Just Like Old Times: 'Cats, Griz Battle in Postseason Yet Again
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
By Joe Traub
Despite a global pandemic that has altered the way nearly all Americans have gone about their lives over the case of the last 365 days, at least one thing has retained a sense of familiarity.
If it is playoff time in the Big Sky Conference, no matter the sport, it is highly likely Weber State and Montana will do battle somewhere along the way. The latest version of this epic rivalry came to fruition Wednesday afternoon, when the Grizzlies men’s basketball team held off a pesky last-place Idaho squad 69-64 to advance to a quarterfinal matchup against the Wildcats in the conference tournament.
The ‘Cats and Griz will renew hostilities at 8 p.m. tonight inside Idaho Central Arena in Boise, the eighth time in the last 12 years the two schools have squared off in the conference tournament. WSU has dropped six of the prior seven meetings, with the lone win being a 62-59 triumph in 2016 that crowned the Wildcats conference champions and gave them a trip to the Big Dance.
Tonight’s contest also marks the 17th time Weber State and Montana have played in a postseason game since 2010 across five different sports.
These two teams met one month ago in Missoula and split a two-game series. The Griz won 80-67 on Feb. 11 behind a career-high 27 points by sophomore Kyle Owens, then Weber State was able to earn revenge by defeating Montana 91-82 two days later. Five Wildcats scored in double figures with Isiah Brown’s 21-point effort leading the way.
Due to the wild and unpredictable circumstances surrounding this entire college basketball season, it is impossible to know what the starting lineups will be until just before the opening jump ball. However, Weber State and Montana can be sized up position by position in terms of who is projected to see the court on Thursday evening.
As part of the massive revamping of the roster in the offseason, Weber State added two vital faces to their backcourt in Brown and Seikou Sisoho Jawara. Both have been as solid as it gets this year, with each earning Big Sky postseason honors.
Brown led the Wildcats with an average of 18 points per game in the regular season. He has scored at least 20 points seven times while also providing a flair for late-game dramatics, including a game-winner with under two seconds left in Sacramento 12 days ago. A key in this particular matchup is how explosive Brown can be against an opponent he saw mixed results against in the previous series. When the ‘Cats and Griz first met up on Feb. 11, Montana limited him to 12 points on 3-of-7 from the field in a victory. Any adjustments made by Brown on the off day worked wonders, as he torched the Grizzlies two days later in his aforementioned 21-point effort that included a pair of triples.
Sisoho Jawara led the way for Weber State with 19 points in their loss to Montana, then scored 14 two days later with his ability to get to the line proving crucial. He attempted ten free throws in that game and converted on eight of them. In a game the Wildcats ultimately won by nine points, Sisoho Jawara’s fearless play showed up big in the box score.
Montana has a much younger roster than in seasons past, with freshman guards Brandon Whitney and Robby Beasley III leading the way. Whitney has been in the starting lineup since the second game of the season, while Beasley came off the bench for most of the year until a 25-point explosion off the bench on Feb. 18 against Eastern Washington changed that. Grizzlies head coach Travis DeCuire inserted Beasley into the starting lineup for the next game and he has remained there ever since.
Whitney and Beasley finished second and third for Montana in points per game with 10.3 and 10.1, respectively. The Wildcats held them in check as the two were held to a combined 28 points across both meetings in Missoula next month. It is possible both make adjustments as Brown did, but there is also a chance that two freshman point guards could possibly crumble with the pressure of a rivalry matchup in the postseason.
Another guard for the Grizzlies worked his way into this conversation Wednesday, as sophomore Josh Vazquez came off the bench against Idaho and lit up the Vandals to the tune of five three-pointers as part of a career-high 21-point showing. He has been a problem for Weber State before, scoring his previous career-high 17 points against the ‘Cats one month ago. Vazquez lost his spot to Beasley in the starting lineup on Feb. 20, but is it possible that DeCuire might have a switch up his sleeve prior to Montana taking the court this evening? Of course, ANYTHING is possible in March, but Vazquez might just be comfortable coming off the bench after Wednesday’s exploits.
Weber State head coach Randy Rahe has consistently tinkered with his lineup this season, but things have started to take shape more and more as Boise was getting closer. Zahir Porter (who started every game he played in but one) should be ready to rumble tonight after a struggle against Montana earlier this season when he only scored a combined 16 points in the pair of contests. On the other hand, veteran Michal Kozak parlayed a strong performance in the final game at Missoula towards earning his spot in the starting lineup. He put up 13 points on Feb. 13 including a pair of clutch threes, then started the final five games of the regular season. Kozak is one of two holdovers from the 2018-19 squad that saw their season end in a miserable blowout loss to Montana in the semifinals of this very tournament, so redemption could be on his mind as well.
While Dillon Jones routinely comes off the bench for the Wildcats, the whole conference should know by now that he is not to be taken lightly. Jones was named Big Sky freshman of the year on Monday due to his swiss army knife style of play. He has averaged eight points per game to go along with 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals which ranks second in the conference. Jones can impact a game in so many different ways and Rahe will almost certainly lean on him in multiple situations against Montana, after he put up double-digits in both prior matchups.
Instead of starting a true center, DeCuire prefers to go with three forwards. Kyle Owens leads the Grizzlies with 10.7 points per game, with the Feb. 11 game against Weber State becoming the night he burst onto the scene. Owens scored a career-high 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, a nearly unstoppable performance as he spearheaded Montana’s upset win. The Wildcats tightened things up two days later as Owens was held to 12 points, and the defensive effort in the second game could potentially serve as a boost of confidence heading into tonight.
Josh Bannan compares to Jones in the fact he is also a freshman and fills up the stat sheet. Bannan averaged 8.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest in the regular season while appearing to elevate his play when it mattered most. He reached double figures in five consecutive games in February, four of which came against two of the best teams in the conference, Weber State and Eastern Washington. Junior Mack Anderson will not be seen as a major scoring threat (just 3.5 PPG), but this is the third month of the calendar year, when an unsung hero often steps up at a moment’s notice in college basketball.
Cody Carlson is the primary post player for the Wildcats although his play has declined in the second half of the season, averaging just 6.3 points per game since Feb. 4. He was held scoreless in 14 minutes the first time these two teams met, then scored six in the Feb. 13 win. However, a reason for optimism is that he has previously exploded in a game against a major rival, a 25-point outburst against Southern Utah on Jan. 21. Carlson is also shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, something Weber State has lacked from a big man in recent years.
Another player that the ‘Cats would love to see regain success from deep is Dontay Bassett, who hasn’t knocked down a triple since Feb. 6 after being a model of consistency earlier in the season. Bassett started 12 of the first 14 games he appeared in as a Wildcat before coming off the bench late in the year. His best stretch of the season coincided with back-to-back 13-point efforts in Missoula, and his previous March experience could benefit Weber State. Bassett was part of two NCAA Tournament runs while at the University of Florida, so it is not out of the realm he will enter this conference tournament with a “been here, done this before” approach.