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Zharon Richmond drives the ball

Zharon Richmond and his Montana State Billings teammates will open the season against two NCAA Division I opponents, Grand Canyon and UNLV.

BILLINGS — Sometimes it helps to know people.

During his last three seasons as head coach at Alaska Fairbanks, Mick Durham scheduled at least one exhibition game against Division I teams, sometimes two.

The Nanooks played at UNLV (2017), at UTEP (2016) and at both Nevada and Brigham Young in 2015.

Now he’s trying to do the same for Montana State Billings.

The Yellowjackets will begin their season with exhibition games at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and UNLV in the same week.

“No. 1, it’s great for recruiting,” said Durham. “And you’ve got nothing to lose. You benefit from the experience.

“No. 2, games like those will expose right away,” continued Durham with a chuckle. “You find out a lot about yourself in a hurry.”

Division I teams in the region have shied away from playing the Yellowjackets since their 79-75 upset win at Oregon State in January of 1996.

Durham parlayed a previous coaching relationship into the game with the Runnin’ Rebels. Durham had previously worked with UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies when the two were at New Mexico State.

“I texted him and told him I was at a different school,” Durham said.

Then the new MSUB head coach had to wait.

“It’s hard to get those games,” he said. “Those are the last games they schedule. You’ve got to hang in there with them.”

It will be the first meeting between the Yellowjackets and UNLV and 12th game against Grand Canyon.

The Runnin’ Rebels were 20-13 last season, losing to Nevada in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

The Lopes were 22-12, reaching the championship game of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament before losing to New Mexico State. Grand Canyon played in the postseason, losing to Mercer in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational.

MSUB is 3-8 all-time against the ‘Lopes. The teams last met on Dec. 14, 2012, a 71-61 Grand Canyon win. The teams played nine times between 1991 and 1994. Grand Canyon completed it’s transition from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I in 2016.

The men’s basketball program also won NAIA national titles in 1975, 1978 and 1988.

MSUB will open it season on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at Grand Canyon and follow with a Friday, Nov. 2 game at UNLV. It is the season opener for both Division I teams.

Both teams will have a whole month of practice — compared to two weeks for MSUB — before the games.

“Division I starts practice on Oct. 1 and we start on Oct. 15,” noted Durham. “And they can have personal workouts with their players during the summer.”

Despite the challenge, Durham wants to make a Division I opponent a regular part of the MSUB preseason schedule.

“It’s something we want to continue,” he said.

But maybe with one small change.

“It would be nice if they didn’t keep score and we just scrimmaged,” he added with a smile.

Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

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