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Griz Art Steward (left) and Shawn Stockton (right). (Photo by Greg Lindstrom)
Wayne Tinkle knows home games are usually easier to win than games on the road, but rarely are road triumphs as uncommon as they have been this season — for an entire conference.

For men's basketball in the Big Sky Conference, for each team ranging from first-place Montana to last-place Sacramento State, the disparity between home and away may never have been so great. Each team in the conference boasts an overall winning record when playing in its resident gym. Each one of those same teams also has a losing record away from home.

Those totals come to 79 wins and 24 losses at home and a near-opposite 26 wins and 94 loses on the road.

"I've tried to put my finger on it all season," said coach Tinkle, whose Grizzlies look the best in the Big Sky as visitors with a 6–7 road record. "It is interesting that there haven't been any breakthroughs out there."

Montana will look to improve that record today at Portland State before wrapping up the season at Eastern Washington this weekend. The Grizzlies (11–3 in conference, 19–8) started a three-game road swing on Saturday with an ugly loss at Long Beach State, a game in which they constantly trailed by double digits.

The Long Beach State game, part of a series of "bracket buster" games pitting mid-major conference teams against each other, is an example of the tough out-of-conference scheduling that may be the reason for so many of the Big Sky's road woes. The Griz have also played at Nevada, Utah and UCLA this season, all historically strong programs.

The trend extends beyond Missoula. Coach B.J. Hill and his Northern Colorado squad, the owners of a perfect 10–0 home record and a ghastly 5–9 road slate, faced a slew of strong opponents from outside the Big Sky.

"It's not really the same thing," Hill said of the non-Big Sky games.

The Bears (10–3, 16–10), the second place team in the conference by one game, traveled out of league to the likes of Arizona, Santa Clara, Illinois and Colorado State in the early non-conference season. Northern Colorado lost each of those games.

In conference, the Bears are decent on the road, a 4–3 team. But the same isn't quite true for the rest of the league that faced less powerful non-conference opponents.

A tough out-of-conference schedule would mean a high ratings percentage index (RPI), which is used to rank teams based on wins, losses, strength of schedule and opponent's strength of schedule. But the Big Sky does not have a high RPI, ranking 26th of 31 conferences.

Which means the Big Sky as a whole isn't playing top teams and is still losing on the road.

All but one team has to travel for the conference tournament that kicks off March 5, and that's the regular-season conference winner. Hosting the tournament is a goal of every team each year, Tinkle said, but it may be even more important in 2011.

"It's quite the advantage," Tinkle said, "but that can't be our only goal because then what do you tell your guys if you don't win it outright."

To win the conference, Montana will need to fare better than usual on the dreaded road this week, its last away trip of the season. Wins against Portland State (4–9, 12–14) and Eastern Washington (5–8, 8–18) would likely clinch hosting honors for the Griz.

And getting the chance to host might be just as much about home-court advantage as keeping Northern Colorado, Weber State (10–1 at home),  and Northern Arizona (also 10–1 at home) from having it.

"It's already a playoff atmosphere," said junior forward Derek Selvig. "We're thinking win or go home."

More like win and stay home.

anthony.mazzolini@umontana.edu
 


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