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There may never have been an NCAA men's basketball tournament with so many different Montana connections. Let's get to them.

1. The most important

And certainly the most obvious. The Montana Grizzlies, coming off their mind-boggling rally from a 40-20 halftime deficit to beat Weber State 66-65 in the Big Sky Conference championship, are in the dance for the first time since 2006, when they upset Nevada 89-79 in a first-round game. Among other things, it gives Montana high school products from Missoula (Jack McGillis), Glendive (Derek Selvig) and Seeley Lake (Ryan Nelson) a spot on college basketball's biggest stage. Coach Wayne Tinkle played for the Grizzlies from 1985-89, three times leading the team in rebounding and twice in scoring.

The game: 14th-seeded Montana (22-9) vs. third-seeded New Mexico (29-4), Thursday in San Jose, Calif., 7:50 p.m. MDT, or one-half hour after the end of the Washington-Marquette game.

2. The coaches

Three of the four former Grizzly coaches still active at other Division I schools are dancing as well:

(A) Blaine Taylor, a Hellgate High grad, one-time Loyola Sacred Heart coach, Grizzly point guard from 1979-81 and UM's head coach from 1991-98, leads the Old Dominion Monarchs into the NCAAs for the third time in his nine years in Norfolk, Va. His ODU teams have won at least 24 games in five of the past six seasons, and this year's Monarchs own a 61-57 upset of Georgetown. Taylor's 329-167 career record includes a 142-65 mark at Montana, where his teams twice made the NCAA tournament.

The game: 11th-seeded Old Dominion (26-8) vs. sixth-seeded Notre Dame (23-11), Thursday in New Orleans, 10:25 a.m.

(B) Stew Morrill, head coach at Montana from 1986-91, takes the Utah State Aggies into the NCAAs for the seventh time in his 12 years in Logan. Morrill's Utah State teams have won at least 23 games for 11 consecutive seasons, a feat only two other programs in America - Kansas and Gonzaga - can match. The Aggies' biggest win so far this season was a 71-61 upset of 29-5 BYU, a No. 7 seed. Morrill's 512-236 career record includes a 97-52 record during his years in Missoula, where his last Grizzly team was the first he directed into the NCAAs.

The game: 12th-seeded Utah State (27-7) vs. fifth-seeded Texas A&M (23-9), Friday in Spokane, 2:45 p.m.

(C) Mike Montgomery, head coach at Montana from 1978-86, takes his Cal Golden Bears into the NCAAs for the second time in his two years in Berkeley. Montgomery earlier spent 18 years at Cal's rival, Stanford, where his final 10 teams won 20 or more games and three hit 30 or better, including 1998, when Montgomery coached the Cardinal to the Final Four. The Bears have no truly impressive out-of-conference wins this season - unless you count a 75-70 win over Murray State, a 13-seed - but played the most impressive schedule by far. There are losses to Kansas, Syracuse, Ohio State and New Mexico on their resume. Montgomery is closing in on 600 career wins. His 592-265 record includes a 154-77 mark at Montana, where none of his teams ever got over the NCAA tourney hump.

(Bonus connection: Montgomery's coaching staff includes Travis DeCuire, Grizzly point guard from 1991-94. DeCuire spent five years on Taylor's ODU staff before joining Montgomery in Berkeley.)

The game: Eighth-seeded Cal (23-10) vs. ninth-seeded Louisville (20-12), Friday in Jacksonville, Fla., 7:45 p.m.

3. The Player

Everyone is talking about Grizzly senior guard Anthony Johnson's record-setting 42-point performance against Weber State, and rightfully so. Grizzly fans may remember that four years ago, however, a different name appeared headed for that roster spot. Montana's Cameron Rundles was the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year in 2006-07. Rundles transferred after his sophomore season in Missoula, but he, too, is dancing - with the Wofford Terriers, who are making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Rundles, who sat out last season, is averaging 6.6 points and 20 minutes a game for the South Carolina school, which enters the tourney on a 13-game winning streak.

The game: 13th-seeded Wofford (26-8) vs. fourth-seeded Wisconsin (23-8), Friday in Jacksonville, Fla., 12:50 p.m.

4. The Bobcat

We said Montana connections, and up to now that's meant the University of Montana. If you stretch that to mean the state, then there's another. Longtime Montana State coach Mick Durham is now an assistant at New Mexico State, which upset Morrill's Utah State club to earn the Western Athletic Conference's automatic berth. Durham had a 246-213 record in 16 seasons with the Bobcats, which included one NCAA tourney appearance, in 1996.

The game: 13th-seeded New Mexico State (21-11) vs. fourth-seeded Tennessee (25-8), Friday in Spokane, 5:20 p.m.

5. "Joe Missoula"

Granted, we're really reaching now, but it's March, allow us our madness. Anyone who catches a West Virginia game on TV will often hear announcers talking about "Joe Missoula" late in a game. They're referring to Joe Mazzulla, a reserve guard for the Mountaineers whose last name is pronounced nearly identically to the Grizzlies' hometown - just a tad more "ma-zoola" than "mi-zoola." Mazzulla appears to still be showing the effects of a season-ending shoulder surgery that forced him to redshirt last season. After averaging 5.8 and 5.6 points per game his freshman and sophomore years, he's at 2.1 this season - although Mazzulla does have 70 assists to 30 turnovers in 462 minutes. Mazzulla is from Johnston, R.I.

(Extra-special double bonus connection: First up for Mazzulla and his teammates is a team coached by - we're not making this up - Todd Bozeman.)

The game: second-seeded West Virginia (27-6) vs. 15th-seeded Morgan State (27-9), Friday in Buffalo, N.Y. 10:15 a.m.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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