Senior Katie Baker
July 18, 2012
When Robin Selvig, who will be coaching his 35th Lady Griz team next winter, says “It’s going to be a totally new thing” and he’s talking about something basketball-related, it should grab your attention. Because for a coach who is in the been-there, seen-that, done-that stage of his career, totally new things don’t come around very often.
What Selvig was talking about this week, the totally new thing, was his 2012-13 schedule, which was finalized recently.
For Lady Griz fans who have grown comfortably accustomed to routine -- a month and a half of nonconference games against a long list of familiar rivals, the popular late-December Lady Griz Holiday Classic, Big Sky Conference games starting in January -- hold on. It’s a brand new world.
With the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to the Big Sky Conference, league teams will now have a two-and-a-half-month, 20-game conference schedule, up from 16 the last six years and 14 as recently as 2005-06.
It means the loss of four early-season, nonconference games, league play starting prior to Christmas and a new tournament with a condensed title -- the Lady Griz Classic -- taking place at an odd time -- the first weekend in December.
And Montana will start its season two time zones away in Philadelphia, the farthest from home the Lady Griz have opened the season since playing in Hawaii’s tournament in 1991. The times, they are a changin’.
“It’s a big change this year,” Selvig said. “With 20 league games there are fewer things you can control.”
The abbreviated nonconference schedule has meant the elimination of two traditional rivals that knew their way around Missoula and Dahlberg Arena: Portland and Gonzaga. The Lady Griz had faced the Pilots every year dating back to the 1995-96 season and the Zags every year since 1986-87.
The 20-game Big Sky schedule and 29-game, regular-season limit means Montana will have nine nonconference games before opening Big Sky play at home on Dec. 20 against Northern Arizona.
And even that will be new. Former NAU coach Laurie Kelly departed last spring for Gustavus Adolphus, a Division III school in Minnesota of elite academic status, and was replaced by former Arizona assistant Sue Darling.
Four of the season’s first five games will be on the road. It is a tough start, but Montana has the type of experienced team that can handle it. And because of the early grind, the Lady Griz won’t have to step foot on a bus or go through airport security for the entire month of December.
Following exhibition games at Dahlberg Arena against Carroll (Oct. 30) and Minot State (Nov. 5), Montana will open its regular season at Temple on Friday, Nov. 9, the first-ever meeting between the Lady Griz and Owls.
Selvig’s rationale for the season opener is simple. The trip introduces his players to a city most of them have never seen, and it locks a quality opponent into a return trip to Missoula in 2013-14.
“We’ll get a chance to get the team to Philadelphia, and we’re bringing a really good team back here,” Selvig explained.
“We don’t play guarantee games, and that’s not a new philosophy. If we go somewhere, we want to get that team back to our place. That approach allows us to generate a good, interesting home schedule, and Temple certainly helps us do that.”
The Lady Griz and Owls will be at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Montana, which went 16-14 last season and finished fifth in the Big Sky Conference at 9-7, lost only Tianna Ware off last year’s team. The Lady Griz return nearly 99 percent of their scoring and over 99 percent of their rebounding.
Temple went 23-10 in 2011-12, a season that included a 14-game winning streak, and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. But the Owls lost four of that team’s top five scorers and have only two upperclassmen on its 2012-13 roster.
Montana will open its regular-season home schedule against MSU Northern on Tuesday, Nov. 13, then play at Idaho on Sunday, Nov. 18.
Of the four teams playing in UNLV’s Lady Rebel Round-Up the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, Montana is on the only one that did not make the WNIT last season. UNLV, Bowling Green and Villanova all won at least 19 games last winter and played deeper into March than Montana.
Villanova went the farthest, losing to Colorado in the WNIT’s third round, but it was Bowling Green that had the best season. The Falcons lost their season opener at Dayton by 31 points, then went 24-6 the rest of the way. The six losses came by a grand total of 13 points.
“UNLV’s tournament has a really strong field,” Selvig said. “Bowling Green has been really good for a long time, Vegas has been up and down, but they’re getting better, and Villanova is a Big East team that is generally in at least the middle of that conference. And in the Big East, that means they’re really good.”
If Montana and Villanova are matched up on either the first or second day of UNLV’s tournament, the programs will mirror one another in at least one way.
Selvig took over the Lady Griz prior to the 1978-79 season as a 25-year-old and has never left. Harry Perretta, then 22 years old, was hired to coach the Wildcats the same summer. He, too, has never left. They’ve coached their programs to nearly 1,400 combined wins.
For the time being, the Lady Griz Classic, featuring Idaho and Tennessee State, will be played the week after Thanksgiving. This year it will be held Thursday, Nov. 29, through Saturday, Dec. 1, and be a three-team, round-robin tournament, with one game each night.
Selvig was unable to attract a fourth team to this year’s tournament, but Idaho happily accepted one of the tournament spots, even though it means the Vandals will have the face the Lady Griz two times in 12 days.
If anyone can commiserate with Selvig about scheduling difficulties, it’s Idaho coach Jon Newlee, who had to fill a whopping 16-game nonconference schedule last winter. A tough chore for a school located in Moscow, Idaho.
The Vandals ended up playing North Dakota THREE TIMES last season in nonconference games -- once at Grand Forks, once at Moscow and once at last winter’s Lady Griz Holiday Classic -- and had regular-season home games against Corban and Carroll, both NAIA schools.
Montana will host Idaho to open the tournament. The Vandals will face Tennessee State and first-year coach Larry Joe Inman Friday. The Lady Griz will play the Tigers Saturday.
Tennessee State went 9-20 a year ago but should see immediate improvements under Inman, a member of the Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame for his 20-year run of success coaching at Eastern Kentucky.
The ongoing trouble of filling the Classic -- this is the second time in four years it will be a three-team tournament instead of four and in 2009-10 there was no tournament at all -- has Selvig optimistic but noncommittal about the tournament’s future.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to generate fields, but we’ll definitely try to continue having a tournament,” he said. “We may mess with the dates next year, but we’d like to keep the tournament going.”
That leaves just Wyoming and Denver to round out Montana’s nonconference schedule. The Lady Griz will host the Cowgirls on Thursday, Dec. 6, and the Pioneers on Sunday, Dec. 16. This will mark the ninth straight year Montana has faced Wyoming and the fifth consecutive year Montana and Denver have played.
With Laramie and Denver separated by little more than two hours of interstate, it’s a convenient pairing for Selvig to keep on the schedule because of the opportunity to group the schools together every other year on a single road trip.
“We always try to put together a tough nonconference schedule, so even though we have fewer opportunities, that’s something that has remained the same,” Selvig said.
Montana will open Big Sky play before Christmas when the Lady Griz host Northern Arizona and Sacramento State on Dec. 20 and 22. The team’s schedule will not resume until traveling to Eastern Washington and Portland State shortly after New Year’s.
The Big Sky Conference has new additions in North Dakota and Southern Utah this year, and the growth has resulted in an expanded postseason tournament.
With three Division II national championships to its credit and a long history of collecting conference trophies, North Dakota is the more likely of the two newcomers to make immediate noise in the Big Sky.
UND dropped an ugly 60-39 decision to Montana at last December’s Holiday Classic to drop to 6-8 but got things rolling after that.
The team went 15-3 once the calendar flipped to 2012, won the Great West Conference regular-season and tournament titles and played in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
Like Northern Arizona, North Dakota will be under a new coach in Travis Brewster, who will try to replace a legend. Gene Roebuck coached the then Fighting Sioux to those three national championships and retired with a sparkling career record of 714-159.
Southern Utah went 6-23 last year and finished in last place in the 10-team Summit League.
The Big Sky Conference tournament will continue to take place at one location over three days -- this year Thursday through Saturday, March 14-16, the same dates as the men’s -- but the tournament will now be a seven-team affair instead of six.
The regular-season champion will not only host the tournament but be the lone team to get a bye to the semifinals. In the past, when the tournament field was six, the No. 1 and 2 seeds both received byes.
Under the new setup, the tournament will open Thursday with No. 2 facing No. 7, No. 3 meeting No. 6 and No. 4 playing No. 5. The three winners will advance to Friday’s semifinals, with the top seed hosting the lowest remaining seed.
The 11-team conference will make for some scheduling quirks. North Dakota and Northern Colorado are now travel partners, but the games against Southern Utah are now shoehorned into the schedule close to when Montana is playing Montana State.
Because of it, Montana will have a four-games-in-eight-days stretch in mid-January. After hosting Montana State on Saturday, Jan. 19, the Lady Griz will play at Southern Utah two days later, then remain on the road and play at Idaho State and Weber State the next Thursday and Saturday.
And the schedule originally had Montana playing at Montana State on the 19th, which would have been a four-game road trip that spanned nine days. The location of the first Lady Griz-Bobcat game was flipped with the rematch on March 9 to create day-night doubleheaders with the UM-MSU men’s games.
Fortunately Montana’s spring semester does not start until the following week, so missed class time will not be an issue on the lengthy road trip.
“The only bad thing about (the conference expansion) is the odd number,” Selvig said. “We’re all going to have a screwball in our schedules. Everybody is going to have a chance to not like something about their schedule, but you’ve just got to go with it.
“What coaches want is for everyone to be on a level playing field. Same road, same home. The odd schedule makes it so that’s not the case.”
As for an early guess as to who may be on top of the final league standings on Saturday night, March 9, don’t bother trying. You’ll get better odds playing the lottery.
In 2009-10 Eastern Washington was picked seventh in the preseason poll and won the regular-season title and No. 5 Portland State won the tournament.
In 2010-11 Portland State and Northern Colorado shared the regular-season title after being picked third and eighth. No. 4 Montana won the tournament.
And last season Idaho State was picked fifth in the preseason and ended up finishing first by a yawning three-game margin over second-place Northern Colorado.
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