Can Griz keep winning streak alive against NoDak?

GoGriz.com

Montana’s two-game Big Sky homestand continues on Saturday as the Big Sky’s preseason Most Valuable Player Quinton Hooker, and the North Dakota Fighting Hawks visit Dahlberg Arena on Saturday, Jan. 14.

The Grizzlies (9-9, 4-1 BSC) are white-hot with momentum heading into the game after scoring a season-high 89 points in an 89-68 dismantling of Northern Colorado and are riding a three-game league win streak.

The Fighting Hawks (9-6, 4-1 BSC) are also shooting hot after pulling off a comeback win over Montana State on Thursday, 90-85. The win over MSU was the third time in four games the Hawks have scored 90-or-more points, and ride a four-game conference win streak into Missoula. UND’s only loss of the league season came at Portland State, where the Vikings ran out to a 99-62 win in the Rose City.

THE GAME: The Grizzlies and Fighting Hawks enter Saturday’s game knotted in second place in the current Big Sky standings as the only two teams with four wins and one loss.

UND has the edge on UM on the current table, however, with three fewer losses at 9-6 on the season (compared to Montana’s 9-9).

North Dakota’s nonconference schedule doesn’t pack the heft of Montana’s however. UND’s current RPI ranking puts them at No. 235 in the nation, while the Griz have the Big Sky’s second-best RPI at 179, ahead of Weber State (188), but behind Eastern Washington (151), who the Griz defeated in Cheney 65-59.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in Missoula.

PROMOTIONS: Saturday night is military, veterans and first responders appreciation night, with members of each profession gaining free entry to the game with a valid ID. Thank you for your service!

WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the world can watch the UM/UND game live and free of charge on the league’s digital video streaming platform, WatchBigSky.com, and via the Big Sky Conference Mobile App, available to download free from the App Store and on Google Play.

The “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will bring you the statewide radio call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network. An audio-only stream of the radio call is also available at GoGriz.com. Fans can also follow live twitter updates @UMGRIZZLIES_BB, live stats are available at GrizStats.com.

SERIES HISTORY: The Griz lead the Hawks 14-6 all-time, dating back to the first meeting way back in 1929, a two-game series, both of which were won by UND 24-22 and 25-24.

The Griz are 10-1 in Missoula against UND, with the only loss in the Garden City occurring in 1964. Coach Travis DeCuire has never lost to UND, going 4-0 since taking over at UM in 2014.

LAST MATCHUP: The Grizzlies’ defense held the Fighting Hawks to 27 points below their season average with a convincing 71-46 victory at Dahlberg Arena on March 4, 2016.

After falling behind 11-5 in the opening six minutes of the ballgame, the Griz went on a 51-17 run to bury the visitors, thanks in part to a game-high 18 points from Walter Wright.

IMPLICATIONS: With the (rightly) predicted impact of Quinton Hooker, the Hawks were picked by the league’s coaches to finish ahead of the Griz in the preseason poll with 103 total points and three first-place votes. Conversely, the Griz were picked to finish second by the league’s media ahead of the Hawks (who were picked fourth) with 167 points and three first-place votes. Saturday’s winner will have a big leg up headed into the business end of the league season.

GRIZ TRACKS: Task No.1 for the Griz against the Hawks: slow down UND senior guard Quinton Hooker, the Big Sky’s No. 6 scorer at 18.8 points per game and preseason pick for league MVP. Hooker added to his resume on Thursday against Montana State with 24 points, his fourth straight 20-plus point game.

It’s not that simple, however. The Hawks boast two more of the Big Sky’s top-20 scorers, with guard Geno Crandall averaging just under 13 PPG and 6-foot-7 forward Conner Avants averaging just under 12 in addition to Hooker’s near-19 PPG.

“They’re really good offensively. They’ll spread you out, and they’ll drive on you. They have good shooters,” said DeCuire. “Once again this is a team with two, three guys on the floor that can score the ball. If you can slow two of them down, you’re in pretty good shape. But they’re a good basketball team, and we’re going to need to bring them our A-game.”

Like the Griz, the Hawks have a talented stable of guards that DeCuire expects to pressure Montana on the perimeter, forcing the Griz to share the ball to find the open shots.

Good thing UM has been really good at that as of late.

Against UNC, the Griz had 19 assists on 32 made buckets compared to just 6-on-22 for the Bears. On the season, UM has dished out 245 assists to 459 made shots from the field, nearly one assist for every two shots. Also worth noting, Montana is 7-4 this season when handing out more assists than its opponents.

Scoring the ball is coming easier to UM as well, with three players now averaging double figures after Thursday’s season-high output. Ahmaad Roriecontinues to lead Montana in scoring at 16.6 per game, and Walter Wright is adding 11.6 off the bench. Wright’s field goal percentage moved above 40 percent for the first time this season after the UNC game, where he made over 71 percent of his shots.

Perhaps making the biggest impact though is Michael Oguine, who is back averaging 10.3 PPG after scoring 14 points or more in the last three games. The sophomore has scored in double figures in six of his 12 games this year after coming back from injury.

Montana’s defense holds the key to wins so far this year, however. 70 is the magic number. If UM holds its opponent to less than 70, the Griz are an undefeated 9-0.

GRIZ BITS: UM’s 21-point win over UNC is tied for the biggest win of the year, having also posted a 21-pont win against Oral Roberts… At one point against UNC, the Griz led by 31, their largest lead of the year. UM’s previous largest lead was 24 vs. Oral Roberts… The Griz led the Bears by 20 points at the half, the largest halftime lead of the year.