Analysis

Big Sky’s best big men square off with championship on the line

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RENO, Nevada — As the landscape of college athletics continues to shift and the Big Sky Conference’s regional prominence continues to grow, the proliferation of talented guards across the league will surely continue to increase.

But Saturday night’s Big Sky Tournament championship game is a perfect example of the importance of having a dominant presence in the paint when it comes to postseason success.

“I think the hardest thing in this league is to get quality bigs because they are always going to be over recruited,” Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz said earlier this season. “Our league is a guard-forward league anyway. Every once in a while, you will have one. And when you have one, you are tough to beat.”

Montana forward Martin Breunig

After five months of grinding, riding buses up and down I-15 and battling in venues from Portland to Sacramento, to Flagstaff to Grand Forks, it’s the teams from Missoula and Ogden who will square off tonight with a trip to the Big Dance on the line. Martin Breunig and the Montana Grizzlies will take on Joel Bolomboy and the Weber State Wildcats in a matchup ripe with anticipation and intrigue.

Breunig is the skilled German who’s versatile offensive game is filled with international flavor. He is the best low-post scorer in the Big Sky, a big man who can finish at the rim with both hands, cut to the block like a knife and elevate over his defenders with ease to pour in buckets for the tough-minded Grizzlies.

Bolomboy is the physical specimen, a one-time project who has transformed his once-skinny body into one of the most formidable frames in college basketball. While Bolomboy might not be able to take over a game with his post scoring like Breunig, his rebounding ability is peerless, his motor unquestioned and his desire to be the best unwavering.

“It might sound simple, but it totally changes the way you play when you have a guy who can control possessions (Bolomboy) or you have a guy where you can throw him the ball and he can get a layup every time (Breunig),” said Montana State head coach Brian Fish following his team losing to each UM and WSU in the same week. “Weber and Montana have those guys. No one else does.”

The championship bout has added intrigue because Montana and Weber State played just once this season. Despite Bolomboy missing the game with a knee injury, Weber emerged with a 60-54 win in Ogden. Saturday will mark the final meeting between the lone seniors on the Griz and the Wildcats.

“Unless someone goes out and gets somebody, it’s going to be even more of a guard-heavy league,” North Dakota head coach Brian Jones said. “I think that’s what our level is about. Unless you are blessed with a Breunig who transfers in (from Washington) or Bolomboy who has developed from being so raw into who he is now, it’s just so hard at this level.”

Former Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy (21)/by Brooks Nuanez

Bolomboy came to Weber State as a skinny 6-foot-8 kid who only weighed 200 pounds. His broad shoulders, natural leaping ability and tightly bound athletic frame were major pieces to the puzzle for his prodigious potential. As a freshman, he was among the top rebounders and shot blockers in the Big Sky. By his sophomore season, his body began developing as the Weber State strength coaches began to hang muscle on his frame. Two seasons ago, he earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors as Weber State advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

By his junior season, Bolomboy had grown an inch and had the body of a man. By his senior year, he had the body of an NBA player, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound block of chiseled muscle. Weber State head coach Randy Rahe said Bolomboy has just three percent body fat.

“When he first got here, he was extremely raw,” Rahe said earlier this season. “He could always rebound but his feel for the game wasn’t very good, his skill level wasn’t very good, he didn’t really understand how to play. Every summer, we would really try to focus on his skill level, starting with simple ball handling and passing drills. Then we started working with him to score from the block. Then we moved him out to shoot some 16-footers. Every year, he’s taken what we’ve given him and really put the time in.”

Bolomboy remains arguably the best rebounder in the country — he averaged 13 per game this season and had 19 in Friday’s semifinal win over UND — but now Bolomboy can shoot out past 22 feet. He hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the waning seconds for the final points of Weber State’s 79-76 victory at Eastern Washington in the last game of the regular season. The game secured Weber State’s 22nd regular-season Big Sky title.

As a senior, Bolomboy has posted 25 double-doubles, the most in Division I. His rebounding average ranks third nationally. He is averaging 17.6 points per game on 59 percent shooting and has hit 38 percent of his 50 3-point attempts. He’s also become a good free throw shooter, limiting any offensive liability he once had. He shoots 70 percent from the stripe. At the beginning of this week’s Big Sky Tournament, Bolomboy was named Big Sky MVP and Defensive MVP.

Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy

Earlier this season, Bolomboy became the Big Sky’s all-time leader in career rebounds. He has 1,293 rebounds and counting. He also has 1,466 points, fifth-most in Weber State history. The explosive jumper has drawn attention from NBA scouts all season. Some say he could be a first-round draft pick with a good showing at the pre-draft camps. If he is picked, he will be the 16th Wildcat drafted into the NBA.

“I think he can play at that level because he can really rebound the ball,” Rahe said. “Everyone needs someone who can rebound. He’s a hard worker with a good body and he’s extremely coachable. He’s an innocent kid who loves his teammates. If someone takes him, they will love coaching him and they will see what he will become.

“He’s just scratching the surface of what he could become because his feel for the game has gotten better and his skill level has gotten better. He has room to grow.”

Breunig’s talent has never been in question. As a prep star at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin right outside Milwaukee, Breunig received high major interest. The native of Leverkusen, Germany ended up signing with Gary Williams and the Maryland Terrapins. But when Williams retired, Breunig was back on the market.

He eventually landed in Seattle with the Washington Huskies. But his tranquil demeanor gave him a reputation internally and externally as a talented but timid player. After two years living in the Emerald City, he decided to transfer and earn a fresh start.

Montana forward Martin Breunig

Because of NCAA rules, he sat out his first year in Missoula, working relentlessly on his game with Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle and his staff, known developers of big man talent. The staff helped Breunig remake his shot all while honing his physicality and trying to teach him toughness.

But Tinkle and his staff left after the season, taking the opening at Oregon State. Travis DeCuire took over. Montana’s second-year head coach knew he had something special in Breunig but did not know if his potential star had the fortitude to be a dominant force.

“When we got here and started working with him, I noticed he didn’t have a ton of toughness,” DeCuire said in February. “He was talented. He had dreams and wanted to be a good player. When adversity hit, he didn’t play through it very well.”

During Montana’s first two exhibition games of Breunig’s junior season, DeCuire noticed Breunig folding in big moments. Before his team’s game at Boise State, DeCuire decided he was going to challenge Breunig verbally and see how he reacted.

“I upset him a little bit before we went on the floor, rolled the dice. I saw he was a different player when he was upset,” DeCuire said. “He was truly pissed off and then in the game, that culminated in foul trouble in the game, which was a problem for him for most of last season but I saw something.”

Breunig had 16 points and nine rebounds in the double-overtime loss in Montana’s second game of the season. DeCuire continued to challenge Breunig and his star continued to respond. As a junior, he averaged 16.7 points on 59.3 percent shooting and grabbed 7.3 rebounds as Montana won the regular season Big Sky title and advanced to the tournament championship game.

“The entire non-conference was up and down, up and down and he was hard on himself. By the time we got to conference, he started to emerge as a player, maybe the best player in this league,” DeCuire said. “And it’s carried over to this season.”

Montana forward Martin Bruenig/by Evan Frost for Skyline Sports

As a senior, Breunig emerged as the most dominant offensive force in the Big Sky. He converted 65.4 percent of his shots during conference play, averaging 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds against the Big Sky. He earned unanimous All-Big Sky honors and is now on the brink of the Big Dance in his final collegiate season.

“He’s a different person mentally than he was when he got here,” DeCuire said. “It’s made all the difference in the world.”

Saturday night, Montana and Weber State will battle for a chance to play in the national spotlight. Either way, one of the Big Sky’s best big men will get a chance to show his stuff on college basketball’s biggest stage.

“I want to get this one senior we have into the NCAA Tournament,” DeCuire said after his team’s quarterfinal win over Sac State. “He deserves to play there and I think he’s the caliber of player that people would love to see in March Madness.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. 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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