Eastern Washington is arguably Idaho’s greatest conference rival, but the Grizzlies of Montana have never fallen out of contention for that position. Just take a look at the history.
These teams unitedly molded some sort of double-sided mirror, especially during the last three seasons. Each emulates the other in some crucial areas — defense, roster maturity, thirst for a tournament berth — but the Grizzlies, who are riding a 13-game win-streak, have thus far cleared up some of that soot on the glass that the Vandals have been hard-pressed in wiping away.
While Idaho’s (17-7, BSC 9-3) offensive dexterity has been debatable all season, Montana sits comfortably as the conference’s No. 4 offensive team. Unlike the Vandals, Montana’s championship-level offense is complemented by a comparably impressive defense, the second-best in the Big Sky behind Idaho.
Montana (20-5, BSC 13-0) has experience — not second oldest scoring roster in the country experience like Idaho, but a know-how depth-chart nonetheless. Led by three juniors, each with at least two seasons of starting background under their belts, the Grizzlies’ maturity, demonstrated by their own three-pronged offensive attack, contends Idaho’s.
Ahmaad Rorie, a preseason all-conference selection, the leading Grizzly scorer and No. 8 in the Big Sky in points-per-game (17.2), is a compact guard who thrives on drives and stop-and-pops.
Rorie is a second-year Montana starter. Previously, he donned vibrant green in Eugene and shared the court as a freshman in the 2015-16 regular season for nearly 19 minutes-per-game alongside such Duck notables such as Joseph Young and Dillon Brooks.
Vandal senior guard Victor Sanders’ assumed defensive responsibility is Michael Oguine, a 6-foot-2 guard with a versatile defensive step and nose for the basket who averages nearly 16 points-per-game, 11th in the conference.
Senior forward Brayon Blake will be burdened with perhaps his biggest strain of the year in forward Jamar Akoh. A Cal State Fullerton transfer, Akoh rounds out the top-bears as the No. 15 scorer in the conference.
While averaging about 15 points per game, Akoh contests Blake’s distinction as a master on the glass with his own average of about seven rebounds-per-game.
While Idaho is proficient in 3-point defense, Montana sits at the bottom of the barrel in that offensive category. The long-ball is of no concern to the Grizzlies. They take satisfaction in the 2-point field-goal, and yes, they are adept at it.
Each of the Grizzlies “big-three” shoots in the high-40 percent range and above from inside the arc and all three are top-15 Big Sky scorers. Akoh rarely errs down-low, averaging 57 percent from 2-point land.
Grizzly Head Coach Travis DeCuire, like Idaho’s Don Verlin, is itching for an NCAA Tournament berth. As a player at Montana, DeCuire assisted the Grizzlies to the tournament in 1992.
Years later, as an assistant coach at Old Dominion, DeCuire aided in two Monarch tournament appearances. From 2008 to 2014, he worked as a UC Berkeley assistant, where his Bears marched to March Madness four times.
DeCuire’s predecessor, the now-Oregon State Head Coach Wayne Tinkle, led Montana to three March Madness appearances, his first in his fourth year as coach.
Now in his fourth year as head coach for his alma mater, DeCuire’s aspirations for his Grizzlies to claw their way back to the tournament must be more substantial than ever, considering this is assuredly his best team.
Much of the same can be said about Verlin, now in his 10th season as head coach. This Vandal team is easily his best, considering its senior-status and preseason hype.
Montana and Idaho’s records of the past three seasons are peculiarly comparable. In 2015-16, they each finished with 21 wins, Idaho won in the regular season, but was nipped by Montana in the conference tournament. In 2016, Idaho scratched up a 19-14 record, compared to 16-16 for Montana. They split the season series, but Idaho edged the Grizzlies out in the Big Sky Tournament.
Besides its season-opener at Nevada, Saturday’s matchup in Cowan Spectrum will be unequivocally Idaho’s most difficult game of the season against a rival that most resembles it. All five of Montana’s losses were against potential tournament teams — three Power-Five squads, easily the Big West’s best and a noteworthy Sun Belt team — could Idaho join them?
All statistics as of Thursday morning are subject to change.
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coltonclark95