Often overshadowed by the hype of the NCAA national tournament, the real madness in March happens during conference tournament weekend. When most people think of March Madness, they think about the round of 64, or the actual championship game itself (which isn’t even in March).
Montana’s madness starts March 9 against Idaho at 2:35 p.m.
The 2017 Big Sky Conference tournament is in Reno, Nevada, for the second straight year. The Lady Griz fell in the first round of the tournament against Idaho State 63-53 Monday, but the men were able to secure a first-round bye.
With that in mind, the Kaimin sports team found 10 things you should know about this upcoming weekend.
1. Isaiah Dunk:
The 2017 men’s college basketball season has been somewhat unique in that there is no clear favorite to win the national championship. On a smaller scale, the Big Sky Conference is just as wide open.
Montana is just the No. 5 seed, but have beaten everyone ranked ahead of them, including No. 4 Idaho, its first tournament opponent. The Griz are red hot coming into the week after beating Weber State in Ogden, Utah, for the first time since 2010, 78-74. Montana fans, get excited. Anything can happen in March.
Regardless of how the Lady Griz’s season ended, the progress the team made is undeniable. Fate dealt first-year head coach Shannon Schweyen a brutal hand after seniors Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Sims both suffered season-ending injuries early in the year.
Since then, the team has relied almost entirely on underclassmen. And yet, they notched four wins in their last seven games and gave conference champion Montana State a scare in Missoula. With next year’s return of Valley and Co., the Lady Griz have a very bright future.
3. Taylor Featherman:
The Griz open the tournament against the Idaho Vandals. The Griz have split the two season games against the Vandals, and Thursday’s rubber match will decide who moves on and who will go home. The Griz marched into Moscow, Idaho, and dismantled the BJ Blake-less Vandals Jan. 5, 70-57. More recently, in Missoula, the Vandals got their revenge against the Griz 85-77, Jan. 28.
4. Zac Allen:
Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie may be one of the hottest players coming into the tournament. Last week he had games of 23 and 27 points to lead all Grizzly scorers. For his efforts he was named Big Sky Conference Player of the Week for the first time this season. Even better, Rorie received All-Big Sky Conference second-team honors. He and Mike Oguine (third team) were the only two Griz to make the All-Conference cut.
There is no better time to be the best than in the postseason and Rorie appears to be hitting his stride at just the right time. Idaho has the top defense in the league, so it will be an interesting matchup to see if Rorie can continue to terrorize defenses in the tournament.
5. Nick Puckett:
In Oguine we trust.
The similarities between Montana and Idaho are striking. They both have relied heavily on their stingy perimeter defense and moderate offense all season. Thursday, defense will be the difference maker. Enter Mike Oguine, Montana’s No. 1 defender.
Oguine matched up against Montana State’s Tyler Hall during the Missoula Cat-Griz matchup and held the nation’s No. 7 scorer to just five points in the first half. Hall made up lost ground in the second half and ended with 22, but it wasn’t enough to stage a late-game comeback.
Oguine’s opposite number, Victor Sanders, Idaho’s own version of the “O Show,” will be a pest in Montana’s first conference tournament test. If the Griz can limit turnovers and keep Sanders at arms length when Montana has the ball, we could see the Griz play on Saturday.
6. Zach Flickinger:
The Griz have another compelling argument to make some noise this weekend.
Montana shot 50 percent on 3-pointers against Weber State and commanded the boards with 38 total rebounds. On top of that, head coach Travis DeCuire finally seems to have the right fit for each player. If they can keep the momentum rolling they have a great chance to enter their ticket to March Madness.
Montana State’s triple-overtime loss to Southern Utah Tuesday leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Griz fans. After a miraculous comeback, and three bouts of free basketball, Southern Utah prevailed over Tyler Hall and the Bobcats in the first round. SUU will play Weber State Thursday night.
While Montana will be unable to take a would-be rubber match against their rivals, a devastating loss to one of the Big Sky’s worst teams makes up for it.
Eastern Washington’s Jacob Wiley will be another name to watch. He’s coming off his second league MVP season (he was the NAIA Frontier Conference’s most valuable player last season) and averages 24.6 points and 10.3 boards in league play. The adjective of athletic-specimen isn’t thrown out a whole lot these days, but I feel like Wiley definitely fits the bill.
Couple his play with Bogdan Bliznyuk, who puts up a little over 20 points per game, and Eastern will be a tough team for anyone to compete with.
9. Featherman: This week's forecast down in the biggest little city (Reno) is consistent if nothing else. From day one of the tourney (Monday) to the championship (Saturday), each day expects to be partly cloudy and around 50 degrees, according to the weather.com.
10. Flickinger: While it continues to downpour snow here in Missoula, Reno is the perfect getaway for the Montana Grizzlies. The Griz have momentum rolling into this year's tourney.
The decision head coach Travis DeCuire has to make is how many minutes he will play freshmen Jared Samuelson and Sayeed Pridgett, something he seems to be getting a better grasp of finally. When DeCuire plays to the roles and sticks to the hot hand they could roar through the championship.