The Montana and Montana State men’s basketball teams will be coming from opposite ends of the spectrum when they square off for the 285th time Saturday night at what promises to be a sold-out Dahlberg Arena.
The common ground is that both teams have a lot riding on the outcome.
The Griz, ranked 18th in the Collegeinsider.com mid-major poll, have won 10 straight, 15 of 16, and are 13-1 in the Big Sky for only the second time in school history. A win over the Cats and another on Tuesday against Weber State would return the league tournament to Missoula for the first time since 2000.
The Bobcats, on the other hand, have dropped seven straight, lost their leading scorer Xavier Blount for the season as the result of injuries sustained in a bar fight less than two weeks ago, and are in a battle with Northern Colorado for the sixth and final berth to the postseason tournament.
“It’s nice if you can have confidence and have some momentum going, that’s for sure,” said Griz coach Wayne Tinkle. “But the flip side is we’re facing that wounded animal, a team that’s played decently but hasn’t been able to close out games. They’re trying to solidify their playoff picture, so that combined with the rivalry – we know we’re going to get their best shot.”
The Cats were in fine shape at the halfway point of the league season, sitting at 6-2. Then the bottom dropped out.
“We lost some confidence,” MSU’s sixth-year coach Brad Huse said. “We’ve lost some heart-breakers, a couple of overtime games. We’ve had a number of games that were tight late that we didn’t pull out. Those were things we were doing the first roll through league. We have to figure out a way to get that confidence back and get some momentum.
“It’s been a struggle, obviously. We’re pretty thin at a few spots personnel-wise, but our kids have done a good job of staying positive and competing.”
The Cats will come to town well rested. Their last game was an 80-66 loss at Cal State Fullerton a week ago. The Griz are coming off a 78-60 win over Northern Arizona on Thursday.
But that’s OK with senior Derek Selvig, who led the Griz with 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists against the Jacks.
“I love playing these games back to back,” said Selvig, who along with Art Steward, Jordan Wood and Shawn Stockton will be honored before the game on senior night. “Practices at this time of year are pretty grueling. We’re pumped for it.”
The Griz led for all but 3 minutes, 26 seconds in a 67-58 win over the Cats in Bozeman on Feb. 4. Kareem Jamar, who took over for a foul-plagued Will Cherry at point guard, led the Griz with 21 points in that game. Selvig added 15 and Cherry returned late to chip in 11.
“What makes Montana so strong is their balance,” Huse said. “They have a lot of confidence in getting production from all five spots. It’s difficult to look at how you’re going to defend them. We have two issues with them: One, slowing them down and two, scoring against them.”
Jourdain Allou, a 6-foot-7 senior, led the Cats with 15 points in the game in Bozeman, 6-7 Tre Johnson added 11 and Allou and 6-9 Mohammed Fall combined to swat away five shots.
“They’re resilient from the one to the five,” Cherry said. “They have a big man at the five who’s blocking everything. He’s quick off his feet. So when we come in there we have to jump stop, pump fake and try to get him in early foul trouble. That would really help. And we have to run them off the 3-point line.”
Christian Moon (55 treys) and Shawn Reid (36) are the Cats’ main threats from long range. Reid, a 6-5 sophomore, has averaged 25.5 points in the two games since Blount was lost to injury.
“(Our shots) have been redistributed with Xavier out and Shawn’s done a good job of taking opportunities as they’ve come,” Huse said. “He’s continuing to mature as a player, becoming more patient, allowing things to happen.”
Tinkle said the biggest lesson the Griz learned from their first meeting with the Cats is to keep grinding.
“That was an ugly game,” Tinkle said. “We had a lot of guys in foul trouble. The big thing was that we stuck together through it all and didn’t panic, guys stepped up and we found a way.
“Our guys know where we’re at, they know what’s in front of us. It should be a great crowd, so I’m sure we’ll see a good Grizzly performance. We’ll see a good performance out of Montana State, so it should be an exciting game.”
NOTES: Tinkle is one of just three coaches in school history to post three straight 20-win seasons, joining Mike Montgomery and Blaine Taylor. ... Cherry is tied for sixth in the nation in steals at 2.67 a game. He has 212 for his career and needs four to break the school record set by JR Camel from 1995-98. ... Montana’s 13-1 league mark matches that of the 1974-75 team coached by Jud Heathcote.
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.