By ERIC TABER
As the Montana Grizzlies get set to host their first Big Sky Conference home games of the season this coming Thursday and Saturday, the team will do so with its collective heads held a little higher after a pair of road wins that have the Griz at 2-0 in league play.
Two-game road sweeps are a rare commodity in a conference with increasing parity and vast travel distances. The Griz had one of the most difficult road trips of the season in terms of travel right out of the blocks to open league play, and came away from the southwest smiling with a double-overtime victory over Northern Arizona, followed by a decisive 83-66 win at Southern Utah.
How rare are road sweeps? Consider this: In the 2014-15 season, the Grizzlies completed just one road sweep in conference play en route to the regular-season Big Sky championship, and they did it on one of the league’s other difficult travel pairings at North Dakota and Northern Colorado. The last time the Griz opened their Big Sky schedule with a sweep was in 2012-13 when they took down NAU and Sacramento State.
This year, the only other team that managed a road sweep on week one of league play was Idaho, which pulled off the UND-UNC sweep. Just one other Big Sky team took home a single road win last week, with Montana State defeating NAU in overtime. The home-court advantage is just that strong in the Big Sky.
With a pair of all-important road wins under the Grizzlies’ belt, confidence in team camp is on the rise as it prepares to defend its league championship and flawless ’15-’16 home record on Thursday against Portland State and Saturday against Sacramento State.
“It gives us a lot of confidence in a lot of ways,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire. “For us to get a sweep in the first week with a lot of basketball to be played, we kind of feel like we’ve got an edge up in terms of road wins.
“It’s also our first two roads wins of the year, so it’s a sign of where this team is going, and where we were.”
Like millions of holiday travelers find out on an annual basis, managing energy levels on a long road trip is a challenge for any college basketball team, and the Griz are no different. Five a.m. flights are the norm for UM, so Coach DeCuire adjusted his team’s travel schedule to make sure legs were fresh when they hit the court in Flagstaff.
The result was a scrappy win at NAU, followed by what could be the team’s most complete performance to date at Southern Utah. Montana shot a lights-out 53 percent, while the defense allowed the T-Birds to make just 18 shots from the field.
“Saturday was the first day we actually executed our offense, got the ball where we wanted to get it, but at the same time defended and made it difficult on our opponent,” added Coach DeCuire. “Weather we’re at home or on the road, if we continue to play like that, we’ll be tough to beat. The question for us right now is, can we consistently do that, and that’s to be determined.”
With the majority of the drama of the Big Sky league season still to unfold for the Grizzlies, each win remains important, and it’s not lost on the team that 2-0 does not equal a conference championship.
Montana will however get the chance to improve on that 2-0 start when the PSU Vikings and Sac. St. Hornets come calling to Missoula. The Griz have not lost a home game yet this season, and if that streak continues, UM could be on track for its best conference start since the ’12-’13 season, when the Griz rattled off 14 wins to open Big Sky play.
Tipoff against the Vikings and Hornets is set for 7 p.m. in Dahlberg Arena on Jan. 7 and 9. Tickets for the two games are on sale now at Griztix.com.