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Griz, Eagles eager for Big Sky campaign

It's hard to say which team is happier to see Big Sky Conference play begin, Montana or Eastern Washington.

The teams combined to lose 18 men's basketball games during disappointing pre-conference seasons. The coaches of both teams now say they bit off more than they could chew in scheduling tough opponents. To make it tougher, the Grizzlies haven't played on their home court since Dec. 16; the Eagles since Dec. 15.

Seeing as how Eastern gets to entertain Montana on its home court Thursday in the league opener for both clubs, it's safe to say maybe the Eagles are a little happier to get the league wars started.

"Obviously, we're excited to be done with the non-conference part of our schedule," said fourth-year Eastern coach Ray Giacoletti. "We played the 18th toughest non-conference schedule in the country. I don't know how smart that was to put us in that situation. Hopefully it will pay off in conference play."

Montana coach Pat Kennedy, whose Grizzlies played the 22nd toughest non-conference slate, shares the same hope.

"Obviously we bit off too much," Kennedy said. "I've learned a lot. We must get a better balance for our kids. Travel has been a monster and I never put that into the equation as much as I should have."

There are more similarities. Both coaches point to turnovers as one of the chief problems plaguing their teams. The Eagles are fifth in the league with 16.5 turnovers a game; the Grizzlies are last at 18.8.

And both teams have potential star players who have struggled to put the ball in the basket.

Eastern senior guard Alvin Snow has been a solid Big Sky player for three years on both ends of the floor. But Snow recently went through a stretch where he averaged just 7.1 points a game, before breaking out for 28 last Saturday at Santa Clara.

"It's no different than anything else, when you get into a rut you put more pressure on yourself," Giacoletti said. "We brought him off the bench against Santa Clara and I think it took some of the pressure off him."

Snow has not been his usual disruptive self on the defensive end. He averaged 2.2 steals a game for the Eagles' NIT team last year, but has just 16 in 13 games this season.

"He does not need to score 28 points every night," Giacoletti said. "He needs to bring energy. That energy at the defensive end of the floor is who he is. He needs to remember that."

Montana's struggling star is sophomore Kevin Criswell, who broke the Grizzly freshman scoring record last season but hasn't found the range during the team's current eight-game losing streak.

"The only way you can get out of a shooting slump is to keep shooting the ball," said Criswell, who is hitting at a 28-percent clip during the recent slide. "Shooters need to be confident and hit open shots when they get them.

"I've been shooting a lot after practice and most of the shots I'm taking feel good, they're just not going down."

Kennedy said the Griz must be able to get the ball inside against the Eagles, who don't have great size. That should mean more opportunities for power forward Kamarr Davis, who leads the Griz in scoring at 12.9 ppg.

"It's been my contention since Day 1 that we can do that," Kennedy said.

Forward Marc Axton (11.6 ppg) and guard Josh Barnard (10.8 ppg) make up Snow's supporting cast. Barnard is shooting 54 percent from 3-point range.

"We've got to do a good job of guarding their offense," Kennedy said. "It's got a lot of different types of movements in it. And we have to handle any pressure they throw at us because they are a team that will press you at home."

NOTES: Former Missoula Sentinel standout Eric Henkel averages 7.2 minutes a game as a true freshman for the Eagles. He has scored 14 points in 13 games.

Montana Griz

at Eastern Washington

Thursday, 8:05 (MST)

Reese Court (6,000)

Radio: KGVO 1290 AM. TV: None.

Records: Montana is 3-9. Eastern Washington is 4-9. It is the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.

Last outing: Montana fell 88-67 last Sunday at No. 16 Gonzaga. Eastern beat Santa Clara 65-54 on the road last Saturday.

Series: Montana leads 42-36.

Last season: EWU won both meetings, 72-62 in Missoula and 87-72 in Cheney.

Up next: Montana travels to Portland State on Saturday. Eastern hosts Montana State the same night.

Montana

34-Steve Horne, 6-6, Sr. 7.7 ppg

50-Kamarr Davis, 6-7, Jr. 12.9 ppg

33-John Seyfert, 6-10, Soph. 4.7 ppg

10-Derrick Mansell, 6-2, Sr. 4.7 ppg

12-Kevin Criswell, 6-2, Soph. 11.4 ppg

Eastern Washington

23-Josh Barnard, 6-5, Sr. 10.8 ppg

24-Marc Axton, 6-7, Jr. 11.6 ppg

22-Matt Nelson, 6-8, Fr. 6.5 ppg

2-Brendon Merritt, 6-4, Sr. 7.8 ppg

52-Alvin Snow, 6-2, Sr. 14.4 ppg

Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at sportsdesk@missoulian.com.

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