By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies (5-6) and Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (2-9) are set to renew a budding Big Sky Conference rivalry on New Year’s Eve when the Griz travel to Arizona to take on the Jacks in the conference opener for both programs. Tipoff from the Walkup Skydome is set for Noon Mountain Time on Dec. 31.
The Griz are looking to collect its first road win of the year in Flagstaff, while the Lumberjacks are looking to snap a six game losing streak that included a 92-37 drubbing at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats.
WATCH: Griz fans nationwide can tune in to watch the Griz face the Jacks for free via web stream at watchbigsky.com.
For fans with DISH or DirecTV, FOX Sports Arizona will air the game live on DISH channel 415 and DirecTV channel 686. FOX College Sports Pacific will also air the game live. FOX Sports Arizona will replay the game on Friday, January 1st at 3:00 p.m. as well.
SERIES HISTORY: Montana leads the all-time series with long-time conference rivals Northern Arizona 63-32.
LAST MEETING: The No. 1 seeded Griz advanced to the Big Sky Championship game with a tense, 61-59 win over the No. 4 seed Lumberjacks in the semifinal at Dahlberg Arena.
Senior guard Jordan Gregory scored on a lay-up with .4 seconds remaining in the game to give the Griz the thrilling conference tournament win in front of a raucous Montana crowd.
UM defeated NAU twice last season, once in the conference tournament, and once in the regular season, 64-57 in Missoula.
BIG SKY RAMIFICATIONS: With each team receiving an invite to the Big Sky postseason tournament at its new neutral home in Reno, the regular season matchup has less of a must-win feeling, but could prove important in terms of final seeding at the conference tourney.
GRIZ TRACKS – Montana enters the conference season with a national 204 RPI (Rating Percentage Index) and is currently ranked fifth in the Big Sky with a 5-6 nonconference record.
The Grizzlies ran thorough its out-of-league schedule undefeated at home at 5-0, but are still searching for its first its first road win of the season.
Martin Breunig continues to be the go-to weapon of choice for Coach Travis DeCuire’s Grizzlies. Breunig carries the fourth-best scoring average in the Big Sky, averaging 17.5 points per night, but is also nearing a double-double average with 8.5 rebounds per game.
Three other Griz are following behind Breunig in scoring, each scoring between nine and 10 points per game. Junior transfer Walter Wright continues to impress in his first D1 season averaging 9.6 points per game, and leads the Grizzlies in steals 18, the sixth-most in the league.
Brandon Gfeller is finding his shot again, averaging 9.5 points per game, and true freshman Michael Oguine is right there amongst team leaders averaging 9.1 points per contest.
Junior guard Mario Dunn made his return to the court for the Grizzlies before the holiday break against Montana-Western after missing the first 10 games as he recovered from off-season wrist surgery.
Last year, Dunn was a steady leader in the Grizzly back courts, averaging 8.8 points per game, and dishing out 128 assists.
Defense has been the name of the game for the Griz in its preseason run, maintaining the Big Sky’s second best scoring defense, holding opponents to 66.5 points per contest.
SCOUTING THE JACKS – Northern Arizona set a new school record last season with 23 wins and advanced to the championship game of the College Insider Tournament.
From that team, the Lumberjacks return junior guard, Kris Yanku, who was the nation’s best free throw shooter last season. Yanku averaged 13.8 points per game last season and 189 assists to earn a spot on the First Team All-Big Sky squad.
The 2015-16 Jacks have a different look though, with only three lettermen returning (two of which are starters), six lettermen lost and eight newcomers, NAU is looking to find supporting roles for Yanku and company.
Yanku is leading the Jacks this season in overall scoring, bringing 13.4 points per game to the court, followed by fellow junior Ako Kaluna, a 6-7 forward/center who is averaging 11.7 points per night and senior guard Jaleni Neely who is averaging 10.6 per game.
UP NEXT: The Griz will travel to Cedar City to take on the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in the second of a two-game league road swing on Jan. 2.
The T-birds are picked to finish fifth in the league by the coaches. Tipoff from Cedar City is set for 7 p.m. and can be watched for free at watchbigsky.com.