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Brian Qvale
Montana center Brian Qvale, shown here dunking over Northern Colorado's Mike Proctor, is a front-runner for the Big Sky Conference MVP award.

Northern Colorado's Devon Beitzel and Northern Arizona's Cameron Jones shared the Big Sky Conference men's basketball player of the week award on Monday.

But the duo is in the running to earn greater spoils by season's end.

Beitzel, Jones and — of course — Montana center Brian Qvale appear to be the front-runners for the league MVP award.

With 81 blocked shots, Qvale is 13 rejections away from setting the league's single-season record. He already owns the Big Sky mark for career swats. Qvale is a virtual lock to take home the Big Sky's defensive player of the year award.

But is his dominance on one end of the floor enough to carry him to the league's ultimate individual prize?

By all accounts, Qvale has improved his offensive production during the 2010-11 campaign.

To wit: Qvale, the lone senior on the Montana team, averages 15.1 points per game, up five from last season. He is shooting 63.4 percent from the floor, up two percentage points from last season. He leads the league in rebounding at 8.8 per game, also up nearly two from last season.

But more than that, the 6-foot-11 Qvale has led the Griz (19-8, 11-3 Big Sky) to a stellar season, one that's had them ranked in the Mid-Major poll for much of the year with a shot at the league's regular-season title.

If Qvale wins the MVP, it would serve as a form of redemption for the Grizzlies, who watched the league coaches give the award to Weber State's Damian Lillard last season.

Folks in Missoula (and anybody who paid attention) believed Griz guard Anthony Johnson was the league's true MVP last year — and he solidified his case with a legendary postseason performance.

Lillard, a junior guard who has been billed as an NBA draft prospect, saw his chance for an MVP repeat go by the wayside when he suffered a season-ending foot injury just nine games into the season.

Beitzel, a 6-1 guard, leads the league in scoring at 20.2 points per game, and is one of the Big Sky's top 3-point shooters. Northern Colorado (15-10, 10-3) is in a loss-column tie with the Grizzlies atop the standings.

Jones, a 6-4 guard, ranks second in the league in scoring at 19.7 points per game for Northern Arizona (16-10, 7-6), which leads the conference in offensive output. Jones also ranks sixth in the Big Sky in assists.

The MVP award is expected to be doled out the first week of March.

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Busting loose

Montana and Montana State each suffered defeats Saturday night in the ESPN BracketBusters series. The Griz fell 74-56 at Long Beach State while the Cats lost 65-50 at home to Idaho.

A quick aside: Montana State has now lost nine consecutive games, its longest losing streak since the 1975-76 season.

But the Big Sky fared well elsewhere.

Northern Colorado won 82-80 at New Mexico State, while Northern Arizona prevailed 59-56 at Cal Poly. Beitzel and Jones played vital roles in those victories. Beitzel scored 28 points to lead the Bears, while Jones hit game-winning a 3-pointer with one second left to propel the Lumberjacks.

Idaho State beat Cal State Fullerton 84-79 at home, and Portland State earned an 84-75 home victory over Loyola Marymount.

Logjam at the top

Much has been made of the battle between Montana and Northern Colorado atop the men's standings, but suddenly the women's race has become a tug-of-war.

Northern Colorado, Montana and Montana State each have three league losses. UNC, at 15-11 overall and 10-3 in the Big Sky, sits alone in first place. MSU (15-11, 9-3) and UM (14-11, 9-3) are deadlocked in second place while Portland State (15-10, 8-4) is a game back in third.

All four squads have earned berths to the postseason tournament, but they are jockeying for the right to host the tourney.

The Bobcats had been in first place for much of the season, but losses in two of their last three games — including a 74-65 defeat at Idaho State on Thursday — knocked them from their perch.

The Lady Griz, with a 63-60 victory at ISU Saturday night, have vaulted into the mix on the strength of a six-game winning streak.

Around the league

Eastern Washington G Chene Cooper earned the Big Sky women's player of the week award on Monday. Cooper averaged 20.5 points, five rebounds and six assists in victories over NAU and Weber State last week. ... NAU's Jones became the 29th men's player in conference history to reach the 1,500-point plateau. Jones scored 19 points against Cal Poly, giving him 1,516 career points, just 34 shy of the school record. ... Weber State's men became the third team to clinch a berth in the Big Sky tournament with a win over Portland State last Wednesday. It was Weber State's 21st consecutive regular-season conference home victory, and marked the fifth straight season the Wildcats have qualified for the postseason.

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