Lady Griz finalize full 2018-19 season schedule
A home game over Thanksgiving weekend against one of the nation's top mid-majors? The potential for two road games against Pac-12 opponents? A full round-robin, 20-game Big Sky Conference schedule and a reconfigured tournament format to go along with a postseason move from Reno to Boise?
An exhibition game in mid-December, and not one, not two, but three league games scheduled for Mondays?
It's all part of the 2018-19 Montana women's basketball schedule that was finalized recently, the delay coming with the Big Sky Conference's move from 12 members to 11 and the attendant headaches in producing a schedule -- literally dozens and dozens of versions -- that everyone finally signed off on.
No matter the pains it took to get there, the result is a compelling lineup of games for coach Shannon Schweyen, who will be in her third season leading the Lady Griz next winter.
"There are a lot of challenges for us, especially in the nonconference," she said. "There are a lot of really talented teams on our schedule."
After playing just a single preseason exhibition game, against Carroll on Oct. 30, Montana will open its regular season with an early test. The Lady Griz will play at Gonzaga on Nov. 7 and face a team that has made the NCAA Tournament nine of the last 10 years out of the West Coast Conference.
With 20 of Montana's 29 regular-season games getting shoehorned between late December and early March as part of its league schedule, there were bound to be some longer-than-desired breaks between games prior to Christmas.
The longest will be 13 days and come after playing at Gonzaga and before hosting Providence (the Great Falls-based school, not the Friars) for the second annual Lady Griz School Day on Nov. 20, two days before Thanksgiving.
Then comes the nonconference highlight: a home game against South Dakota on Saturday, Nov. 24.
South Dakota State may be the school that comes to mind when talking about women's basketball in the Mount Rushmore State, but it was the Coyotes, not the Jackrabbits, who went 14-0 in the Summit League last winter, sweeping SDSU and winning their league games by an average of 19 points.
But it was off to the WNIT for the fourth straight year for USD when South Dakota State got the better of South Dakota in the Summit League championship game in March, the third time in four years the school to the north got the better of the school to the south in the postseason.
The Coyotes advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and have inflicted heavy damage on the WNIT field in the ensuing years. They won the whole thing in 2016 and advanced to the quarterfinals last season.
One of the best mid-majors you've never paid attention to is coming to Missoula for a post-Thanksgiving treat, giving the Lady Griz a delightful Gonzaga-School Day-South Dakota start to the season, followed by their home tournament one weekend later.
Montana will host the 38th Lady Griz Classic the first weekend of December, when it welcomes a fresh field to Dahlberg Arena: UC Davis, Nevada and Northern Illinois.
UC Davis won 25 games two years ago, 28 last winter, claiming the Big West regular-season title both years, but came up short in its conference tournament, twice having to go to the WNIT. The Aggies made the WNIT quarterfinals last season, a run that included a 20-point win over Idaho.
Nevada won 19 games last season and made the WBI. Northern Illinois finished 15-15.
A trip south follows, with games at Arizona and Grand Canyon. It will be the first-ever matchup between Montana and Arizona, which went just 6-24 last season as third-year coach Adia Barnes, the leading scorer in program history, continues to remake a team that has not had a winning season since 2010-11.
Help is coming. In November she signed the nation's No. 4-ranked recruiting class, the best in the Pac-12, players who will be true freshmen when the Lady Griz roll into Tucson in December, sophomores when the Wildcats return the favor and play in Missoula in 2019-20 in a return game.
Two days later Montana will face Grand Canyon, which has finished above .500 each of the last five seasons, with two trips to the WBI, after moving up from NCAA Division II, where it was a national-tournament regular. Last season the Lopes tied for third in the WAC.
A week after traveling to Arizona, Montana will jet to Seattle to play in Washington's tournament, against a field that is one team short of being set.
Washington, of course, will be there, just two seasons removed from a 29-win campaign, as will Boise State, which has made the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons.
Rumored to be the fourth entry is Saint Francis, a 24-win team last season that gained a bit of notoriety in the spring with its 140-52 loss to Connecticut in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Halftime score: 94-31.
Not wanting to take a nearly two-week break between the final day of Washington's tournament on Dec. 16 and the start of the Big Sky schedule on Dec. 29, Schweyen moved one of her two allowed exhibition games from the preseason to pre-Christmas.
Montana will host Montana Tech on Dec. 20 in a game that won't count on its record but will keep basketball as the focus for a few additional days before a short Christmas break.
Montana's Big Sky schedule will begin as it did last year, by hosting Northern Arizona and Southern Utah on Dec. 29 and 31. The Lady Griz used a 21-point comeback against the Lumberjacks last December to open 2-0.
Different this year will be a 20-game league schedule, as teams play a full round robin for the first time since 2013-14, when the league last had 11 teams.
The previous schedule -- 18 games for 12 schools -- had teams playing some opponents twice, some once, which left everyone debating at regular season's end just who had played the most difficult and easiest schedules, who had been tested and who had been given a reprieve.
"Everybody has an identical schedule now, so it should give us a much more true champion," said Schweyen.
"There were always arguments about so-and-so not having to play so-and-so twice, or a team only got this other team once, and it was at home. It will certainly be more of a true champion in that regard."
In addition to the departure of North Dakota to the Summit League, there has been additional disruption within the league the last few months as three programs have undergone coaching changes.
The most notable is at Northern Colorado, where Jenny Huth, an assistant at UCLA the last seven seasons, replaces Kamie Ethridge, who turned the Bears' run to the Big Sky title and NCAA Tournament in March into the head job at Washington State in April.
Tracy Sanders, the last 12 years an assistant at Saint Mary's, replaces Chris Boettcher at Southern Utah, and Weber State hired Velaida Harris to take over for Bethann Ord, who moved on to Binghamton after a checkered seven-year run with the Wildcats.
Harris was an assistant coach at Utah for six seasons before spending last year at Rhode Island.
The Big Sky schedule will feature the usual Thursday and Saturday games, plus a slate on Mondays as well as the league fits 20 conference contests for each team into a 71-day window.
The Lady Griz will play three Monday games, just one at home, on Dec. 31, when they host Southern Utah.
It will be a hectic finish to the season as Montana plays Saturday-Monday games at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, then returns home to close out the regular season later that week against Portland State and Sacramento State, on Thursday and Saturday, with travel to Boise on Sunday.
As of now, games are scheduled for Thursday and Saturday the final week of the regular season, despite the Big Sky tournament opening just two days later for the bottom six seeds, on Monday, March 11.
In the lead-up to Reno the last three years, the final week of regular-season games were played on Wednesday and Friday to better accommodate travel to the tournament site.
The tournament itself will also undergo changes, with women's games only on Monday and Tuesday of tournament week, with seeds 1-5 off until Tuesday.
Wednesday will be crossover day, as the men's tournament games begin and the women play their semifinals, five games in all. The women's championship game will be played on Friday, March 15, after a one-day break.
Montana will go into the 2018-19 season with a roster of 13, more than half of whom have not suited up for the Lady Griz or did not play last season.
But there's this: All five starters return from a team that was rolling in late January. That starting five, when Montana peaked with a convincing road sweep of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, included McKenzie Johnston, Sophia Stiles, Taylor Goligoski, Madi Schoening and Jace Henderson.
Henderson will be the team's only senior next winter, Stiles is coming off an ACL injury suffered in early February. The timeline of her return to full health is yet to be dialed in, but 10 months from the time of her injury would be early December, around the time of the Lady Griz Classic.