Griz begin West Coast road trip with 5-1 conference record
Coming off a two-game home sweep and winners of seven of their last eight games, the Montana Grizzlies embark on one of the team's more vexing Big Sky road trips at Portland State and Sacramento State this week.
Montana took over sole possession of second place in the league standings on Saturday, dispatching an aggressive North Dakota team 76-70 thanks in part to a double-double from Fabijan Krslovic and 20 points from Ahmaad Rorie.
The Griz (10-9, 5-1 BSC) will take the momentum to Portland in a showdown with the Vikings (10-6, 3-2 BSC), one of the nation's most productive teams. Montana then heads to Sacramento State on Saturday, a place head coach Travis DeCuire is yet to taste victory.
THE GAME: The Griz and Viks meet in a clash between a team that has been at or near the top of the Big Sky table since the beginning of the season (PSU), and a program that has emerged out of a brutal nonconference as one of the strongest in the league (UM).
The Vikings will be playing their third game in six days, after being forced to make up a weather-delayed game against Northern Arizona in Flagstaff this past Monday, Jan. 16. Portland State will no doubt be hungry for a win against the Griz, with the Viks falling to the Lumberjacks 83-76, handing NAU their first league win of the season.
The Vikings are 6-1 this year at home, beating the likes of North Dakota with a 99-point scoring barrage, but have also fell to Northern Colorado, who the Griz defeated soundly 89-68.
"You look at Portland State, and they're probably as talented as anyone in this league," said DeCuire. "Man for man, body for body, they've got more athletes than anybody in the league, top to bottom. They've got good shooters, they've got good size, lengthy, the whole thing. So, when they're ready to play, they're as good as anyone."
The Griz, winners of three-straight road games, will look to avoid a repeat of last year's trip to Portland when UM dug out of an 11-point PSU lead to claim the 82-80 win thanks to 52 points in the second half and a career night for Martin Breunig with 32 points.
Montana and Portland State tipoff at 8 p.m. (MT) on Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Stott Center.
WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the world can watch the UM at PSU game live and free of charge on the league's digital video streaming platform, WatchBigSky.com, and via the Big Sky Conference Mobile App, available to download free from the App Store and on Google Play.
The "Voice of the Griz" Riley Corcoran will bring you the statewide radio call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network. An audio-only stream of the radio call is also available at GoGriz.com. Fans can also follow live twitter updates @UMGRIZZLIES_BB, and live stats are available at ViksLive.com.
SERIES HISTORY: The Grizzlies lead the all-time matchup with Portland State 35-22, and hold an 11-9 advantage in Oregon.
LAST MATCHUP: Breunig scored 26 of his 32 points, and Walter Wright tallied 15 of his 17 points in the second half as Montana rebounded from a slow start to beat the Vikings 82-80 at the Stott Center.
"They'll be ready for us this year," said DeCuire. "I remember Martin had to make about 10, 11 shots in a row to get out of there with a win. So, we're going to have to play our best basketball Thursday; there's no question about it."
IMPLICATIONS: With the midway point of the Big Sky season fast approaching, Thursday's matchup at PSU is an important clash between two top-five teams on the Big Sky table, with the Griz sitting in second, and the Vikings sitting in fourth. Come tournament time in Reno; the top five teams will get an ever-important first-round bye.
GRIZ TRACKS: After six Big Sky Conference games, the Grizzlies are painting a picture of a deep team that holds on to the ball, shares it efficiently and is does whatever else it takes to win a game defensively. A solid formula as the business-end of the season approaches.
Montana is taking care of the ball better than any team in the league since the start of conference play, averaging just 7.3 turnovers per game while forcing its opponents into over 12 giveaways per game. Nowhere was that more evident than against Weber State, where the Griz coughed-up the ball just once, followed by a strong outing against North Dakota, with just seven turnovers.
Walter Wright and Rorie have been a major reason why UM has the best assist to turnover ratio in the league since Big Sky play commenced before Christmas. In the last four games, Rorie has given out 12 assists with Wright close behind at 11, while the pair has only given up four turnovers each in that timeframe. On the season, the two standout guards have dished out 122 assists between them, exactly 61 each.
On the opposite side of the ball, Montana now has the Big Sky's best scoring defense in conference play, holding opponents to an average of 66.7 points per game.
The Grizzlies' stable of guards is producing the best perimeter defense in the Big Sky right now too, allowing opponents to make just 34 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Montana held North Dakota to just four three-pointers, tying the Fighting Hawks' lowest output of the season, a mark they set in their 99-62 loss at Portland State.
GRIZ BITS: Rorie has been one of Montana's steadiest hands shooting from behind the three-point line, making over 40 percent of his shots behind the arc, the league's twelfth-best rate. In UM's win over North Dakota however, Rorie didn't hit a single three, the first time in nine games he hasn't hit from range…. Against North Dakota, the Griz picked up their first win of the season when giving out fewer assists than the opposition, dishing out 11 to UND's 12… It's also the first win for the Griz when tied with their opponent in rebounds (36)… Montana is now averaging 73 points per game (it's highest output of the season), while opponents are now averaging 71.3 PPG…. After holding UND to just 70 points, Montana is now 10-0 when holding opponents to 70 or less…. The Griz are 4-0 in 2017.
SCOUTING THE VIKS: Portland State is proving they are as powerful as ever this year, averaging over 87 points-per-game, the No. 11 ranked scoring offense in the nation. The Vikings are also a handful defensively, ranked No. 3 in the nation in steals with nearly 11 per game.
No. 7 West Virginia is the top team in the nation in steals at 12.6 per game, and have earned the nickname "Press Virginia" with their tenacious defense, described by Dana O'Neil on ESPN.com as causing "disruption and mayhem, with the ball flying all over the court in their wake."
While PSU doesn't employ the press often, causing disruption and mayhem might be an apt description for the way the Vikings play their defense, having scored 51 points off turnovers against North Dakota in December.
"What they do is, you get behind them, and they're reaching from behind. They're jumping in passing lanes, and when you go up for a shot, they slap the ball out of your hand and all of a sudden they're gone the other way," said DeCuire.
"They create more offense off of bad defense than any team I've ever seen in my life."