzlies leap-frogged six teams including South Dakota State.
Weber State fell out of the listings but received 29 votes to stand 28th, a spot behind Stew Morrill's Utah State squad which dropped a pair of games last week.
BYU is one of a trio of WCC teams in the top eight headed by twice-beaten Gonzaga with Saint Mary's standing in the fifth spot.
Montana moved into the top RPI spot in the Big Sky Conference at 125 followed by Weber State some 20 spots back. The league remained 29th of 32 circuits and the Independents.
The 10-game winning streak Montana sports is the third longest skein in the country. They share the spot with Louisiana Tech and Memphis trailing only Kansas (17) and Akron (11) in consecutive victories.
Playing at home has recently boded well for Big Sky Conference teams with 10 of 11 home teams holding serve last week and home teams claiming 19 of the last 21 games.
For the league season home teams have been victorious in 38 of 54 games with just Weber State and Montana unscathed on their home floor and they also are the only teams with winning conference road records.
Both teams will be challenged by road rigors this week with Montana headed to Portland State and Eastern Washington and the Wildcats traveling to North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
The Grizzlies finish the league season with six of the next 10 on the road while the Wildcats have six of the last 10 inside Dee Events Center in Ogden.
Both Weber and Montana sported 7-1 road records last season with each team defeating the other on their home floor.
Montana State has turned the tables, winning three straight at home since losing in Missoula to Montana.
The Bobcats now stand 9-9 with six conference wins in 10 outings to stand four games back of league-leading Montana but just two behind Weber, and with the tiebreaker and a one-game lead in the third spot.
Here comes the league's second half.
The battle for the Big Sky Conference lead at the circuit's halfway mark lived up to its billing with the outcome not finalized until a last-second desperation on-line shot fell just short leaving the Grizzlies with a two-game lead with 10 to go.
That in the aftermath of a back-and-forth, knuckle-buster much to the delight of some 5,800 faithful at Dahlberg Arena.
Weber State jumped Montana at the forefront but much like previous outings this season, the Grizzlies came lumbering back from an 11-point deficit on a 21-7 run to hold a one-point advantage at the intermission.
Neither team missed a field goal attempt hitting their first 11 attempts out of the locker room and the Wildcats, the top percentage team in the league, shot effectively throughout by connecting on some 59 percent in the second stanza.
But Montana kept making Weber pay on turnovers and out-rebounded the top carom team in the circuit but an errant full- court press-breaking pass went awry leaving the Wildcats with a last-ditch half-courter in a two-point game with 3.4 seconds to go.
Davion Berry had a decent look but to no avail and the Grizzlies secured a 21st consecutive regular-season victory, 23 if you count last year's league tournament in Missoula.
Mid-Major All American Will Cherry was simply remarkable, hitting 15 of 16 at the charity stripe and totaling a season-high 28 points as well as picking off a quartet of steals and dishing out three dimes.
Cherry is just an assist behind Doug Selvig for eighth on the career list and his quartet of steals left the senior just four back of third in league annals.
After just connecting on 44 of 69 free throws in wins over Southern Utah and Montana State to drop four percentage points off their league-leading total, Montana missed but six of 52 opportunities in the last two outings.
As remarkable as it is to secure a two-game lead is the balance this Griz team portrays.
Mathias Ward and Kareem Jamar added 11 points in the victory with Spencer Coleman continuing his excellent play of late with ten tallies.
Both teams hit the road next week with Montana having the easier trip to Portland State and Eastern Washington, while Weber State heads to arctic North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
Opponents quite familiar with each other, but this year with a bit of an added edge, meet Thursday in Missoula.
Montana looks to continue an impressive win streak and set up a remarkable matchup for the Big Sky Conference lead Saturday night.
Idaho State and the Grizzlies are a perennial opponent having faced off some 138 times while Saturday night in Bozeman that game pits opponents who will face off in a 182nd matchup.
And while Montana overwhelmingly leads the series 94-44 and have captured five straight there certainly are additional ramifications to Thursday's game.
Bengal head coach Bill Evans brings his team to Missoula for the first time after four seasons as the defensive guru and a steadying force at Montana.
The only bigger game - of there is such a thing except the next one - for Evans was earlier this month when after losing six of seven games and standing winless on the road he returned to defeat Southern Utah, where after 15 years he was released though still is the all-time winning coach.
It is a do or die scenario for the Bengals at 3-5 if they are to put together a run to the conference tournament.
That's because they play five of their next seven on the road where they have not fared well.
ISU has won three of its last five and including last Saturday had played four games in seven days.
Their defense is their forte with a 1-1-3 zone look holding league opponents to just 61 points a game.
But they score just north of 58 themselves, the league's lowest offensive output.
Keep an eye on JC transfer Tomas Sanchez, a good sized guard (6 foot 3), who is coming into his own and has established career highs in two of his last three outings.
He netted 18 in the one-point Southern Utah win then netted 22 in the one-pointer over Sacramento State.
He's hitting better than half of his field goal attempts in conference play and in the last five games is 12 of 26 from deep, is shooting 53 percent, is averaging close to 16 points and has dropped 19 dimes against 10 turnovers.
Even winners of just three of eight the Bengals are just a game out of the league's second spot.
There isn't anyone in that locker room who has said a word or had a passing thought about what lies ahead Saturday.
Nor do they think about a 19-game league winning streak against league opponents or a 23rd Mid Major poll ranking.
Thursday is all about those guys in the black and orange and adding a notch in the proverbial season belt.
It is another week just like last week when Thursday's opponent come into Missoula with nothing to lose and a lackluster record and Saturday's game looms large in the league standings.
It would be somewhat easy of fans to say the Bengals aren't up to the task of beating Montana in Missoula and attention deserves to be focused on co-front runner Weber State.
The Wildcats will be full of revenge on their mind after losing two straight for all the marbles in Missoula last year and sitting on a collision course for the league lead at 8 and 0.
But you can bet they're also thinking about nothing other than Montana State in Bozeman Thursday night and you can bet the Grizzlies are looking only a day forward at the Bengals
Former Griz assistant Bill Evans has the Bengals playing well and while they have been miserable on the road, Idaho State is just a game back in the loss column of third place. And with ISU it should surprise you little that it is all about defense as in Big Sky Conference play the Bengals allow just 61.4 per game.
But unfortunately for them they are the lowest scoring team in the circuit at just south of 58 as they have made less field goals than other circuit teams except Southern Utah.
And one shouldn't expect the Bengals to get back into a game via the trey.
The Bengals are shooting a league worst 29 percent and also making less treys than any other team.
They shoot Ok at a bit more than 40 percent but their rebounding numbers trail the entire league and with offensive boards they are by far the worst team grabbing just about 22 percent of their opportunities.
But there is quite a positive for the Bengals.
Not only are they one of the better teams at taking the ball away, they seldom commit a turnover of their (9.5) own and Idaho State leads in fewest turnovers and turnover margin (+3.8).
After dropping 11 of its first 12 the Bengals have won three of five with home losses to Weber State and Northern Arizona.
But they've won just a single road game (Southern Utah), breaking a lengthy conference road losing streak.
Don't take'em for granted.
While I was not among them I'm sure there were those who thought free throw shooting proficiency Saturday night might end the dominant rein of the Grizzlies over Big Sky Conference opponents.
After all a team that had enjoyed a record pace through 14 games had suddenly grown sullen at the stripe and after a pair of missed throws with five minutes to play against their upset-minded cross-state rival trailed by five and had only led once since the intermission.
But league dominance continued and an overtime victory sent the Grizzlies on a collision course for the circuit's top spot next Saturday with Idaho State waiting in the wings Thursday in Missoula.
Yes the Grizzlies moved to 8 and 0 matching Weber State for the top spot but what a night it was before the largest crowd of the season, some 6,000 and change, who certainly got their money's worth with five extra minutes of action.
But it took a 13-8 run from the five-minute mark and even more importantly a 7-3 lunge in regulation's last two minutes culminated by another shot heard to the heights as the Grizzlies forced an additional five minutes in order to forge an eighth straight league victory, the team's tenth over the Cats in the last 14 matchups.
But how unlikely was sophomore Mike Weisner's miracle trey just a slight angle left on the west side of the court of another underclassman Kevin Henderson's game ender for victory over San Diego earlier in the season.
Kareem Jamar's two throws had brought Montana within a bucket with less than a minute and a missed free throw by Montana State left light at the end of the tunnel as it remained a one-possession three point game.
But after a Montana time out with 27 seconds to play the Grizzlies missed two scoring opportunities but they corralled a loose ball for one additional opportunity, then Spencer Coleman kept a ball alive on a second Griz miss bringing a Griz time out with three seconds and change remaining.
Weisner, who leads the league in three-point proficiency, popped open on a designed play and drained the Trifecta snatching away the upset bid and setting up the extra period dominated by the "good guys."
It was a classic!
Lost in the translation so to speak of Montana's
exhilarating overtime victory over Montana State was Will Cherry's ascension
onto the list of top 10 career scorers but then the senior Mid Major All
American guard did it one better.
Cherry not only jumped onto the list of the school's
elite in scoring surpassing the legendary Derrick Pope, he also took an
additional step and blew by Shawn Samuelson into the ninth spot with 1,298
And he would have done so far earlier had he not missed
the team's first seven games with a broken foot and played just 13 minutes in
his return in the South Dakota State loss in mid-December.
Since his return Cherry has been in doubles in all but a
single game - when he scored eight against Eastern Washington - and netted a season
high at Northern Colorado with 21 points.
Easily with some 15 games remaining he will move into the
seventh spot but will have to go a way to close out his head coach Wayne Tinkle
who scored 1,500 points from 1985-89.
With a single steal against the Cats, Cherry now is a
half dozen thefts back of NAU's Tom DeBerry for third on the all-time Big Sky
list while he now occupies ninth on the UM assist ladder, just eight back of
And now with 887 points Kareem Jamar, who last season
became one of the highest scoring sophomores in UM history, should move at
least into the Top 20 in scoring.
With a fifth straight win over the Bobcats, last season's
District 6 Coach of the Year Wayne Tinkle became Montana's all-time winner in
conference games with 74, surpassing Mike Montgomery who notched 73 victories
in eight years from 1978-86.
His 128 total victories in seven years is closing in on
Monty's seven year mark of 134 and he has an outside chance to equal Blaine
Taylor's seven year team-record of 140 wins.
Even more impressive is Tinks' record since 2009.
The Grizzlies are 56-16 during that span in league play
and sport a 97-44 overall record which includes three consecutive 20-win
And the Grizzlies are not by any means a finished product
and have their best hoop still ahead of them.
It's game day of Cat week but there's a Thunderbird
awaiting to upset the Grizzly applecart in Missoula.
The Grizzlies are high flying and stand on the precipice
of the Big Sky Conference and look to continue that impressive win streak
against conference opponents.
The total has reached 21 at home and 17 straight overall
and that doesn't count the two victories in last season's Big Sky Tournament.
And while it's yet a ways from the league record, Montana
is in the midst of quite a run.
Since the start of the 2008-09 season, the Grizzlies
stand 54-16 in league games and 95-44 overall and at 10-4 are halfway toward a
fourth straight 20-win season.
And Thursday's game against Southern Utah could be even
more noteworthy since with a win and a 73rd circuit victory Wayne Tinkle will
tie former Griz and current California head coach Mike Montgomery for the
career lead in Big Sky Conference wins.
Monty posted a 73-29 record in eight years while Tinks
stands 72-30 in the midst of his seventh league season just surpassing Blaine
Taylor last week.
But new league entrant Southern Utah stands in the wings
to take the luster off the run.
The Thunderbirds became the first new league team to open
with three straight wins since Boise State in 1970-71 but since defeating three
teams with north in their name - North Dakota, Northern Arizona and Northern
Colorado - they've fallen on hard times dropping three straight to fall into a
four-way tie for third place behind Montana and Weber State.
And it's some road trip for the team from Cedar City.
They arrived Wednesday for Thursday's game in Missoula
but don't play Montana State until next Monday since the Cats are here
So it's one of those six days on the road kind of venues.
The Thunderbirds are stingy on defense, allowing just 37
percent in league and even a leaner 29 percent from three and hit the boards
especially on the defensive end with abandon with a host of players snaring
Jackson Stevenett leads the league in scoring at 19 while
6 foot 11 bruiser Jason Chessman (250 lbs) paces the circuit in blocks while
grabbing more rebounds than any Grizzly (5.9).
For Montana, it's the first game of a four-game home
stand with the usual tip going at 7:05 p.m.
One shouldn't be fooled by Southern Utah's overall record
(5-10) as it appears while they lack a bit of depth they start an
all-upper-class lineup sporting good size and with a true center in Cheesman
and will be looking to send a message to the league that as a new member they
While the Grizzlies are winners of seven of eight with
the sole loss the double overtime spoiler to South Dakota State there certainly
are no givens to keep pace with Weber State which will be in Missoula next
It promises to be an exciting couple of weeks.
It certainly should not be, but Thursday's Big Sky Conference game at Dahlberg Arena has slip-up or look-past written all over it.
It's Cat week in Missoula but for the first time in several years there is a game preceding the annual cross-state encounter against Montana State.
New league member Southern Utah visits the Garden City as the first of a pair of new circuit entities and thus far the Thunderbirds have been a surprising lot.
Picked to finish tenth by both Media and Coaches in the pre-season poll, while not having a sterling overall record (5-10) Southern Utah (3-3) currently is in a four-way tie in the all-important loss column for third place back of the unbeaten league leaders Montana and Weber State.
But the Thunderbirds have lost three straight to Weber State, Sacramento State and a one-point squeaker at Idaho State since league wins over Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and North Dakota.
It is a critical road trip for a Southern Utah team, just winners of one of eight road games, if they are to prove they're a legitimate threat to make the seven-team tournament field.
That is especially true since the Thunderbirds are just a game or two ahead of a pair of teams, NAU and UNC, they defeated in Cedar City.
They return just a pair of starters coming off a sixth place finish last year in the Summit League.
The series between the two teams is tied at four each.
The Thunderbirds are led by the league's top scorer, Jackson Stevenett, who drops in 19 a game while pulling down better than seven rebounds and dishing off almost three assists an outing.
He went double-double with 21 and 10 in the North Dakota win and 24 and 12 against Sacramento State.
When Southern Utah fails to shoot better than 45 percent they have won but one of eight games and their field goal percentage in league play has been spotty at best - just some 39 percent even though they are extremely stingy defensively with opponents connecting on just 37 percent and some 65 points a game.
With the hype of the Bobcat game retro-style on Saturday, this contest would be easy for a team to look past and trip over.
More on the matchups on Thursday.
A pair of road wins with tough travel conditions boosted Montana into the Top 25 in the Mid Major poll released this week.
The Grizzlies happily return to the friendly confines of Dahlberg Arena after two wins in two and a half days in the reaches of North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
And now with a six-game winning streak Montana snuck into the Mid Major poll by just a couple of votes.
Weber State also made the elite list which is headed by once-beaten Creighton, followed by also once-defeated Gonzaga.
The Wildcats polled a bit higher and stand a spot ahead of the Grizzlies which now sport a 19-game winning streak against Big Sky Conference opponents and claim 21 straight home wins over the circuit.
A pair of teams the Grizzlies lost to also occupy the top 25 with 14-4 BYU of the WCC standing strongly in sixth joined by South Dakota State (13-6), just upset by South Dakota, standing in 19th.
Stew Morrill's excellent Utah State squad also has lost just a single game in 15 outings and ranks fourth behind Bucknell (14-3).
A strong Saint Mary's team (13-4), tabbed along with BYU to challenge Gonzaga for WCC supremacy is seventh while North Dakota State (5-3) rounds out the top 10 which also shows Wichita State in fifth, Belmont in 8th and Lehigh as the ninth best team.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara is highly touted in 27th with Long Beach State also receiving some votes.
Of course Gonzaga stands eighth in the AP and USA Today Coaches' Poll where Creighton is ranked 12th in the AP and 10th in the Coaches' listing.
So just because I know you are wondering what exactly is the Mid Major Poll, well I guess it's not much different than the FCS weekly poll.
Division One teams that play in 24 leagues like conferences like the Big West, WCC, WAC, Great West and Big Sky are included.
Not to be overlooked, but a Grizzly win over Southern Utah Thursday night would tie Wayne Tinkle with Mike Montgomery for the most league wins in UM history.
Fittingly that would leave the Bobcat game on Saturday as the potential record breaker.
One thing's for sure: just getting to the first game of the week for the Grizzlies isn't exactly easy.
While I certainly realize this hardy group of University of Montana student athletes and coaches are decades younger than this scribe, league travel in the Big Sky Conference through eight states isn't a piece of cake.
When people say well you can't get there from here - Well you get the idea.
The first of two games this week finds the Grizzlies returning to Grand Forks but unlike last season when they lost in overtime here, Thursday night's contest is a league affair.
And already with a pair of road victories paired with holding court at home in two games last week, the unbeaten in league Grizzlies look to salt their record with a victory to start the long trip which next takes them to Colorado for a Saturday afternoon matchup.
But back to the start of the trip which found Montana on a 7 a.m. flight from Missoula to Denver for a short layover then into a quite diminutive aircraft, and I use that term quite loosely, for a 90-minute flight to Fargo.
It's then into a fleet of rental cars for the hour or so trip to Grand Forks.
And after a couple of hours of much needed down time, it's on to the Engelstad Sioux Center - yep the Sioux Center - for a couple of hours on the hardwood.
And wouldn't you know, the Grizzlies are down a player with Jordan Gregory limping about after sustaining a quad contusion from a teammate's stray knee.
His will be a game-time decision which is particularly concerning when you consider he's been playing about 75 percent of game time and has scored 44 points and corralled 17 boards in league play.
If he's unable to go, Keron DeShields probably would move into the starting role although Kareem Jamar also could move to the two and Spencer Coleman could get the nod.
North Dakota starts a three guard look with Troy Huff rounding back into shape after missing eight games and currently slated to play off the bench although he's averaging 14 and seven.
With Aaron Anderson, Jamal Webb and Josh Shuler on the floor, the No Niks are undersized, averaging just about six foot.
Remember game time is 6:05 Mountain with the award-winning pre-game at 5:30 p.m.
The last time Montana went to North Dakota for basketball it was a nightmare that still took an extra five minutes to decide.
And don't think the Grizzlies have forgotten the overtime defeat.
I'm looking ahead to Thursday's league encounter with North Dakota, but fresh on my mind was last year's bitter defeat in non-conference play, just one of seven total losses, when North Dakota visited the charity stripe an incredible 56 times in claiming an 88-81 victory.
That they connected just 37 times on 33 Grizzly fouls while Montana was 21 of 31 speaks to the kind of contest it became.
Both Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar posted career highs combining for 64 points as Keron DeShields was the only other Grizzly in doubles with 10 while five of the no-nicks scored in doubles.
North Dakota returns four starters from the team that finished second in the Great West last season including junior guard Troy Huff who contributed 15 in last season's matchup.
He has missed eight games.
North Dakota's sole league win is over Idaho State with circuit losses to Northern Colorado, Weber State and Southern Utah while beating Bowling Green in late December in Grand Forks.
The No-Nicks, they have not chosen a moniker since dropping the Fighting Sioux, are the poorest shooting team in the league (.330).
They have been outscored in league by 10 a game and defensively they stand last in points allowed (75.5), and rank last in field goal defense (.488).
But with such a paltry field goal percentage there have been plenty of offensive rebounding opportunities and North Dakota leads the league grabbing more than 13 offensive caroms an outing.
But junior Aaron Anderson leads the league in scoring at 19 while Huff is contributing almost 15 in the three league games he's seen action.
Huff also is corralling six rebounds a game while North Dakota is led in that category by senior Mitch Wilmer with 6.3 an outing.
Junior Jamal Webb even leads Will Cherry grabbing nine steals in four games while Anderson and junior Josh Shuler are among the league leaders from the free throw line where Jordan Gregory sets the pace not missing in a dozen attempts.
Remember fans this pay-back matchup gets underway at 6:05 Mountain with pre-game set at 5:30 Thursday.
And join us for the Wayne Tinkle and Robin Selvig Show from Paradise Falls Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Just taking care of business are the Grizzlies as they dispose of a Portland State team and set the table for this week's road trip.
The Griz are headed for North Dakota and Colorado for a pair of league games as Montana is one of just three teams unbeaten and atop the Big Sky Conference ledger.
Saturday it looked like Montana had a walk away when they broke the game against the Vikings open in the first half and went to the intermission with a 14-point lead after a trio of Will Cherry free throws with no time on the clock.
And when they broke out to a 17-point advantage about four minutes into the second stanza, the contest looked to be all but over but give credit to the Vikings who refused to fold and actually cut the lead to five, once with about six to play and again (60-55) on a trey from Michael Harthun in the game's last 30 seconds.
But the Grizzlies, thanks to Jordan Gregory, closed it out at the charity stripe and came away with a hard-earned seven-point verdict.
That I guess should not be surprising since Montana stands 11th in the country from the free throw line but they were especially accurate on this night, hitting 11 of 12 in the second half and 18 of 20 for 90 percent with Will Cherry having the only misses in 11 attempts.
Much like the Eastern Washington game Thursday night when the Eagles never led, the sole PSU advantage was by two points in the game's first three minutes and while the Viks just wouldn't go away they never really challenged again to take the lead.
But Portland State, which now falls to 1-3 in league filled the net after intermission to give themselves a chance by shooting 13 of 24 while Montana connected on just a third of their attempts and was outscored by seven points.
While they were out-boarded by four, for the Grizzlies as usual it was rebounding by committee with Kareem Jamar leading the way with seven, followed by Gregory and Mathias Ward with a half dozen each.
Cherry put up his 63rd double figure scoring night to lead the way with 16 to move into 13th on the all-time scoring list.
Join us for the Coaches Show Tuesday at 6 p.m. and note the start time in Grand Forks Thursday night at 6:05.
Picking up a pair of pre-Christmas conference road wins jumped started the league wars for the Grizzlies but after a long holiday break between games the proof is again in the pudding as it is back to the grindstone for a two-game a week run for the roses.
I'm working into the league hoop schedule that sees four of the seven league games in January played in the friendly confines.
I enjoy getting into the Thursday-Saturday game routine and much like football Saturdays, it feels like my sports clock suddenly is in sync.
The Coaches' show gets back into its every Tuesday rotation, game times are relatively stable, and you're familiar with some of the players on every team making prep time a bit easier.
Of course there's still some of what seems like middle-of-the-night travel on the agenda but one even settles into that inevitable reality.
Even just a couple of games into the Big Sky Conference schedule there has been some prognostication that the circuit isn't as good as some previous seasons when several teams were at a level to vie for the top of the ladder.
And while as always that might be true for some bottom-feeders, I am not so convinced that there isn't some surprising talent that will surface to make the league race competitive.
And it appears to begin with that as Thursday night's opponent Eastern Washington is a prime example of one of those teams.
While the Eagles were just 8 and 8 in the league standings last season, the champion Grizzlies only prevailed by eight in Missoula last December.
And that was before the addition of a host of new talent some of whom have pushed their way past veterans and into the starting lineup.
Second-year head coach Jim Hayford not only went to the JC ranks for a a couple of players from City College of San Francisco, one of whom is redshirting, but he also supplemented the roster with true freshman recruits, three from foreign soil, and a transfer German sophomore, who combined are contributing about 34 points a game.
The Eags have yet to win a road game in five tries and have lost four of the last five while winning just three of a dozen to this point, but believe me, Thursday night it is anything but a gimmee.
Check it out Thursday night because you won't be disappointed. Tipoff at 7:05 p.m.
Talk about livin' or dyin' with the trey, well that certainly is the deal for Thursday's Grizzly opponent in Missoula.
And while Eastern Washington has lost four of five and have won just three of a dozen games, they stand even in the Big Sky Conference after surviving a three pointer over 1-10 Idaho State.
Besides gunning from three-point land, Eastern brings a foreign flavor to Missoula with a trio of Australians and two players from Germany seeing prominent time for the Eagles.
Add to that mix a transfer from St Joes in Philadelphia and you may have the makings for a contender in the league race.
But back to the trey.
EWU shoots a bit less than 35 percent from outside the arc but that certainly doesn't cause the Eagles to stop shooting them.
They make just short of 10 a game while amazingly to me taking some 28 shots.
That's an even 10 a game more than a Montana team that shoots almost 41 percent from three.
And the Eagles don't shoot much better from the field, just 38.7 percent while giving up north of 47 percent.
State of New Jersey transfer junior Justin Crosgile leads the three barrage launching more than 100 or about eight a game while making 36 percent.
But six players have shot more than 34 this season with some 40 percent of Eastern's offense coming from the three.
Surely a candidate for league Freshman of the Year is Aussie Venky Jois who leads the league in rebounding at 9.4, scores close to 14 a game, plays all but five minutes an outing and at 6-foot 7 has 20 blocks.
They can go big in the post with 6-foot 10 German Martin Seifert averaging close to eight points and pulling down a half dozen rebounds.
But much like Montana, EWU struggles off the glass having been outrebounded by about the same margin - five a game.
Montana swept the league at home last year and sport not just an outstanding home mark but after a pair of road wins also a 16-game conference winning streak.
Home games are at a premium with tipoff at 7:05 Thursday night.
After just a few days at home for a bit of a holiday break, the Griz are back in force continuing Big Sky Conference play but this week in the home confines of Dahlberg Arena.
The Grizzlies journey back to Missoula for key matchups against a pair of up and coming and respected programs in Thursday against Eastern Washington and Saturday entertaining Portland State.
Australian freshman Venky Jois has pushed the Eagles into the role of contender.
A 6-foot-7 wing, he's already had six double-doubles, leads the league in rebounding (9.4) while taking far more attempts than any other league player and hitting 50 percent of his shots.
Jois is 62 of 124 from the field and in comparison Montana's leading field goal artist, Mathias Ward, connects on 55 of 100 in two fewer games.
Last week's Eagle nominee for Player of the Week in three games, Jois averaged 13,7 points and 9.7 rebounds.
But while the Eagles can score it (70.7) - they actually lead with almost 10 treys a game - they are at the bottom of the circuit in scoring defense allowing 80 points an outing.
And Eastern leads only Montana State and Portland State in field goal defense (.472).
While only shooting just 38.7 percent themselves, you have to anticipate there are plenty of offensive rebounds available and Eastern gets about a dozen of them an outing.
The Eagles are coming off an 8-8 league season and enjoyed a quartet of road breakthroughs last season, but are winless in five non-conference road games thus far this season.
Most recently Eastern was blown out by 22 at UC-Davis, before losing at home by the same margin to the Wildcats of Weber State.
They did bounce back two days later on the long trip to Pocatello by edging the 1-10 Bengals 57-54.
New league entry Southern Utah went to 2 and 0 Saturday night by edging also league unbeaten Northern Colorado by one to join Weber and Montana at the top of the circuit.
So just how big would a win over South Dakota State been?
They defeat unbeaten New Mexico at The Pit and Steve Alford's team rebounds to drop unbeaten Cincinnati by one.
Wild and wacky college hoop.
So what does the number of games a coach wins have to do with whether they are successful or not.
It is Christmas week when few Big Sky Conference teams are in action and only a single league game - Northern Colorado at Southern Utah - will be contested.
The Grizzlies have returned to the practice floor in advance of next week's home league opener Thursday against 1 and 1 Eastern Washington who was picked to finish in the middle of the league pack.
The league pointed out this week that Weber State's Randy Rahe has moved into the top 10 in overall wins (126) since joining the conference seven years ago and is the seventh winning coach in circuit history with 76 victories.
Montana's Wayne Tinkle, also in his seventh season at the helm in Missoula, stands 11th just four overall victories behind Rahe and with 68 wins trails Rahe by just eight league victories and is just two wins back of Blaine Taylor.
And while Tinks should well move past Mike Montgomery to become the school's all-time leader in conference victories (73), what is even more impressive is that he will do so in one less season at the helm.
Counting overall victories, whether conference or season total, to me seems mindless since of course the longer a coach is at the helm he's bound to acquire more wins when in fact the winning percentage is the way to measure apples to apples and not to oranges.
For example, Rahe has a conference winning percentage of .775, which impressively stands third behind the Wildcat's three-year coach Phil Johnson and Idaho's Kermit Davis who only remained at the helm in Moscow for two seasons.
Tinks meanwhile has won 69.4 percent of his conference matchups which also impressively stands eighth all-time.
During his tenure Montana has advanced to the NCAA's twice while Rahe's teams have made a single appearance.
Let's face it: Winning the league tournament and advancing to the next level, not total season wins, is a coach's true barometer.
And additionally as you glance down the list of coaches with the most victories, both in and out of league, it is interesting to note that many of them eventually were fired.
So what have you done for me lately?
Just how effective has the Grizzlies basketball lineup been from the charity stripe this season?
A glance at the Big Sky Conference compilations after all but Northern Colorado and Southern Utah have played two games with those teams meeting up in Cedar City Saturday night:
With just a quartet of teams making it through the tipoff of league play unbeaten and just Weber State and Montana picking up a pair of road wins, the league looks to be as balanced as ever with home teams holding serve in every case except against the two league leaders.
But a single stat that bodes well for Montana, which paces the circuit from the foul line (75.9 percent for 24th in the nation) is the accuracy comes from throughout the lineup.
Sophomore Jordan Gregory leads the team missing just three of 23 shots (87 percent) but does not have the required number of attempts to qualify for official stats which leaves senior Mathias Ward (.778) as the team leader.
That percentage only stands 13th in the league while as a team the Grizzlies shoot about a percentage point better than Portland State and far outdistance Sacramento State and North Dakota who round out the league's top four which are the only BSC teams shooting better than 70 percent.
The top nine players led by Idaho State's Tomas Sanchez (27 of 29 for .931) all connect on at least eight of 10 attempts with both Sacramento State and the Bengals sporting two each of the top nine.
It also is rare to see the Grizzlies leading the league in three-point percentage (40.7) which stand 13th in the country yet it is quite a selective percentage since they trail league leader Eastern Washington in makes per game (9.8 to 7.7)
With just a 3-9 season mark, the Eagles are second in the nation in made treys while in 12 games shooting 121 more than any other league team (117 of 337).
That means 41 percent of their scoring comes from outside the arc where the Grizzlies get just 34 percent of their offense.
Meanwhile the Wildcats of Weber State, who lead the league in scoring (73.7) and field goal percentage (.476) also set the pace in defense (.396) and scoring D (60.3).
But the Grizzlies are right there defensively, trailing Weber in scoring defense (65.9) and field goal D (.410) but rank a bit back in offense (67.6) and field goal percentage (.432).
It is certainly early but won't if be fun to see who blinks first?
It's a few days break from the rigors of practice and
quite a sojourn between games for the Montana Grizzlies who after a pair of
conference road victories join Weber State at the top of the Big Sky Conference
I hope your Christmas day was everything you hoped for
and you were able to have time with loved ones to relish our blessings.
It's a day short of a two-week break between games for
Montana and while it comes at an advantageous time for the injured Keron
DeShields and precedes home games with eastern Washington and Portland State
before heading back on the road, such a break always is a double-edge sword.
Coming off a seventh straight conference road win and
15th overall circuit victory, ridding themselves of bitter feelings after
letting one get away against South Dakota State, the Grizzlies have some
opening-league season momentum.
You can bet when they get back to Missoula for practice
on December 27, there will be a concerted effort by the coaching staff to first
blow out the pipes but also make sure this team is full well aware they have
accomplished little with victories in six of their first 10 games.
There are nine league games in the month of January and
six come on the road.
And a key home-matchup with Weber State will mark the
halfway mark of the league season the last week of January.
With just five league contests and a Bracket Buster game
in February leaving four in March to wrap up the league season, one easily can
see the importance of the first month in the league standings.
Congrats are certainly in order for Big Sky Conference
Co-Player of the Week Mathias Ward.
"Steady Eddie" is working on a second Masters Degree,
having not redshirted and coming to Missoula with a couple of years of college
credits gained in high school.
The Gig Harbor, Wash., product, who has been far more
vocal in this his senior season, enjoyed an outstanding opening league week.
He is shooting 55 percent from the floor for the season
but started league play 10 of 15 from the field (,.667) and was seven of eight
from the charity stripe including four straight, two in the crunch, against
He has now missed just eight of 36 free throw
opportunities (.7780 and leads an outstanding free throw shooting team (.756).
Ward also pulled down 11 rebounds and dished off three
assists and now also leads the team in scoring (14.7).
With a 10-day break between games and now riding a
15-game conference win streak, the Grizzlies open defense of last year's
dominating league title run with road victories in two of the eight states Big
Sky Conference schools occupy.
It was a rigorous 3,000 mile opening league season
journey to Flagstaff and Sacramento.
And while no travel can be described as inconsequential,
given the length of the five-dayer, the road wars were certainly tiring but
enjoyable and rewarding.
But now with six of eight at home through January, the
road sweep provides this Montana team a Dahlberg Arena opportunity to get some
of the league teams in their rear-view mirror.
While with a one-point cliffhanger win the Grizzlies now
have defeated Sacramento State a dozen straight times, this is a vastly
improved Hornet team that coming into the game had matched their best season
start since becoming a Division-1 program.
Halfway through the second stanza Montana enjoyed a
Baker's Dozen advantage but Sac State just wouldn't go away and while
attendance at the game was paltry (a generous 612), the Hornets showed a lot of
gumption to make a run and additionally mastery of the clock especially in the
last 90 seconds to draw even on a Dylan Garrity moon-shot trey from the deep
Spurning a time out, Montana played basketball in the
last 6.1 seconds as Will Cherry took command off a Jordan Gregory pass at
midcourt and charged straight up the court where he drew a blocking call on
Garrity with 2.5 seconds remaining.
Cherry's clutch free throw wasn't exactly pure but
slipped through the net while the second bounded off and a desperation
three-quarter court shot came after the buzzer sending the defending league
champion Grizzlies to the locker room for the holidays with a 2-0 circuit record.
That they blew a 13-point lead at the halfway mark of the
second half is concerning but that they had game winning instincts to win their
second one-pointer of the season to go along with a double-overtime one point
loss is encouraging.
That is especially true with South Dakota State's victory
over previously undefeated New Mexico at the Pit after a 1,200 mile bus ride.
The champ is thus far still the champ - Merry Christmas
After methodically rebounding from a 9 point deficit and a Northern Arizona four point halftime lead the Griz successfully opened the rigorous BSC road wars by maintaining its mastery over the Lumberjacks.
In one of the more offensively balanced outings of the young hoop season Montana put an entire quintet in balanced double figures to upend the Jacks before a meager crowd in Flagstaff.
Bur it was by no means an easy proposition but improved offense and dominance in the paint after the intermission proved the difference as Montana successfully opened defense of its Big Sky Conference title.
The Grizzlies have won four of five games in which they shot 45 percent or better and with an improved second stanza they fell just slightly short of that mark for the game and additionally controlled the boards to advance their season mark to 5-4 before some 664 Lumberjack faithful.
The lead changed hands but twice-when the Lumberjacks made up Montana's 3-0 initial advantage and when the Griz after five ties finally made it to the forefront in the second half, outscoring NAU by 10 in the second half to put this one away by 6.
Now it is an improved Sacramento State team who sent the Bobcats packing.
Picked seventh by coaches and eighth by media the Hornets start league play as one of two league teams with a winning record.
Sac is the highest scoring team in the league (75.8) and is 56th in the country while trailing just Montana in three-point percentage (37.2).
They lead the circuit in fewest turnovers (11.1) and trail just Montana State in turnover margin (3.5).
After defeating MSU, the Hornets have won four of five at home and stand second behind Weber State in scoring margin.
Senior John Dickson leads the league in scoring while sophomore Dylan Garrity is in the top 10 at 14 a game and sophomore Mitch McKinney also averages in double figures.
Garrity and Konner Veteto both hit better than 50 percent from the field while Garrity is second in the league in assists and free throw shooting.
Sac State is vastly improved and prime for a sweep of the Montana schools. Game time is 8 p.m. Mountain.
There was a commonality with last season's opener when Northern Arizona defeated Montana State but the Lumberjacks are hoping the scenario is not repeated.
In defeating Montana State 87-80 Monday night, NAU did exactly what they did last year - win their conference opener.
But that victory over Sacramento State proved to be the sole Lumberjack league conquest as they dropped the next 15 games.
But they put that losing skein to the wayside with the convincing effort over the Bobcats by shooting 55 percent and claiming a resounding edge off the glass (40-28).
NAU claimed the victory with all five starters in double figures while being led by junior Max Jacobson who dropped in 22 and true freshman DeWayne Russell who netted 16 while pulling down eight rebounds.
Although picked last by scribes and coaches in the pre-season poll, the Lumberjacks under first-year head coach Jack Murphy seemed to have turned the corner a bit.
They erased an 18-point deficit in losing in OT to Loyola Marymount after defeating Sam Houston State in a December tournament and now are four and five on the season but after road losses at Arizona, Oregon and No. 16 UNLV.
The Lumberjacks earlier snapped an 18-game losing streak when they defeated UC-Davis.
NAU is not scoring at their usual three-point clip (33 percent) and the 87 points they posted against Montana State was a season high as they average just 67.9.
And much like Montana the Lumberjacks are being whipped badly in rebounding (-5.5) but some of that can be contributed to the difficulty of their schedule.
They also are not as effective as usual from the charity stripe (.694) and are surrendering 45 percent while shooting just 43.5 percent.
They field a three-guard lineup and don't list a center although Jacobson checks in at 6-foot 8.
That may prompt the Grizzlies to start a three-guard lineup featuring sophomore Keron DeShields, Kareem Jamar and Jordan Gregory with Will Cherry's minutes no doubt substantially increasing.
If Monday's attendance is any indication, it will be up to Montana to create its own atmosphere since few fans were in attendance for the Montana State game.
Remember tip off at 6:30 p.m. with pre-game at 6.
While I am relatively certain I previously have called a basketball game with as many lead changes and ties as Saturday night's thriller against South Dakota State with a swing of 11 points in either team's direction, I'm here to tell you win or lose that was just plain fun and entertaining.
And I am headed on the trek Tuesday morning for Phoenix, then Flagstaff, and on to Sacramento for the opening of the 50th Big Sky Conference men's basketball season.
There was several times Saturday night when I thought the Grizzlies would protect home court and extend their Dahlberg Arena winning streak to 16 games.
And while the Jacks proved the aggressor in the game's first 10 minutes in building their largest lead of six, when sophomore wing Mike Weisner tickled the twine for the first of his career-high quartet of three pointers and Will Cherry returned and went the floor's distance for a highly-contested layup and a one-point Montana lead for some reason for so early on I felt pretty confident.
But at the half with both teams shooting less than 40 percent and SDSU holding a three-point advantage after the lead changed hands seven times in the first 20 and the score was tied an additional three times, it already had started to feel like a last-possession kind of affair.
Montana usually is successful if they shoot 40 percent and I guess I'm just getting used to this team being outrebounded especially on the offensive end but the one for eight from long range and the fact the Jacks were leading with zero scoring from their All-American candidate guard was of concern.
But Nate Wolters scored the first five SDSU's points after the intermission countered by Mathias Ward who drained five of his own in the first two minutes.
But while Kareem Jamar "J" handed Montana its largest lead of five points five minutes in, from there the spread for either team mostly was a bucket you kind of knew that regulation wasn't going to be enough time to determine an outcome.
Weisner had an opportunity to end it all in regulation but missed the first of a pair of throws as did Jamar at the end of the first extra session and it just wasn't to be as the Jackrabbits claimed the W for their eighth win in the last nine games and their first road victory in the initial game of a six-game road swing.
Balanced with a 4-4 mark, the price of poker escalates Wednesday night in Flagstaff with tipoff set for 6:30 p.m.
In the wake of the unthinkable tragedy in Connecticut, the results of a basketball game seems trivial and frivolous.
But as what so happens with sports, it in some ways seems as a diversion and while serving as a kaleidoscope of life provides some normalcy in such a horrific time in our country.
Our thoughts and prayers join certainly yours for all the victims of the worst elementary school shooting in U.S. History.
As in other scenarios around the country, Saturday's game was preceded first with an eloquent statement from Athletic Director Kent Haslam, himself the father of several young children, and a moment of silence before the National Anthem at Dahlberg Arena.
A prelude to the conference season for a pair of league champions and NCAA second-round participants, the matchup between South Dakota State and Montana sure lived up to its hype and required every bit of the 10 extra minutes to decide the outcome.
Neither the Jacks nor the Grizzlies led by more than six points in a contest in which the score was tied a dozen times and there were 19 lead changes.
And even when the Grizzlies looked to have given up the ghost by surrendering six unanswered at the start of overtime, Montana answered with a clutch Mike Weisner trey, a Mathias Ward drive, and a Kareem Jamar free throw to forge a tie with five seconds remaining.
But Jamar's second attempt rimmed out and while he tipped the ball for a desperation attempt for the win by Keron DeShields, the two teams remained tied at 59 after 45 minutes of play.
Jordan Gregory's pair of throws gave the Grizzlies a seemingly secure four-point second-OT lead with a bit more than two to go in the second extra period.
And even after SDSU answered with a trey to cut it to one, Weisner again answered for the last of his career high four treys to again build a four-point advantage.
But three final turnovers after leading by one with a buck and a half remaining and a pair of clinching free throws from the less than 60 percent free throw shooter and the Jackrabbits claimed the W.
With just a 4-3 record the pre-season league favorite Grizzlies started receiving some notice this week in the Mid major poll.
Weber State drew a dozen votes while the Grizzlies were listed on eight ballots. Griz opponent BYU is ranked 13th, just ahead of South Dakota State.
Even though claiming just four of the first seven, the difficulty of the non-conference schedule and the relative RPI of Montana's opponents (69) provided Montana with a taste of notoriety but just think what a victory at San Francisco might have meant.
Montana is 138 on the RPI listing where their strength of schedule stands 76th or sixth in the league behind Portland State (45).
But the league's ranking is up considerably from previous seasons standing at 25th among 33 circuits.
But BSC teams have enjoyed little road success, winning just five of 42 games while holding a 19-9 home record.
There are a couple of prominent areas in which this year's Montana basketball edition has prospered.
Traditionally a good free throw shooting team in the past, this season's team thus far has been exceptional and NCAA stats released this week show Montana is in pretty fast company.
In connecting on about 14 of every 18 throws the Grizzlies rank 13th in Division 1 at 77.3 percent.
And that is without the team's leading shooter from the charity stripe (Will Cherry) out of the lineup for the first seven games.
And in making a taste more than eight treys a game, Montana ranks 35th while their superior shooting (44.5 percent) ranks second in the country.
A quintet of three-point marksmen have contributed more than nine makes and that doesn't include Kevin Henderson who made the game winner against San Diego.
Connecting on two of every five shots seems to be a key for this team as the Grizzlies are winners of four of five games in which they shoot 40 percent or better but are winless if they shoot less than that.
And while they only have outrebounded a pair of opponents, those were both wins while when being outboarded they are just 2-2.
So what does the return of Will Cherry represent?
He's the league's top returning scorer, leads in steals, and stands second in assists.
Need I say more?
See the matchup of guards Saturday night.
While it's a modest home winning streak the Grizzlies look to defend in Missoula Saturday night, given the level of competition for Montana last year, holding court at
Montana's 15-game home streak stands as the 8th longest in the nation.
Ironically their last home loss was on this week, the 10th of December 2011, when Montana fell to Nevada.
But extending the streak is not likely to be an easy proposition Saturday as the high flying Jacks of South Dakota State, fresh off a record setting season of their own and looking like the Grizzlies to qualify for back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, open a horrendous six-game road swing in Missoula.
They don't return to play at Brookings until Jan. 10
But fresh off a six point home 69-63 win over Cal Bakersfield while a blizzard kept all but some 900 fans from attending, the Jackrabbits stand 8 and 3 and ranked 14th in the Mid Major poll.
It might just be their losses as much as their wins that get your attention.
While they were blistered at Minnesota by 24, SDSU lost only by a half dozen at Hofstra and by a trey at Alabama.
Among their eight wins, the victory of note probably is a one-point home win over Marshall.
South Dakota State played in a different region last year but lost on the same floor as Montana losing to Baylor 68-60 to culminate a 27-8 season.
And they return four starters from that team of course including all-everything guard Nate Wolters, who missed two games recently but returned to score in double figures (18) in his 48th straight game.
That moved him just four points from third and 11 points behind second on the Jackrabbit career scoring list.
One of just a pair of seniors on the roster, the pre-season Horizon League Player of the Year and All-American candidate now stands 19th in the nation in scoring (20.8) .
The game is certainly an RPI builder for Montana since SDSU was in the top 50 in this week's Sagarin and a victory would give the Grizzlies a much-needed boost into Big Sky Conference play next week.
kind of stats South Dakota State senior guard Nate Wolters put up when he was
an upperclassman at St. Cloud Tech High School were just a precursor of an
indication to the level of collegiate career he would enjoy.
ahead to Saturday night's game against South Dakota State which in the 6-foot 4
Wolters features probably a true pro prospect and a potential legitimate all
while Wolters established a new school scoring standard and averaged more than
24 points as a senior his teams could finish no better than third in the 4A
Tournament his junior and senior season.
playing in every Jackrabbitt game as a freshman, Wolters has started every
South Dakota game and after receiving Newcomer laurel in 2009-10 he's been a
Summit League first teamer.
first shattered the sophomore scoring standard with a 19 point average and was
named to the NABC second team and made the league's All-Tournament team.
that was just a lead-up to his record-setting junior campaign in leading SDSU
to the NCAA Tournament.
Honorable-Mention Associated Press All American and Summit League Tournament
MVP, he also was a circuit Player of the Week five times in addition to being
named a National Mid-Major Player of the Week selection.
scoring 30 points or more six times in his junior campaign, Wolters moved into
fourth on the school scoring list while also now standing fourth in assists.
was the only player in the NCAA to average 20 points, five rebounds and five
assists while also pacing the Jackrabbits with 59 steals.
has started 68 of 69 games and this year already has scored 166 points for an
average of more than 21 an outing.
talk about the complete player.
leads the Rabbits in rebounding at 6.4 and has missed just nine of 51 rebounds
making a mere 82.4 percent.
is also shooting some 42 percent from outside the arc.
Dakota State, 12th in a recent Mid Major poll, has jumped opponents
in the first half and in scoring 75 an outing outpointed opponents by game per
should be quite a return test for injured Montana guard Will Cherry who is not
100 percent but expected to play.
It was anything but a walk through but the Grizzlies outdistanced an outmanned Carroll College quintet to advance their season mark to 4-3 with a single non-league contest remaining before the start of Big Sky Conference play.
Montana held the Fighting Saints to but seven field goals and 26 percent from the field in the first stanza including just 3 of13 from three-point range to put together a 12-2 run in the last four minutes to hold what turned out to be an insurmountable 13 point halftime lead.
And before the second half's halfway mark Montana piled on posting a lead of 15 which turned into a 21-point advantage with four left.
Montana pounded the paint with senior post Mathias Ward pacing the onslaught with 13 in each half on a 10 of 17 shooting night.
Montana more than doubled Carroll College in the paint 34-14 - the most noteworthy stat of the night - as Kareem Jamar consistently posted up and while playing all but four minutes added 14 points, dished seven dimes and grabbed five rebounds.
Keron DeShields also was flawless as neither he nor Jamar suffered a turnover as the sophomore guard added five assists to compliment a near-career high 15 points.
The bench played 54 minutes, about 25 percent of the evening and outscored the Saints 22-7, while the Grizzlies turned the ball over just a half dozen times and assisted on 17 of 30 makes. Montana's shooting was just a make short of 50 percent.
JC transfer Spencer Coleman led the way on the boards with seven, while three players, Kevin Henderson, Ward and Jordan Gregory grabbed a half dozen each.
Montana led on both sides of the rebounding wars, 14-9 on offense and 38-29 total against a guard oriented shorter lineup.
While the Saints were more effective after intermission (14 of 27 for 51.9 percent), for the game the stingy switching Montana defense which even included a few possessions of half-court trap, held Carroll under 40 percent.
Eight of the 10 players scored and all but three late substitutions made with under a minute to play grabbed a rebound.
In Carroll's three-guard offense, Nick Jones paced with19 to go along with eight caroms, forward Dennis Mikelonis contributed 14 and Brett Ball added a dozen.
It's finals week and Montana does not hit the hardwood again until Saturday, the 15th, against highly-heralded South Dakota State.
The marquee win of Big Sky Conference teams belongs to Weber State as they slipped past Dayton after Thanksgiving with Cal Irvine coming to Ogden over the weekend.
Kyle Tresnak led the way with 16 points as the Wildcats jumped the Flyers with a 13-point second-half run and held on for a one-point victory.
The Atlantic 10 team sported an RPI of 26 coming into the game and had lost just 15 of 105 games in Ohio over the last six seasons.
Scott Bamforth drained a trio of treys for 15 while true freshman Joel Bolomboy grabbed 10 boards before a crowd of better than 12,000, the 105th straight time the Flyers have played before more than 11,000.
Weber State is picked just behind Montana as the league favorite in both the media and coaches poll.
Casting a glance at how the Big Sky teams stand in the national rankings, Eastern Washington is connecting on slightly better than 10 three-pointers a game which is solid enough to stand second in the country, while the Grizzlies are third in the nation in three point proficiency at 44.5 percent.
Montana nets 8.2 treys an outing,
Weber State stands seventh shooting 43.5 percent , making seven-and-a-half an outing.
Ironically the top league individual is Eastern Washington's Colin Chiverton who at 44 percent is just 40th.
The Grizzlies are 25th in the country in free throw shooting where they are vastly improved at 76.7 percent, just slightly better than Portland State, North Dakota, Idaho State and Sacramento State.
Montana had been highly ranked in field goal percentage D until the last two road games, losses to BYU and San Francisco.
Northern Colorado is the stingiest league team in that regard at 37.1 percent.
While Montana's home attendance has been lagging the average of 3,009 for a pair of home games stands second as usual only to Weber State (4,937).
Montana State and Southern Utah are the only other league teams averaging better than 2,000 with the entire league standing at just an average of 1,803.
The Grizzlies sport a trio of the league's highest active scorers with Will Cherry leading the way with 1,191 points followed by Kareem Jamar (743) and Mathias Ward (653).
EWU newcomer Venky Jois is making an immediate impact on the league recording three double-doubles and leading the way in rebounding (8.9 p/g).
Montana does not lead the league in any team or individual statistic while EWU has a trio of individual leaders and leads in a pair of team categories.
With Big Sky Conference play looming on the near horizon, the Grizzlies reach into the Frontier League for a Saturday night matchup with Carroll College.
The Fighting Saints come to Dahlberg Arena for the first time since 1998.
While the game is an exhibition for Carroll, it's a counter for a Montana team fresh off dropping two on the road to BYU and San Francisco to even their season mark at 3-3.
And it's one of two remaining games for Montana before the start of league play Dec 19 in Flagstaff.
The Saints are off to a rocky start after a 14-13 season placing fourth in the Frontier League last year with a 7-7 mark.
They've dropped eight straight including the last three counters on the road and also an exhibition loss to Southern Utah.
And Carroll has been dominated by the eight opponents including in the conference opener earlier this week against MSU-Northern, a 21 pointer.
They've been outscored by an average of 13 an outing, giving up some 80 points a game while allowing 47 percent shooting.
The Saints also have been outrebounded by about four a contest while being led off the glass by newcomer Brett Ball, a transfer from Clackamas Junior College.
They're led in scoring by Dennis Mikelonis, a junior from Boise, at 13 a game followed closely by Nick Jones, an Australian returnee who is contributing 13 points a game while shooting 51 percent from the field.
Ben Cutler, the senior from Glacier high in Kalispell who ranked in the nation's top 20 in scoring last year, is contributing close to 10 points a game.
Montana is hopeful for the return, at least in spot duty, of point guard Will Cherry who has missed the first half dozen games with a broken foot.
But while he returned to the floor this week and will suit up, his return for this game is probably doubtful.
Also sidelined for the last two games is junior post Eric Hutchison who like Spencer Coleman before him sprained his ankle.
Freshman Riley King is scheduled to see action Saturday. The freshman guard from Sentinel has played in all eight games and is averaging about four points in better than 13 minutes of action.
By the attendance around the country for the second round of the FCS playoffs, it looks like the NCAA balance sheet will be enhanced.
I'm casting a wistful glance of what isn't for the Grizzlies but thankfully a pair of Big Sky Conference teams remain in the hunt for a national football championship.
And just south of 100,000 fans or an average of 12,484 flocked to see the eight second-round games.
And home field accounted for plenty since all but Appalachian State held serve and moved to the quarterfinal round of eight.
The biggest attendance surprise for this humble scribe was in Norfold, Virginia, where more than 20,000 flocked to see upstart one-loss Old Dominion, where former Griz coach Blaine Taylor is the men's hoop mentor, run roughshod over severely overmatched Coastal Carolina by putting up 25 more points (63) than any other entrant.
But Carolina had the game tied at 35 before the Monarchs shut the door with four straight scores, three passing by sophomore Taylor Heinicke who tied an FCS playoff record with six TDs and set the mark for total offense with a mere 542 yards, 497 via the airways.
He's already thrown for 4,655 yards, the second highest single season mark ever in FCS football and ODU stays home to entertain three-loss Georgia Southern.
In Bozeman it certainly was a defensive struggle as the Cats moved to the quarterfinals for the second straight season against the same opponent, the Bearkats of Sam Houston State.
They were victims of Sam Houston last season but in Texas where the Bearkats also ended Montana's playoff run a week later.
Bringing the Texans to Montana, especially given the horde of Texas players on the Bobcat roster, no doubt will be beneficial and the game will be a national draw with television scheduled for the Friday night kickoff.
A safety was the difference in Huntsville last week as Sam Houston slipped past Cal Poly 18-16 in a game that featured just a single TD by both teams.
The winner faces either Wofford or defending champion and No. 1 ranked North Dakota State in the semi finals.
On the bracket's other side, Eastern Washington will have its hands full with the highflying Redbirds of Illinois State who blocked a PAT to edge Appalachian State in OT.
I don't think I have ever seen a stat sheet stuffing rebounder like the one I watched in Saturday night's Grizzly loss to San Francisco.
Cole Dickerson came into the contest grabbing the same 13.8 boards a game as his scoring average.
But he probably moved into the national lead with an amazing 19 caroms against Montana in just 31 minutes of action.
Now while this Griz team thus far hasn't measured up in rebound stats, the San Francisco loss showed improvement even though the Dons corralled nine more than Montana.
This Grizzly team may have to depend on rebound by committee and while they were deficient on the offensive glass against San Francisco (5) when there were plenty to be had given the 37 percent shooting, seven of the eight who played had at least two boards with ironically seven-footer Andy Martin getting the sole stat goose egg.
Senior Mathias Ward, who has been struggling to get to the glass but pouring in the points, didn't have his best offensive night but grabbed a half dozen, guard Jordan Gregory snatched a hustling five and Spencer Coleman, Mike Weisner and Kevin Henderson equally shared another nine.
In compiling a 3-3 mark the Grizzlies have been outrebounded by an average of 6.7 caroms an outing in failing to register more boards than their opponents in all but one contest.
And while they're pretty much even on the defensive glass, it's the second-chance opportunities that are lacking since they've been outdueled 2-1 on the offensive glass.
Part of the deficiency involves Montana's 4-out and 1-in system which makes getting to the offensive boards more challenging and thus skews the stat sheet but that certainly puts added onus on loose balls and scramble boards, something Gregory did expertly against San Francisco.
Significant in Montana's favor early on is the amount of minutes played by the bench as coaches fine-tune combinations to get the utmost of production.
The bench outscored the Dons 31-7 while contributing some 72 of 200 available minutes and given the challenge of different combinations turned the ball over just 10 times resulting in just eight San Francisco points.
But thus far this team hasn't dialed in sharing the basketball assisting on a little less than half of the converted field goals.
But don't minimize what effect the absence of Will Cherry has caused and what his possible return this week will mean at the start of conference play.
Ah yes life on the road with the Griz - What could be better you ask?
Well how about a good night's sleep and oh yeah about those airline seats.
Some six hours after the Grizzlies lost a 10-pointer at San Francisco it was 4 a.m. wake-up time and on a plane to Seattle then on to Missoula for an early-afternoon landing on Saturday.
So if you account for a quick post-game meal that left a road weary basketball team, off consecutive losses, that would equate to less than five hours sleep.
But this is a resilient group and after a couple of regroup days, they'll have the better part of a week to prepare for Saturday's game against Carroll, then another seven days prior to hosting South Dakota State in the wrap-up of the non-conference season.
It's not that there weren't some bright spots as Montana fell to 3-3 after losses to BYU and San Francisco, both from the WCC.
And when formulating road swings like this one, Wayne Tinkle no doubt figured he'd have an assortment of different personnel including maybe even an impact post and your returning starting point guard who also happens to be the league defensive MVP.
But that's not to say he's making any excuses about the hand he's thus far been dealt.
Maybe the thing I enjoy most about collegiate athletics is to watch a team's and player's improvements.
That was particularly evident on last season's record setting Griz group and I remain confident the pieces are there for a similar scenario this season.
While junior combo guard Kareem Jamar has at times been the Grizzlies sole scoring option, the All Conference junior shows no sign of not outplaying last season and put up another double-double against the Dons with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
And that came even though he was off the floor for a couple of stints in the first half after he drew a pair of personal fouls.
That will usually leave a player on Tinks' bench for the remainder of the half but he expertly periodically inserted him back on to the floor - he played all but four minutes - and Montana even made a run in his absence.
Biggest additional contribution?
Sophomore Mike Weisner is the long-range threat that has been lacking in some past seasons when the ball gets to the second or third side.
With less than three weeks before the start of all-important conference play and with four of the first six on the road and with the possible return of Will Cherry even if on a limited basis, there's certainly reason for optimism.
You know how it goes - It's just no hill for a climber.
Looking to avenge one of two home losses last season the Grizzlies head to the hilltop to face off with the University of San Francisco.
The Dons dropped Montana by three points in Missoula last season, starting the first and only time that the Grizzlies had an overall two-game losing streak.
And while Montana lost two of its next three, which was just a precursor to the remainder of the season as they won 20 of the next 21 before losing in the NCAA Tournament.
USF is on a bit of a roll with fifth year head coach Rex Walters, the former Kansas star guard.
Their win total has improved in each of the last four seasons but with a bevy of newcomers this year the Dons might be ripe for the picking even in San Francisco.
The top scoring returnee is junior point guard Cody Doolin who stood atop the WCC in assist-to-turnover ratio last season and averaged better than nine points a game in leading the Dons to a 20-win (8-8 in WCC) season.
Doolin is the sole returning starter but USF is getting good production from UCLA transfer De'End Parker (15.5 p/g) and true freshman Avry Holmes (15 p/g).
Returning forward Cole Dickerson also is scoring a double-digit clip (12.5 p/g) while another freshman, Tim Derksen, is adding some seven points a game.
Prior to games at America University and against Columbia, after trouncing Stanford on the boards (45-29) in an opening season loss, the Dons were outrebounding opponents by more than a dozen a game.
But there were plenty of available rebounds since USF was shooting just 40 percent from the field and connected on about a third of their three-point attempts.
USF starts no seniors, features a pair of underclassmen as starters and lists three freshmen and a sophomore off the bench. Five starters accounting for 59 of their average point total (67.5).
San Francisco is a fabled program still playing in a fabled facility (Memorial Gymnasium) featuring NCAA Championship banners hanging from the ceiling from Bill Russell years of 1955 and 1956.
Former legendary coaches Phil Woolpert and Pete Newell are joined by Russell and K.C. Jones in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Wouldn't you agree it shapes up as a great place for a historic Griz win?
It's a high-scoring quintet that the Grizzlies meet Wednesday night in Salt Lake City
The Grizzlies challenge Brigham Young University, not in Provo but the Energy Solutions Arena in downtown Salt Lake City.
The Cougars are scoring at nearly a 78 point clip in winning four of six games, most recently a two-game winning streak in which they scored in the 80s to beat Northridge and UT San Antonio.
The Cougars other wins - over Tennessee State and Georgia State - also were in the 80s while in losses to Florida State and Notre Dame they scored an average of 69 points.
Tyler Haws, a six foot five guard who netted a career high 32 against Cal State Northridge, leads the onslaught at better than 23 a game, while hitting a keen 50 percent of his standard attempts and 41 percent from long range.
Six foot nine forward Brandon Davies isn't far behind with even a higher shooting percentage (.574) to total better than 18 an outing on a BYU team that shoots just 45 percent overall.
And while they take some 17 from three-point range a game they are connecting on just five-plus an outing.
But how the Cougars hit the glass and by committee.
They are outrebounding opponents by more than six an outing and five Cougars are grabbing more than five caroms a game.
Davies paces BYU on the glass with about seven but Haws, part of a three-guard lineup, isn't far back with just four less rebounds in the six games.
The Cougars haven't caused a lot of turnovers (14.7 p/g), but they seldom turn the ball over themselves (14 p/g) and assist on 18 of 28 average buckets produced.
Matt Carlino is the first guard off the bench and Nate Austin offers some depth but from there there's little bench production with starters accounting for about 80 percent of their firepower.
Carlino leads the team in assists but is just 1 of 17 from long range, shoots 31 percent and averages about five a game.
But don't think Salt Lake City won't be rockin' and this will be anything but a neutral forum and a great test for a young Montana team.
Tipoff at 7 p.m. with pre-game at 6:30.
Mr. Steady Eddy provided the early scoring and grabbed the key rebound at the end to start the play that resulted in Montana's last second victory over San Diego Saturday night.
With the injury to defensive MVP Will Cherry, Mathias Ward is the sole senior currently playing for this Grizzly team that slipped past the Toreros on a last-second three pointer in the last home game of the month.
Ward scored the team's first seven points and corralled the last rebound off a rare free throw misfire, moving the ball forward to a sprinting Kareem Jamar who kicked the ball to the right corner for Kevin Henderson's trey bringing Montana from a two-point deficit to a single point win.
A prolific high school scorer at Gig Harbor, Wash., Ward approached a career high with a season-best 23 points while connecting on his usual stellar field goal percentage by hitting eight of 14 attempts.
Maybe the league's finest mid-range shooter, Ward also adroitly steps outside the arc and hit three of six from long range against San Diego to raise his team leading scoring average to almost 16 and his three-point percentage to 50 percent.
And while Kareem Jamar had an off night from the field (2 for 9), his career high matching 11 assists and steady ball control and half-dozen rebounds also was a key in Montana's third win in four outings.
Meanwhile "Hendo" (Kevin Henderson) posted all his points from three-point range for nine while Spencer Coleman didn't miss a shot from the field in netting eight points and Mike Weisner netted five.
Not to be overlooked was the presence of seven-foot freshman Andy Martin who toiled for half the contest, a career high, and blocked four shots, two on back-to-back attempts.
He also scored a couple of buckets and looked extremely comfortable in his playing time being extended.
Montana turned the ball over early and often and San Diego made the most of the giveaways in building at one point an 11 point lead but the Griz backcourt pressure got Montana going to send the Toreros to a fourth defeat against three wins.
Montana next challenges BYU at Energy Solutions Arena in SLC Wednesday
It was anything but a work of art but Saturday night's exhilarating buzzer-beater victory over San Diego gave Griz faithful about all one could ask for as the Grizzlies won for the third consecutive time and for the second straight game rebound from a double digit deficit to claim a victory.
San Diego came into Missoula looking for revenge after a 13 point loss to Montana last season but coming off a loss to Cal Santa Barbara in which the Toreros scored but 39 points and just three second-half field goals.
But the WCC opponent jumped the Grizzlies at Dahlberg Arena from the get-go, scoring the game's first seven points and eventually leading by 11 in the first stanza.
The Toreros certainly were the aggressor and it paid dividends but despite chasing around following the exploits of five foot seven inch Chris Anderson and surviving the shooting of fellow guard Johnny Dee the Grizzlies showed patience, resilience and maturity in fighting through the home deficit to take a first-half lead and trail by just one at the intermission.
But San Diego held an entire second stanza advantage and never held the lead until it mattered most when sophomore Kevin Henderson drained the game winner trey just right off the Grizzly bench.
Anderson's launch from near mid-court at the buzzer hit the backboard but bounded away setting off pandemonium and gave Montana the victory which seemed plenty unlikely when the Toreros took a seven-point lead with five minutes to play.
But the Grizzlies, who play three straight WCC opponents, scored six unanswered and moved with a point on Mathias Ward's bunny at the 11-second mark.
Forced to foul, Montana sent Dee, about an 80 percent free throw shooter, to the line and when his second shot caromed to Ward, the stage was set for the finale.
With no time outs, Kareem Jamar dished the last of his 11 assists to "Hendo" who was wide open yet deep in the corner and he tickled the twine for the victory.
It was the Auburn, Washington winger's third trey of the night but none bigger in his collegiate career sending Montana on the road for Wednesday and Friday night games with a 3-1 mark and a boost of confidence and momentum with just a quartet of non-conference games remaining.
A hot shooting San Diego quintet, fresh off a 17-point verdict over Siena, visits Missoula Saturday with a special start time.
A post Thanksgiving greeting from Griz Nation reminding you that Saturday's game at Dahlberg Arena, because of an agreement between the two teams, starts at 6 p.m.
San Diego, with former Gonzaga assistant Billy Greer at the helm and former Eastern Washington head Mike Burns at his side, comes to town looking to avenge a Montana victory in California last year.
San Diego is coming off just a 13-18 season but any time you can steal one away on the road from a WCC opponent, like Montana did last season, especially by double digits (73-60), is a good thing.
After winning in Moscow last week, Montana (2-1) is sporting a modest two-game winning streak with Saturday the last home game of the month.
After losing to Northridge and Tulsa the Toreros registered a 77-60 victory over Siena to push their non-conference record to 3-2.
Picked to finish fifth in the WCC race, San Diego is headed by pre-season All-Conference pick Johnny Dee.
In averaging more than 16 points a game, the six-foot sophomore guard is connecting on half of his attempts from three-point range and 47 percent from the field.
San Diego has three players averaging in doubles but senior forward Chris Manresa, who hit 14 in the season opening win over San Diego Christian, has not played in the last four games being replaced in the lineup by 6 foot 11 junior Dennis Kramer.
A youthful group, the Toreros start three sophomores and feature Texas Tech transfer Mike Davis as the first guard off the bench.
A ball-hawking group, San Diego is averaging almost eight steals an outing and cause some 17 turnovers a game while giving the ball up some 15 times themselves.
And they've got good depth with 10 players averaging more than 17 minutes a game.
Returnees Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward have paced the Grizzlies here in the early season.
An All-Conference selectee last season, Jamar is scoring about at a 15-point clip while also pacing the team at five rebounds an outing.
Ward is hitting at about 60 percent and averaging better than 13.
Remember game time is 6 p.m. Saturday night.
With the awards accorded to individual Griz players and 2013 kickoff a mere nine-plus months on the horizon, the future football fortunes for the University of Montana certainly appears bright.
Now you've often heard me expound the virtues of defense and the effect it has on the ability to compete for championships.
But while defenders play a large role in an outcome, you also have to notch points at key times during a game and let's face it when you get inside the 20-yard line, you just can't come away a third of the time with a field goal or maybe no points at all.
That could not have been more abundantly clear than on Montana's initial drive in Saturday's Griz-Cat game.
Seemingly able to easily drive down the field to notch an opening TD with first and goal and a receiver wide open in the back of the end zone looked extremely promising but with an overthrow and a missed field goal, the opportunity was squandered and a chance to seize early momentum lost.
A second missed field goal and the grizzlies finished the game zip in the red zone while the Cats converted three of four times in that category and there you have it.
It would be far too simplistic to say that characterized the season but in a matchup like Saturday's against the No. 2 team in the country, you just have to put points up when you're knocking on the door.
But back to a defense that returns just about everybody and at times this season was just dominant.
I'm licking my chops at Montana's front seven with several pre-season All Americans in the fold and just possibly man-for-man the finest linebacker corps in recent memory.
There promises to be some heated competition at quarterback and even with the departure of Peter Nguyen and Dan Moore, the running back position, headed by Jordan Canada and Joey Counts, also looks promising.
Even with the departure of Greg Hardy, tight end features potential and the offensive line also looks sound.
Add an impact player here and there and the Grizzlies will be back playing as usual after Thanksgiving in 2013.
But first to hoop we go and a hooping we will go.
Happy Thanksgiving everybody!!
Any time you can pick up a non-conference road win after trailing by 15 eight minutes into the second half, it's a pretty spunky trip home.
And when it happens over a perennial and regional opponent, well you know it's even better.
And that was the case with Montana's slim 66-63 Saturday victory over the University of Idaho.
Now granted the Grizzlies have occasionally had their way with the Big-Sky bound Vandals but certainly falling behind by double digits on the road usually doesn't spell eventual success.
But stifling Montana defense in the last 12 minutes, allowing but 34 percent Idaho shooting and strumming some sweet tunes on the iron themselves brought the Griz home with a second consecutive victory.
And while the Grizzlies broke to a 6 zip advantage off of a pair of treys by Keron DeShields the two teams played even from the field in the first 20 minutes with Idaho holding a four-point 34-30 advantage.
But in the first eight and half after intermission, it started to look like a Vandal runaway before Montana started connecting from the field, matched the Vandals in treys and stayed even from the charity stripe.
And the diverse Grizzly bench proved invaluable outscoring Idaho 16-9 with nine players garnering double-figure minutes and contributing all the scoring.
While outrebounded on the offensive end by four, Montana won the battle of the glass for the first time in three games and just allowed five points of second chance opportunities off of 11 caroms.
Get used to seeing Kareem Jamar at the top of the stat chart as the junior forward led the way with 17 to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and a couple of blocks.
But while playing 15 minutes less than Jamar. who played all but two minutes of the evening, senior post Mathias Ward continued his hot shooting (six of 9) to net 16 points.
True freshman Andy martin played the most significant time of his career (14 minutes) and while he didn't score proved a defensive mainstay with a couple of blocks and an offensive rebound.
JC transfer Spencer Coleman came off the bench and added nine points and more significantly five rebounds, while Jordan Gregory and DeShields netted seven each and a pair of rebounds.
What I liked best?
All 10 players who hit the floor at Memorial Gym corralled a rebound.
Montana entertains San Diego Saturday with a special start time of 6 p.m.
Reality set in Sunday morning when the FCS bracket was released and among the 20 teams selected were three Big Sky Conference co-champions, two seeded and a third entrenched in the second round and the Grizzlies weren't among them.
Football is still in the forefront of my mind but first a shout out to the not to be overlooked Griz hoopsters who notched a road victory over Idaho Saturday to advance their non-conference mark to 2-1 before entertaining San Diego Saturday night.
I have never been one to cast blame when it comes to college athletics and while I am as disappointed as the next fan about a 5-6 season, I just couldn't be more proud of this Montana football team.
I have previously written how they came to work every day, putting aside a horde of distraction, to be on the cusp of recording quite a different record than their 5-6 season mark.
You certainly are entitled to say that my optimism is misplaced and I should be casting aspersions on a variety of circumstances that brought this season to culmination way earlier than any of us wanted.
But quite frankly, as Bobby Hauck used to say, winning is difficult and all one can do is place your cards on the table, compete to the best of your ability, and while it may eat your heart out when the chips don't manage to fall your way, get back on the horse and flat get after it once again.
And that's what this group continued to do right up to the end.
Now there's plenty of time to talk about the what-ifs and the only-if-we-could-haves but this Griz group took the No. 2 team in the country and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs to the late stages Saturday before falling by nine.
Just a glance and not even a close examination of the season and Saturday's stat sheet will tell you the Grizzlies and the Cats played about even in most categories yet Montana State is a 10-win team while Montana won half that many.
Just an indication of how tight the margin between winning and losing.
I am far from ready to move on and put the season on the shelf and further dissection certainly is warranted but of one thing you can be certain - If you are looking for finger-pointing, it's not really in my DNA.
And to the record 26,210 who witnessed the finale - I never believed you wouldn't be there and thank you.
And to the Bobcats, Mustangs and Eagles - make the most of that bye week, push yourselves away from the Thanksgiving table, enjoy the ride, and carry the Big Sky Conference banner with honor, humility and pride.
Griz-Cat is just a day away and make your plans to be on-site early because this promises to be a sell-out record afternoon for the meeting between the cross-state rivals.
A nine-win team in the midst of a three-game winning streak the Cats come to Missoula looking to clinch at least a tie for a third straight Big Sky Conference crown.
No. 2 ranked Montana State, a team that stands fourth in the Nation's Sagarin computer ratings, should easily be considered an overwhelming favorite but we all know home or away this series always has provided its share of surprises.
Road teams have a two-game 24-22 edge in league games but the Cats have had their road struggles this season, winning by 10 at Drake, by a TD at Southern Utah and UC Davis and by just a field goal at Sacramento State.
MSU is quite a different home team blasting Portland State and North Dakota and Northern Colorado while losing by a field goal to Eastern Washington.
MSU brings the highest scoring team in the league (38.7) to Washington Grizzly Stadium and allows about two touchdowns an outing.
The Bobcats also lead the league in total defense (305.2) and rush defense (88.8), allowing just seven rush TDs, while the Grizzlies are one of the circuit's most prolific rushing teams (242.5) and pace the BSC in total offense (461.7).
The most amazing stat to this humble scribe is opponent's third-down proficiency (26.8 percent) while the Cats stand second in third down conversions (53.2 percent).
While the Grizzlies are hopeful for a robust return by Dan Moore, who has been sidelined for six weeks, the Cats have a stable of running backs in Frenchtown's Cody Kirk, Orenzo Davis and Tray Robinson who collectively have gained nearly 1,500 yards.
But with that they trail Montana in rushing by an average of 50 yards an outing.
And then of course there's quarterback DeNarius McGhee who has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards this season, rushed for nearly 400 and is responsible for 25 touchdowns.
Kirk has rushed for 411 yards and seven TDs in the last three games.
Defensive end Caleb Schreibeis has at least a sack in his nine games - he stands second to Zach Wagenmann - has forced seven fumbles, is third in tackles-For-Loss and last week was added to the Buck Buchanan Watch List.
The Bobcats are a record-setting group.
The 35 wins by this season's seniors over four seasons is the most in school history and their 20 league wins since 2010 are tops in the Big Sky Conference.
Rob Ash just established the school mark for career wins (48), Kirks 25 rushing scores is second in team history and with 28 victories McGhee has won more games than any other MSU quarterback.
McGhee meanwhile has thrown 68 TDs, an MSU record, and his 8,441 yards are second in school history.
The one thing you have to anticipate is that both teams will be ALL-IN and it promises to make for an enjoyable afternoon not just at Washington Grizzly Stadium but around the world.
But the way this series goes, we all know there's an "X" factor.
What will it be or who will provide it in 2012.
You all enjoy now, ya hear!
From hours-long tailgate festivities to an F-15 flyover after two weeks of statewide jostling, Griz fans are more than ready to return the favor and pounce on the favored No. 2 ranked Bobcats in Missoula Saturday.
There's a line on the Montana landscape and there's little straddling it this week cuz it's Griz-Cat.
The cross-state rivals meet for the 112th time in Missoula Saturday and there's plenty of drama to go around.
The Grizzlies upset the MSU applecart a year ago dominating the Bobcats in Bozeman to claim the playoff's automatic bid by upsetting their favored arch-rival to make a deep run into the playoffs.
It was the ground-pound rushing game that saw Dan Moore and Peter Nguyen combine for 239 of the team's 309 rush yards and outstanding defense limiting the Cats to just 250 total yards that brought a Griz victory and sent more than 20,000 head-drooping fans to an early exit.
But the last matchup in Missoula (2010) brought the Cats to a Washington Grizzly Stadium victory for just the second time and further fueled this key game.
Montana has dominated the series since the start of THE STREAK in 1985 (70-36-5) and has won 22 of the last 26 meetings to substantially increase the series margin.
And again with a share of the Big Sky Conference title in their sights for a third consecutive season, the Grizzlies floundering in the middle of the league pack and out of the playoffs with just a winning season in their sights, there's no argument from this corner that Montana State is the dominant team, the Grizzlies are the underdog, and it would be a huge upset if Montana found a way to claw to victory.
The Grizzlies certainly understand the significance of finishing the season with a trio of consecutive wins and claiming a 28th consecutive winning season (6-5 with a victory) and taking momentum into winter conditioning.
And with just a dozen seniors and a promising season in their sights next year, it is admittedly nice to have the bulls-eye and the resulting pressure on another team's back for a change.
Montana's "X" factor is Dan Moore, who returns after missing five games and while he won't be at the top of his form, just his emotional presence with the football could pay huge dividends.
And I can't wait.
The Grizzlies entertain in the friendly confines for the first of two non-conference games Wednesday night.
Coming off an opening loss at Colorado State, Montana opens the home basketball regular season against Minot State.
The Beavers, a Division-2 team from North Dakota stand 0 and 2 after consecutive losses to Colorado School of Mines and Metro State.
They did register an opening 14-point exhibition victory over the Another Level Blue Angels and most recently fell by just four at pre-season 13th ranked Colorado Mines in Golden Colorado.
Ranked 15th of 16 teams in the pre-season Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference poll, senior forward Josh Johnson who led the Beavers in scoring (15.8), steals and blocked shots, was tabbed as a player to watch.
Minot State off a 17-loss team from a year ago, also was picked tied for last in the North Division led by Minnesota State-Moorhead.
But the Beavers are a veteran group featuring a quartet of upperclassmen starters with 6 foot 4 forward Thomas Korf a sole sophomore starter.
A half dozen Minot State players started their careers at other institutions
Johnson is a 6 foot 5 product of Lufkin, Texas who scored 23 points in the first two games by hitting eight of 23 shots while pulling down a total of eight rebounds.
Isiah Gandy, a 6-foot Florida junior, netted 19 points in the two losses while Chris East, a 6-6 Canadian junior forward, had 10 points and 9 rebounds off the bench in one game and six points and 13 caroms in the other.
After a hot shooting first half at Ft. Collins in which they connected on ten of 17 field goal attempts and three of five from three-point range, the Grizzlies made the same amount of field goals but in ten additional attempts in the second half to shoot 45 percent in the opening 72-65 loss to Colorado State.
While they took reasonably good care of the basketball (13 turnovers), they assisted on just nine of 20 makes.
Sophomore Keron DeShields led the way with a career-high 17 points and fellow sophomore Jordan Gregory netted 10 and neither guard registered a single turnover.
And there was plenty of firepower on the floor - namely Kevin Henderson and Mike Weisner - who did not contribute offensively last season but scored seven points each.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. with pre-game at 6:30 p.m.
There sure are not any givens when it comes down to Big Sky Conference football and if the weekend's results are any indication, the parity in this league this season is incomparable.
It's now just days before one of the longest of collegiate football rivalries, the 112th cross-state meeting between the state's land-grant institutions which is older even than the World Series.
And it was pointed out to be this week that in my association with Griz athletics - a mere 28 years - the Bobcats have defeated the Grizzlies just five times leaving the series at 70-36 with five ties.
But remember for 16 consecutive years, there was nary an MSU victory and that skews the series figures completely leaving it about even since the STREAK.
But seldom has there been as much on the line or more pressure on the Bobcats than this year's visit to Washington Grizzly Stadium.
That is because with championship destiny in their own hands, Northern Arizona tripped Saturday losing to Southern Utah in triple overtime as the Thunderbirds complete their initial conference season at 4 and 4.
That leaves the league race in a quagmire with the No. 2 ranked Bobcats tied atop the league with Eastern Washington, the Lumberjacks, and new league member Cal Poly, all with 6-1 marks.
It therefore is likely, after closing games of course Saturday, that the Sagarin computer rankings will determine the automatic berth to the 20-team FCS playoffs with the possibility of three teams finishing in a one-loss tie and sharing the league championship since Cal Poly finishes the season against Northern Arizona.
The Bobcats took no quarter Saturday overwhelming Portland State in the first half and ensuring they'll be in the hunt by beating the Vikings in Bozeman 65-30 to advance their season mark to 9-1.
And in so doing Head Coach Rob Ash passed Sonny Holland on the school's all-time win list.
But sporting a modest two-game win streak, Montana has challenges of their own as they attempt to secure a 28th straight winning season, knock the Cats from the circuit pinnacle, set up some momentum for a young team for the coming season and quite frankly by winning the cross-state rivalry make the season something that it hasn't been to this point.
It's Griz-Cat and I can say little more.
As usual it all comes down
to a single game against the Cats at the season's fruition but it's that rare
occasion for the Grizzlies to play the spoiler keeping Montanan State from a
share of the conference crown.
But first a word or two
about the hoop loss to Colorado State for the third straight year.
It appeared early-on that
this season's visit to Ft Collins was headed Montana's way as even after a
horrendous effort on the offensive glass resulting in numerous second attempts,
the Grizzlies scored the game's first five points, led near the break by 10 and
headed to the locker room at intermission with a seven-point advantage.
And the fact that both
Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward shared the pine for 16 and 12 minutes
respectively because of foul trouble made the halftime score even more
And while the rams
outboarded Montana 14-1 on the offensive end and 21-10 overall in the first
half, you had to realize CSU was not going to put together back-to-back halves
of less than 30 percent field goal shooting.
Yet with Kevin Henderson and
an ailing Spencer Coleman already with three fouls and Ward, Jamar and Mike
Weisner signaled for a pair before intermission, you just could see the writing
on the wall.
But even when the Rams built
a 10-point lead with 5:47 to go, this young Grizzly team with Ward already
fouled out and Jamar to be disqualified three minutes later, kept battling and
actually cut it to three around the one-minute mark only to be turned away
partially because of a questionable whistle on their defensive baseline.
But there was plenty to be
encouraged about with a team minus the league's defender of the year because of
the injury to Will Cherry.
Each playing 36 minutes, the
sophomore tandem of Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields didn't have a turnover,
connected on eight of 20 from the field, including four of 10 from three-point
range, contributed 27 points and were the only Grizzlies in double figures.
While being substantially
outrebounded Montana garnered 15 points off of just nine Ram turnovers yet CSU
got nine more shots and scored 17 second-chance points.
Montana is back in action at
home Wednesday against Metro State.
With a new but veteran coach at the helm, Colorado State
off a 20-12 season and an opening victory over the Grizzlies last year, awaits
the season opener Friday against Montana.
Larry Eustachy, the youngest coach in the country when he
took the helm at the University of Idaho, winning 65 percent of his games in
three years and claiming a Big Sky Conference crown in 1993, heads the Rams.
First team All-Mountain West choice Wes Eikmier leads the
charge as CSU's leading scorer at 16.6 points a game, while top rebounder
Pierce Horning is also in the fold after the Rams come off an NCAA appearance
and their third consecutive post-season bid.
A third starter, Dorian Green, also is on hand.
CSU's seven returnees will be bolstered by a pair of D-1
transfers in Colton Iverson from the University of Minnesota and Arizona
drop-down Daniel Bejarano who both started in last week's exhibition victory
over Metro State.
Dejarano was one of the most highly recruited guards in
the country when he opted to initially attend Arizona where he was part of an
elite-eight Wildcat team, while Iverson transferred in after playing three
years at Minnesota where as a sophomore he joined the Gophers in the NCAA
Forecast to finish fourth in the Mountain West, the Rams
lost a single home game last season and have won some 93 percent of games in
Fort Collins since Moby Arena opened in 1966.
CSU's 13-game home winning streak to end the 2011-12
season currently is the ninth longest in Division-1.
One of the strongest offensive teams in the country last
season Colorado State shot 47 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and
almost 77 percent from the free throw line.
The Rams shot just short of 50 percent in a 20-point
exhibition victory in which CSU hit eight of 17 from three-point range.
One positive point for Colorado State is the opportunity
they enjoyed in playing against the Bahamas All-Stars in August.
Not only did they play the game against a decent opponent
in winning by 15, but by NCAA rules the Rams also were allowed to practice for
10 days in advance of the trip.
That sanctioned pre-official practice is bound to benefit
any team but might prove especially valuable with a new coaching staff and
several new roster additions.
Pre-game from Fort Collins 6:30 p.m. with tipoff Friday
at 7 p.m.
The Grizzlies blow the lid off a new season Friday night with a potential payback rematch against Colorado State, a team they fell to by six points in Fort Collins in the opener last season.
And the defending Big Sky Conference champion Griz are certainly anxious to get out of the gate against a Mountain West opponent.
All-Conference point guard Will Cherry remains sidelined probably for the month but with All Conference performer Kareem Jamar and returning starter Mathias Ward leading the way, the Grizzlies were projected by both the media and coaches to repeat as the league titlist.
Last season the Grizzlies captured four of the first non-conference tilts before dropping three of the next four, a squeaker at San Francisco and losses to Oregon State and Nevada before winning six straight, four of which opened the league season in spectacular fashion.
Montana you'll remember, lost only once in league against Weber State and fashioned a record 15-1 season to claim the right to host the league tournament which they subsequently won to capture the NCAA bid.
The Grizzlies were favored by all but three of the league's 11 coaches and notched 24 of 32 Media votes .
With the league schedule expanding to 20 games because of the addition of Southern Utah and North Dakota, there is just an eight-game non-conference schedule with just a quartet of home games before the turn of the year.
Minot State is the next home opponent on Wednesday with San Diego scheduled into Dahlberg Arena on Saturday, Nov.24.
Because of a turned ankle, JC transfer Spencer Coleman did not play in the exhibition win over Lewis-Clark State College but should be available to make the Colorado trip and in the pre-season was projected as a starter at small forward.
A half dozen of the league teams tip it all off Friday with Southern Utah traveling to No. 21 Gonzaga, Weber State entertaining Arizona Christian, UC Merced heading into Sacramento State, Pacific of Oregon headed nearby to Portland State and North Dakota in tough at Kansas State.
The era of the league's new coaches, Bill Evans at Idaho State and Jack Murphy at Northern Arizona, begins Saturday with the Lumberjacks at Oregon State and Idaho State at Utah State.
The music starts Friday with the Big Dance the ultimate goal.
Pre game at 6:30 p.m.
North Dakota State is the number one ranked team in FCS
football but there's still a plethora of additional teams that picked up
first-place votes as the 2012 season heads to fruition and playoff berths will
I have long voted NDSU as the nation's top team even
before with their superior defense the Bison really got things rolling.
Being a strong believer in defense wins championships and
long believing that the defending champion remains the next season's top team
until somebody proves otherwise, until their defeat at the hands of Missouri
valley Conference foe Indiana State by a field goal, they were my team to beat.
And as top ranked teams continued to fall, including the
Big Sky's Eastern Washington, and was knocked from the pinnacle, NDSU has not
only climbed the ladder but done so impressively.
And the Bison stand atop FCS football in total defense
and passing defense facing a game this week against 7 and 2 South Dakota State.
But while NDSU claimed the vast majority of the panel's
first place votes (more than 72 percent), voters saw fit to award 10 of the top
11, including of course second-ranked Montana State and league leader Northern
Arizona, first-place nods.
Seventeen voters including this humble scribe favored the
Bobcats as their number one choice while Eastern Washington, although not
receiving first-place consideration climbed back into the fifth spot after
handling Cal Poly, now losers of two straight after standing as one of just two
Sam Houston - 7 and 2 and a 70-0 winner last week - moves
up a spot to third followed by one-loss Old Dominion.
It is always interesting when a lower-ranked team, for
example this week Appalachian State, defeats a front runner like the Mountaineers
did to second ranked Georgia Southern, and is voted lower than the vanquished
The Eagles (7-2 ) fell just to the seventh spot while
Appalachian State (7-3) jumped only from No. 15 to No. 12.
While Northern Arizona received a pair of first-place
nods after trouncing Idaho State by 40 points, the Lumberjacks still stand just
Interestingly and probably a sign of national parity
there is a sole unbeaten, Lehigh (9-0), but they slipped past one-win Holy
Cross by just a point last week.
claimed the initial automatic bid Saturday by winning the Southland Conference
Griz senior running back Peter Nguyen continued his
under-the-radar assault on the Montana record books and a young Montana defense
continues to dominate as the Grizzlies head into the last game of the 2012
season with plenty to prove besides a victory over their cross-state rival.
With consecutive wins in the book, Montana has chance to
figure into the league's championship race with a closing home victory over
Montana State to possibly eliminate the Cats.
But that of course is after a bye week and with a bit of
a hiatus to examine just what the diminutive Nguyen has done in his four-year
Saturday at Weber in sharing mainstay-running back duties
with Jordan Canada, Nguyen went over the Century mark in rushing for the fifth
time this season and the seventh time in his career to move past both his coach,
Justin Green (1995-97), Monty Bullerdick (1978-79) and Josh Branen (1995-97)
into sixth on the career rush list.
And likewise with 88 reception yards, including a 72
yarder to go along with a 40-yard run, the Bellevue Wash product also added 191
all-purpose yards to move past Jabin Sambrano into sixth on the all-time list.
What is most impressive to me - and I've written about
this often - is the workmanlike unpretentious way he goes about his business.
Nguyen will be a great ambassador for Grizzly football
and from one of the most fabled high school programs in the nation that can do
nothing but be a benefit to recruiting a hotbed of high school football.
And the defense, which allowed Weber State but 238 total
yards, racked up another five sacks - Montana was second in FCS football in
that regard coming into the game - and forced and recovered three quarterback
Mike Hoke fumbles.
Zach Wagenmann continues to impress with two sacks, two
tackles for loss, and a pair of forced fumbles with six tackles.
Junior linebacker Brock Coyle again turned in a
double-figure tackle afternoon with a dozen and fellow backer Jordie Tripp had
a sack, a tackle-for-loss and a forced fumble to compliment his eight stops.
And while on special teams the 100-yard Wildcat return
certainly was a downer, remember the Grizzlies blocked a pair of roll-out punts
in the early going to gain valuable field position although they didn't make
the most of the scoring opportunities.
Just a great time to rock n' roll!
It was by no means an easy proposition - It never seems
to be in Ogden - but for the first time in the 2012 season, the Grizzlies put
consecutive games in the win column.
The season winds down to a single game against the
Bobcats after the bye week but still with an opportunity remaining to register
a 28th straight winning season.
But one-win Weber State kept things interesting and just
when you might have believed this one was in the books with Montana sporting a
10-point advantage at the four-minute mark, eight seconds later after freshman
Cordero Dixon went 100 yards down the Griz sideline it was back to a
But Montana put a top on the contest by running out the
last three minutes and 41 seconds with seven run plays safely moving just 25
yards from their own 21-yard line to balance their season mark at 5 and 5 and
win at Stewart Stadium for the first time since 2006.
Several times Saturday it seemed as if Montana might have
an easier time with the Wildcats but a pair of missed field goals among five
other successful trips into the Weber red zone kept the game close.
And when Montana culminated an 80-yard 14-play almost six
minute fourth-quarter drive with a nine-yard TD reception by Bryce Carver and
subsequent two-point conversion from Shay Smithwick-Hann to Sam Gratton in the
back of the end zone, the largest lead of the afternoon seemed to probably be
But a sideline return by the Florida freshman who hadn't
previously touched the ball this season altered any sense of a comfort zone.
But Weber could stop the clock just twice and the
Grizzlies gained just enough yardage and a pair of first downs to stifle any
late-game Weber heroics and send the Grizzlies to the west stands to sing the
fight song to the faithful throng.
Montana again rushed for more than 200 yards and the
retooled defense stuffed Weber's offense by controlling quarterback Mike Hoke
in the zone-read - sacking him four times and forcing his three fumbles - to
move to 3 and 4 in the Big Sky Conference.
And the bye week awaits.
Grizzlies altered their travel schedule and headed out on the road Thursday in
preparation for Saturday's matchup with Weber State.
Grizzlies are bound from Pocatello today for about a 90-minute hop down the
road to Ogden where they'll walk-thru at Stewart Stadium mid-Friday afternoon.
Grizzlies have had their challenges in Ogden, losing in the last two games on
the road against the Wildcats and prevailing by just a field goal in 2006.
ironically Montana has won 17 of the last 20 meetings and are 17-7 in Ogden but
you know it's what happened most recently that you remember the most.
suspensions, the offensive line will be retooled with Logan Hines moving in at
center with mammoth redshirt freshman John Schmaing taking over at left tackle.
Stuberg will take over at the Mike backer with Addison Owen backing Jordie
Tripp at the Sam backer and Brian Maus and Kelsey Lippert standing by.
the Wildcats have been away from home for the better part of the month and are
0 and 3 in the friendly confines.
sole win was 24-22 over Southern Utah in Cedar City while the Thunderbirds
upended Montana at Washington Grizzly Stadium, then lost the next week before
beating No 1 Eastern Washington so go figure.
Grizzlies, of course, are trying to keep from suffering their first losing
season in 28 years by claiming the last two games of the season to finish 6-5.
also seeks to win consecutive games for the first time in the 2012 season,
while the Wildcats broke a seven-game losing streak with the two-point decision
over Southern Utah.
junior kicker Tony Epperson, who was leading the nation in punting at 48 yards
a game, is lost for the season with an MCL tear but freshman Tyler McNannay
came on last week to post a 51.6-yard average, the fourth best performance in
Jody Sears, a teammate of Griz offensive coordinator Tim Rosenbach at Pullman
(Wash.) High School, the Wildcats have about as balanced an offensive attack as
Montana has seen this season.
for senior center Tytan Timoteo the offensive line is comprised of a pair of
freshman and two sophomores.
rushed the football 313 times (3.2 average) while attempting 270 passes gaining
about 209 yards a game.
quarterback Mike Hoke also is a capable running threat and like the Grizzlies
will run a zone-read offensive sets while completing just 57 percent for as
many TDs (8) as he has interceptions.
Weber is giving up 10 more points a game in league than they are scoring and
opponents have rushed for an average of five yards a carry.
But you can
bet it promises to be a wild one on the turf at Weber.
the usual 1:40p.m. at Stewart Stadium.
It is already November and that must mean it's time for Griz hoop.
The Montana Grizzly men take the floor tomorrow night as the Big Sky Conference defending league and tournament champion.
And with being selected in the pre-season to win the league and coming off a season when you set seven team records with 25 wins of course comes expectations.
But it is not as if the storied Montana program hasn't always had its own set of expectations especially coming off three consecutive 20-win seasons with a 68-28 record.
But the Griz team that hits Dahlberg Arena Thursday night will be minus starting point guard Will Cherry while also looking to replace a pair of starters lost to graduation after losing just 11 league games in three seasons.
A pair of sophomores, Keron DeShields and Jordan Gregory, replacing the injured Cherry at the point with all-league selection Kareem Jamar are more than capable at the point.
Steady-Eddie Mathias Ward returns as does post Eric Hutchison, Kevin Henderson, and forward Mike Weissner while forward Spencer Coleman and seven-footer Andy Martin could make it tough for playing time.
Everyone is eligible to play in an exhibition game but forward Jake Wiley is the sole Montana freshman.
Thursday's opponent Lewis-Clark State College, a NAIA squad that plays in the Frontier League, started its season with a pair of 60-point wins over Alberta-Augustana.
In the two victories, the Warriors shot some 54 percent while connecting on 16 treys.
The junior-laden Warriors are coming off a 16-13 season in which they were eliminated in the league tournament's first round.
Last year's league Newcomer of the Year, P.J. Bolte, has played off the bench in the first two games but still averaged 13 points and eight rebounds
But Head Coach Brandon Rinta has been starting a lineup comprised of all new players, who then are subbed for with veterans minutes later but don't expect the second-year coach to do that against Montana.
The high-scoring Warriors will need a dose of firepower to contend with a veteran Grizzly team with an abundance of players looking for playing time.
Montana opens the regular season next week against veteran Big Sky Coach Larry Eustachy's Rams at Colorado State.
With a second league victory Montana pushed Idaho State to solitary possession of the league basement but just a game worse than Northern Colorado and Weber State.
The Grizzlies have played in some cases two more league games than some other teams, but with the third circuit victory Montana can move into a tie with Southern Utah for the sixth league position.
Ironically the Wildcats, who have lost four of five league games, are winless in three home games and stand 1-7, but the Grizzlies show just a single road win, that over Northern Colorado.
Although they have dominated the series with Weber State 38-13, Montana lost to Weber State at Stewart Stadium in 2008 and 2010 and won only by a late field goal in 2008.
And that will lead to a little bit of a change with the travel routine.
The premier Big Sky Conference game occurs in Cheney where a pair of identical record and highly ranked teams in Cal Poly and Eastern Washington face off.
And Sacramento State, still in the conference hunt after winning four of six, look to verify its season when they host also one-loss Montana State.
League leader Northern Arizona travels to Idaho State.
The Lumberjacks continue to surprise pre-season coaches and media which voted NAU seventh and ninth respectively, while ironically Weber State was predicted to finish in the middle of the standings.
It certainly won't make up for the lingering feelings after the 2012 season brought little but disappointment but that slight sense of hope that all is not lost was sustained Saturday as the Grizzlies continued their decade-long domination of Idaho State.
Well just what happens when just about everything turns up roses just seven days after the Montana defense allowed the third most passing yards in FCS history in losing at North Dakota?
A resounding Grizzly victory in a game that early-on washed away some of the disappointment of a thus far less than stellar record and restored some fun and excitement to the faithful at Washington Grizzly Stadum.
The 70-24 verdict over an out-gunned Bengal squad was not by any means a thing of beauty but it was sheer domination and participation by every member of a football team that isn't ready to throw in the towel on a losing season but instead points to the road trip to Weber State with a chance to even their season record and still hold out hope for a winning season.
Montana's initial drive - 90 yards on 16 plays consuming more than four minutes - wrote the first words of Saturday's story line as the Grizzlies built a lead of 39 in the second quarter (42-3) and trumped any chance of a second-half comeback by putting up a pair of third-quarter tallies to build a 46-point advantage (56-10) that they held until the game's completion.
For the second straight week sophomore Shay Smithwick-Hann piloted the offense with three touchdowns, although he did suffer his first two interceptions.
But until being relieved by Trent McKinney and Adam Brzeczek, he engineered the Montana offense to some of the most sustained drives of the season by converting by far the year's best third down percentage (11 of 14).
Comfortable with their pace, Montana ran 85 plays and pounded the running game against the league's worst run defense to the tune of 379 yards and a 6.2 yard per carry average.
And while excellent receivers like Rodrick Rumble and Cam Richmond got loose against Montana reserves late and both eclipsed the century mark, the longest ISU completion of the day totaled but 26 yards and the worst rushing attack in the league gained but 35 yards on 18 carries.
The 70 points is the most since Montana scored 81 against Weber State and 73 against the Bengals both in 1999 and is the fifth most prolific scoring performance in school history.
Mired deep in the Big Sky Conference cellar and winless in a quartet of league games, Idaho State looks to break an eight-game losing streak against the University of Montana when it visits Missoula on Saturday.
The Bengals look to crawl out of sole possession of the circuit basement with an upset, and rare if you will victory at Montana.
With the league's worst defense, Idaho State sans suspended head coach Mike Kramer head to Washington Grizzly Stadium with a 0-4 league mark (1-6 overall) but are, depending on the day's results, just a notch in the win column from moving into a tie with four other teams for ninth in the Big Sky.
The Bengals last won in Missoula in 1983 and are giving up a league-worst 51.7 points a game and surrendered some 70 points in a loss at Portland State.
Deteriorating weather is a possibility which should assist the Grizzlies defending the pass attack of quarterback Kevin Yost and also should benefit the Montana rush game which stands second in the league at 230 yards an outing.
They'll face off against Idaho State's league-worst rush D giving up 333 yards an outing.
Idaho State has put itself in an early hole by being outscored 192-78 in the first half and has given up some three times more than they have scored in the third quarter (108-38).
The aforementioned Yost has completed some 65 percent of his tosses with 16 touchdowns against nine picks in an aerial attack that airs out the ball some 53 times a game.
Three receivers - Cam Richard (2nd), Josh Hill (3rd) and Luke Austin (10th) rank high in the league stats but don't overlook pre-season All-Conference selection Rodrick Rumble who joins a quintet of receivers with more than 34 catches although he has played in only five games.
Remaining at issue is which quarterback will get the starting call on Saturday.
Shay Smithwick-Hann (like hand) replaced freshman Trent McKinney at the end of the first quarter in Grand Forks and enjoyed a career-best outing which included three TD passes.
But Mick Delaney said the week's practices would determine who would go Saturday and both signal callers would be available for duty.
The first of the remaining two home games kicks off at 1:40 p.m. with the Grizzlies intent on not only finishing with a winning season but evening their conference record at 4-4 to finish in the middle of the pack.
And it all starts with a single W.
When the Grizzlies meet Idaho State Saturday at Washington Grizzly Stadium, the Bengals will be trying to accomplish something they have failed to do in more than two decades.
Idaho State journeys to Missoula without head coach Mike Kramer who knows just a little something about beating the Grizzlies in Missoula.
Kramer, who was suspended for Saturday's game for shoving a Bengal player earlier this month during practice, has defeated the Grizzlies at Washington-Griz while a head coach at both Montana State and Eastern Washington.
But associate head coach Don Bailey will be at the helm when Idaho State attempts to break an eight-game losing streak to Montana and win in Missoula for the first time since 1983.
The Grizzlies have four league losses with three to play for the first time since 1990 and look to win-out in order to preserve a season winning streak that started 27 years ago.
Montana leads the series 41-13 and blasted ISU 33-0 in Pocatello last season in holding the Bengals to just 121 yards offense.
Look for Idaho State to attack a maligned Grizzly pass defense that after last weekend's debacle in Grand Forks is allowing a league-high 307 yards an outing.
The Bengals and quarterback Kevin Yost ranks in the top five nationally in passing while Yost leads the league averaging some 346 yards per game.
Conversely the Grizzlies average a taste better than 230 yards an outing on the ground and challenge the circuit's worst rush defense, which allows 348 yards a game, and by far the worst defense (557.7 per-game).
The Bengals have surrendered at least 52 points in losing the last five games and while Montana leads the nation with 29 sacks, Idaho State has surrendered 21.
Not only has Yost been quite effective in throwing about twice as many TDs as interceptions, the Bengals have three of the league's top 10 receivers who all are juniors.
Montana has righted the listing ship a bit in turnover margin (minus 4) and the Bengals are the worst in the Big Sky at minus 10.
And what about scoring?
Montana ranks about in the middle of the league scoring just about what they give up while although the Bengals came close losing by seven at UC Davis, they gave up 77 points in losing at Portland State and have just about been doubled on the average.
The Griz remain up against it and there's no better time than Saturday to start a streak.
It's been an extremely long season for the Bengals of Idaho State, Montana's Saturday opponent in the next to last home game of the campaign.
With closing games at Montana and Cal Poly and home contests against Northern Arizona and the nightcap against Weber State, things do not look so favorable for the Bengals whose sole victory is over Black Hills State.
Three weeks ago Idaho State gave up 77 points at Portland State and it's been tough sledding both in and out of conference in the midst of a five-game overall losing streak.
Ironically until last week they ranked at the top of league-only stats in passing while quarterback Kevin Yost paced the circuit in passing and total offense.
But Idaho State also stood far at the bottom of the rung in total defense, giving up almost 100 yards more than any other Big Sky Conference team.
They've also given up far more touchdowns than any other team and stand far last in the league in scoring defense while themselves only scoring about three TDs an outing.
With just a few sacks on the entire season and themselves giving up about as many a game as they've produced all season and standing in the basement in turnover margin, to say the least it's been bleak.
But for Montana this is not a season to take anything or any team for that matter for granted.
And needed to run the table to preserve a record 27 consecutive winning season streak is only possible with victories over ISU, Weber State and the Bobcats, some kind of tall order for a team yet to win consecutive games.
The Bengals have two of the league's top 10 receivers in Josh Hill and Luke Austin and sophomore linebacker Mitch Beakstead averages some nine stops an outing.
And senior Donovan Henley is one of the top pass defenders around who also owns a couple of league interceptions.
Losing three straight league games at Washington Grizzly Stadium is unthinkable and believe me when I say this team is working as hard now as it did when the season began.
Let's hope it starts to pay hard-earned and richly-deserved dividends over the next month.
A quartet of big Sky Conference teams occupy the first 13 spots in the Sports Network FCS poll this week and even more impressively three stand in the list's top 11 positions.
While only defeating Sacramento State by a field goal last Saturday but in tying their season win total of a year ago, 2010 National Champion Eastern Washington received all but 39 of the 164 first-place votes cast by a nationwide panel to remain atop the poll of the FCS elite.
It must be a season for Eagles as with the defeat of No 2 ranked James Madison, the once beaten Eagles of Georgia Southern moved into the runner-up position, followed by defending titlist North Dakota State and No. 4 Montana State.
After an eight-point defeat of Portland State and now one of just two unbeatens new league member Cal Poly jumped three spots to No 11 while the top 10 was rounded out by Sam Houston, Old Dominion, Wofford, unbeaten Lehigh, James Madison and Stony Brook who received its highest ever ranking.
After a 14-point victory over UC Davis last week and with just a sole loss to Arizona State, Northern Arizona jumped three spots to 13th while after suffering a third defeat in eight games at the hands of highly regarded and once-beaten Wofford, Appalachian State dropped three positions to No. 16.
The bye week had little effect on the University of Albany which jumped into everybody's elite listing at No 24 for the first time in the poll since 2006 the year before the North East Conference team fell to Montana in Missoula.
With 5 and 3 Richmond moving into the poll after edging No 2 James Madison by six, the CAA now has a national bests seven teams in the Top 25.
South Dakota State, which was 20th and previously undefeated Harvard (No.22), fell from the list after defeats at the hands of Northern Iowa (2-5) and Princeton (4-2).
Along the lines of just what do I have to do for recognition, while North Dakota quarterback Braden Hanson was throwing for a league-record 660 record, it was receiver Greg Hardin who shares the Sports Network offensive Player of the Week laurels.
Not by any means to minimize Hardin's gaudy numbers (33 receiving yards and a school record 420 all-purpose yards), but Hanson's performance also deserves accolades and his completions to a trio of receivers who all broke the Century mark should have been an exception to honoring just a single North Dakota athlete.
At least Hanson is a senior but the Grizzlies might tire of seeing Hardin at the Alerus center where they are scheduled to play the next two years.
For a team whose offense was fairly balanced coming in, the University of North Dakota exploited Montana with a record aerial barrage Saturday in Grand Forks.
The Grizzlies put on quite a display of character at the Allerus Center rebounding from a two touchdown deficit to take a third-quarter three point advantage, but the final two minutes belonged to North Dakota as they played the clock and favorable field position to come away with a wild 40-34 win.
Montana couldn't find record setting receiver Greg Hardin all afternoon and didn't find him on a slant from right to left as he sailed into the end zone with 12 seconds remaining for the touchdown to break a 34-all tie.
It was a wild one with more than 1,200 yards of offense, 74 of 110 passes completed and 171 plays.
UND senior gunslinger Braden Hanson was virtually unstoppable as he picked the Grizzly secondary apart and while sacked three times and pressured on several other occasions, he consistently found a bevy of receivers to put up record-setting totals.
With 13 receptions and 152 yards, Blair Townsend was a catch short of his career total but the day certainly belonged to Hardin.
His 333 reception yards set a Big Sky standard and his trio of scores places him second on UND's career list.
But Hanson simply was remarkable.
He completed 42 of 61 passes for a conference record of an astronomical 660 yards and five scores even with three interceptions.
The 704 yards of offense set a North Dakota school mark while with 87 yards of kick returns Hardin also broke the school's single-game all-purpose mark with 420 yards.
For the Griz the afternoon belonged to a pair of budding stars, reserve quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann and receiver Ellis Henderson.
Shay came off the bench at the end of the first quarter and put up career totals by completing two-thirds of his throws (26 of 39) for 306 yards, just short of the team's best performance of the year, and three scores.
While Henderson, a grey-shirt true freshman caught eight for 123 yards and a 43-yard tally.
Montana now is left to salvage a winning season with three straight wins but there is no quit in this group.
There's no doubt in my mind that the bitter taste of defeat was washed away and the focus set for Idaho State, the first of two remaining home games.
Because of the disappointment with their record, fans may not now understand the commitment and integrity of this group and their coaches.
But I share Mick Delaney's prediction that this youthful group has a National Championship looming in their future.
This season's record is little measure of what makes this team tick and with three games remaining I'm hopeful they'll enjoy the success they so richly deserve.
One contrast that sticks out as you examine stats from Big Sky Conference games involving North Dakota and Montana is found in the red zone.
The last third of the season is upon us and the Griz are back on the road in Grand Forks.
Montana is one of two teams in FCS nation who have failed to hold an opponent out once they have brought the ball inside the 20-yard line.
Cluttering that stat in league play the Grizzlies are one of the worst in the league at getting into the end zone themselves scoring just 10 TDs in 19 trips inside the 20 and converting just 15 times.
UND meanwhile is third in the league in red-zone scoring proficiency scoring 14 of 15 times with 11 Tds and three field goals and also stand third in red-zone D forcing a league-high three turnovers inside the 20 and allowing 17 scores in 20 attempts.
North Dakota plays an odd-front - meaning they line up a trio of defensive lineman with their hand in the dirt - and lead only Northern Colorado and Idaho State in total defense.
They have allowed an average of 478 yards an outing but stand second in the league in pass defense where they have allowed 12 TDs in four league games and almost 69 percent completions.
But UND has been able to stop few teams on the ground.
They lead just Idaho State in rush D allowing 5.7 yards-per carry, some 268 yards per game and eight TDs.
In comparison the rush game has been very effective this season for Montana as they stand third in the conference averaging almost 250 yards per outing.
Senior Peter Nguyen now stands 12th in that regard just two yards back of the "Little Penguin," Dick Imer, to move into the top 10 with Libby's Jody Farmer next on the list and has a chance to make it to the top six on the career list.
Unlike the Grizzlies who lead the league, UND is not a sack-oriented team but are led by Dominque Bennett (No. 46) with 3.5.
And while North Dakota is just minus three in turnover margin that's because quarterbacks have been intercepted but five times while they have forced but six picks and recovered three fumbles.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1:40 p.m.
Saturday's game in Grand Forks is a renewal of a long-ago rivalry between a pair of teams who used to engage in their own kind of border war.
The Grizzlies embark this week to play in the indoor confines of the Alerus Center for the first time and it's the first time Montana has challenged UND on the road since losing there in 1973.
A new member of the big Sky Conference, North Dakota moved to the circuit from the Great West Conference but formerly played against both Montana schools in the days of the North Central Conference.
North Dakota has experienced a bit more difficulty with the new league than unbeaten Cal Poly and UC Davis having now lost three straight and facing Treasure State schools on back-to-back Saturdays before capping off the season with Southern Utah and at Northern Colorado.
After starting the campaign with victories in three of four games including road wins at Portland State (non-conference) and Sacramento State sandwiched around a six-point loss at San Diego State, North Dakota has lost league games to Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona to stand tied with Montana at 1-3 in league and 3-4 overall.
Sporting a two-headed attack with a pair of seniors at quarterback behind a huge and highly effective offensive line, UND gives up few sacks and features a balanced attack passing 128 times versus 140 rushes.
6 foot 5 Marcus Hendrickson has completed just 57 percent but for 15 TDs against just three picks leaving him fifth in the nation in passing efficiency.
But Braden Hanson got the start last week against NAU and the southpaw connected on 19 of 29 for 233 yards and three touchdowns in a seven-point loss.
Junior receiver Greg Hardin hauled in a score from both quarterbacks and is second in the nation in scoring catches with nine while standing seventh on the UND receiving list.
But Hardin is just three receptions ahead of redshirt freshman Jamer Jackson (6 foot 3) who enjoyed his first 100-yard receiving day against the Lumberjacks and is tied for the freshman national lead with six TDs of his own.
But while averaging 267 yards via the airways, UND also runs the ball to the tune of 173 yards an outing.
Senior Mitch Sutton (6 foot, 220) leads the way averaging just short of five yards a tote and has scored nine TDs of his own while junior Jake Miller (5 foot 11, 167) is averaging a cool 6.3 yards-per-carry.
North Dakota has had little problem scoring (37) but we'll look at potential mismatches of defense where they allow some six TDs an outing on Friday.
A couple of interesting tidbits as the Grizzlies head to the last third of the season at best with an outside playoff chance and at worst one of the league's spoilers.
The Grizzlies hit the road this week for a recently at least rare visit to North Dakota.
And if the season's results are any indication playing on the road after a first-ever pair of back-to-back losses in the same season at Washington Grizzly might bode well for the team.
Road teams, including of course Southern Utah, claimed four of six league games Saturday. Visiting teams now have won 15 of 24 Big Sky Conference games.
It is no coincidence that league leaders Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and now No. 1 ranked Eastern Washington are the only league teams without a home loss.
Also of interest it's been 17 years since the two Montana schools both lost a home game on the same day and the two home losses Montana has sustained this season marks the first time since 1990 that has occurred.
It also marks the first time since 2005 that Eastern Washington has defeated both Montana schools in the same season. Also boding well for the Eagles, since 2010 EWU is 19-1 in games contested after Oct. 1.
Now that's playing at your best when your best is needed!
Eastern Washington is 4-0 in the league for the first time since joining the circuit in 1987.
Also of distinction the Grizzlies and Holy Cross are the only teams in FCS land who have failed to stop an opponent inside the 20-yard line.
All 20 times the opposition has been in the Montana red zone they have scored (14 TDs and 6 field goals).
On the up-side after seven sacks against Southern Utah, led by sophomore defensive end Zack Wagenmann with eight this season, the Grizzlies now lead the nation with 26 sacks while allowing just a dozen.
From the just-in-case-you-missed-it file - Idaho State QB Kevin Yost threw for 374 yards and a career high five touchdowns in the Bengals' loss to UC Davis, while with a pair of scoring tosses MSU's DeNarius McGhee broke the career standard (63) and now has thrown for a score in 33 consecutive outings.
And just so you don't think I'm a stat monster, most of this information is provided by Jon Kasper in the league office who does an amazing job.
It was not surprising to me that Eastern Washington University, the 2010 national titlist, moved this week to the head of the Sports Network Top 25 poll.
So let's examine the top 25 poll which was indeed scrambled after four of the top five teams lost over the weekend.
The Eagles (5-1) made a resounding and somewhat surprising jump from sixth to the top spot receiving twice as many first place nods as James Madison (5-2) who took a pair of overtimes to slip past William and Mary and jump from fourth to the runner-up spot.
While I voted Eastern to the lead I thought once beaten Georgia Southern, a perennial poll favorite who defeated No 5 Wofford, might jump the Eagles to the forefront but those Eagles made just a climb from No 7 to the third spot.
And while Defending champ North Dakota State was upset by two-loss Indiana State in a key Missouri Valley Conference matchup, the Bison fell just to fourth, while last week's runner-up Montana State dropped just to fifth with the home loss to Eastern Washington.
I guess three of the top five coming from the west is an indication maybe some of the east-coast bias that sometimes dominates polls isn't so present in the Sports Network listing.
However, voters scrambled in voting for the top team as nine different schools received first-place votes.
But it seems unbeaten Cal Poly (6-0) is fighting a losing battle since they moved just a single spot to No 14 after their defeat of Northern Colorado.
And Northern Arizona (5-1) isn't getting their due respect remaining No 16 after picking up a road win at North Dakota.
Incidentally CAA teams lead the poll with six while the Missouri Valley has five and the Big Sky four.
But it is also interesting to me that I assume eight voters handed a vote to Montana in the 25th spot leaving the Grizzlies with those eight votes and a No. 39 ranking while Sacramento State continues to get some respect and stands in the 30th spot after just beating winless Weber State by five.
Lehigh, Harvard (with the nation's longest winning streak at 14), and Tennessee State join Cal Poly as the sole FCS unbeatens at what I guess can be termed the season's halfway mark.
Bitter disappointment was further punctuated at Washington Grizzly Stadium Saturday with a minute and change remaining when Miles Crawford Harris meandered barely touched 34 yards down the Southern Utah sidelines putting icing on the cake of a thunderbird victory.
It is in an unfamiliar place as Montana falls to Big Sky Conference also-ran status surprisingly in the midst of the 2012 season and for the first time in the history of the grand lady loses successive games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The second half of Saturday's game turned to torment when the Grizzlies couldn't muster offense (five first downs), handing off a four-point advantage that could have been a one-touchdown lead except for a missed field goal at the end of the second quarter, and fell to a Southern Utah team that seemed to hang around until the time was right to send Montana reeling into unfamiliar league obscurity.
A fake punt that blew wide open on the Montana sidelines as Grizzly defenders settled five yards off the line of scrimmage sealed the deal and instead of having possession and a two-minute drive away from possible victory, it was the Thunderbirds who put up a 38-yard field goal for a three-point advantage and a win in Missoula for the second time.
Special teams for Montana were anything but special as two field goals were blocked, a punt fumbled inside the 10-yard line, and a fake punt performed to perfection.
With league games against North Dakota, Idaho State and Weber State preceding the finale in Missoula against Montana State, the Grizzlies are left to the task of winning three of four to finish with a winning record for the 28th consecutive season.
And if they ran the table beating the Bobcats in the final game and sporting a four-game winning streak I suppose at 7 and 4 and with the program's reputation there is an outside chance Montana could be selected as an at-large entry into the 20-team post season field.
Even that is a tall order for a Grizzly team that has yet to win consecutive games and with a 1-3 mark and 3-4 season record is relegated near the league basement.
Montana's league dominance has ended but you know what they say about streaks.
One big challenge for a Grizzly team that has put the ball on the ground many times this season is facing a team like Southern Utah that put a premium on causing turnovers both through the air and more specifically on the ground.
Southern Utah is a team a whole lot better than their 2 and 4 season record might indicate.
One of the first things that jumps out at me about our visitors from Cedar City is their ability to force opponents to put the ball on the ground or in their hands.
The Thunderbirds lead the Big Sky Conference and rank high on the national charts in turnover margin at plus 10.
But beside the 11 they have recovered against losing just one of their own is the 20 times they have forced the pigskin out of an opponent's arms.
That is more than three fumbles a game and along with eight interceptions accounts for 14 more possessions than the Grizzlies who stand minus four after registering a plus five in that category in the win at Northern Colorado.
The Thunderbirds are working at causing fumbles, that's for sure.
A stat that is missing is how many points Southern Utah has scored off turnovers - Just for comparison sake the Grizzlies netted just 10 points off four first-half turnovers last week in Greeley.
The other overlooked stat that seems significant to me is that Southern Utah opponents are far more penalized than any other league team except Idaho State.
In six games SUU opponents have averaged 10 penalties and better than 89 yards while the Thunderbirds have been flagged just some six times a game for 37 less yards, third fewest in the league.
Montana stands near the bottom in opponent's penalties at about 56 yards and six-plus flags a game, not much different than the number called against the Griz.
And another interesting tidbit - Montana is last in red-zone defense since opponents have scored at least a field goal (5) all 16 times they have been in the red zone.
But how about that seven-play goal line stand in Cheney?
Meanwhile Southern Utah leads the league in goal line defense and stands second in red-zone offense.
Opponents have scored just 12 TDs in 21 trips into the SUU red zone while Montana opponents are 23 of 27 with 17 touchdowns.
However the Grizzlies lead the league causing three turnovers out of the four times out of 27 times opponents did not score deep in Grizzly territory.
But here's the one stat that I find extremely noteworthy - third down conversions.
The Grizzlies convert about 40 percent of the time while allowing about 37 percent but Thunderbird opponents have been successful on third down some 51 percent of the time, 10 percentage points better than Southern Utah.
While it's all just numbers, after teams have played five or six games, some tendencies are worth considering or maybe not.
It's your call.
It couldn't be more fitting that Griz running back Peter Nguyen has surfaced as a prime performer in this his senior year and with a career-best performance last week in Greeley he also has begun to receive the accolades he so rightly deserves.
Senior Peter Nguyen is due the recognition of a blue-collar Montana performer whose acts speak volumes more than his few words.
The diminutive Nguyen, an honorable mention all league performer last year as a running back, also is a three-year All-Academic selectee who has played in 46 consecutive games.
And on Saturday he put up career numbers by averaging more than 10 yards a carry and gaining 159 yards to go over the Century mark for the third time this season and the fifth time in his career.
The 159 yards against Northern Colorado equals Jordan Canada's total last season against Portland State as the 30th best single-game effort in Griz rushing history.
One of the quiet leaders of this 3 and 3 Griz unit, Peter came to Missoula after leading his Bellevue, Wash. team to an undefeated state championship season as a senior.
The leading rusher returning from last season's team, Peter already has rushed for 440 yards in six games and now is just a couple of good games from moving into the top 10 on the career rushing list.
But Peter is far from being a single-facet performer.
He stands seventh in career all-purpose yards with more than 3,700 and could well soon move past Jabin Sambrano and approach Levander Segars in the fifth spot.
With a 90-yard TD to his credit this season Peter now stands seventh in punt return yards, just 48 yards out of sixth, and while currently not returning kickoffs is sixth in that career category with 1,352 yards.
Add to those impressive statistics 67 pass receptions for better than 700 yards and six touchdowns, accompanying seven on the ground, and you have a diagram of a complete player.
Averaging better than 117 all-purpose yards per game, he stands eighth in the league while also sitting second in punt return average.
One of this year's captains, at just 5 foot 8 Peter Nguyen epitomizes the kind of team player that this season's Griz team displays prominently both on and off the field.
There certainly doesn't seem to be much of a home-field advantage as the Ides of October approach and the Big Sky Conference nears the half-way point.
As the circuit has separated itself a bit as some contenders and pretenders are in evidence and a few other teams hang in limbo waiting in some cases for the poll sitters to beat up on each other.
Surprises? Well there have been a few and Griz Nation knows full well about disappointments.
But the most interesting thing to me is the lack of home-field dominance which of course can easily be misleading this early in the season.
Road teams, including of course Montana, won four of six league games last week and now have claimed 11 of the 18 league games contested.
Now some of that of course rings true because teams like Idaho State, Northern Colorado and Weber State are winless and a quartet of front-running entities remain unbeaten.
But games like at Cedar City where upstart Sacramento State bounced back with a fourth-quarter tally to upend two-loss Southern Utah and the Bobcats scoring 17 fourth-quarter points to decision UC Davis indicate playing in the friendly confines, thus far at least, isn't much of an advantage.
New league member Cal Poly, which always has been a thorn in the sides of Big Sky teams, doubled down on Weber Friday night for a fourth straight road win and stand unbeaten after five games for the first time since 2004.
And in Ogden the Wildcats under Interim Coach Jody Sears after the sudden departure of John L. Smith are winless after six games for the first time also since 2004.
And entertaining Northern Colorado Saturday sets the table nicely for the Mustangs to win a seventh home game in the last eight matchups.
With the Southern Utah win, surprising Sacramento State, picked in the pre-season in the bottom third of the league, moved to 4-2 for the first time this Century (1999) by winning a third straight road game.
Six and 0 is MSU's best start since they won seven straight in 1978 when they fell in a pair of late league games and ended up tied with Montana for the runner-up league spot with a 4-2 league mark behind league champion Northern Arizona.
Needless to say there's a whole lot of action left in this league race and with a pair of front runners - Montana State and Eastern Washington - meeting in Cheney this week, there's plenty of fur left to fly.
With Montana playing two of the next three and three of the final five at home who knows what will come of this season?
Now certainly the Grizzlies separated themselves from the league cellar with the win at Northern Colorado relegating the Bears to share the circuit basement with also winless Weber State and Idaho State.
But because of the undefeated logjam at the top of the 13-team league, Montana also moved within a game of second place Sacramento State (2-1).
And the league's top spot will be affected this weekend when undefeated Montana State, which dodged a bullet at UC Davis last week, visits the red turf in Cheney against the also unbeaten Eagles.
But what is most interesting to me is because of the unbalanced schedule although Cal Poly faces Eastern Washington in Cheney, the Mustangs don't play either Montana or Montana State and NAU misses the Cats but has a league finale in Flagstaff against Cal Poly.
Single-loss Sacramento State misses NAU but travels to Eastern Washington and Bozeman.
Meanwhile the Grizzlies - tied in the loss column with North Dakota, Portland State, Southern Utah and Davis - have games remaining this week against the Thunderbirds and next week at North Dakota.
Far from being determined the Cats still look to be the team in the driver's seat especially if they can solve the Inferno but while Denarius McGhee continues to put up impressive numbers, on several occasions Montana State has been on the deck facing late-game deficits and proved the better team by keeping their record unscathed.
The Grizzlies realize it is a must win-out scenario to even play into a championship conversation but with a possibility of riding a five-game winning streak into a finale against Montana State, this team's goals remain intact and should certainly provide sufficient drama to keep the Griz faithful anticipatory and entertained leading up to Thanksgiving.
An early hole was dug but there still remains plenty of time build momentum to the finish line.
The Grizzlies put together one of the more complete performances of the season to put the engine of momentum back onto the track Saturday and with two of the next three games in the friendly confines, separated by a trip to North Dakota, took a step toward righting the season.
Certainly all is not right with Griz World but the turn-over battle which had Montana as one of the worst teams in the nation in that regard took quite a turn in the wintery conditions of Colorado.
And Montana's convincing victory on homecoming week in Greeley was even further punctuated when it was revealed on the charter trip home that the plane's Sun Country's co-pilot was a six-time Space Shuttle commander who gently brought the team to the ground in Missoula a mere three-plus hours after they sought solace from a biting cold of Nottingham Field.
Four interceptions, the first a pick six by Caleb Walden when the snap came bowling balling back to punter Mason Puckett, cut the turnover ratio in half and while they did not all result in scores the end-of-half field goal after a Nate Harris pick led to a 10-zip halftime advantage and set the stage for second-half fireworks that led to 30 points.
Except for a bit of a slow start, Dominic Gunn's start of the half TD return and a late meaningless score, the afternoon belonged to a resurgent Grizzly team that evened its season mark at three and three and with the victory climbed out of the conference cellar.
There was plenty to like as Peter Nguyen toted the rock for a career high 159 yards, 138 in the second stanza, as the Grizzlies dominated the Bears for the 12th straight time.
Again the rush game was in evidence and really Northern Colorado had no answer for a 294-yard effort that averaged six-plus yards per carry.
Eleven different receivers hauled in a reception with no one catching more than Jordan Canada's three balls and Montana quarterbacks Trent McKinney and Shay Smithwick Hann in relief for a series completed 17 of 28 for 158 yards.
There's certainly a ways to go but everything has to start somewhere and with Southern Utah headed to town the Griz look to push the season's momentum a step further.
Looking to get back on the winning track and with fresh leaves on the ground to turn the Grizzlies embark Friday to the high country of Colorado.
A hopefully resurgent football team is bound for Greeley or at least more accurately Fort Collins where the team stays tonight.
It's a battle of current tail-enders in the Big Sky Conference for Homecoming at Nottingham Field as both of the league's Ursus stand winless after a pair of conference outings.
Montana's three losses have come to FCS teams ranked in the top 20 while Northern Colorado stands winless against second-ranked Montana State and Sacramento after an opening blasting and shutout at Utah.
And with a loss either of the teams will undoubtedly be eliminated from league title consideration relegated to playing the part of the spoiler.
The Bears return home after three road games while Montana is coming off one of the tougher opening months in program history and look to get over the hump with two of the next three games back in the friendly confines of Washington Grizzly Stadium.
There is little doubt this continues to be all about the Grizzlies this week who have failed to finalize leads the last two games in losses to Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington.
With four teams unbeaten after a pair of league games and an additional three already saddled with a pair of league losses, the circuit is starting to separate itself.
The Grizzlies are desperate for a win not just to even their season mark at 3 and 3 and win their first league encounter of the season but also to restore some confidence shaken with an 0 and 2 start for the first time since 1992.
It is a long and challenging road from the hole they've dug but be assured this team is anything but finished for the season when more than half the games are yet to be contested.
The biggest improvement for the Bears this season probably is on the defensive side of the football yet Northern Colorado still allows 379 yards a game, 165 yards on the ground and 213 via the airways.
But they have failed to mount a rushing attack, averaging just 75 yards per game, leaving quarterback Seth Loboto, the former professional baseball prospect, surely to his own devices.
While he is still looking for a go-to receiver - he's thrown to 11 different targets - Loboto stands eighth in the league with an average of 219 yards a game but ironically has thrown for but two TDs in four games (1-3).
Ground-Mick could be in evidence again for Montana this week but also look for Trent McKinney to air out the football against a Bear defense that also allows more than 200 yards a game.
Montana has failed to show the ability to go vertical in the passing game and while the ground game certainly has been effective, it hasn't converted to league victories.
Kickoff is 1:37 p.m. from Greeley. We'll see you on the airways.
The one good thing about taking on Northern Colorado on Saturday is that current Buccaneer's receiver Vincent Jackson isn't in the lineup since he hauled in 15 the last two meetings he played in.
But the bad thing is Bear's quarterback Seth Lobato has completed passes to 11 different receivers in UNC's first four games.
But here's another one of those streaks - The Grizzlies have defeated Northern Colorado 11 straight times and haven't been beaten by the Bears since Gene Carlson's inaugural 4-6 season when the two teams met for the first time in 1976.
Like Montana the Bears have lost two straight league games - at Sacramento State and at Montana State - but are coming off a rare for them mid-season bye week and it's Homecoming at Nottingham Field.
Now about Laboto.
The junior signal caller goes all of 6 foot 5 and recently became the fourth quickest quarterback in school history to throw for 3,000 yards.
Now in 18 games, he's thrown for 3,443 yards and last time out in Missoula he aired it out 46 times completing 30 for 254 yards, the most against Montana by a Bear QB since the series resumed after a long hiatus in 2002.
High on the game-plan chart for Montana though is multi-talented Dominic Gunn who just flat went off against the Grizzlies in a 55-28 loss last year at Washington Grizzly Stadium.
He established a D-1 UNC school record with 215 all-purpose yards including a 94-yard scoring return, had an additional 99-yard runback called off because of a penalty, and additionally caught four passes for 55 yards.
This season he is the team's second leading receiver with 11 catches for 159 yards but he is averaging 22 yards on 10 punt returns, one for a 74-yard TD, and even with the change in the kickoff yard-marker has returned kicks at better than a 13 yard clip.
While Laboto's completion percentage is lacking (just over 50 percent) he's teed it up an average of 36 times an outing for 875 yards in four games but for just 2 touches and has been picked four times.
In a pair of league road losses, UNC has been outscored 69-33 and only averages some 18 points in four outings with four rushing TDs to go along with just two via the airways. Ironically they are familiar homecoming foes, having met for the affair the last three years.
I've already broken the drawing board so it will be difficult to go back to it but really fans it's about execution and not so much technique anyway.
Montana faces the long trek to Colorado this week, the first of the remaining three long road trips in the next month in this new, wild and wacky Big Sky Conference.
What is it I said going into the Northern Arizona game, streaks are made to be broken?
And now after 195 straight weeks as a top 25 team that streak also has fallen aside with a slip from 20th in the rankings after the loss in Cheney.
But streaks have to start somewhere and there would be no better time than to even the season mark and catch the season's initial league victory against Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Road teams have won seven of the 12 conference games thus far and while certainly not at all minimizing the Bears, this part of Montana's schedule - No Colorado, Idaho State and Weber State - should even out the difficulty of the first month.
The Cats have thus far proven themselves the class of the circuit and with a seven pointer over Southern Utah last week have now claimed five consecutive games at the start of the season for the first time since 1958.
While Montana fell out of the rankings, the Griz still stand 18th in the Jeff Sagarin computer rankings trailing Eastern at tenth as six league teams occupy the top 25.
And with the league ranked third in FCS conference strength and this year for the last time 20 teams to be selected for the post season, it bodes well for several league teams to be playing on Thanksgiving week.
But before any thought of that of course it's Northern Colorado on the agenda and the Bears are coming off a bye and have had two weeks to prepare for a program they have not defeated since 1976.
UNC is last in the league in offense, score just 18 points a game while allowing four TDs an outing. They won their only home game - a non-conference affair - stand 1 and 3 and are picked at the league bottom.
It is certainly a place to start.
It's been a long September for Grizzly football but here's hoping promise awaits here at the turn of the calendar and the arrival of fall.
I am casting an opening of October glance at a rare three-loss month and an 0-2 conference start for the first time since I started calling Griz football in 1993.
Now make no mistake there have been a few three and four loss seasons since that first year.
Montana lost three of its last six in 1994, had four losses in both 97, 98, 03, 05 and 2010, while dropping three in 1999, 2002 and 2004, but it has been rare indeed - just once in 20 years since Montana has suffered three league losses.
Now don't think that means I am throwing this team under the bus and resigned to a failing season but remembering the history is important.
In recalling the last time Montana even had a losing season under Larry Donovan in 1985 the Grizzlies lost three of Don Read's first four games at the helm, went three and 3 at the head of 87, were 2 and 3 in 1991, and amazingly started 1 and 5 only to win out and run the sheet in five straight wins in 92 to finish 6 and 5.
While it may not seem so given the successes since the turn of the Century, loyalists of Griz Nation have endured quite the opposite before the program put up a record of 139 and 33 since 2000, the most wins of any FCS program and one of the top winning percentages in all of Division-1 football.
Certainly it will be a long road back no matter how the remainder of the season unfolds, but this Montana team is a hard-working entity that has two starting seniors on defense and just a quintet of senior starters on offense.
We realized there would be growing pains and Mick Delaney and his coaches and team certainly offer no excuses for the miscues or for that matter the three losses.
There are a half dozen games remaining with three rigorous road trips awaiting the team in Colorado, North Dakota and Utah.
And the old cliché "it doesn't get any easier" certainly applies, but there's a building block to success awaiting Montana in Greeley and without looking not a day past Saturday, well who knows?
Eastern Washington snatched the joy of victory from the jaws of the agony of defeat in the last 2 ½ minutes under a full moon Saturday night in Cheney and maintained its recent mastery over Montana.
Montana failed to put away the game to an Eastern Washington squad to fall below .500 and possibly out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1992.
And the way true freshman quarterback Vernon Adams is playing, throwing efficiently as well as being a robust run threat, there will no quarterback controversy in Cheney.
What probably is most discouraging for the Grizzlies is again a failure to finalize when the game was in their reach after scoring 16 unanswered points to move from a seven-point halftime deficit to a six-point lead.
This all while shutting out the Eagles in the third quarter.
And even after Griz-beater Brandon Kaufman's - who has three-straight 100 yard receiving games against UM - scoring reception with two and change remaining, Montana still held the advantage by a bucket.
But a perfectly executed on-side kick recovered by a high-flying Kaufman handed the ball back to the Eagles close to mid-field and they efficiently milked the clock while driving for the go-ahead TD connection from Adams to Ashton Clark.
A desperation drive in the last 50 seconds fell short when freshman receiver Ellis Henderson was tackled ill-advisably in-bounds sending the field into an inferno of student celebration for the second consecutive time the Grizzlies have played on the red surface.
Oh there was plenty of up-side for Montana just not the number in the left-hand win column.
The No 7 Eagles couldn't control Montana's 61-carry rush game which produced an amazing 407 yards even without Dan Moore who went down with a foot injury.
The Grizzlies were five yards short of three players over the Century mark led by Jordan Canada's career-high 167 yards and Peter Nguyen's fourth 100 yard game with 23 totes for 119 yards and QB Trent McKinney adding 95.
By no means is the season over at two and three but in order to remain more than just a league spoiler, the Grizzlies are in a win-out scenario with the long trip to Greeley to face Northern Colorado next on the horizon.
There is no time to lick your wounds in a football season and there was little doubt, with a bevy of young players in key positions, this would not be a work-in-progress Montana season.
While the Grizzlies have now put the hammer down on a higher-ranked opponent, it's now time for this team to learn to close the door.
For Eastern Washington the road to a league title and subsequent trip to the FCS playoffs has several early-season obstacles.
And on Saturday, Montana hopes to throw down the first stumbling block, a gauntlet if you will.
The Grizzlies look to avenge a 2010 loss when these two teams played the first game in Cheney on the red turf.
That game saw the No. 18 Eagles upset No. 6 Montana 36-27 in a matchup that was separated by just a field goal until the game's final play when the Eagles put icing on the cake en route to a national championship.
More than 3,000 students attended the affair which broke the home attendance mark of better than 11,700 and the usual sell-out for this game in Cheney is expected.
It seems like it always is a barn burner when the I-90 affair is contested but the Grizzlies often have the upper hand, lead the series 26-11, and have won seven of the last nine matchups.
But ten recent games have been decided by 10 points or less and while Eastern Washington shared the 2004 and 2005 league title, the Eagles are the only team other than the Grizzlies to win the outright championship when their soon-to-be Hall of Fame team (to be inducted in October) advanced to the FCS semi finals in 1997.
The Eagles already are surrounded by plenty of intrigue since fifth-year head man Beau Baldwin was coy with the media about just who might be his starting quarterback and what is the status of several injured players.
Redshirt freshman Vernon Adams got the nod last week at Weber State but gave way to two-game starter and SMU transfer Kyle Padron after he cramped up at halftime.
Baldwin said he's unsure which direction he would go and might play both signal callers, Padron the passer and Adams the run threat.
Senior receivers Nick Edwards and Greg Hurd have also been banged up leaving potential All-American Brandon Kaufman to carry the load and he's registered three consecutive 100-yard games.
Linebackers Zach Johnson and J.C. Agen both are game-day decisions and D end Paul Ena, whose sister was a Lady Griz also is questionable.
And running back Demetrius Bronson carried the ball a couple of times last week rebounding from a hamstring injury that keeping him sidelines for a pair of games in the Palouse, the win at Idaho and a four-point loss at Washington State.
As usual and for the fifth straight season both teams are ranked but it's Eastern with the lofty expectations standing seventh in the country with the Grizzlies falling to their lowest ranking in several years at 20th.
It shapes up as a must-win for Montana, which faces a string of three roads games in four weeks, while looking to avoid opening the league season 0-2 for the first time since 1992,
Game time at 5:15 Mountain.