MISSOULA – Already the conference season has been a grind for the Montana Grizzlies.
Opening Big Sky play with four games in eight days, Montana has a chance to increase its hot start to a perfect 4-0 when the men’s basketball team hosts Portland State on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Montana just completed arguably its most complete performance of the year with an 87-56 drubbing of Sacramento State on Thursday night. The Hornets came into the game holding opponents to 63.1 points per game, good for the 31st-best mark in the nation in scoring defense.
That didn’t matter, as UM shot 54.4 percent from the field and 65 percent from deep where it connected on 13 of its 20 attempts.
Now, the Griz (10-4, 3-0) welcome the Vikings (5-8, 0-2) to Dahlberg Arena with a chance to walk away from a grueling opening stretch unscathed.
“This is a difficult turnaround for us,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “Playing New Year's Eve on Monday then turning around and having a team that’s had all week to prepare for you. It’s been one day at a time and one day of preparation.”
The Vikings fell to Montana State 98-88 on Thursday night to lose their fifth straight game. They rank 69th nationally and third in the conference in points per contest at 79.5, but otherwise struggle in a multitude of categories on offense. The Vikings are 10th in the conference in field goal percentage (40.9) while Montana is first (49.4). PSU also sits at No. 10 in 3-point field goal percentage (28.7) just ahead of Sac State.
However, the Vikings boast the best rebounding team in the conference and one of the tops in the nation. Portland State is tied with North Carolina for fourth in the country in total rebounds per game at 44.
The Vikings lead the nation in offensive rebounds per game with 18.6. The Vikings also rank seventh in steals per game (10.1) and ninth in turnovers forced (18.2). Defensively, PSU ranks sixth and seventh respectively in opponents’ field goal percentage (45.3) and opponents’ 3-point percentage (34.1).
Montana had its best rebounding performance of the year on Thursday against Sac State, grabbing 40 boards to the Hornets’ 26. Redshirt senior Jamar Akoh was the catalyst, grabbing 18 rebounds to go with his 21 points.
Akoh, who has played in four straight games — all wins — after missing seven non-conference games with a wrist injury, is off to a blistering start to the conference season. In three games, he’s averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per game.
That and his team’s play have him happy with where they’re at and not worried about the jam-packed schedule of late.
“I probably feel better than other guys just because I haven’t been playing all year,” Akoh said. “But I think we’re alright. Travis will do his thing in practice and make sure we’re fresh for Saturday and we’ll come in and give what we have.”
Montana is currently tied for 20th nationally in field goal percentage. The Griz are second in the conference in scoring defense (67.8) and first in opponents’ field goal percentage (42 percent).
The Vikings like to run the floor as well. According to KenPom.com, they rank 32nd in pace of play, good for the highest mark in the Big Sky.
“It’s going to be tough,” DeCuire said. “What I told them is if we can get through this two-week stretch, then we’ll have a long week to sit and wait for some teams. It’s a little tough because we’re playing some good teams. If we can get through it and figure this thing out, we’ll be sitting in a pretty good spot.”
DeCuire added that a grind like that to start the season impacts how his team prepares for the rest of the league schedule.
“It changes everything. Typically we’d spend Monday watching film on ourselves and getting a little better, tighten some things up,” he said. “Come back Tuesday, go to war and then Wednesday prepare for our opponent and now that’s taken away our ability to improve as a team and just do what we got to do to stay fresh.”