The media wasn't sold. Neither were the opposing coaches.
But Montana men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle knew deep down that his team could be superior to the Grizzly squad that won the Big Sky Conference championship and gave third-seeded New Mexico all it could handle in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.
“We knew we had the potential to be a better team,” Tinkle said last week. “Last year we had some really good individual players. We felt we were a little inconsistent in the league. We relied too heavily on one guy.
“But guys bought into the fact that we needed to rely on each other this year. We've bonded and we have great chemistry. A lot of guys have been pretty productive so far. And we'll challenge them to give us even more.”
That “one guy” Tinkle referred to is Anthony Johnson, UM's leading scorer and one of the better guards to ever play in Missoula. It was Johnson's legendary performance in the Big Sky Conference title game that propelled the Grizzlies into the NCAA tourney.
Still, Johnson's graduation prompted both the media and coaches to rank the Griz No. 3 in the league's 2010-11 preseason polls in November.
As it happens, life without A.J. has been A-OK for the Grizzlies.
Following a 79-58 victory over Montana State Saturday night, UM is 16-5 overall and 8-1 in the league. The Griz are in sole possession of first place in the Big Sky standings, having won 11 of their last 12, including six in a row.
Will Cherry's stellar play at point guard, Derek Selvig's sudden rise and the addition of junior college transfer Art Steward have played a significant role in Montana's surge. But the biggest factor — and it's been noted before — is the marked improvement of 6-foot-11 center Brian Qvale.
The senior from Williston, N.D., scored 26 points and hauled in 11 rebounds against Montana State. It was his fifth straight double-double, and on Monday Qvale took home his third consecutive Big Sky player of the week award.
Qvale averages 14.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots per game, and earlier this year set the league's all-time record for blocked shots (now at 218). During UM's winning streak, Qvale is averaging 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks while shooting nearly 62 percent.
“He's a ton better,” said Tinkle, who also stands 6-11 and was a Griz standout in his own right. “He's much more demanding — demanding of the basketball, demanding of himself, demanding of his teammates. He's really taken on a leadership role. He played extremely well for us last year in the postseason and used that as motivation for his senior year.
“He's a great kid to coach. He's absorbed everything we've given him over the years, and he's given us everything he has this season. We'll continue to ride him down the stretch.”
Montana State (11-10, 5-4) was hindered by a significant size differential Saturday night, and it was exposed by Qvale and the 7-foot Selvig, who combined for nearly 50 points and more than 20 rebounds.
But the Bobcats were outgunned from the start by a Griz team that couldn't miss.
Montana shot a blistering 66 percent (30 for 45) from the field, including 58 percent (7 for 12) from the 3-point line. Naturally, the Grizzlies dominated the glass, outrebounding MSU 40 to 21.
By contrast, the Cats shot just 40 percent (23 for 57). They jacked up 26 3-pointers, making nine.
“If they (the Grizzlies) miss 15 shots, there's not many rebounds to be had,” MSU coach Brad Huse said afterward. “When you miss 34 shots to their 15, they better outrebound you. That stat doesn't mean anything to me tonight.
“They were just really efficient. They got the ball to the right spots, and really did a good job of moving the basketball and getting point-blank shots.”
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Rush to 1,000
Montana State guard Erik Rush was stymied on Saturday, scoring just 10 points on 4 of 11 shooting. Rush was averaging better than 18 points in home games.
Still, Rush reached a milestone by eclipsing the 1,000-point plateau for his career.
Rush now has 1,015 career points. The 6-foot-5 senior guard is averaging 15.1 points per game this season.
Copper City connection
Torry Hill and Ali Hurley were dominant players at Anaconda High School.
The underclassmen assumed a big leadership role on Saturday to help the Montana Lady Griz (9-11, 4-3) erase an 18-point deficit in a 56-55 win that halted MSU's 10-game winning streak.
“It was like old times,” Hill said. “The state championship game.”
Hill, a freshman guard, hit a deep 3-pointer to give Montana a two-point lead with four minutes left. Hurley, a sophomore forward, converted a pair of big shots in the lane to fend off MSU's last-gasp rally.
Hurley is Anaconda High School's all-time leading scorer — girl or boy — with more than 1,600 points. Hill ranks second with better than 1,400. Hill missed the last half of her senior season with a knee injury.
In 2008, the duo lifted Anaconda to its first girls basketball title since 1973. Hill finished her career with back-to-back state championships.
Griz get ESPN2 game
Montana's men will travel to Long Beach State for an ESPN BracketBusters game on Saturday, Feb. 19. It will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. Mountain time.
The game is one of 57 BracketBusters contests, 11 of which are televised. Long Beach State is 13-10 overall and leads the Big West Conference with an 8-2 record.
“It's great acknowledgment of our team's success and a just reward for our guys,” Tinkle said. “But it is a double-edged sword. Because of the success we've had we were able to get a TV game out of it, which means we're going to play a quality opponent while we are right in the middle of a league race.”
Montana State will host former Big Sky rival Idaho (5-4, 12-9 Western Athletic Conference) on Feb. 19 in a separate BracketBusters game.
For the first time, all nine Big Sky teams were part of the BracketBusters pool, which included 114 teams from 14 conferences and one independent.
Around the league
Portland State G Eryn Jones took home the Big Sky women's player of the week award on Monday. Jones averaged 18 points, 6 assists and 4.5 rebounds while leading Portland State to two league wins last week. ... Northern Colorado's men were stunned by Weber State on Saturday when the Wildcats'' Scott Bamforth hit a 40-foot buzzer-beater to win the game. UNC was seeking an 8-0 start in Big Sky play.