On Saturday, the Montana men's basketball team came within four points of beating Eastern Washington, securing the Big Sky Conference regular season crown and hosting the conference tournament. Then an overtime catastrophe in Cheney, Wash., dashed those prospects.
On Wednesday, Eastern Washington played spoiler again, beating Weber State 75–59, leaving the Wildcats in third place after the regular season finale. And keeping Montana in the No. 2 slot to give the Grizzlies a first-round bye in the Big Sky tournament that starts on Saturday.
Had the Wildcats won, coupled with two Northern Colorado victories this week, Montana would have hosted a quarterfinal game in Missoula from the third spot in the standings. Instead, the Griz will get a few more days to rest and prepare for the semifinals in Greeley, Colo., the home of Big Sky conference regular season title holder Northern Colorado.
"We'll get a long week here to prepare [for the conference semifinals]," Tinkle added.
Montana (12–4 in conference, 20–9 overall) holds sole possession of second place in the conference, and by the time they take the court next Tuesday for the second round of the tournament, the team will have had a 10-day layoff. While that time is a welcome sight, helping players recuperate from a long season, Tinkle said sometimes a long break can be worrisome. They'll practice daily to make sure no rust accumulates, he said.
The Griz can't prepare for a specific opponent quite yet, though. They won't know their opponent until the first round of games concludes Saturday night. What they do know is that they will face the higher of the remaining seeds as No. 1 Northern Colorado will take the lower, and realistically weaker, of the remaining teams.
By winning its last five contests of the season, including an 84–54 pounding of Sacramento State on Wednesday, Northern Colorado (13–3, 19–10) won the right to bring the tournament home with the semifinals and finals taking place on the Bears home court. In Butler-Hancock Hall this season, the Bears posted an undefeated season, with an impressive 12–0 record.
The daunting statistic isn't enough to get Tinkle and the Grizzlies down just yet, the coach said.
"We are certainly not going to be intimidated," Tinkle said. "Everybody that's left [in the tournament] we've beaten at some point."
Third-seeded Weber State (11–5, 17-11) will be looking for revenge as they prepare for a rematch against sixth-seeded Eastern Washington (7–9, 10–19). The two teams will tip off in Ogden, Utah, for the second time in less than a week on Saturday.
The quarterfinals' other matchup is fourth-seeded Northern Arizona (9–7, 18–11) hosting No. 5 Montana State (7–9, 13–17) on Saturday in Flagstaff, Ariz. After starting the season 5–1 in Big Sky play and looking like a contender for the conference title, the Bobcats plummeted in the standings during a nine-game losing streak. The streak included seven conference losses.
The winner of the Big Sky Conference tournament receives an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.