Big Sky Conference

Big Sky teams navigating challenges of 20-game league schedule


Tricia Binford and her team had to be at the Denver airport at five in the morning on Tuesday.

Travis DeCuire and his team are close to finishing the completion of a gauntlet DeCuire hopes his Grizzlies are built for.

Brian Fish played a stout November slate in order to accrue money to mitigate the challenges of the Big Sky Conference grind. 

And Tori Martell isn’t even quite when the Montana State women play next.

So goes acclimating to the grind of a completely new schedule for basketball teams across the Big Sky Conference.

Following the cutting of the nets in the final tournament championship game in Reno by DeCuire’s Grizzlies last March, the Big Sky went through an impactful shift. North Dakota left the league to join the Summit Conference in basketball and the Missouri Valley Football Conference in football.

That left the Big Sky with 11 teams. The most impactful change stemming from UND’s departure is the 20-game schedule the league’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are navigating over the next 10 weeks.

Every team in the league has to play two different stretches that include four games in eight days. Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Idaho State all had to do it to start conference play on the men’s side. When Northern Colorado’s men play at Weber State on Saturday night, it will be their third game in seven days.

Meanwhile, when Idaho hosts Montana, it will be the first game in nine days for the Vandal men. Every team in the league will have two stretches of four games in eight days. Each team will have at least one break of nine days and multiple breaks of more than two days. League games used to be played on Thursdays and Saturdays. Each team would have two single-game weeks when they played their respective rivals.

“Honestly, I’m a little tired,” Akoh said a few days after the Griz dropped a 77-74 overtime decision to Portland State in Missoula to cap the four in eight stretch. “It was hard, that stretch we had on the road, being away from our beds. Having four games in eight days, it’s a part of it and we aren’t going to use it as any excuse.”

Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder in Bozeman on Monday/ by Brooks Nuanez

The Montana State women opened with four games in eight days, then had to play preseason league favorite Idaho on Thursday. Because UND was Northern Colorado’s travel partner, the Bears are spending this season playing many weeks as the league’s “lone wolf”. UNC has a collection of home-away weeks and a collection of Monday games.

“It is what it is,” UNC men’s head coach Jeff Linder said following his team’s 73-70 win at Montana State on Monday night. “There’s nothing I can do about the schedule. I feel sorry for our guys that our guys don’t get a real, true day off. When we have to take a day off on a Tuesday or Wednesday, that’s the hardest thing because they still have to go to class.

“It’s a trial by fire but at the end of the day, there’s no excuses. You have to play the schedule you have and go try to win the next game.”

Following the MSU women hosting Idaho, the Bobcats had three days off before playing at UNC on Monday. A balanced scoring effort paced by Martell’s 19 points helped lift Montana State to a 79-66 win over the defending league champions.

Binford, Montana State’s 14th-year head coach, said the 20-game league schedule is “definitely different.” She said her team prioritized rest and preparation between the Idaho and Northern Colorado games, which paid dividends as her team moved to 4-2 in Big Sky play.

“We are adapting as much as we can, looking at what days we need to take off, what days we need to go no contact,” Binford said. “Everybody is going to have that portion of their schedule (when they play four in eight).

Montana State head coach Tricia Binford/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I thought we looked flat against Idaho even though we were on our home floor. I thought the carry-over from the four games in eight days, I think everyone is going to see that. How teams use that to their favor it going to have an impact on the league.”

Although MSU posted a key road win at UNC and Martell emerged, at least for a game, from a shooting slump, the Monday night win was still taxing. The Bobcats had to get to the airport at 4:55 a.m. Tuesday morning. Many of the student-athletes had to go straight from the Bozeman airport to class. 

“It’s tough and it’s hard to get a flow because there’s no real routine to when you are playing,” said Martell, a sophomore sharpshooter in her second season navigating the Big Sky. “I don’t even know when we play this week – Saturday? It’s been a lot different this year for sure.”

When the news came that the league was moving to 20 games last spring, it was a welcome change to everyone in the conference. Previously, the league’s 12 teams would play 18 games. Teams would play seven other Big Sky opponents once each home and away during the first 14 games of the schedule. Then each school would play the four other teams they had not yet played once each, half of those four games coming at home and half coming on the road.

“I think it’s hard to really determine a true champion when everyone doesn’t play the same amount of teams the same number of times,” Montana Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen said in June during an interview at the Missoula Country Club. “Regardless, everybody always had a gripe who they had to play twice some years. I think this is definitely the most fair way to determine seeding for the Big Sky Tournament.”

Montana State head coach Brian Fish/ by Brooks Nuanez

Last season, Montana and Montana State did not play traditional rivals Idaho, Eastern Washington, Weber State and Idaho State — all four charter members of the Big Sky Conference — until the final four games of the season. Eastern Washington and Idaho did not come to Montana in 2018.

“I thought, personally, last year when we didn’t get Eastern Washington and Idaho to come play us at home that it hurt us,” Fish, Montana State’s fifth-year head men’s coach, said when the 20-game schedule first came out. “I’m a believer that when you have rivalries in football with schools you need to play them in basketball. It adds to your attendance, and I think our fans would have liked to have seen Eastern Washington and Idaho here.”

Fish’s Bobcats played guaranteed games against Indiana, Colorado State, Arkansas and Washington State, using some of that money earned to schedule three charter flights for league road trips. The Bobcats took a 45-minute plane ride from Moscow to Bozeman after a 77-67 win at Idaho last week.

“The first year of this schedule ultimately is going to be a very educational deal when we are done,” Fish said in an interview on Tootell and Nuanez aired on ESPN Missoula and SWX Television. “I mean, 20 games in 10 weeks and the amount of busing in this league, the flu that is probably getting read to hit teams and injuries will be a factor. It’s hard to figure out and will be interesting to see play out.” 

Coming off last season’s NCAA Tournament berth, the Montana men played the toughest non-conference schedule in the league. The Griz opened up their season with an 81-74 win over fellow Big Dancer Georgia State in early November. UM suffered its first loss five games in during the championship of the Bahamas Showcase 80-77 to Georgia Southern.

Montana fell 98-72 at Creighton and 60-51 at UC Irvine. Montana beat North Dakota State 60-53 in Missoula before losing at Arizona (61-42) and winning at South Dakota State (85-74) later that same week.

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire/ by Brooks Nuanez

Those two non-conference road games preceded games at Northern Arizona and Southern Utah to open league play. Montana hosted Sac State and Portland State to wrap up the four games in eight days opening stretch. The Griz looked sluggish in the overtime loss to PSU and lackluster in last week’s 78-71 loss at Eastern Washington.

“It was very challenging,” DeCuire said. “There’s no question that was a tough road. But we built this team for that. We played at home, went on the road to Arizona, went on the road to South Dakota State. Those three games were very similar to this stretch. I think the biggest thing for us we didn’t have a great foundation going into that four-game stretch because of the break.”

To mitigate the challenges awaiting in Greeley— “Our conference did us an incredible favor giving us a 2:30 tip less than 24 hours after our last game by the time we get to Northern Colorado,” DeCuire quipped — the Griz took a charter flight from Spokane to Greeley after the game Thursday.

The Grizzlies were able to get a good night sleep, then a thorough practice Friday, leading to the most prepared UM has looked during its 4-2 start in league play. Montana was crisp offensively and suffocating defensively in an 88-64 dismantling of the Bears, previously unbeaten in conference play entering the game.

UM plays at Idaho on Saturday, wrapping up a brutal month that has seen the reigning champions play seven of nine games on the road. Following Saturday’s trip to UI, the Griz play four of their next five games at home, the one road game coming February 2 at rival Montana State in Bozeman.

Montana plays eight of 11 games at home before finishing the 20-game stretch at Portland Stat and Sac State March 7 and March 9, respectively. The Big Sky Tournament begins March 13 in Boise.

“If I could do it all over again, maybe I’d tweak our schedule,” DeCuire said. “But if we are going to have adversity, let’s have it now. I’d rather have it be on the first half of conference than the second half. This will be good for us in he end.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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