If you tried to paint a better scenario for a Montana-Montana State basketball showdown, you’d be hard pressed to beat Saturday’s setup for the Brawl of the Wild in Bozeman.
The Griz and Cats are currently in a three-way tie for fourth place alongside Idaho heading into the final two weekends of the regular season, each looking to secure an all-important first-round bye at the league championship with a top-five finish.
Montana (14-14, 9-6 BSC) has won four out of the last five, hitting a bump in the road against Sacramento State last Thursday before rebounding to beat Portland State at home on Saturday.
Montana State holds an identical record (14-14, 9-6 BSC), and has been playing some of its best basketball of the season in recent weeks. MSU has won four-straight home games including overtime victories over Idaho and Eastern Washington, and their last eight games have been decided by six points or less, including UM’s 90-84 win in Missoula on Feb. 4.
While there are no guarantees in rivalry basketball, you can bet both teams will be as fired up as ever to take the court on Saturday.
“We’re going to have to bring our A-game. It’s the biggest game of the year on our schedule, no question about it. You have to come with a championship mentality,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire, who is looking forward to the rivalry environment.
“They’re energetic, their football team’s there, it’s rowdy, it’s noisy. When it’s been like that for Eastern and Idaho, you’d better expect it’s going to be louder for the Griz. We embrace that. We look forward to those crowds. I think we play our best basketball in those types of atmospheres.”
In addition to pride, bragging rights, and a potential first-round bye, history is also on the line for the Griz in Bozeman on Saturday.
In over a century of basketball, Montana has never led Montana State in the all-time series, dating back to the first meeting between the two in 1905. The Grizzlies tied the series at 147 wins each on Feb. 4 in Missoula, and have the opportunity to put UM ahead for the first time ever.
THE GAME: Tipoff for the Griz/Cat game is set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in a Bozeman doubleheader, with the Lady Griz and Cats getting started at 2 PM.
The Grizzlies have won 13-straight games over six-straight seasons against the Cats, dating back to the 2010-11 campaign under Wayne Tinkle.
With senior night at MSU on Saturday, Montana’s group of four seniors is a class that has never suffered a defeat to their cross-state rivals, and DeCuire wants to make sure his younger squad members understand the importance of the game he learned as a player at UM.
“I think guys in our program should feel obligated to help them (seniors) finish it off, and that’s something for Griz to be proud of and to look back on and be able to say. I can’t do that. I don’t know how many Griz there were, or Cats there were, who can look back and say they never lost.”
Not only is Saturday’s game surrounded by intrigue off the court, the on-court matchups look especially tantalizing as well.
MSU brings two of the Big Sky’s best shooters to the court in guards Tyler Hall (22.8 PPG) and Harald Frey (13.2 PPG). Hall has been one of the nation’s top shooters all season long, currently sitting at No. 5 in the NCAA rankings in total points.
While defenses around the league have focused their attention on Hall, Frey has stepped up at the Big Sky’s No. 17 scorer. Together, they have guided MSU to the No. 1 spot on made threes in the league this season. It’s a good thing Montana thrives on perimeter defense.
The Grizzlies have the Big Sky’s second best three-point defense, allowing opponents to make a mere 34 percent of shots from behind the arc.
With the stifling defense of Montana’s backcourt, this game has potential to be decided from the outside, not unusual in the guard-heavy Big Sky.
“It’s crazy because it’s the key every week,” said DeCuire on his teams need to produce perimeter defense.
“This is a game where you’ve got two guys (Hall and Frey) who can create their own shot and create for others almost as well as anyone in our league. That’s very difficult to guard, and that’s why they’re so good at home. So, we’re going to have to play the best defense we’ve played in months.”
BRAWL OF THE WILD: The 2017 Brawl of the Wild series is presented by Northwestern Energy, Town Pump Food Stores, and BlueCross BlueShield of Montana.
With Men’s and Women’s Indoor Track and Field results still pending this week, Montana currently trails Montana State 3-5 in the 2016-17 Brawl of the Wild standings, the annual all-sport competition between the two schools. Montana has won every series since its inception in 2013.
IMPLICATIONS: With Weber State losing to Eastern Washington and Idaho defeating Idaho State on Thursday, the top of the Big Sky table is wide open heading into Saturday’s round of games. At 12-3, North Dakota sits on top of the standings (a team the Griz beat in January), with EWU and WSU tied in second at 11-4. Idaho, Montana and Montana State all sit in a tie for fourth place on the table at 9-6.
The winner of the Griz/Cat game could potentially move into a game out of second place with both Montana and Montana State set to travel to Ogden to face Weber next week, and Idaho set to face Weber on Saturday.
WATCH/LISTEN: The Brawl of the Wild can be seen across the state over the airwaves, through your cable box, and on your computer.
If you have rabbit ears on your TV, the game can be seen on ABC channel 23.3 in Missoula, 5.3 in Great Falls, 21.3 in Helena, 18.3 in Butte, 28.3 in Bozeman and 8.2 in Billings. If you are a Charter cable subscriber, SWX Montana will carry the game on channel 199, except in Billings, where SWX is carried by Charter on channel 503. You can also point your internet browser to WatchBigSky.com, or download the Watch Big Sky mobile app for a live stream available globally as well.
The Montana Grizzly Radio Network will provide the statewide radio broadcast featuring the “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran. Live stats are available at GrizStats.com, and live Tweets are available at @UMGRIZZLIES_BB.
LAST MATCHUP: Montana made 23-straight free throws to finish the game in Missoula on Feb. 4, and exploded for 60 second-half points (26 of which came from Ahmaad Rorie) to give the Griz a 90-84 win.
Ahmaad Rorie scored a game-high 28 points, and Michael Oguine added 22 and pulled down nine rebounds to lead the Griz. Montana’s defense held Hall and Frey both to a pair of quiet 22 point outings, and UM’s bench outscored the Cats’ 25-20 while scoring 12 more points in the paint than the visitors.