Category archive: Montana Grizzlies

Quick hitters on a Championship Week Thursday:

• The selection committee filled out its first ballot on Wednesday. That means the teams that committee members vote for are in the NCAA tournament (no matter what). The selection committee usually averages 20-plus teams. This doesn't include automatic qualifiers (so no Murray State or Saint Mary's in this exercise). That's why this is done on Wednesday of selection week when the power conference games are still ongoing.

My first ballot would be:
1. Kentucky
2. Syracuse
3. Kansas
4. North Carolina
5. Missouri
6. Duke
7. Ohio State
8. Michigan State
9. Marquette
10. Michigan
11. Baylor
12. Georgetown
13. Wisconsin
14. Indiana
15. Wichita State
16. UNLV
17. New Mexico
18. San Diego State
19. Temple
20. Florida
21. Vanderbilt
22. Gonzaga
23. Notre Dame
24. Louisville
25. Cincinnati
26. Kansas State
27. Saint Louis
28. Florida State
29. Memphis

I couldn't add a team from the Pac-12 that wouldn't have involved some sort of debate. I would love for the selection committee to reveal its first ballots one day.

• Butler would be a home run addition to the Atlantic 10 if the league wants to maintain its basketball relevance after losing Temple. The Bulldogs would fit in with their proximity to Saint Louis to the west and the Ohio schools (Xavier and Dayton) to the northeast. Adding Butler to Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis, Richmond and Saint Joseph's would offset the departure of Temple. If A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade was aggressive, she would be on the phone with Butler to gauge its interest and explore the "out" for the Horizon League. You can't compare the media markets in the A-10 to the Horizon.

• Montana coach Wayne Tinkle could barely speak on Thursday. He lost his voice cheering -- and coaching -- the Grizzlies to their Big Sky title victory over Weber State.

"It was unbelievable," Tinkle said. "The people of Missoula had been waiting a long time for this. It had been 20 years since we hosted and won it."

The Grizzlies knocked out Weber and the top point guard in the country in Damian Lillard. Montana won the Big Sky with a 15-1 league mark, and enters the NCAA tournament at 25-6 overall.

"We're riding a pretty good wave right now," Tinkle said. "We've won 14 in a row. We've got a ton of confidence. It will all come down to matchups and what seed we get."

Teams that are on a roll like Montana and Murray State can't be dismissed heading into the NCAAs. Of course, Tinkle is right. The matchup will be the difference. The Grizzlies had a stellar scorer two seasons ago in Anthony Johnson, but this team has much more balance with five scorers averaging at least nine points a game.

"We're a much better team, with any number of players [who] can jump up and explode on a given night," Tinkle said. "We had five guys in double digits [against Weber State]."

Tinkle added that the Wildcats' Lillard was a terrific competitor without the trash talk.

"He's so athletic, hard to trap and could finish over bigs," Tinkle said. "He could shoot it deep. Our guys were physical, and he got frustrated a bit. He'll show well in the next level with the guys he'll be surrounded by."

Now the onus is on Montana to do something with this bid.

"Some say we'll get a 15-[seed]; I'd hope for a 12," Tinkle said. "I'm not worried about the seed. I'm just concerned about the matchups."

USC coach Kevin O'Neill didn't like the "disappointing" tag that many gave his Trojans. He thought it was premature.

And maybe it was. (Or maybe, just maybe, there were indeed several disappointing losses.)

Either way, it is still early in the maturation process for this team. But beating Texas 73-56 Sunday night is certainly a major step forward for the Trojans.

Getting Fordham transfer guard Jio Fontan eligible for the Dec. 18 game at Kansas (the same game heralded freshman guard Josh Selby becomes available for KU) will certainly help.

Playing at Tennessee three days later doesn't, not when the Trojans are trying to mask four losses already to likely nontournament teams (Rider by 20, Bradley by one, at Nebraska by one after blowing a 20-point lead, and at TCU by 12).

O'Neill said he put the Trojans through a rigorous practice slate in the days between the TCU loss and Texas game.

"We had a come-to-Jesus meeting," O'Neill said. "We gave in defensively at TCU. That's not happening anymore. The young guys know that now."

USC is leaning heavily on freshman guards Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones. It has a solid scoring forward in Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson is now playing without something protecting a broken hand.

"It just takes time with so many freshmen," O'Neill said.

O'Neill has been pumping up Fontan's arrival for months. He said he's the most talented player on the Trojans. "He'll make a huge difference for our team," O'Neill said. "It took us awhile to find an identity with these young guys but we found it [Sunday night]. If we play defense, we can win."

The problem for USC is that unless it beats Kansas and/or Tennessee on the road, the losses to teams like Rider and Bradley will haunt this team if it has visions of being an at-large. The Texas win helps, but the rest of the Pac-10 is once again void of quality nonconference wins to raise USC's overall power rating come March.

Washington and Arizona are so far the only teams in the Pac-10 that have played consistently well enough to look like NCAA teams if each can continue to perform at a similar level. Who else (if anyone) emerges behind them is still anyone's guess.

• Montana started the season 0-2 with road losses at Nevada and Utah. Three weeks later, the Grizzlies suffered their third loss of the season by dropping a four-point game at home to Portland.

Montana isn't going to be an at-large candidate. But the Grizzlies had visions of challenging for the Big Sky title again and returning to the NCAAs. That could happen without a signature win, but this group of Grizz needed something positive to occur to give them hope.

That came Sunday night in a stunning nine-point win at UCLA.

A year ago, the Grizz did beat Oregon and nearly beat Washington but were erratic in conference play. Montana coach Wayne Tinkle is banking on the Bruins win as a catalyst to find consistency with an inexperienced team.

"I don't want this season to be remembered for the year we beat UCLA," Tinkle said. "We can't have a letdown just because it doesn't say UCLA across their chest. There's no reason we can't take the same approach we had against UCLA against Great Falls [Thursday] or in Pocatello [against Idaho State]. We expect big things from ourselves."

Tinkle said he expected the Bruins to jump on the Grizzlies after they were coming off a near miss at Kansas. Instead, Montana was able to deliver the first punch and with the Bruins struggling to score, the Grizz continued to be the aggressor.

"I think we took their spirit away," Tinkle said. "We let one slip away against Portland. It was a valuable lesson. For us to turn around and win at UCLA speaks volumes about this team's toughness."

Montana's Will Cherry scored 18 to lead the Grizz.

"His confidence is growing and he is fitting into that leadership role," Tinkle said. "He's tough and can defend and sees the floor well. He's taking the pressure off everyone else scoringwise. I like our pieces."

• Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said on a conference call Monday that if the Big East were to add an 18th member in all sports (the likely candidate for that is Central Florida) instead of just adding Villanova in football and not changing the hoop membership, then the league should look at divisional alignment. Boeheim said the addition of TCU, raising the number of hoops teams from 16 to 17, doesn't make that much of a difference. And he said there hasn't been any talk of splitting the league into football and non-football-playing members.

But the addition of a possible 18th should make the league reconsider alignment.

"We have to look at two nine-team divisions," Boeheim said. "We've done it [divisions] before. We could have a true division winner and have a tournament. It's not the end of the world. The hard thing will be to determine who wants to be in certain divisions. But there will have to be hard decisions. Someone has to decide and live with it. You make hard choices to preserve football. If we go to 18 we'll have to talk about it and figure out what the alternative is. But it's still better than the alternative [of doing nothing in light of expansion in football for others]."

• Miami had its best nonconference home week under coach Frank Haith with wins over Ole Miss and West Virginia. The Hurricanes had lost an early game at Memphis, where they were down to the final few possessions with a chance to win. The other loss was at Rutgers, a defeat that Haith said was his fault. He said he never should have scheduled the Rutgers game within two days after a home game. He said travel issues were in play and his team didn't respond, saying it had no legs for the game.

"We played dead and heavy-legged," Haith said. "I didn't give ourselves a chance. We beat two really good teams this week."

Haith said that he is convinced that second place in the ACC is wide-open and that the Canes have just as good a shot as anyone else.

"We're just as competitive as Carolina and we play them once at our place," said Haith, who said Florida State, Maryland, Virginia Tech and NC State are all in the mix. "Our guard play [Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant] was excellent. And the guy no one is talking about is [sophomore wing] Garrius Adams. We're not perfect, but no team is dominant in our league except Duke right now."

• Few lower-profile programs can survive losing two key players the way Drexel has so far this season. The Dragons are without a pair of heavy contributors from last season -- Jamie Harris and Kevin Phillip -- who are facing multiple charges following their connection with an armed robbery over the summer. Neither is expected to return to the program and both players are out of school. Yet the Dragons trudged on, went on a summer tour of Turkey and now stand at 5-1 overall, with wins over rivals Penn and Saint Joseph's and a league-opening victory at Northeastern.

"Having freshmen go on that trip has a lot to do with where we are," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "We don't have depth, but I always thought we had players."

Chris Fouch, who was a top freshman in the CAA last season, is averaging 21.7 points a game.

"Our margin of error is very small but we've got good enough players to win games," Flint said.

Drexel still has road games at Syracuse and Louisville. Flint isn't banking on an at-large berth to the NCAAs. But what has been proved early on in the CAA is that there will be candidates, given the strong starts by Old Dominion and VCU. The problem is that the league is so competitive that its best teams will beat each other up, as evidenced by Delaware beating ODU over the weekend.

"Our conference is winning games against other leagues like the A-10 and ACC," Flint said. "We're physically good enough to play with Louisville and Syracuse. We won't be overwhelmed. Last year when we played Kentucky we looked like little kids. That won't be the situation this year."

The agreement to keep Fresno State and Nevada in the WAC for two more basketball seasons should be a benefit to the power rating of the league and any possible at-large berths that might come out of it.

Neither Fresno State nor Nevada has been a recent regular in the NCAA tournament, but the WAC couldn't afford to flounder with six members in 2011-12. The perception of being a league with one fewer member than a fledgling, non-automatic-qualifying conference like the Great West would have been damaging.

Utah State and New Mexico State, the two steadiest programs in the WAC lately and both participants in last season's NCAA tournament, couldn't afford to be left twisting in a six-team league. It would have meant finding four more games next season at a time when scheduling is as hard as it's ever been for NCAA-bound programs outside the power six conferences.

The WAC is expected to move on expansion sooner than later, even with the decision by Mountain West-bound Fresno State and Nevada to stay put for another season in exchange for a lesser exit fee.

For the WAC to make a significant step, the league must convince Montana to join for 2012-13. The WAC can land Denver and/or Seattle and has Texas-San Antonio and Texas State lined up and ready to accept a bid.

The latter two aren't going to move the meter for men's basketball. Denver has shown signs of progress under coach Joe Scott and is in a position to contend in the Sun Belt this season. If Denver was able to snag an NCAA bid, the timing could work out well for the school and the WAC, since the Denver market yearns for a college basketball winner to call its own. And in Seattle, without the NBA in town, maybe coach Cameron Dollar and the Redhawks can create a niche fan base as an alternative to Washington.

But Montana offers the most traditional college basketball program that the WAC could land out West. The pickings are slim, and the WAC won't go after a Big West school, although WAC member Hawaii could still flirt with football independence and send the rest of its sports to the Big West. So if there is another school out there that makes sense for all sports, it is Montana.

The Grizzlies first have to make a decision about moving up from the FCS to the FBS after many a successful run at the lower level of football. But the Grizz are an attraction in the state, and they have a loyal following and a history in hoops with well-regarded coaches (Jud Heathcote, Mike Montgomery, Stew Morrill, Larry Krystkowiak and now Wayne Tinkle, who led Montana to the NCAAs last March).

The Grizzlies are an annual Big Sky contender, fit in the WAC's geographic footprint and would give someone (Idaho? Utah State?) a natural rival. Montana could still play rival Montana State twice in a home-and-home, just like New Mexico and New Mexico State do even though they're in separate leagues.

Look, the WAC is in a dire situation regardless of the choices. But landing the Grizzlies would make the best of a poor situation. Adding a combination of Montana, Denver and the two Texas schools to get to an even 10 members for 2012-13 would allow the basketball league to hold water for now.

Utah State and New Mexico State -- and for that matter Hawaii, if Gib Arnold can turn the Warriors around -- desperately need programs in the league that add some value. Montana would. Denver could. Seattle is still a reach, but not out of the question because of its potential under Dollar.

If Montana chooses to stay put, the likelihood is that all four of the other candidates will join the WAC for eight members in football, 10 in men's basketball. The two Texas schools would create a bridge between members New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. If Montana decides to join, then Seattle is likely out.

Anthony Johnson had spaced on his halftime ritual. He was already on the court at Weber State when he realized he had forgotten to rub lotion on his hands.

It's a bit of an obsessive habit, one that Johnson says is weird but he can't forget. He did on Wednesday night. And to Johnson if he doesn't put the lotion on, the touch of the basketball isn't the same.

Montana coach Wayne Tinkle was outside the visitor's locker room at halftime. He had emerged a bit too soon with more than three minutes before the second half, trying to collect his thoughts after watching the Grizzlies go down by 20 points in the Big Sky title game in Ogden, Utah.

"And then with 35 seconds left on the clock, here comes Anthony running past me and says, 'Coach you're going to see a different player in the second half,'' Tinkle said Thursday morning.

"I made sure I made eye contact with him,'' Johnson said.

Johnson, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, was more than a "new man" as he later termed. He was something special, nothing quite like anyone had seen in the Big Sky. He has been the story of championship week so far. Sure, Harold "The Show" Arceneaux of Weber State put on a display to beat North Carolina in the first round of the 1999 NCAA tournament in Seattle. And yes, that was on a larger stage. But even Arceneaux would be hard pressed to match what Johnson did to get the Grizzlies into the NCAA tournament this year.

And to learn of Johnson's path to get to this moment makes it even more worthy of a story retelling.

Johnson scored 34 of Montana's 46 second-half points, including the final 21, to lead the Grizzlies to an improbable 66-65 conference title on the road at a stunned Dee Events Center. Johnson outscored Weber 34-25 in the second half. He finished with 42 points, making all 14 free throws, 13 of 22 from the field and playing all 40 minutes.

"I've never seen anything like it. I turned into a fan,'' Tinkle said by phone as he drove back to Missoula on Thursday morning in advance of Selection Sunday. "During a timeout late in the game, I just told the team to get the hell out of his way.''

Johnson, still in his Ogden hotel room Thursday morning, said he was looking at his most valuable player trophy sitting on the dresser, trying to conceptualize what had occurred in the past 24 hours. He was certainly humble in saying the team's defensive stops in the second half were a must if he was going to score and the team was going to catch Weber.

"This is crazy,'' Johnson said. "It's really straight out of a movie.''

Here's why, according to Johnson.

His father left his mother when Johnson was 6 months old. Johnson bounced around the country with his mother in the West and in the South.

"We moved a lot,'' Johnson said of being with his mother, a single parent to three kids with Johnson being the oldest. "She had different jobs and relationships that fell through for her.''

Johnson reconnected with his father when he was 12 and went to live with him in Pasadena, Calif., from ages 12 to 14 before his mother moved to Tacoma, Wash. He went back to live with her for high school.

Johnson needed to find some sort of focus and settled on basketball in his last two yeas at Stadium High in Tacoma. When he finished school he still was lost, unsure of what he should do. That's when he met Shaunte Nance, who was a stud women's player at nearby Foss High.

Nance had a scholarship offer to go to Northwest Nazarene University, a Division II school in Idaho. She left Johnson in Tacoma and went for the first year.

"She loved it,'' Johnson said.

But the connection between the two was strong enough to make her reconsider her path with Johnson unsure about his life.

"I was in a dead-end job at a restaurant as a dishwasher,'' Johnson said. There was frustration on both sides that Johnson had let a promising basketball career just fade away. Nance told Johnson that he was better than the players she had seen and he had to do something about it. They would -- together.

"She got me a tryout at Yakima Valley Community College,'' Johnson said, recalling how Shaunte made herself available at the women's junior college level. "It was really a tryout. Shaunte said we were a package deal. They had to take us both.''

Johnson averaged 24.4 points a game in leading Yakima to a regional championship.

There have been package deals going on for quite a while in college basketball. But the majority of time they always involve a coach and a player, maybe a father and a player, but rarely if ever have you heard of a couple that had to come together and play basketball.

Shaunte and Anthony, both now 23 years old were married on Nov. 1, 2006, prior to the start of the Yakima season.

"He wasn't recruited, there were grade issues so he needed an extra semester to graduate from high school,'' Tinkle said. "She got him to go to a junior college. She's the one that got him to play.''

The package deal didn't stop at the junior college level. Johnson said he could have gone to other schools, even though Montana was the first to pursue him. But the two had to go together. Tinkle and women's coach Robin Selvig were in agreement that they had to take the pair.

"Robin told me after 10 minutes of offering Shaunte a scholarship, he said you've got Anthony too,'' Tinkle said.

Anthony and Shaunte have now completed the rare double -- both contributed to a NCAA appearance for Montana. Nance-Johnson was a backup guard on last season's Montana Big Sky championship team that lost to Pitt in the first round and now Johnson has single-handedly put the Grizzlies in the Big Dance.

"I went to see them celebrate getting in,'' Johnson said of the women's team. "Once you see that, you want to be a part of it as well. This still hasn't hit me, and it might not for a while.''

Johnson was the Big Sky newcomer of the year last season, averaging 18 points, three rebounds and three assists a game on 50 percent shooting. (He also shot 87 percent at the line and 35 percent on 3-pointers.)

The past two seasons Tinkel has seen Johnson go off in stretches during which he can take the team on short runs.

"He's surpassed all the expectations,'' Tinkle said. "The sky's the limit with him. He has one of the best pull-up jumpers I've ever seen. He gets the ball at the top of his head as quick as anyone I've seen.''

Tinkle said NBA and international connections were curious about Johnson, and after Wednesday night's performance the interest will only increase. If Johnson can lead Montana to a win in the NCAA first round, his profile will be even more enhanced.

"What he's done also is mature and improved as a leader,'' Tinkle said.

Montana won at Oregon and nearly clipped Washington earlier in the season. But this team was dead at halftime in the title game and would have been forgotten had Weber held on for the win. Now there is no way Johnson and the Grizzlies can be erased from the Selection Sunday storylines.