The 2018-19 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball schedule was announced on Tuesday by the league offices, and now with 11 teams instead of 12, the format looks a little different from years past.
Over the past four seasons, each team has played an 18-game conference schedule, meaning seven teams were played twice while the other four were seen just once per year. With North Dakota moving to the Summit League, the Big Sky announced in May that it would be moving to a 20-game league schedule, allowing every team to play each team twice – once at home and once on the road.
On the surface, not accounting for travel and off days, the 20 games should create a more balanced schedule. Every team will now play the same opponents entering the conference tournament. In many ways, that can be viewed as a positive, creating a more neutral format. With 20 league games instead of 18, it also guarantees two more Division-I opponents for each school, including an additional Division-I home game.
Scheduling at Montana – getting teams to come to Missoula, particularly – can be difficult, so by adding a guaranteed home game, in some ways it makes it a little bit easier for Travis DeCuire and his staff to fill its schedule.
“It’s hard to get people to play us, so the upside is that we have two more Division-I games, and more importantly one more Division-I home game that we don’t have to schedule,” DeCuire said. “I definitely see that as a positive.”
On the other hand, the new format also takes away flexibility for DeCuire, and can limit things like scheduling games that bring in guaranteed money or games against opponents in areas of high recruiting value. Another challenge to the new format is fitting in 20 games into an 11-week period. In order to do so, each team will now play several Monday night contests, in addition to the typical Thursday and Saturday matchups.
“It has a big impact on our flexibility,” DeCuire said. “In one way, it’s less stress because two games are already filled, but in another way it creates more pressure because we’re trying to play several high-major games, plus play in areas we recruit to, and that makes it a little bit more difficult to do when you have fewer opportunities.”
Montana’s road to defend its Big Sky title will begin at Northern Arizona (Dec. 29) and Southern Utah (Dec. 31). The Grizzlies’ first home games on their Big Sky schedule will be the following week, hosting Sacramento state (Jan. 3) and Portland State (Jan. 5).
After playing four games in eight days, Montana will have just three over the next 18, all on the road – at Eastern Washington (Jan. 10), at Northern Colorado (Jan. 12) and at Idaho (Jan. 19). Key home dates include Weber State (Jan. 26), Idaho (Feb. 7), Eastern Washington (Feb. 9) and Montana State (Feb. 23). The Griz will travel to Weber State for the first time in two seasons on Feb. 14, and will play the first installment of the Brawl of the Wild on Feb. 2 in Bozeman.
Like the front of the schedule, the back end is also loaded, with four games in eight days leading up to the conference tournament. The team’s final home game will be March 4 vs. Northern Arizona. Montana will close its regular-season schedule March 9 at Sacramento State.
Also new, five teams will now earn a bye into the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Championships, which this year will be held in Boise, Idaho. The top five seeds would have to win three games in three days in order to win the title, while a lower seed (No. 6-11) would have to win four in four days. There is no off day like there has been in the past, which should be an advantage to higher seeds.
Still, DeCuire would like to see the top seeds receive more of a benefit.
Now with a balanced, 20-game schedule, he believes that the top two seeds will have established themselves as the top teams and should receive more of an advantage in the conference tournament, perhaps earning a bye into the semifinals like some leagues do.
“Everyone has a different approach and every coach’s demands are different,” DeCuire said. “There aren’t that many common goals across the board, which makes it difficult to please everyone. The conference has to figure out what’s important to them and determine how they’re going to put their top teams in a position to succeed.”
Montana’s entire 2018-19 schedule, including non-conference dates and opponents, will be announced in the coming weeks once all contracts are finalized.
Below is a look at the Grizzlies’ 2018-19 Big Sky Conference schedule:
Saturday, Dec. 29 – at Northern Arizona
Monday, Dec. 31 – at Southern Utah
Thursday, Jan. 3 – SACRAMENTO STATE
Saturday, Jan. 5 – PORTLAND STATE
Thursday, Jan. 10 – at Eastern Washington
Saturday, Jan. 12 – at Northern Colorado
Saturday, Jan. 19 – at Idaho
Thursday, Jan. 24 – IDAHO STATE
Saturday, Jan. 26 – WEBER STATE
Saturday, Feb. 2 – at Montana State
Thursday, Feb. 7 – IDAHO
Saturday, Feb. 9 – EASTERN WASHINGTON
Thursday, Feb. 14 – at Weber State
Saturday, Feb. 16 – at Idaho State
Saturday, Feb. 23 – MONTANA STATE
Monday, Feb. 25 – NORTHERN COLORADO
Saturday, March 2 – SOUTHERN UTAH
Monday, March 4 – NORTHERN ARIZONA
Thursday, March 7 – at Portland State
Saturday, March 9 – at Sacramento State
Wednesday, March 13 – Big Sky Championship first round
Thursday, March 14 – Big Sky Championship quarterfinals
Friday, March 15 – Big Sky Championship semifinals
Saturday, March 16 – Big Sky Championship finals