FACTS & STATS: Site: Dahlberg Arena (7,321) -- Missoula, Montana. Television: None. Home Record: SUU 4-3, UM 5-1. Away Record: SUU 1-5, UM 5-2. Neutral Record: SUU 0-2, UM 0-1. Conference Record: SUU 3-3, UM 6-0. Series Record: Series tied, 5-5.
GAME NOTES: The Southern Utah Thunderbirds continue their inaugural tour of the Big Sky Conference with a visit to Dahlberg Arena to take on the Montana Grizzlies.
The two teams have split their 10 previous meetings 5-5, but they have not faced each other since the 2004-05 season, when the Grizzlies took a 69-57 home win. The Thunderbirds' last win in the series came during the 2000-01 season when they edged the Grizzlies, 89-87, in Dahlberg Arena. SUU?is 3-4 versus Montana in Missoula.
Nick Robinson's first season at the helm of Southern Utah's program has been a bumpy ride. The Thunderbirds lost for the third time in a row on Saturday as they dropped a narrow 54-53 decision to Idaho State. The setback left Southern Utah with a 5-10 overall record including its 3-3 mark in the Big Sky standings, which is actually tied for third best with three other schools. Senior guard Damon Heuir willed the team to a 90-77 road victory over Northern Arizona on Jan. 5, and although has produced 15.7 points per game in his three outings since, he has gone 14-of-48 from the floor (29,2 percent) with 10 turnovers during that span. Fellow senior, 6-foot-4 forward Jackson Stevenett paces the team with 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per outing.
The Thunderbirds have performed slightly better versus league competition, as they are seventh in scoring offense (67.7) and sixth in scoring defense (65.6) among the conference's members in Big Sky only statistics. The offensive production was not there against Idaho State, as SUU went 18-of-56 from the field (32.1 percent) to waste its 43-34 edge in the rebounding battle. The Thunderbirds performed well defensively, holding the Bengals to 34 percent shooting and a mere 54 points, but that was just one too many as the buzzer sounded.
SUU will have trouble duplicating its limiting defensive performance against the Grizzlies, who are one of the league's top offensive units with 70.1 points per game on 46.3 percent field goal shooting. Montana has been on a roll lately as it picked up its sixth consecutive win since entering conference play up on Saturday with an 85-77 decision road decision over Northern Colorado. Coach Wayne Tinkle's squad cannot afford to lose, as it is tied with Weber State atop the Big Sky standings. Another win would also tie Tinkle with Mike Montgomery for the school record for conference victories (73).
Senior guard Will Cherry pushed Montana past Northern Colorado with a solid all-around performance that resulted in 21 points, six assists, and five rebounds. Kareem Jamar, who is seventh in the Big Sky in scoring with 14.2 ppg, poured in 26 points on 9-of-10 shooting including four 3-pointers in the contest, while Mathias Ward chipped in 17 points in 29 minutes before fouling out. Ward is the centerpiece of the attack and is third in the Big Sky with 15.3 ppg.
Jamar and Stevenett are very similar players in terms of playing style and size. The leading rebounders for their respective squads will cancel each other out as they battle on the boards. Cherry will have to contain Heuir in his current cold streak while Ward tries to exploit his size advantage over SUU's Jaren Jeffery in the post. The Thunderbirds are going to need to receive more of a contribution from their role players to challenge the top tier of the conference.