Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Montana Week

Idaho State basketball Coach Joe O'Brien said on our coaches' show last night that Montana has become the Bengals' biggest rival in basketball, and it's no wonder -- the two teams have played six times in the last two seasons, beaten each other on their home courts both seasons, and gotten involved in a number of crazy games over the last several years.

Bengal fans recall the incident four years ago, when Griz Matt Dlouhy unceremoniously dumped the Bengals' Logan Kinghorn as Logan was driving to the hoop. A groggy Kinghorn staggered to his feet, looked around for a moment, then went after Dlouhy.

Last season's Bengal-Griz matchup at Holt Arena brought us "the timeout that wasn't." With time running out on a tied ballgame, Montana F Jordan Hasquet tried to call a timeout the Griz didn't have. Official Eric Curry refused to recognize the timeout, which would have resulted in a technical foul and a free throw for the Bengals with no time left on the clock. Montana went on to win the game in overtime, and Curry and his two fellow officials were later suspended by the Big Sky for not utilizing the television replay to determine if Hasquet's timeout request came before the buzzer.

Three of the last six times these two teams have played, the games have gone into overtime. Each team has beaten the other in the first round of the Big Sky playoffs.... you get the idea -- when these two teams get together, it's usually an event.

The Bengals won't need any special motivation for this Thursday night's Bengal-Griz reunion, however. After losing twice on the road last week, ISU desperately needs a conference win. The Bengals have gone from a team picked to finish third in the league in the pre-season polls to one that is starting to look like it may struggle just to make the six-team Big Sky playoffs. They must defend home court this week against the Griz and Montana State on Saturday in order to rebuild what O'Brien admits is the team's shattered confidence.

The first key in getting it done this week will be figuring out a way to stop co-Big Sky Player of the Week Anthony Johnson, a 6-3 G who leads BSC games in scoring with a 24 point a game average. A JC transfer from Yakima, Wash., Johnson (above) has scored over 30 points in two of the last three Griz games. He has taken on the point guard position for Montana since Ceylon Elgin-Taylor was suspended in early December following a DUI arrest. Johnson is not your prototypical PG -- he's a scorer, first and foremost, and has only 12 assists to 15 turnovers in four league games. But he'll be a handful for whichever Bengal draws him defensively (and it will probably start out to be 6-5 Amorrow Morgan).

The Griz backcourt of Johnson and Ryan Staudacher is one of the more intriguing combinations in the league this season. Johnson goes hard to the hole -- he's shooting 52 percent from the floor, and gets to the foul line with regularity -- 93 times in 16 games. When he gets to the charity stripe, he's money -- 86 percent for the season, 92 percent in Big Sky play. He's not a great outside shooter -- only 6 for 22 from 3, so if you're defending Johnson, you know what you have to do -- keep him out of the paint and off the line. Obviously easier said than done.

Staudacher, meanwhile, represents almost exactly the opposite approach. He has shot a grand total of 2 free throws all season. But the 6-3 junior is second in the Big Sky Conference in three-point shooting, hitting almost 55 percent of his treys. Almost two-thirds of Staudacher's shots -- 66 of 105 field goal attempts -- come from beyond the arc. So if you're defending Staudacher, you want to get out on him ASAP. And if you're the Bengals and you're switching ball screens, you better remember who you've just picked up: if it's Johnson, gap him and force him to pull up; if it's Staudacher, get out there on him now.

Basketball is a game of matchups and the Bengals and Griz seem to match up well physically, which is another reason the games have been so good the last few years. Morgan, at 6-5, will be a good matchup for the physical Johnson, and neither team will have to worry about those little waterbug point guards that seem to be populating the rest of the league's backcourts. A key player for Idaho State will be Donnie Carson, who will likely get the start in the place of the injured Kal Bay (out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his shooting hand). Something about Montana seems to bring out the best in Donnie, who averaged 11 points, 4 rebounds and a steal a game in the teams' three meetings last year.

The Griz, meanwhile, are looking for somebody beside Johnson to step up in Big Sky Conference play. Johnson is the only Griz averaging in double figures in their four league games, and Hasquet and Staudacher are both down in scoring and shooting percentage in BSC play. If history is any indication, however, somebody from Montana will have a big game and Thursday's contest will turn out to be a brawl. Don't miss it!

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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