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Missoula, meet the Montana Grizzlies.

Montana Grizzlies, this is Missoula.

Actually, you've met before. Back in mid-December, before you put on those five pounds from the holiday cookies, before all that snow piled up outside, before your car wouldn't start from the 20-below nights, and before you resolved to shed those five extra pounds.

Twenty-nine days have passed since the Grizzlies last played a basketball game in Dahlberg Arena. In the interim, they've been to Illinois, Las Vegas, Spokane (twice) and taken the scenic route to Portland. They've won just once in that time, but it was a big road win in their Big Sky Conference opener last week at Eastern Washington.

"It's very unfamiliar, actually," Montana sophomore Kevin Criswell said as he gazed upon at the Dahlberg Arena, where the Griz will host Idaho State on Thursday at 7:35 p.m. "It's been about 4fi weeks since we've been home. It's good to be home and not on the road driving in a bus for two straight days."

That's where the Griz were last week. Unable to fly into Portland, the Griz took a 10-hour bus ride along the Columbia River Gorge. Because they'd already turned in their airline tickets, they took the bus home, too. They made it as far as Kennewick, Wash., after playing Portland State last Saturday. When they went to board the bus Sunday morning they discovered a flat tire. It was 7 p.m. Sunday by the time they hit Missoula.

"It's mentally draining as well as physically draining," Criswell said.

The Griz still looked a little weary Wednesday as their jumpers continually came up short during practice.

"That's a good sign," Criswell insisted. "If we're missing them all tonight, we'll make them all tomorrow."

They might have to. Idaho State is coming off a one-point win over league favorite Weber State in its Big Sky opener last Saturday.

The Bengals, who have won three straight after losing seven in a row, are driven by Marquis Poole, arguably the best point guard in the league. Poole, a 6-foot-2 senior, is sixth in the league in scoring (14.8 ppg), first in assists (5.4) and second in steals (2.4). His running mate on the perimeter is junior Jeff Gardner, who's averaging 13.0 ppg and is the fifth most accurate 3-point shooter in the league at 44 percent.

"We've got to control their guards," Montana coach Pat Kennedy said. "They're a huge key for them. We have to hang our hat on defense now."

Senior point guard Derrick Mansell will draw Gardner on defense while Criswell will chase Poole.

"(Poole's) real shifty with the ball," said Criswell, who turned in a credible performance while guarding league scoring leader Blake Walker of Portland State last week. "He can really create on his own and uses his dribble well. He creates for himself and for his teammates. It's going to be a challenge to stop him."

Inside, the Bengals have Scott Henry, a 6-7 senior, and Jesse Smith, a 6-10 junior. Henry is averaging 12.9 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.

"Henry is a very good forward and if Smith gets enough easy looks he can hurt you," Kennedy said.

The Griz will be facing an ISU offense that gives up the most points in the league (74.9), but also comes up with a league-leading 9.3 steals a game. The Bengals employ a number of defenses, Kennedy said.

"They'll play a triangle-and-two, a box-and-one and a 1-3-1 zone," Kennedy said. "We have to be prepared for all of that."

Criswell and senior Steve Horne got off to quick starts in league play last week. Criswell had 44 points in the two games to earn co-player of the week honors and Horne had 35 points, including a 7-for-10 shooting night against Eastern Washington.

Idaho State has not been a good rebounding team; the Bengals are a distant last in the league in rebounding margin at minus-11.5. But that didn't haunt ISU last week when Weber State grabbed 11 more rebounds than the Bengals but still lost.

"Rebounding's been funny this year," Kennedy said. "You see teams get outrebounded by 10, 11, 12 a game and win."

NOTES: Cal State Northridge is attempting to beg out of its game in Missoula. The Matadors were scheduled to play here on Dec. 27, but couldn't get a connecting flight out of Salt Lake City because of a snow storm. At the time it was thought the game would be made up later in the season. … The Griz will play their second - and final - home game in January on Saturday night against Weber State.

Idaho State

at Montana Griz

Thursday, 7:35 p.m.

Dahlberg Arena (7,321)

Tickets: Range from $4-12.

Radio: KGVO 1290 AM. TV: None.

Records: Idaho State is 1-0 in league, 6-9 overall. Montana is 1-1, 4-10.

Last outing: Idaho State beat Weber State 75-74 last Saturday in Pocatello. Montana fell to Portland State 89-78 last Saturday in Portland.

Series: Montana leads 80-37 and is 25-2 in the last 27 meetings in Missoula.

Last season: Montana won 90-88 in Pocatello and 69-65 in Missoula.

Up next: Idaho State travels to Bozeman to face Montana State on Saturday night. Montana hosts Weber State the same night.

Probable starters

Idaho State

31-Scott Henry, 6-7, Sr. 12.9 ppg

33-Aaron Bradley, 6-5, Sr. 5.4 ppg

42-Jesse Smith, 6-10, Jr. 7.2 ppg

11-Jeff Gardner, 6-2, Jr. 13.0 ppg

23-Marquis Poole, 6-2, Sr. 14.8 ppg

Montana

34-Steve Horne, 6-6, Sr. 11.6 ppg

50-Kamarr Davis, 6-7, Jr. 12.4 ppg

33-John Seyfert, 6-10, Soph. 4.4 ppg

10-Derrick Mansell, 6-2, Sr. 5.0 ppg

12-Kevin Criswell, 6-2, Soph. 12.9 ppg

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

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