Dahlberg Arena has never been so busy. Well, that’s not true. The University of Montana last hosted both the men’s and women’s Big Sky Conference tournaments back in 2000.
But it’s been long enough for this year’s double-dip in Missoula for the extra hype to be justified. The women’s tournament begins Wednesday while the men’s tourney opens Thursday. All four teams from Montana and Montana State are in, with the squads from UM earning first-round byes by virtue of winning regular-season championships.
Both championship games will be held Saturday. Following are four key tourney topics. And be sure to check out the full tournament schedule below:
1. Can anybody beat Montana's men on their home floor?
Montana’s home dominance against the Big Sky Conference has been well chronicled over the course of the past three seasons, so it’s no secret that the Grizzlies have a huge advantage hosting the league tournament this weekend. UM has won 29 consecutive games at home against league opponents, including two at last year’s conference tourney. Its last loss? A 73-67 setback to Montana State on Feb. 27, 2010. That was three years ago.
But one X-factor could be the season-ending foot injury to forward Mathias Ward. Ward was hurt prior to the Grizzlies’ BracketBusters game at Davidson on Feb. 23, and recently underwent surgery. At 14.8 points per game, Ward was UM’s leading scorer, and he also provided strong senior leadership. Still, the Griz are 5-1 since Ward went down. One thing the Grizzlies do well is get the most out of whatever combinations are on the floor, and they look to do it again this weekend.
2. Is this Brad Huse's final go-round in the Big Sky tourney? Is it Wayne Tinkle's?
We asked a similar question about Huse for Montana State’s previous meeting with Montana on March 2. And it remains prevalent now. Huse, the Bobcats’ seventh-year coach, might just have to win the Big Sky tourney to keep his job. MSU limped through the regular season, finishing 13-16 overall and 10-10 in the league. Huse, who is in the final year of his contract, is 55-61 in the conference and 93-116 overall at MSU. The fourth-seeded Cats face No. 5 seed Northern Colorado in the first round.
But what about Montana coach Wayne Tinkle? With a 139-77 career record, the seventh-year Griz coach has become a hot commodity in the last couple years, and is an attractive candidate for bigger and better jobs. One thing is certain: A top-level program could do a lot worse than Tinkle. Obviously there are a lot of considerations to be made, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility after what has been another great year for UM.
3. Will the Big Sky Conference win an NCAA tournament game this year?
Whichever team wins the league tournament won’t get a very good draw. A Montana or Weber State victory might produce a 14- or maybe even a 13-seed, but the winner might also get a seed as low as 15. Anyone else and it might be a 16. Truth be told, the Big Sky wasn’t very good this year, as its RPI of 28 (out of 32 Division I conferences) indicates.
Team-wise, Montana’s RPI is 89, while Weber State’s is 94. After that, North Dakota is the next-highest at 229. So it doesn’t bode well for a favorable draw for whoever emerges. As of Tuesday night, ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi had tourney-favorite Montana listed as a No. 15-seed facing second-seeded Kansas in the South region.
The Big Sky Conference hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since Montana beat Nevada as a 12-seed in 2006. It remains the only game the league has won at the Big Dance since the turn of the millennium. The Big Sky is 11-47 all-time in the NCAA tournament, a winning percentage of .190.
4. Which trend will play out at the women's tournament?
In recent years, the women’s tournament has been fairly predictable. Case in point: Only four times since 1995 has the host team NOT won the championship. That doesn't include Idaho State’s tourney win last year in Pocatello. Still, the four instances where the host team didn't win happened in the past seven seasons. Which trend will take hold this time around?
This year, Montana took control of the Big Sky in the latter half of its schedule. The Lady Griz won 11 of their last 13 games to win the regular-season title. Through the years UM has been the top team in the league, and that’s also true for the conference tournament. Its all-time record in league tourney games is 35-8, including 13 championships. That makes UM an obligatory favorite again this season, though six teams -- Montana, Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Sacramento State and Montana State -- won double-digit conference games. Northern Colorado, led by star guard D'shara Strange, finished the season just one game back of UM in the league standings. Watch out for the Bears.
2013 BIG SKY CONFERENCE BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
First Round, March 14
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3 p.m. -- No. 7 Northern Arizona vs. No. 2 Weber State
5:30 p.m. -- No. 6 Southern Utah vs. No. 3 North Dakota
8 p.m. -- No. 5 Northern Colorado vs. No. 4 Montana State
Semifinals, March 15
5:30 p.m -- Highest Remaining Seed vs 2nd Highest Remaining Seed
8 p.m. -- Lowest Remaining Seed vs. No. 1 Montana
Championship, March 16
7 p.m. -- Semifinal Winners
First Round, March 13
3 p.m. -- No. 2 Northern Colorado vs. No. 7 Southern Utah
5:30 p.m. -- No. 3 Eastern Washington vs. No. 6 Montana State
8 p.m. -- No. 4 Idaho State vs. No. 5 Sacramento State
Semifinals, March 15
11 a.m. -- Highest Remaining Seed vs. 2nd Highest Remaining Seed
1:30 p.m. -- Lowest Remaining Seed vs. No. 1 Montana
Championship, March 16
2 p.m. -- Semifinal Winners