The University of Montana men's basketball team plays its last guaranteed home game tonight at 7 p.m. against Idaho State. Whether they see the hardwood at Dahlberg Arena in postseason play is still up in the air.
With three conference games left to play, the Grizzlies (10–3 in conference, 18–7) and the Northern Colorado Bears (10–3, 14–10) are deadlocked at the top of the Big Sky with matching league records. The winner of the regular-season title garners hosting duties for the conference tournament, and more importantly, home games.
"Road games are so hard to come by in the conference this year," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, whose Grizzlies own the conference's best road record — by a lot — at 6–6. "It's almost like a postseason atmosphere right now."
Idaho State (4–8, 8–16) has struggled this season after losing all but a handful of last year's players. The Bengals return just four players from the 2009-2010 season in which they posted an equally inept 9–22 record. Despite the difficulties, Idaho State has rallied to win two close games in the last week, including its first on the road, and now sits just a game behind free-falling Montana State for the last spot in the tournament.
"You could say we brought a lot of new faces to practice at the beginning of this season," said Bengals coach Joe O'Brien. "It's taken us awhile to settle in … We're playing with a sense of urgency now."
The Bengals will likely need some major upsets in the near future to make a run at a tourney birth, with three of the team's next four games against the Big Sky's top three teams. If Idaho State wants any part of the tournament, the squad needs to start winning now, O'Brien said.
But beating Montana — especially at home — will be a tough order. The Griz are oozing confidence after knocking off Northern Colorado and expect to have guard Will Cherry in action two weeks after an ankle injury derailed a Montana six-game winning streak.
Cherry should be well-practiced for the Idaho State game after getting some playing time against Northern Colorado. The guard scored just four points coming off the bench, well below his season average of 15.