Two of the premier guards in the nation in action in Missoula on Saturday


Two of the premier Mid-Major players and basketball programs in the nation will take center stage this Saturday, Dec. 15, as The University of Montana Grizzlies (4-3) and the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits (8-3) square off in a non-league game in UM’s Dahlberg Arena.  Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m.

Both teams have one of the premier point guards in the country, and both players were named Mid-Major All-Americans last season.

As Griz Nation knows, Montana’s star player is senior Will Cherry, the school’s all-time leader in career steals, who is also ranked among UM’s career scorers and assists men.

Cherry, a 6-1, 188-pounder from West Oakland, Calif., has missed Montana’s first seven games this season as he recovered from a foot injury he suffered in late September, however he began practicing last week and will make his 2012-13 debut this Saturday against SDSU.

The Jackrabbits’ standout is 6-4, 190-pound senior guard Nate Wolters, who is ranked 19th in the nation in scoring at 20.4 points a game.  Not only is he a prolific scorer, but Wolters averages 6.1 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game this year.  He scored 30 points in a 70-67 season-opening loss at Alabama.  Wolters missed a couple of games this year due to injury, but returned to action last week and scored 18 points in a recent 69-63 win over Cal State Bakersfield.

University of Montana’s s all-time leader in career steals, Will Cherry is also ranked among UM’s career scorers and assists.

Both Cherry and Walters were named to collegeinsider’s Mid-Major 2011-12 All-America team, and both were also named first team all-league in their respective conferences.

The Grizzlies and Jackrabbits are both coming off banner seasons.  Montana went 25-7 overall last year and went 15-1 in league play en route to garnering the Big Sky’s regular-season championship.   The Grizzlies’ 25 victories a year ago are the second most in school history, while their 15 wins in league were the most ever.

The Griz hosted and won the Big Sky Tournament, and advanced to the NCAA tourney for the ninth time in school history, losing 73-49 to 14th-ranked Wisconsin in the first round.   Ironically, Montana finished ranked 14th in the collegeinsider’s final Mid-Major poll last season.

Montana had an unprecedented four players named to the All-Big Sky team, and two of those players, Cherry and 6-5 junior guard-forward Kareem Jamar, were first-team picks

Cherry and Jamar were both named to the postseason tournament squad, and the latter was picked the MVP.  Also back for the Griz is starting forward Mathias Ward, a 6-7 senior and the team’s second-leading scorer last year (10.9 ppg) and an all-tournament team pick.

As a junior, Cherry was ranked fourth in the Big Sky and led Montana in scoring with 15.8 points a game.  He led the league and was ranked sixth in the nation with 2.6 steals a game, and he was seventh in the conference in assists (3.3 apg).  Last season he was named the Big Sky’s “Defensive Player of the Year.”

Cherry is already the all-time leader in career steals at Montana with 223.  He is currently ranked 11th in career assists (311) and is the school’s 4th all-time scorer with 1,191 points.

South Dakota State University Senior Guard Nate Wolters is ranked 19th in the nation in scoring at 204 points a game.

The Jackrabbits return four of five starters, including Wolters, who was also a first team all-league selection last season. Wolters was voted the Summit League’s preseason player of the year in 2012-13, and is currently ranked 19th in the nation in scoring (20.4 ppg).

Also an All-District selection (as was Cherry) a year ago, Wolters led his team in scoring (21.2 ppg), rebounding (5.1 rpg), and assists (5.9 apg).   His 21.2 points a game ranked him eighth in the nation.

Wolters, from St. Cloud, Minn., is also ranked among his school’s all-time leaders in two key categories.  He’s ranked fourth in SDSU history with 1,812 career points, and needs just 120 more points to become the all-time leader, while he’s second in school history with 531 career assists.

“Both players (Cherry and Wolters) are very versatile,” said Griz head coach Wayne Tinkle.  “Their kid can pass it, can score it, can shoot it, rebounds, defends.  We know Will is a great defender on-ball and off-ball, a great play-maker, and he can really score it too.

“It’s kind of like the (Damien) Lillard match-up (Weber State’s recent NBA lottery pick),” Tinkle said.  “Wolters is a projected first round draft pick, and he’s got some great teammates out there.  It’s not just a one-man show.  We’re a little bit of a wounded animal still, but our guys are starting to understand their roles.  If our guys can defend and show improvement in some areas and do what we do offensively, then it will be a game that goes down to the wire.”

Last season SDSU tied its school record for wins with 27.   SDSU (27-8) won the Summit League Tournament to advance to the NCAAs. The Jackrabbits lost 68-60 to Baylor in an NCAA tourney first-round game played in “The Pit” in Albuquerque, N.M., the same site which the Griz played Wisconsin last year in the Big Dance.

“For us it’s going to be a challenge,” Tinkle said.  “We are not at 100 percent by any means, but I like the progress that we’ve made.  It’s going to be a really neat challenge to see how far we’ve come from our first game on the road at Colorado State (a 72-65 loss) to playing South Dakota State at home in the middle of December.”

The Grizzly-Jackrabbit game is the start of a rigorous schedule for SDSU, as it is the first of six straight road contests.  The Jackrabbits’ next home game is Jan. 10, 2013.

Adding more drama to Saturday’s match-up is that the Grizzlies are going for their 16th home win in a row in Dahlberg Arena.  UM’s 15-game winning streak is the eighth longest in the nation, with the last home loss a 70-64 setback to Nevada on Dec. 10, 2011.

Tinkle said that he is okay with his team’s progress in its non-league games.

“I think we are right on par, without our leader (Cherry),” Tinkle said.  “We thought that if we could get into league at .500, or maybe one game better, that it would be great.  We’ve got a chance to do that.  If we can win (this coming Saturday) and be 5-3 that would be unbelievable.

“We’ve made some progress,” he said.  “We had a couple of games at BYU and at San Fran (sic) when we didn’t think that we were at our best.  But, I remember a year ago playing really, really horribly in December (4th) at Oregon State (a 71-46 loss).  If we can learn from those things and put them behind us, and really dive in once we get into conference play, the early experiences won’t cost us in a negative way, they will be positive because obviously we learned from them.”

Montana Sports Information  —