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Despite accolades, Griz remain grounded

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These Montana Grizzlies aren't a real excitable bunch.

They're currently ranked No. 25 in the mid-major men's basketball poll. They're riding an eight-game winning streak, the school's longest in more than a decade. Rumor has it ESPN is considering televising their home game on Bracket Buster Saturday. They came within a bucket of setting the school's all-time scoring mark in their last outing. They even received a vote in last week's Associated Press poll.

These must be heady times for the Griz, right?

"I'm sure people are looking at it and I'm sure the coaches know about it, but they're not going to say anything to us about it," said sophomore Andrew Strait, the team's leading scorer. "The last thing they want is for us to get complacent.

"We appreciate it and stuff, but at the same time we're not thinking about it too much."

Junior Matt Dlouhy also downplayed the attention.

"It's nice to get the publicity, but as of now it means nothing," Dlouhy said.

What the Griz are focusing on instead is their final three nonconference games before the start of the Big Sky Conference wars.

First up is winless UC Riverside on Monday. The Highlanders of the Big West Conference forced Eastern Washington into 30 turnovers in their last outing, but still lost 85-70.

"They play at a real fast pace," said Griz assistant coach Wayne Tinkle, who prepared the scouting report on the Highlanders. "They press for 40 minutes and try to get you to play faster than you're used to. Most of their points are scored on turnovers in transition."

The Highlanders are led by senior point guard Ricky Porter, who averages 12.2 points a game. Larry Cunningham, a sophomore guard, chips in 10.3 ppg. No other player averages in double figures in points, but 11 players average double figures in minutes.

Riverside shoots just 34 percent as a team - 23 percent from 3-point range - compared to the Grizzlies' torrid clip of 52 percent, one of the top marks in the nation.

"The key for us will be to handle that pressure and be patient offensively, make them defend," Tinkle said. "Obviously, we have to slow up their transition going the other way. You can do that by making sure you execute on offense and take good shots."

Strait continues to lead the Big Sky in shooting at 68 percent and is third in scoring at 15.7 ppg. Senior Kevin Criswell is fifth in the league in scoring at 15.2 ppg and fourth in 3-point shooting at 47 percent.

"It's fun," Strait said of the Grizzlies' potent offense. "We have a lot of guys who can score the ball. Coach says he's not worried about our offense, he knows we can score with anybody in the country. We're putting our emphasis on defense."

NOTES: The Griz will face Santa Clara on Thursday before dispersing for a short Christmas break. The Griz get back to Missoula on Dec. 27, then wrap up their preconference schedule at home against Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Dec. 30. UW-Milwaukee is ranked 11th in the mid-major poll. … Santa Clara lost at No. 19 North Carolina 76-58 on Saturday. … Criswell needs 21 points to pass Ken McKenzie to move into fifth place on UM's career scoring list. McKenzie scored 1,321 points from 1972-75. Criswell is fourth on the school's career 3-pointer list with 164. David Bell had 196 in two seasons, ending in 2003.

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