After picking up a historic Big Sky road sweep over Idaho and Eastern Washington, the Montana Grizzlies resume league play in the friendly confines of Dahlberg Arena on Thursday and Saturday (Jan. 12 and 14), when Northern Colorado and North Dakota visit Missoula. First up: Northern Colorado.
THE GAME: The Griz (8-9, 3-1 BSC) will look to move to .500 for the first time this season when the UNC Bears (7-8, 3-1 BSC) come to town for the only contest between the two schools this season. Due to an unbalanced league schedule, the Griz will not make the Greely/Grand Forks road swing, and due to self-imposed penalties, UNC will not participate in the Big Sky Tournament in Reno, Nev.
Despite having a new coach in first-year head man Jeff Linder, and facing the prospect of no postseason play, the Bears have been one of the surprises of the Big Sky this season, after being picked to finish No. 10/11 in the preseason polls.
Like Montana, UNC enters the game in Missoula at 3-1 in conference play, having picked up a challenging road sweep of its own over Sacramento State and Portland State, then falling to Southern Utah at home.
Tipoff from the Adams Center is set for 7 p.m. on both Thursday and Saturday.
PROMOTIONS: Thursday night is youth night at Dahlberg Arena, where kids 12 and under will get free entry when accompanied by an adult. The always popular and painfully adorable “Toddler Trot” will take place on the court at halftime.
WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the world can watch the UM/UNC 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, live stats are available at GrizStats.com.
SERIES HISTORY: Montana leads the all-time series with Northern Colorado 20-8, and are 11-3 in Missoula, dating back to the first meeting between the two schools in 1970.
LAST MATCHUP: In a classic trap game, the Griz missed out on a share of the Big Sky regular season title when UNC came to Dahlberg Arena and handed UM a 78-72 loss on senior night, only the second home loss for the Griz in the ’15-’16 season.
Montana went nearly 10 minutes without scoring a field goal early in the second half, turning an eight-point lead into a nine-point deficit from which UM was unable to recover.
IMPLICATIONS: As Thursday’s meeting will be the only game of the season between UM and UNC, Montana will be looking to move to 5-2 at home, and set themselves up for success as the mid-point of the conference season draws near. Likely to be on head coach Travis DeCuire‘s mind: avoid another trap like last year.
GRIZ TRACKS: Montana’s resilience through the difficult nonconference season is beginning to pay off, with the Grizzlies gritting out a six-point win at Eastern Washington. The Griz are 3-5 on the season in games decided by six points or less. They are also a missed free throw against Weber State from being 4-4 and entering the UNC game on a six-game win streak.
After holding EWU to 59 points, the magic number of 70 still holds for the Griz defensively. Montana is a perfect 8-0 when holding its opponents to 70 points or less. And after undergoing a rough November, the Griz are 7-3 in the months of December and January.
The Bears and the Fighting Hawks present similar challenges to the Griz, both led by an outstanding pair of guards. Sophomore Jordan Davis leads UNC in scoring, averaging 20 points-per-game, and preseason Big Sky MVP Quinton Hooker is averaging 18.4 PPG for the Fighting Hawks.
“They’re going to get up, try to push the ball, push the tempo. Tons of ball screens on the offensive end for both of these teams, which makes it nice, because when we got to practice we can work on a lot of those thigs,” said Montana associate head coach Chris Cobb.
“They’re both really talented, they both have really good guard play, it’s going to be a huge challenge.”
While guard play is a staple of the entire Big Sky Conference this season, Montana’s guards have been creating some magic of their own, and it involves sharing the ball instead of just scoring.
“You look at the top five and six scorers in the league, and they’re all very talented players, but they’re taking 20 to 25 shots a game,” said DeCuire.
“That’s where you win games. Get more shots than your opponent, and you’ve got a chance.”
Also central to Montana’s wins over the last month: rebounds. The Griz are now the No. 2 rebounding defense in the Big Sky, averaging just under 35-per-game. UNC, however, brings the league’s No. 1 rebounding offense to Dahlberg Arena.
Keeping Fabijan Krslovic in the lineup strengthens Montana’s rebounding and defense immeasurably. Actually, here are the measurables: No. 6 in the league in rebounding at 7.1 per game, No. 5 in offensive rebounds, No. 15 in steals (no small feat for a post player), and No. 13 in blocked shots.
SCOUTING THE BEARS: In addition to being the Bear’s leading scorer and the league’s No. 4 leading scorer this season, Davis is the league’s leader in assists, averaging 5.7 per game, which puts him at No. 45 nationally.
Rebounding is another strength of the Bears, who rank No. 34 nationally in defensive rebounds per game and list three players in the Big Sky’s top-20 total rebounding list (Kai Edwards, Jonah Radebaugh, and Ibrahim Sylla) each averaging over five boards-per-game.
Montana brings the league’s second-best free-throw percentage at .752 to the game against the UNC Bears, who has the league’s worst percentage from the line at .619.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The annual Grizzly Scholarship Association “Fan Appreciation Tailgate Party” is set for Jan. 28 in the Adams Center’s East Auxiliary Gym, ahead of Montana’s rematch with the Idaho Vandals.
Festivities will get under way at 4:30 p.m. and go until roughly 6:45 p.m. to allow fans a chance to get in their seats for the game. Hot dogs will be sold for $1, and drinks will be available as well, including a selection of canned beer for sale.
PLAN SOME EXTRA TIME: The city of Missoula has begun work on the Madison Street bridge, one of the main arteries in and out of the Adams Center. Griz fans should plan on allowing extra time to get to and from the game or use alternate routes, such as Campus Drive.
Work has started on the northbound lanes of the Bridge Deck. Those lanes are be closed during construction, and the southbound lanes have been reconfigured to serve both northbound and southbound travelers.
The anticipated completion date for the Madison Street Bridge Rehabilitation project is August 2017, weather permitting.
The pedestrian/bike under-bridge below the Madison Street Bridge, which connects the river trail system, will be open until mid-spring. The trail system will remain open throughout the project with the exception of the trail access directly southeast of the bridge.