MOSCOW, Idaho -- Aside from Montana State, there’s no school the Montana men’s basketball team has faced more often than Idaho.
That familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, just a healthy rivalry (remember the days of potatoes being rolled out on the floor at Dahlberg Arena?).
Thursday night’s game in the Cowan Spectrum (aka the Kibbie Dome) will be the 194th meeting between the charter members of the Big Sky Conference. But it’s the last three that have kind of stuck in the craws of each team.
Two years ago the Griz went to Moscow and dropped a double-overtime game to the Vandals despite 36 points from Jordan Gregory. Last season the Vandals came to Missoula for the only meeting in the regular season and handed the Griz a 63-58 defeat. Montana, though, had the last laugh when the Griz knocked off the Vandals 81-72 in the semifinals of the league tournament.
“I think they’re always going to have a chip on their shoulder for us anyway,” Griz coach Travis DeCuire said Wednesday before the team boarded a bus for the trip to the Palouse. “We’re old-school rivals, there’s familiarity. They came from behind and beat us at their place two years ago. Last year they came in here and gave us a good butt-whupping, so we had to return the favor. I think it’s going to be tit for tat forever with Montana and Idaho.”
And waiting just up the road for the Griz will be Eastern Washington, Saturday’s opponent. Both of the foes this weekend -- like the Griz -- were picked to finish in the top four in the league in preseason polls.
“It’s very difficult,” DeCuire said of the trip. “One is the environment at Idaho. You have to create your own; there’s not a lot of people that are going to be there, not a lot of noise. And then they’re going to be physical. They play every game like a championship game.
“ Then we have a quick turnaround to play an afternoon game in (Cheney), which is difficult in terms of prep and the most important thing is being fresh.”
The Vandals are led by one of the top guards in the league, Victor Sanders. Sanders, a 6-foot-5 junior, is averaging 18.5 points and game and went off for 32 in the Vandals’ league-opening loss to Eastern Washington last week.
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“He shoots the ball, he’s a big guard, it’s very difficult to have any impact on his ability to make shots,” DeCuire said. “The big thing for us is that he’s a guy who draws a lot of fouls. He sticks his legs out on threes. He does a lot of things that make him very difficult to officiate and so we have to be there before he rises to take a shot to avoid running through and the fouls and giving him free shots on the free-throw line.
“ The other piece for him is that he’s a guy who plays through emotion very well. The more emotional the game is for him the better he’s going to play. We need to get him to play with an even keel and not get caught up in verbiage and things like that.”
Only one other Vandal, 6-7 junior Brayon Blake, is averaging in double-digit scoring at 10.3 a game.
The Griz will see a rarity for the Big Sky this season when they go to Cheney on Saturday -- a dominant post player. Jake Wiley, who began his career at Montana before transferring to Lewis-Clark State, is 13th in the league in scoring at 14.3 ppg, fourth in rebounding at 7.7 a game and first in blocked shots with 3.3 an outing.
“We’ve seen good post players all year long, so it’s nothing new to us,” DeCuire said. “He’s a scrapper, he gets after it. He went to school here so he’s going to have incentive to play his best basketball. I don’t know that their frontcourt is any better than any frontcourt we’ve seen all year.”
The Griz will attempt to rebound from a heart-breaking overtime home loss to Weber State last Saturday. DeCuire doesn’t see that being a problem.
“That’s why you have the schedule you have,” he said. “You come into (league play) 10-1 or 11-1 and feeling good about yourself and then lose your first game, you start to second guess who you are and those types of things. We’ve been through enough adversity that we expect tough games so that we’ll be able to bounce back and keep moving forward.”
NOTES: Senior guard Mario Dunn did not practice Wednesday, but DeCuire said he would be available this weekend. … Senior Jack Lopez is second in the league in 3-point accuracy at 56 percent. … Sophomore guard Ahmaad Rorie leads the Griz in scoring and is ranked eighth in the league at 16.5 ppg. Senior guard Walter Wright has moved into the top 25 at 11.6 ppg. … Junior Fabijan Krslovic is fifth in the league in rebounding at 7.5 a game.