The Bengals are entering their toughest stretch of the season, and it starts with the team tied for the Big Sky Conference lead.
Idaho State hosts Montana on Thursday at Reed Gym, the first of four games against teams at .500 or better in league play. The Bengals (14-12, 9-5), the fourth-place team in the conference standings, are a half game out of third and one game from falling to sixth. ISU is coming off a loss at Northern Arizona and a win at Southern Utah.
“How we played last week wasn’t good enough for this week,” said Bengals sophomore guard Geno Luzcando. “This week we have to play harder than ever.”
The Grizzlies (17-8, 12-2) come to Pocatello sporting a four-game winning streak and one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the league. Montana can dump it inside to Martin Breunig (19.2 points per game), kick it out to Brandon Gfeller at the arc (10.6 points per game) and penetrate the lane with Walter Wright (12.0 points per game) and Michael Oguine (11.2 points per game). UM is one of three Big Sky teams with four active players averaging double-digit points and shoots 46.6 percent from the field.
“I think Montana’s one of the harder teams in this league to guard,” said ISU head coach Bill Evans. “They have really good perimeter shooting and they have a young man inside (Breunig) that can really score the ball.”
Breunig is second in the Big Sky in scoring, fifth in rebounding (8.8 per game) and is second with a 65.4 percent shooting clip. The 6-foot-8 senior has logged 10 double-doubles on the season and was held under 50 percent shooting for the first time in 15 games in Montana’s 87-78 win against Montana State on Saturday.
Breunig combined to score 35 points on 15-of-25 shooting with 17 boards in Montana’s pair of wins against the Bengals last season.
When ISU played dominant big man Joel Bolomboy of Weber State at the start of January, the Bengals doubled him in the post, slapped the ball away for steals and held him to 13 points and seven rebounds — one of four non-double-double performances for Bolomboy this season.
“Like we tried to stop Bolomboy here, it’s going to be very similar,” said ISU senior forward Ben Wilson. “It’s going to be working, making him catch further away from the block where he’s effective. He’s very effective with his right hand over his left shoulder. The further we can force him to catch at, the more effective we’re going to be defensively.”
Similar to Weber State, Montana has dead-eye shooters that can be freed up by keying on Breunig in the post.
Gfeller shoots 41.7 percent form the arc for the season, and Jack Lopez checks in at 40.3 percent. Gfeller knocked down 12 3-pointers and scored 41 points in Montana’s matchups with ISU a season ago, and the Griz shot a combined 27 of 51 (52.9 percent).
In conference games, Wright (46.8 percent) and Gfeller (46.7 percent) lead the league in 3-point shooting.
“He’s an outstanding shooter,” Evans said of Gfeller, “and a guy that you have to pay a lot of attention to. When you have a guy like that, that allows you to do some other things with a dribble and (throw) the ball inside.”
STRENGTH VS STRENGTH
Montana leads the Big Sky in 3-point field goal percentage defense, holding teams to 31.7 percent from the arc. Idaho State shoots treys at a 37.7 percent clip, good for fifth in the league.
“I just think you have to play the way you’ve been playing,” Evans said. “Hopefully we’ll get some good looks and make some of them.”
ISU WOES VS UM
The Bengals haven’t beaten Montana since 2009, losers of 11 straight against the Griz. UM swept last season’s meeting by a combined 37 points.
BY THE NUMBERS
KenPom ranking (out of 351 teams)
Overall — ISU 265, UM 155
Adj. Off. — ISU 283, UM 171
Adj. Def. — ISU 234, UM 162
Adj. Tempo — ISU 83, UM 291
SoS — ISU 336, UM 272
NonCon SoS — ISU 240, UM 10