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Montana’s Jamar Akoh, left, and Timmy Falls guard Northern Arizona's Carlos Hines on Saturday in Flagstaff, Ariz. Montana defeated NAU to open conference play and will take on Southern Utah on Monday. 

MISSOULA – Right now, the Montana Grizzlies are looking for a bit of déjà vu.

At exactly the same time a year ago, UM went south to begin the conference season and end the calendar year with a road swing at Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

Montana won both contests and began Big Sky Conference play with 13 straight wins in what would ultimately result in a regular-season championship, a conference tournament title and a trip to March Madness.

So, on Saturday the Grizzlies did a little bit of the same, beginning league play with an 85-74 victory over NAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. And on Monday, they’ll visit the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah with a chance to start things off just like last year.

While Montana (8-4, 1-0) started things on the right foot, the same cannot be said for Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds were drubbed 92-62 at the hands of Montana State. MSU knocked down 13 of its 26 3-point attempts and five players scored in double figures.

On the flip side, the Thunderbirds were held to a measly 37.7 percent (23-61) from the field and 28.6 percent (8-28) from deep. Southern Utah was without leading scorer Dwayne Morgan against the Bobcats.

The biggest challenge for the Grizzlies is to not be complacent when they walk into the America First Event Center in Cedar City, Utah, because statistically they rank better than Bobcats in just about everything. After Saturday’s contests, Montana ranks 101st in the nation in points allowed per game at 68.1 while MSU ranks 340th at 81.9. Offensively, the Grizzlies average 73.3 points per game, just ahead of the Bobcats’ 72.7. However, UM ranks in the top 50 at No. 39 in field goal percentage at 48.6 percent while MSU is 250th at 43.2 percent.

Opponents so far are shooting at a 42.2 percent clip against UM, good for 128th in the country. For MSU, that number is at 49.3 percent which ranks almost dead-last at No. 345 out of 353 Division I men’s basketball programs.

The only category in which MSU ranks higher than UM right now is rebounding. The Bobcats come in at No. 328 at 34.8 rebounds per contest while the Grizzlies are just below that at No. 334. MSU out-rebounded Southern Utah 44-35 on Saturday.

According to KenPom.com, Montana ranks at Nos. 99 and 112 in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. Those numbers are based off of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions and are adjusted for opponents. By contrast, MSU comes in at Nos. 192 and 324 for offensive and defensive efficiency.

Despite its outing on Saturday, Southern Utah (5-5, 0-1) can score at a respectable rate. The Thunderbirds average 77.6 points per game (101st in the country). Their shooting percentages aren’t great though as they sit at a 43.7 percent clip from the field (226th) and 33.6 percent (216th) from 3-point range.

According to KenPom, Southern Utah’s offensive and defensive efficiency rank at Nos. 297 and 252, respectively.

“Defense is going to win games,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO after the win over NAU. “We’re going to have to come in and slow them down. (MSU) held them to 62 points and there’s the difference right there, and they probably got into transition quite a bit.

“Take care of the ball. Defend the post and ball screens. It’s a lot similar to (Saturday) in terms of the type of ways they get their shots, but they’re just way more athletic.”

DeCuire is 6-0 in his head coaching career at UM against Southern Utah. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

“We’re going into our second season and we want to be excited about that,” DeCuire said about conference play kicking off. “We want to have a new level of intensity if that’s possible.

“The last thing we want to do is add pressure to ourselves and start saying every game is for a championship because it’s not, its one game at a time.”

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Kyle Hansen covers Griz men's basketball and more for the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com. Email him at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @khansen406

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