By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies will heat up Dahlberg Arena on a cold December afternoon for its final nonconference warm-up of the year against the Montana-Western Bulldogs on Tuesday. Tip-off for the holiday break contest is set for 1:00 p.m.
THE GAME: The Griz look to rebound from a tough road game in what could be the toughest place to play in the nation: Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence Kansas, where the Grizzlies fell to the No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks 88-46.
The game against UM-Western (7-6) will serve as the final tune-up for Montana (4-6) as it prepares to open league play against Northern Arizona on New Year’s Eve in Flagstaff.
The Bulldogs come to Missoula on the heels of a 2-1 performance at the Chandler-Gilbert Classic tournament in Arizona where they picked up two wins over Benedictine University at Mesa and Embry-Riddle, and narrowly lost to the NAIA’s No. 4 Arizona Christian.
HOLIDAY FUN: Kids 12 and under at Tuesday’s game will get the chance to have their photo taken for FREE with “Santa Monte” at halftime. Kids in fifth grade or under will also receiver FREE entry with an adult purchase.
REBOUNDING: The Griz currently hold the seventh best record in the Big Sky Conference at 4-6, a win better than the 2014-15 Big Sky Champion Griz had heading into conference play this time last year, with one more home game to play.
Montana is a perfect 4-0 thus far on the season in the friendly confines of Dahlberg Arena, with big wins over Boise State and San Francisco, but hasn’t managed to find a road win during one of the most challenging nonconference schedules in program history.
For Grizzly head coach Travis DeCuire, tomorrows matchup against the Bulldogs represents a chance for his squad to self-analyze and improve with the Big Sky season approaching.
“It’s an opportunity for us to come out and play better. Every night is an opportunity for us to play better regardless of who our opponent is,” said Coach DeCuire after Monday’s practice.
“I think the learning experience from Kansas is, they showed us, they showed our team, that they weren’t looking at our record, our name, and deciding how hard they were going to play, how efficient they were going to play based on who we were. They were going to bring their A-game no matter what. They were caught up in the moment. They played as if they were playing for a national championship on a Saturday in December. That’s a learning experience for us, is to bring the same intensity no matter who we play. So no, not a tune up in terms of who we’re playing, but yes, a tune up in terms of us addressing ourselves.”
Senior forward Martin Breunig, who brings the Big Sky’s sixth-best scoring average of 17.4 points per contest home to Dahlberg Arena, leads the Grizzlies into battle against the Bulldogs.
Breunig is also averaging 8.5 rebounds per game, the third best average in the conference. Sophomore forward Fabijan Krslovic (5.2 per game) and true freshman Michael Oguine (five per game) are also helping lead the Griz on the boards, who have the fifth best rebounding defense in the league, averaging 35.3 boards per contest.
SCOUTING THE BULLDOGS: UM-Western is the third-highest scoring team in the Frontier Conference behind League leader Lewis-Clark State and Rocky Mountain, averaging 83.23 points a game.
Forward Dexter Williams leads the Bulldogs in scoring, averaging 15.9 points a game, with Great Falls native Shyke Smalls adding 14 and guard Demitrius Balark bringing 11.
“They’re very similar to North Dakota State in terms of dribble-drive, and those types of things,” said Coach DeCuire of Tuesday’s opponent. “They’ll be athletic in the backcourt, they have guys that create shots. They’re going to be hard to defend. We’ll see a lot of zone. They’re going to make us execute on both sides of the ball, which is what we want.”
The Griz open the conference schedule with one of the league’s toughest road swings, traveling to Flagstaff to play NAU on New Year’s Eve before heading north to Cedar City, Utah to face Southern Utah on January 2.
The Griz return home to face Portland State on Jan. 7, and then host the league leading Sac State Hornets on Jan. 9 who are 6-3 during the nonconference season, and picked up a notable win over Arizona State.