After winning 50 games combined and making two NCAA Tournament appearances in the past two seasons, Montana is in the throes of a most trying season. The Grizzlies are 8-9 overall and just 3-5 in the Big Sky Conference. To put that in perspective, UM lost just two conference games combined the past two years.
At Montana State, the Bobcats were off to their best start in three years in the Big Sky but have since stumbled. A 4-1 league record turned into a 4-4 mark after three consecutive losses. The Cats are 9-10 overall.
Needless to say, Monday’s meeting between the Cats and Griz in Bozeman looms large. It’s the first of two scheduled games this year. Each team plays on the road this week against beleaguered Southern Utah (which is winless in the league and has one victory overall) prior to Monday’s tip-off, which means both should come in off a win.
The Grizzlies haven’t had a losing conference record this late in a season since 2007-08, when a 70-68 loss at Portland State dropped them to 3-5 on Jan. 31. But that Griz team rallied down the stretch, finishing 8-8 with a berth in the league tournament.
Right now UM is struggling with defense and rebounding. The Griz allow about 71 points per game, and teams are shooting nearly 49 percent against them. Those stats rank in the bottom half of the league. And they are the second-worst rebounding team in Division I -- lumped in with the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and the University of Denver -- ranking 350th out of 351 teams with an average of just 22.4 boards per game. The low point came when Montana had just 11 rebounds in a home loss to Northern Colorado 10 days ago. It was a game in which big men Eric Hutchison and Andy Martin played a combined 18 minutes and had one rebound between them.
Coach Wayne Tinkle is going with a smaller lineup, and that can have a negative effect on rebounding. In their most recent loss at Weber State on Saturday, the Griz got out-boarded by nine (35 to 26). Weber’s Joel Bolomboy grabbed 19 rebounds.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, need to find a way to stem the tide of their losing streak. The game at Southern Utah provides them that chance, and a win would make the game against the Grizzlies even bigger. A win over Montana could be the momentum push Brad Huse’s team needs.
But history is not on MSU’s side. Big losing streaks have derailed its previous three seasons. The Bobcats lost five in a row last February and limped to the finish line for a .500 league record. The year prior they lost eight straight and finished 7-9; the year before that a nine-game losing streak did them for a 7-9 mark again.
I’m pointing to the next four games as the defining moment of MSU’s season so far. The game against Montana is the first of a three-game homestand, which includes winnable contests against Eastern Washington and Portland State. If the Cats can go 3-1 or perhaps 4-0 they’ll be rejuvenated heading into a key road trip to North Dakota and Northern Colorado. If not? It could mean another familiar scenario is playing out in Bozeman.
Clearly, Monday’s game is huge for both Montana and Montana State. For what it's worth, the Grizzlies have won six in a row against the Bobcats dating back to the 2010-11 season.
NOTE: Normally, UM and MSU play as part of a Saturday doubleheader with the women’s teams. But due to a scheduling snafu that would have forced Southern Utah to play something like seven consecutive road games, the doubleheaders are off this year. The women's game is also Monday, but in Missoula. When Idaho rejoins the Big Sky next year (giving the league 12 teams) the men’s and women’s doubleheaders figure to be back on.