By ERIC TABER | Photos by WILLIAM MUNOZ
The Montana Grizzlies look to remain perfect on home soil this season, with arguably the toughest home stretch of the year on the docket this week when the Idaho Vandals and Eastern Washington Eagles come to town.
The Griz and Vandals renew the classic Big Sky rivalry on Thursday, Jan. 21. On Saturday, Jan. 23, Montana and Eastern Washington clash in a rematch of last season’s Big Sky Conference tournament championship game, with the Griz seeking redemption in Dahlberg Arena. That was the last game Montana lost on its home court. Both games will tip off at 7 p.m.
THE HOME STAND: The Griz enter this week’s home stretch against two of its fiercest rivals riding the wave of a seven game overall win streak, the longest win stretch of head coach Travis DeCuire’s tenure.
Montana is also carrying a six game Big Sky win streak, highlighted by two conference road sweeps, the most recent of which was last week over Northern Colorado and North Dakota.
As such, the Griz are currently sitting at the top of the league table at 6-0, with Weber State close behind at 5-0, and Idaho and Eastern Washington following suit with a 3-2 record. The top four teams in the Big Sky standings at the end of the season receive first round byes at the 2016 league championship in Reno.
FUN STUFF: Thursday’s game against Idaho is the annual pink game for cancer awareness, presented by Providence Health & Services and Team Up Montana. Fans are encouraged to wear pink to support cancer awareness.
Saturday’s game against Eastern Washington is presented by Century Link, who will provide 500 lucky fans with a free megaphone to use while cheering on the Griz.
Saturday’s game is also a whiteout. Fans are encouraged to wear white, and whiteout Dahlberg Arena.
Finally, Saturday, Jan. 23 is also the annual fan appreciation tailgate party, set to take place from 5-7 p.m. in the East Auxiliary Gym (EAG) at the Adams Center. The event, sponsored by Grizzly Scholarship Association, features one dollar hot dogs, chips, and soda, as well as beer for three dollars.
WATCH: Fans worldwide can tune in to watch the Griz against the Vandals and Eagles via live web stream at watchbigsky.com.
Make sure to FOLLOW the Griz via Twitter for live score updates and highlights @UMGRIZZLIES_BB. Fans can tune in to the Grizzlies Radio Network to hear radio broadcast statewide, or listen in via web stream at gogriz.com/watch.
SERIES HISTORIES: Montana trails Idaho in the all-time series history 84-107. The Griz lead the all-time series with Eastern Washington 64-41.
LAST MEETINGS: Montana split its two decisions with Idaho last season, picking up a 70-56 win over the Vandals in Missoula on Feb. 7. Four player scored in double figures for the Griz, led by a game-high 17 for Jordan Gregory, 12 points for Martin Breunig, 11 points for Brandon Gfeller and 10 for Mario Dunn
The Griz dropped the return contest in Moscow, Idaho, in a double-overtime thriller, 92-87. Jordan Gregory put in a huge night with a career-high 36 points and five assists. A three-pointer from Gregory with nine seconds to play in OT sent the game into an extra period, but Idaho pulled away in 2OT.
EWU: In front of a season-high 7,026 screaming fans, the Eagles nabbed the Big Sky’s ticket to the NCAA tournament in a come-from-behind, 69-65 victory in the Championship game of the league tournament in Missoula. Montana led by 11 points with just over six minutes to play, but the Eagles outscored the Griz 14-2 in the final four minutes to take the victory.
During the regular season, Montana split with the Eagles, falling 75-69 in Missoula, before redeeming themselves on the road with a 77-76 win in Cheney.
GRIZ TRACKS: Martin Breunig became the third Grizzly in as many weeks to take home Big Sky Player of the Week honors after leading Montana to its second road-sweep of the season with 49 points and 20 rebounds in two games.
Walter Wright and Brandon Gfeller took home Player of the Week honors the two weeks previous.
Breunig is currently the Big Sky’s fifth leading scorer, averaging 18.2 points per game through all of the Grizzlies 17 games. In conference play, he is one of only two players averaging a double-double, with a 19.3 PPG average, paired with a 10.8 rebounds per game average.
In his two years at Montana, Breunig has amassed 843 points, requiring just 157 more this season to join the 1,000 point club. If he continues his 18.2 PPG average over Montana’s remaining 12 regular season games, he will have scored 1,061 career points, which would place him in the No. 23 spot on UM’s all-time list above Roger Fasting, who totaled 1,047 between 1987-1992.
Breunig’s career-to-date point per game average is 17.2, just beyond Michael Ray Richardson’s career average of 17.1. Anthony Johnson holds the highest career PPG average in the 1,000-point club at 18.43 during his two-year run at Montana.
This season, Breunig has been one of the Big Sky’s most consistent high scorers as the only player with four outings over 25 points. He’s also posted the second-most double-doubles in the league with seven on the season.
Last week’s co-Player of the Week Walter Wright currently sits on top of the league standings in assists. Wright has posted a pair of double-doubles done the hard way during league play. Against NAU he dished out 10 assists, followed by a career-high 12 assists against Sacramento State. Montana’s school record for assists in a game is 14, set by Nate DuChesne in 1989.
The Grizzlies are carrying the best Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) raking of all Big Sky teams, currently ranked No. 125 in the nation. Weber State comes into this week’s RPI rankings at No. 144, while Idaho is ranked No. 179 and Eastern Washington comes in at No. 246.
The key to the Grizzlies success this season has been defense, and UM has the league’s best scoring defense to prove it, allowing just 66.6 points per game out of its opponents. The Montana D has been especially effective guarding against the three-ball, keeping opponents to just .309 from behind the arc, the league’s best mark.
Rebounding has also been central to UM’s success, averaging 39 boards per game, the second best mark in the league.
The Griz are 5-3 in games decided by 10 points or fewer this season, with the three losses coming at San Jose State, Pepperdine, and Gonzaga.
SCOUTING THE VANDALS: Idaho brings a similar approach and set of numbers as the Griz to Dahlberg Arena on Thursday as one of the only other schools in the Big Sky to pick up a road sweep, defeating UNC and UND.
Sophomore Victor Sanders leads the Vandals in scoring at 15.8 PPG, followed by junior Perrion Callandret, who averages 14.4.
SCOUTING THE EAGLES: The Eagles are winners of three straight home games headed into Saturday’s game in Missoula. At 3-2 in league play, EWU is searching for their first roads win, falling to both Northern Colorado and North Dakota. In fact, EWU is just 2-7 on the road this year, but have picked up impressive road wins at San Francisco and Denver.
The Eagles have three of the league’s most dangerous scorers, with senior Austin McBroom leading the Big Sky in scoring at 19.4 PPG, followed by senior forward Venky Jois with 16.3 PPG and Felix Von Hofe with 15.7 PPG.
Sophomore Bogdan Bliznyuk registered the first triple-double in EWU history with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in the Eagles 96-73 win over Northern Arizona on Jan. 16 in Cheney.