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Montana's Jordan Gregory lays up a shot.

The beauty – or disadvantage – of playing basketball in the Big Sky Conference is that what a team accomplishes – or fails to – in November and December counts for little once the new year dawns.

It's a one-bid league, as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. So while a good nonconference win can help a team when it comes time to seed the Big Dance, it won't matter much if the team doesn't first win the league championship.

The 21-game trek toward that goal – 18 in the regular season, three in the postseason – begins on New Year's Day. Montana, winner of three of the past five league crowns, begins its quest at home against Northern Colorado. North Dakota visits on Saturday.

Opening at home gives the Griz (3-7) a chance to get off on the right foot with a tough road trip to Weber State and Idaho State looming in Week 2.

"No question," first-year Griz coach Travis DeCuire said. "We've been on the road for so long that being home is definitely important to us when we're trying to get off to a good start."

The Griz went into the holiday break in disappointing fashion, dropping a 67-62 decision to South Dakota in a game in which Montana led by 10 with 10 minutes to play.

"They responded well," DeCuire said. "We were missing three starters, so you can only expect so much of a team where you have seven guys playing minutes. We ran out of gas. We had a chance to put them away. ... I think this team feels as if we're still improving and heading in the right direction."

The three starters who missed that game were senior Mike Weisner, junior Martin Breunig – the team's leading scorer – and sophomore Jermaine Edmonds. Weisner and Breunig each had ankle sprains; Edmonds will miss the remainder of the season for academic reasons.

"They're progressing," DeCuire said of Weisner and Breunig. "They're still day to day. We expect to have them both back at some point in time."

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The Griz have used their extended break to get back to basics.

"Everything, really," DeCuire said. "We still coach for the future. We want to improve in every aspect of the game. We went back to the basics on both sides of the ball, offensive execution and defensive execution. Then we're looking at a few new wrinkles, a few new looks."

Northern Colorado is 5-6 – 0-5 on the road – heading into league play. The Bears are led by senior guard Tevin Svihovec (12.4 ppg) and senior forwards Dominique Lee (10.2 ppg) and Tim Huskisson (10.1 ppg).

"Northern Colorado is going to come in and press and try to get up and down a little bit," DeCuire said.

North Dakota (4-7) is led by senior forward Jaron Nash (12.2 ppg) and junior guard Estan Tyler (11.8 ppg).

"North Dakota is coming here with a lot of experience," DeCuire said. "They have guys on the floor who understand their roles and have been in their roles for a couple of years.

"(UNC and UND) kind of present a variety of things different from each other. They are definitely teams that are capable of getting wins on the road. If we're not on top of our game we could be in trouble. We need to come out with some confidence."

DeCuire said he's anxious to start the next phase of the season.

"I feel like our spirits are high," he said. "We've had some good practices. The guys have put some time in on their own, shooting and whatnot. That's the advantage of being out of school. I feel like we're all on the same page and ready to compete."

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Assistant news editor