Before the Syracuse Orange take on the Montana Grizzlies in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, we need to understand what we're getting ourselves into. Are we walking into a trap? Are we going to rue the day we ever ran afoul of the Griz?
I turned to Jonathan Reed of Big Sky Basketball to provide the insight we need to understand Thursday's tourney showdown a little better. Check out his answers below and feel free to double-check my responses to his questions as well.
Montana's record is impressive but the red flag is the lack of bigtime wins. Is this Montana team battle-tested enough to make a run?
They are a battled tested team, there is no doubt about it. The lack of big-time wins does stick out, but you have to remember a couple things when looking at that:
a) The Big Sky does not really lend itself to big-time wins. Weber State is a dang good basketball team, but beating them doesn’t get much respect other than from those who follow the conference, and the rest of the teams weren’t all that great this season.
b) Will Cherry (who, if there was an award, would have been the preseason Conference POY) missed most of the non-conference slate with a broken foot, returning to play 13 minutes against South Dakota State. Then he reinjured that in the second half against Davidson. They lost both games in OT. So that is two chances at solid wins that we hampered by injury. In games that Cherry played fully, Montana was 18-1.
In addition, Montana is not a stranger to the NCAA Tournament. They made it last season, falling to Wisconsin in the first round of the tournament as a 13 seed. They also made the tournament in 2010, when Cherry was a freshman. They have some issues right now (which we will get to), but they are battle-tested and the moment will not be too big for them, because they have been there before.
How big of a loss was it to lose Mathias Ward for the season?
It was big, no doubt about it. Ward was obviously their leading scorer, and he was a great complement to Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. Even though Ward played the power forward spot most of the time, he is a jump shoote, and probably the best midrange shooter in the Big Sky. However, he was a poor rebounder (9.8 DR%) and average defender. He is missed offensively, but they have some ways to replace him.
Spencer Coleman has been playing more since Ward’s injury, and he has replaced a lot of what Ward brought. He is an efficient offensive player (58.8% EFG) and a better rebounder than Ward. What it hurts, though, is the Grizzlies depth. They weren’t deep upfront to begin with, and if Syracuse bigs can get them into foul trouble, Montana will be hurting.
The easiest way to beat Syracuse is to shoot the lights out from three-point range. Which Montana player has the potential to put the fear of God into us?
It’s not uncommon for Montana to have five shooters on the floor, so the Grizzlies have the potential to shoot the lights out. The two stars, Kareem Jamar (36%) and Will Cherry (28%) can hit from deep, but the bigger threats are the role guys. Jordan Gregory (44%), Mike Weisner (46%), Spencer Coleman (40%) are all capable of hitting a couple in a row. I don’t think Syracuse has to worry so much about one guy going off, but more likely to have a few guys hit 2-3 from deep.
How big is Montana basketball in Missoula? In Montana? Are we taking on an entire state on Thursday?
Based on what I have seen, it’s big, but you’re not going to be taking on an entire state here. Dalhberg Arena (where they play) seats around 7,300 people, and Montana’s average attendance for home games this year was at the 4,500 mark. In terms of Big Sky schools, Montana and Weber State are the top two in terms of support. But, if I had to say, football is probably the bigger deal up there.
Wayne Tinkle has put together an impressive run as head coach, is he set up for bigger things or is he expected to stay a Griz for a long time?
He is the best coach in the Big Sky, and the work he has done this year dealing with injuries has been extremely impressive. His guys always seem ready to play. There has been chatter over the past couple offseasons that he could be moving on, most notably with the Fresno State job opening a couple years ago. I think he is set up for bigger things, at least at some point. Tinkle’s son is a sophomore in high school right now, and I am thinking the best Montana can hope for is that Wayne would stick around through his son’s career, but I am not sure that is a given.
The other thing is that Montana has typically been a springboard for bigger things for a lot of coaches. Among the former Montana coaches whose names college basketball fans will recognize – Larry Krystowiak, Mike Montgomery, Blaine Taylor, Jud Heathcote, and Stew Morrill. One day, Tinkle’s name will join that list.
If Montana is going to beat Syracuse, it will be because...
For one, it is going to take a little bit of luck. With Syracuse’s length and rebounding ability, the Orange are not a great matchup for Montana. Maybe that luck comes from Syracuse missing free throws, a halftime buzzer beater to give Montana some momentum, or something similar. But Montana is going to need some things to go right.
Second, Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry have to have big games. The Grizzlies are reliant on them. Jamar is the conference player of the year, an efficient scorer (he went 8/8 inside the arc in the Big Sky title game), excellent passer, and the best rebounder on the team.
Cherry is a good penetrator and strong finisher at the rim, and it will be a big boost if he can hit some outside shots. He got in foul trouble early in the tourney game last season, and it killed them against the Badgers. Those two will likely need to combine for 40 points. Last, like we talked about earlier, the role players have to be hitting their outside shots.
If Gregory, Weisner, and/or Coleman are not hitting shots, it is going to place far too much pressure on Jamar and Cherry.