Montana looked to be loaded for bear (no excuses asked for that pun), as it was coming off a 24-7 season, a Big Sky conference championship and a second round appearance in the NCAAs. With most of their top players and all five starters returning, the Griz (yes, it's another shortened, pseudo-hip opponent name for WVU this week) figured to enjoy similar success in 2006-07. However, two losses in their first three games have tempered that enthusiasm a bit.
That rough start, however, belies the talent Montana puts on the court. The Grizzlies could well be the best team in the Old Spice Classic, and West Virginia will have to play a very good game to have a chance to defeat the veteran squad.
The Griz' front line is the strength of the team, with the starting trio of Andrew Strait, Matt Dlouhy and Jordan Hasquet leading the team in scoring and rebounding. Strait (6-8, 245 lbs.) is a junior center averaging a team best 17.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He is difficult to defend in the post, and is also a solid free throw shooter, so putting him on the line is not a sound defensive strategy. Dlouhy (6-6, 205 lbs.) averages 13.7 and 6.6, and is also the team's strongest three-point threat. The senior forward has made six of his 16 attempts on the season. Hasquet (6-9, 245 lbs.) rounds out the excellent frontcourt, tallying 10.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per outing.
Junior guard Matt Martin (6-2, 175 lbs.) has been a playmaker at point, but is suffering a subpar shooting start to the season. He, along with Dlouhy, can knock down threes, but has made just 4-16 so far this year. He is a threat to break out in the scoring column, however, and the Mountaineers will have to pay attention to him on defense.
Guards Austin Swift (6-5, 215 lbs.) and Bryan Ellis (5-10, 170) have shared starting duties this year, with the latter expected to get the nod against WVU. Ellis averages 2.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game, while Swift, who might give WVU's slender backcourt more problems, tallies 3.3 per outing. Both have five assists on the season.
Ryan Staudacher and Cameron Rundles will also see time in the backcourt, but both should see less time than they have to date as Montana looks to establish a rotation of eight or nine players. Staudacher (6-3, 210 lbs.) averages 3,7 points per outing, and is also a third three-point option. Rundles (6-1, 190 lbs.) is a quicker option who can get to the basket, and is averaging 4.4 points per contest.
Senior forward Mike Chavez (6-7, 220 lbs.) is the sole frontcourt sub with appreciable time, and he complements the starting three well. He averages 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in just more than 11 minutes of action per game.
West Virginia's defense will get its stiffest challenge by far when it faces the Griz on Thursday night.
|Thu Nov 23|
The Milk House
Disney Sports Complex
WVU 3-0, 0-0
UM 1-2, 0-0
WVU - 192
UM - 204
With Montana's post-oriented play, look for WVU to employ a 2-3 zone on occasion to mix things up against the Griz and keep them out of the lane. The 1-3-1 should be the base defense as usual, but whether the man-to-man is ready for prime time remains to be seen. West Virginia will certainly have to deploy that defense at times during the season against bigger foes, but the suspicion for this game is that the Mountaineers will play it for a few trips, then jump out of it before Montana attacks it with its powerful forwards on the blocks.
Although Montana has lost two of its first three games, it has all of the components back from last year's NCAA team. As West Virginia showed last year, even the most talented of teams can slip up against inferior foes, so a couple of early season losses don't mean Montana isn't a force to be reckoned with. If the Mountaineers go in with that attitude, the will be out of the tournament championship picture before they even had the chance to get in it.
West Virginia's 31.8% success rate from three-point range is a cause for concern, but that mark should rise over the next few games. WVU isn't going to match the success rate of teams from recent years, but it also has shooters that started off the season much more slowly than expected. Frank Young and Alex Ruoff are a combined 8-37 after three games, but that's not an indicator of their shooting skills. Both are solid, if not spectacular, from long range, and it won't be a surprise to see them both at or above the 35% mark in most games.
Keep in mind that 33.3% from three-point land yields as many points as 50% from inside the arc – so WVU isn't far from that mark despite its early shooting problems.
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Part of the Griz' early season struggles could be attributed to their coaching change from a year ago. NBA veteran Larry Krystkowiak, who guided Montana to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, took an assistant coaching spot with the Milwaukee Bucks following last year. Assistant coach Wayne Tinkle, who has been at Montana since 2001, was elevated to the head coaching spot following Krystkowiak's departure.
Sometimes, an adjustment period is needed for players and coach to get comfortable, even when the coach comes from inside the program. Being a head coach is vastly different from an assistant. However, Tinkle does have the advantage of an impressive playing resume behind him. He played for the Grizzlies from 1985-89 and was a three-time All-Big Sky Conference selection and two-time team MVP. He is also among the all-time scorers and rebounders in school history, ranking fifth in points (1,500) and fourth in rebounds (836). The coach he replaced, Krystkowiak, is Montana's all-time leader in both categories with 2,017 points and 1,105 rebounds.
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West Virginia has an all-time record of 178-126 (.586) in tournaments. WVU was 2-2 in the Guardians' Classic a year ago.
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Join us all in wishing staffer Matt Keller and his wife Lisa a happy belated honeymoon trip. We're sending the Kellers to Disney to cover the tournament, and also to have some time to celebrate their recent wedding.
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It's possible that WVU might end up with the men's grooming quinella with its football and basketball teams this year. The hoops squad is competing in the Old Spice Classic, while if things don't work out well for the gridders, they could end up in the Brut Sun Bowl.