By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies make the three-hour trip to Bozeman on Saturday seeking their 11th win in a row over the cross-state rivals Montana State Bobcats, in the first leg of the annual Brawl of the Wild series.
At 7-1 in Big Sky play (12-7 overall), the Griz sit at the top of the league table, while the Bobcats are at an even .500 heading into this weekend’s contest at 4-4 in the BSC, and 9-11 overall. Both teams enter the game coming off home victories last Saturday, with Montana knocking off Eastern Washington 74-69, and MSU defeating Idaho 70-68. Tipoff from Bozeman is set for 7 p.m. at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Jan. 30.
WATCH: Fans statewide can tune in to their local ABC Montana station (SWX in Billings) to watch the Griz/Cat rivalry. Chris Byers will handle play-by-play duties, along with Bruce Parker providing color commentary.
SERIES HISTORY: Saturday’s game marks the 292nd time the two rivals have faced off on the hardwood. The Griz trail the Bobcats 144-147 in the all-time series, but UM has rattled off 10-straight wins over MSU dating back to UM’s last loss in the 2009-10 season.
BRAWL OF THE WILD: The Grizzlies currently lead the 2015-16 Brawl of the Wild series 4-2 following Griz football’s 54-35 win in Bozeman. Now in the award’s third year of measuring overall wins between the two schools, the Grizzlies have held the trophy each year.
LAST MEETING: The Grizzlies clinched the Big Sky regular season championship last season with a 70-54 win over the Bobcats in Bozeman to finish the regular season at 14-4 in league play during Montana head coach Travis DeCuire’s first year at the helm.
Senior Chris Kemp netted a career-high 17 points, and Mario Dunn followed close behind with 15 as the Griz had four players in total score in double figures. Martin Breunig and Brandon Gfeller both netted 10 points for UM, with Breunig pulling down seven rebounds.
GRIZ TRACKS: Montana rebounded from a Thursday loss to Idaho last week in the best possible way, a 74-69 win over Eastern Washington. Martin Breunig was three rebounds short of a double-double in that game. However the senior forward from Leverkusen, Germany is second in the Big Sky in total double-doubles this season with 10 on the year.
Breunig ranks in the top-50 nationally in four separate stat categories, the highest ranking putting him at No. 11 in field goal percentage with a .636. Other categories Breunig ranks in are: defensive rebounds per game (48th), rebounds per game (46th), and total rebounds (49th).
The preseason all-conference selection has increased his points-per-game output to 18.7, placing him third-best overall in the league, and his 9.2 rebounds per game is good enough for second best in the Big Sky.
Breunig isn’t the only Grizzly making inroads on the Big Sky standings. Walter Wright is ranked fourth in the league in overall assists at 4.4 per game, and is UM’s second leading scorers, now averaging 12.1 PPG.
Defense has been the Grizzlies go-to plan of attack for wins this year, and justifiably so, as UM is currently carrying the nation’s 41st-best three-point field goal defense at 31.2.
In fact, the Grizzly D is strong enough to be ranked first in the Big Sky in scoring defense, allowing only 66.6 points per game from opponents.
In this week’s national RPI rankings, the Griz maintain the best RPI in the Big Sky at 137, followed by Weber State at 146. The Bobcats come in to Saturday’s game with a 254 RPI.
SCOUTING THE CATS: Senior guard Marcus Colbert scored 23 points in each of MSU’s wins last week over Eastern Washington and Idaho. Colbert leads the Big Sky in assists, averaging 6.1 per game (followed by Walter Wright who is averaging 6.0 dimes per game), and has moved into third on MSU’s all-time career list in that category.
As good as Colbert is, freshman guard Tyler Hall is the Cats most dangerous scoring weapon, averaging 18 points per contest.
Against similar opponents this season in the nonconference schedule, MSU picked up two wins against San Jose State, but, like the Grizzlies and so many this season, dropped a 64-73 loss at North Dakota State, whose 31-game home win streak was snapped earlier this month by Omaha.