SAN JOSE, Calif. – They are the Montana Grizzlies’ thunder and lightning, high school rivals turned college teammates.
Together, Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry have formed one of the most dynamic backcourts in Montana men’s basketball history.
With his chiseled 6-foot-5 frame, Jamar brings the thunder, overpowering smaller guards with an array of low-post moves while popping in 3-pointers just to keep defenders honest.
Cherry, the 6-1 point guard, is the lightning, striking when opponents least expect it and turning his penchant for thefts into quick scores and using his blazing speed to break down defenses.
Never had the Grizzlies had two 1,000-point career scorers in the same backcourt before the two California products arrived in Missoula. Cherry, a senior, and Jamar, a junior, begin their last hurrah together when the 13th-seeded Griz face fourth-seeded Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament here Thursday at HP Pavilion.
“He’s my little brother,” said Cherry, the Oakland, Calif., native who has come back to the Bay Area as a Griz for one last shot at an NCAA tournament win. “I told him to come here and we’d play together for three years. What we can do on the court was nothing compared to what anybody else was going to do. What other duo can match this right here? We have to go in the history books. Us two on the court, we’re unstoppable.”
You’ll have to excuse Cherry’s enthusiasm; that’s just the way he is. But he’s not far off. Since they first took the court together three seasons ago, the Griz are 71-24 overall, 53-7 against other Big Sky Conference teams. Cherry and Jamar are not wholly responsible for that mark; far from it. But they’ve come up big in the clutch, particularly in the last two seasons.
Could Coach Wayne Tinkle have envisioned this level of success when he landed the two prized recruits?
“Yes,” Tinkle said. “One thing we had learned is that most champions from the Big Sky have great guard play. Montana has always prided itself on pretty good big men, but we knew if we wanted to get to great heights it was going to take some special guys in the backcourt. That’s why we earmarked those two and they certainly haven’t disappointed.”
Cherry always has something to say, most of it good-natured. But if you want to see him clam up, bring up the subject of the California high school state championship game in his senior season. Jamar, from Venice, Calif., was a junior that season and helped lead Westchester High past McClymonds, Cherry’s high school.
“Obviously he was the best player on the team,” Jamar said. “I was just a role player, but I knew our main thing was trying to stop him. We didn’t really accomplish that, but we stopped everybody else and got the win and I was pretty happy about that.”
“I was unhappy,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I didn’t go out like I wanted to go out. They put a whupping on us.”
Jamar and Westchester repeated as California state champions the next season, while Cherry was busy teaming with Anthony Johnson and the rest of the Griz to get to the NCAA tournament, the first of three trips Cherry earned in four seasons. When Jamar took his official recruiting visit to Montana, Cherry was his host.
“I told him like I tell every recruit that I host that you have to choose a college that’s right for you, even if it’s not the University of Montana,” Cherry said. “I know a lot of people try to sell them on the school, but you don’t want to go to a school for four years and be miserable and have to transfer. I wasn’t just trying to get him to come here, I was trying to tell him to go where he would be happy for the next four years.”
But it didn’t take Jamar long to decide where that was.
“When I walked in the room, it was still fresh from the state championship game, so there was still a little excitement off of that,” said Jamar, who took the trip before his senior season of high school. “We went to eat after that and that was good. Later when we got on the court and started running, I thought I was ready for college and I was only a senior. I was thinking to myself I’m going to come here and play three years with him. I know this would go down as one of the best backcourts in the Big Sky.”
Neither Jamar nor Cherry played up to their standards in the 73-49 loss to Wisconsin in last season’s NCAA tournament. Cherry had nine points and Jamar six; they combined to shoot 6 for 22 from the field. That’s just fuel for the fire. Both are committed to doing everything they can to get the Griz just their third win in the Big Dance come Thursday.
“We sold them on those things when we recruited them,” Tinkle said. “We told them, ‘We’re headed in the right direction and with a couple of key pieces we’re going to get to some pretty neat places.’ From day one they’ve been committed to that.
“Their will to win is unmatched, I believe. A lot of people have won games and a lot of people say that, but not too many people have done what they’ve done in the postseason to back up their talk. There are a lot of people who talk throughout the year and they’re usually the ones on the first Thursday of the tournament who are watching from somewhere else.”