Griz on the road again with conference tilt against Idaho

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At the 2016 Big Sky Conference Tournament in Reno, the Montana Grizzlies were tasked with facing the Idaho Vandals and Weber State Wildcats in consecutive outings, defeating Idaho in the semis before falling to Weber in the final.

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This week, the Griz (6-9, 1-1 BSC) will do the same in reverse order, heading to Idaho to face the Victor Sanders-led Vandals (5-7, 0-1 BSC), looking to rebound from a tough overtime loss to the Jeremy Senglin-led Wildcats. Sanders and Senglin are among the league’s best shooters at roughly 20 points per game each.

Last year the Griz bounced back from a regular-season loss to Idaho in Missoula to defeat the Vandals in Reno, and this season, the Griz expect nothing short of another tough outing between these two traditional rivals.

“They came in here last year like we were playing for a championship and I’m not sure we approached the game that way. The second time around we returned the favor,” said UM head coach Travis DeCuire.

“I think it’s going to be the same way this time as we’re going to their place and they are going to look at us as the team that eliminated them from the tournament, so it’s payback. We need to come ready for a fist-fight. It’s going to be a tough game.”

THE GAME: After opening league play 1-1 at home, Montana heads to the Palouse for its first road trip of the Big Sky season, starting with the Vandals on Thursday and capping the trip against Eastern Washington on Saturday.

A win for the Griz would right the ship after stumbling in OT against Weber, putting them at 4-1 over the last five games and giving them a boost of confidence heading north to face league-leaders EWU.

Thursday’s game at the Cowan Spectrum is only the Vandal’s second Big Sky outing of the year as UI fell to their league travel partner Eastern Washington 69-62 on Dec. 30, in Moscow.

The Griz and Vandals have faced two similar opponents during the nonconference season, with Idaho falling to San Jose State 58-49 in Moscow, the same team UM beat 81-62 in Missoula. Idaho and Montana both dropped games against Washington State, with the Vandals falling 61-48 just seven miles down the road in Pullman.

IMPLICATIONS: Idaho was picked by the Big Sky media to finish the year in third place behind the Griz, who were picked second. The league coaches, however, chose the Vandals to finish second and the Griz to finish fourth, giving Thursday’s showdown plenty for pundits to think about when tourney time rolls around.

WATCH/LISTEN: Griz fans around the globe can tune in to watch the Griz and Vandals live and free of charge via web stream at WatchBigSky.com.

The “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran brings you the statewide call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network, which can also be heard online at GoGriz.com. Live stats are available at GoVandals.com, and a live twitter feed can be found @UMGRIZZLIES_BB.

SERIES HISTORY: Idaho leads the all-time series with the Griz 85-108, dating back to the first meeting between the two schools in the 1915-16 season.

Montana is 2-2 against the Vandals since they rejoined the Big Sky Conference in the 2014-15 season. The last time UM traveled to Moscow in 2015, the Griz fell 92-87 in a double-overtime thriller, despite a career-high night for Jordan Gregory with 36 points.

LAST MATCHUP: At the league tournament in Reno, the Grizzlies shot a season-high 65.1 percent from the field on 28-43 shooting to defeat the Vandals 81-72. Montana shot a phenomenal 71.4 percent in the second half when the Griz made 15 of the 21 shots they attempted.

GRIZ TRACKS: After combining for 46 points against Idaho State and Weber State, Ahmaad Rorie continues to be Montana’s number one scoring threat, now averaging 16.5 points per game, good enough to put him at No. 8 on the Big Sky’s top scorer list.

But Rorie isn’t just about scoring the ball; he’s also taking care of it and leading others to the bucket as well. Rorie has the conference’s third best assist-to-turnover ratio, dishing out 49 assists to just 24 turnovers.

Walter Wright and Rorie have become Montana’s dynamic duo in the backcourt, combining for 99 of Montana’s 205 assists between them so far this year. Wright leads the way with 50 dimes to his name, the seventh-most in the league.

GRIZ BITS: Montana has scored the same amount of points as its opponents in the first half of games so far this year at 522-522… Opponents are outscoring UM in the second half, however, 565-554… The Griz have finished eight games this season by a final margin of fewer than nine points, and are now 1-5 in games decided by five points or less.

VANDAL TRACKS: Stifling D has been the name of Idaho’s game so far this season carrying the Big Sky’s best scoring defense into the matchup with Montana, allowing opponents just 68.8 points per game. Weber State was also allowing 68.8 PPG before Saturday’s game in Missoula when the Griz scored 81 points in the loss.

When Idaho and Montana met in the conference semifinal in 2016, the Vandals were allowing an average of just 66 points per game, but the Griz broke that average and put in 81 to advance to the tournament championship.

Idaho has been consistently strong on the boards as well, carrying the Big Sky’s best rebounding margin. The Vandals are averaging 36.5 boards per game while their opponents average just 33.6, giving UI a +2.9 margin.

Brayon Blake, a 6-foot-7 junior forward from Seattle’s Garfield High School (the same school as UM redshirt Alphonso Anderson), leads the Vandals in rebounding, averaging 7.1 per contest, the seventh-best average in the league. Griz forward Fabijan Krslovic, however, leads UM with an average of 7.5 per game, the conference’s fifth-best average.