The Montana Grizzlies have counterbalanced the bad with the good.
The two-time defending Big Sky Conference men's basketball champions slumped through January, and at one point were mired below .500 and in the bottom third of the league standings. But with three victories last week, the Griz have now won four in row.
“I’m really excited about the run we’ve put together, but we’re still far from where we need to go,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle conveyed to the Missoulian after an 82-77 win over Eastern Washington on Saturday. “And we’re starting to gel, but our chemistry is not quite there.
“If you go on a slide, you’re right back at the bottom of the league. We said in the locker room that we stay humble and hungry and we let our success do our talking for us.”
All three wins last week were tight. Prior to the five-point victory over EWU, Montana beat rival Montana State 70-66 on Monday and defeated Portland State 82-76 on Thursday. Leading the way in all three games was league MVP candidate Kareem Jamar.
Jamar averaged 20.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and two assists last week. Overall, the senior guard showed his veteran presence, shooting 24 for 32 from the foul line and 6 for 13 on 3-pointers. Against EWU, Jamar became the 32nd player in Big Sky history to reach the 1,500-point plateau.
On Monday Jamar earned a share of the Big Sky player of the week award along with Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy.
At 7-5 in the league, the Grizzlies (12-9 overall) are in a four-way tie for second place with Northern Colorado, North Dakota and Northern Arizona. The top seven teams qualify for the Big Sky’s postseason tournament.
Things didn’t look so good three weeks ago, but UM is again in the postseason hunt. The possibility of the Grizzlies hosting the league tournament for the third straight year, however, is a different story. Weber State, at 10-2 in the conference, is firmly entrenched in the No. 1 spot.
The Grizzlies play a huge game at Northern Colorado on Thursday. Just two games separate second place from 10th place with four weeks left in the regular season.
The Big Sky’s RPI ranking remains near the bottom of Division I: The league ranks 27th out of 32 conferences.
RPI (an acronym for Ratings Performance Index) ranks teams and conferences based upon wins, losses and strength of schedule. The Big Sky is 23-62 (.271) in non-conference games this season, the third-worst winning percentage in Division I.
The Big Sky hasn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament since 2006 when 12th-seeded Montana upset No. 5 seed Nevada 87-79. That remains the league’s only tourney win since 2000. It is 11-48 all-time in NCAA tournament games, and has never received an at-large bid.
Is there reason to believe the Big Sky will do something of note this year in the Big Dance? Not based on current numbers — or history. But anything can happen come March.
Imagine the scenario: A college campus is shut down due to what’s described as severe winter weather. That includes the arena in which a basketball game will be played. Fans are discouraged from attending because travel conditions are dangerous. Very few show up.
That was the scene Saturday for the Montana State women’s game at Portland State. The PSU campus — along with other campuses in the area — was closed for 3½ days after snow and ice hit Oregon on Thursday.
The Bobcats arrived to Portland on Friday, so the game went on as planned. Those spectators that did brave the weather were admitted for free. The box score from the game listed an attendance of 148, but MSU radio voice Riley Corcoran estimated it was fewer than 100.
The Vikings average between 400-500 fans per game.
“It was the most bizarre scene, walking into an empty arena for a Division I basketball game,” Corcoran said. “As the game was happening you could hear every word the coaches were saying. And with no students there, the place was dead silent during free throws.
“It was awkward when I was the only person talking at various points of the game.”
Though few people saw it, the Vikings’ Emily Easom scored a career-high 27 points and the Bobcats (11-10, 6-6 Big Sky) lost their fifth straight game, 72-61.
“We’re struggling with some confidence, but that’s on ourselves,” said Bobcats coach Tricia Binford. “This team knows it has the ability. We just need to get back to where we were a month ago.”
Around the league
Weber State’s Bolomboy has seven double-doubles this season. He averaged 16 points and 11.5 rebounds in two wins last week to share the player of the week award with UM’s Jamar. … Weber State beat North Dakota and Northern Colorado at home last week to extend its streak of consecutive home conference regular-season wins to 26, tying the league record set by Montana last year. … On the women’s side, EWU’s Melissa Williams and Southern Utah’s Lori Parkinson were named co-players of the week on Monday. Williams averaged 11 points and 10.5 rebounds as the Eagles earned a rare sweep of Montana and Montana State. Parkinson scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds — her fifth double-double of the year — as Southern Utah beat Sacramento State 93-74 on Saturday.