MISSOULA – The best, and most stressful, is being saved for last.
We’re talking of course about the conclusion of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball regular season. After some wild results on Thursday, the top six seeds in the conference still are not set in stone, meaning Saturday’s games will be for all of the marbles.
Well, all of the regular season marbles, that is.
After losing 81-69 to Portland State on Thursday, Montana (22-8, 15-4) is now tied with Northern Colorado (21-9, 15-4) for first place in the conference standings. Montana is at Sacramento State (14-14, 8-11) on Saturday while UNC hosts Northern Arizona (9-20, 7-12).
If both teams win, they will share the regular season title. What gets interesting, though, is how the tie-breaker will be decided.
Right now, Montana holds the tie-breaker because it swept Weber State in the regular season. The Wildcats (17-13, 11-8) are in a three-way tie for third with Montana State (14-15, 11-8) and Eastern Washington (13-17, 11-8). The Wildcats host the Eagles on Saturday.
Montana State will meet sixth-place Portland State (15-15, 10-9) on Saturday.
If UM and UNC both win, or lose for that matter, Montana holds the tie-breaker. Montana swept Weber and MSU while both schools split with Eastern. UNC owns the tie-breaker with Portland State over Montana, but the highest Portland State can finish in the standings is fourth, according to Montana sports information director Nic Hallisey. That would happen if the Vikings beat the Bobcats and Weber State topped Eastern, in which case the Wildcats would keep the No. 3 seed.
If Eastern beats Weber and PSU defeats MSU, the Eagles would earn the third spot, the Wildcats would finish fourth, the Vikings fifth and Bobcats sixth. Weber and PSU would have the same conference record in that scenario but the Wildcats hold the tie-breaker over the Vikings because they swept the Bobcats while Portland State is 0-1 against MSU.
If Eastern beats Weber and MSU defeats Portland State, Eastern will be third, MSU fourth, Weber fifth and PSU sixth.
As a reminder, the top five seeds in the conference earn a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. So Montana State is literally playing for a bye. If they win, the Bobcats will finish fourth but a loss knocks them down to sixth.
Southern Utah (14-15, 9-11), Sac State, NAU, Idaho State (10-18, 6-13) and Idaho (5-25, 2-17) round out the rest of the conference.
That’s the long-winded overall look at the conference.
For the Grizzlies, the story is much shorter. A win no matter what hands Montana the top seed. A loss and a UNC win means Montana will finish second.
So Thursday’s loss was a frustrating one for Montana, which could’ve locked up the top seed.
“We had a rough conversation,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO after the game. “The reality is we have to toughen up. We have to scrap. You can’t lose a game because you got out-hustled.
“We lacked activity and at some point in time, we’re going to have to start winning this hustle chart or it’s going to catch up with us.”
The Grizzlies defeated Sacramento State 87-56 on Jan. 3 in Missoula. Tip-off for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 8 p.m.
For DeCuire and the Grizzlies, the goal, and key, is simple.
“Play harder than your opponent. That’s the one key,” DeCuire said. “The only thing I write on the board is play harder than them. And if we do that, we’ll come out with a win.”