On Saturday at Dahlberg Arena, the Montana and Montana State men’s basketball teams will square off for the 300th time in the history of the storied rivalry.
For most of the last century, one of the key non-basketball elements of managing the rivalry came down to managing the hype. For years, the Treasure State’s two Big Sky Conference schools would have a week to prepare. And that meant a week to try to deafen the noise surrounding one of the fiercest rivalries in the West.
Thursday, Montana plays at Portland State. Earlier this week, UM sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire bemoaned the fact that his team has to play a competitive Vikings’ squad on the road less than 48 hours before hosting the rival ‘Cats.
“In all honesty, I’m at the point right now where I’ve come to the conclusion that the schedule will never work for the Montana Grizzlies,” DeCuire said before Tuesday’s practice. “To be the only team that has three consecutive road games in conference three times…last year, we had more stretches of four games in eight days than anyone else. I think it just keeps getting tougher.
“We are getting used to it, adversity is making us stronger and we will be a better basketball team when we get through it.”
Since last season, the Big Sky moved to a 20-game schedule that has been a hot topic of conversation and controversy. Each season, a new team in the 11-squad conference has to serve as the “lone wolf”, meaning that team will get an atypical schedule. This season, the “lone wolf” is Portland State. The Vikings have played seven of their last nine games on the road and have played their first 10 conference games (4-6 record) in the last 28 days.
The “lone wolf” has also impacted Montana. The Grizzlies had to play eventual regular-season runner-up Northern Colorado the Monday after defeating the Bobcats for the 17th time in 18 tries last February. This season, the Griz have to play Portland State before hosting MSU.
Rather than dwelling on the perceived disadvantage, DeCuire is using this week as an opportunity for his team to lock out the noise.
“Sometimes, preparation is tough when you have too much time because it’s all talk,” DeCuire said. “And the reality is, you want to minimize the talk. We just want to play the game.”
Montana State, who earned a road sweep last weekend with wins at Weber State and Idaho, will have not played in a week when Saturday rolls around. But the Bobcats will have spent the week listening to all the buildup and publicity.
MSU first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle is deflecting the extra attention leading up to his first rivalry game against the Grizzlies since his playing career as a Bobcat ended 20 years ago.
“The schedule is what it is,” said Sprinkle, who’s team plays at Portland State two days before hosting Montana later this month. “Us and Montana both, the first week of conference, we played four games in seven days. They are going to be ready regardless. They are going to be ready to rock and roll.”
Since taking over at Montana, DeCuire has led his alma mater to 11 wins in 12 contests against the Bobcats. The lone MSU win came on the strength of Tyler Hall’s virtuoso 37-point performance in Bozeman three seasons ago.
Sprinkle is back at his alma mater as well, but will coach in his first Cat-Griz game since serving as an assistant on Brad Huse’s staff in 2008. And Saturday will mark the first time Sprinkle, who finished his playing career with the ‘Cats as MSU’s seventh all-time leading scorer, roams the sidelines as the head coach.
“I’m excited to get my guys out there and go compete,” said Sprinkle, whose team brings a 5-4 league record and an 11-9 overall mark into Saturday’s contest.. “That’s the most fun part about this game is just the competition. It’s a huge game in the state, a huge game in the conference and it’s fun to play in an atmosphere like that.
“It’s why you train in the off-season, do weights all summer long, do the team building exercises: to play in environments like this. Missoula, they always have a great crowd and we will have a great crowd when we play here. There’s a ton of energy and excitement when we play in that game. But you have to harness it.”
The Grizzlies have won17 of the last 18 matchups and all but two the previous decade. UM holds a 151-148 lead all-time in a series that dates back to 1902.
The lopsided nature of the rivalry recently is not lost on Sprinkle.
“It’s a big conference game for the standings and for the people in the state,” Sprinkle said. “It’s a big game. There’s no hiding it. It has been lopsided. But there’s nothing this team can do about it. That’s in the past. The last 10 years, that’s not going to win the game for Montana on Saturday night.
“It’s going to come down to who executes, who defends, who rebounds and who makes the plays the last five, six minutes of the game, makes those game winning plays.”
DeCuire has never shied away from the rivalry. Not as a point guard for Blaine Taylor’s Grizzlies in the early 1990s or as a head coach who has led Montana to consecutive Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament championships.
This week however brings a brand new scenario. His team is looking to bounce back from an 87-85 overtime loss against previously struggling Weber State in Ogden, Utah last Saturday. To do that, Montana will try to avenge a lopsided loss at Portland State that UM suffered last season.
Getting back into the win column a few days before hosting the rival is the talk amongst the Griz this week even if the scenario is brand new.
“This is going to show how much growth our team has right now,” UM senior Kendal Manuel, a Billings native, said before Tuesday’s practice. “Being able to have that type of adversity where we have to play a game and then flip the script in a big rivalry game, it’s going to show our growth as a team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.