The final opening round matchup features the fourth seeded Montana Grizzlies against the 5th seeded Portland State Vikings. Their two meetings this year were pretty epic.
First meeting in Portland - Portland State beat Montana 81-78 in three overtimes!
Second meeting in Missoula - Montana won 82-76 in overtime. You may remember the end of regulation.
So, will the third matchup live up to the great games we saw in the first two meetings?
Why Montana Can Win:
Before losing their finale against Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies had won five straight games. Offensively, we know they'll be able to get buckets against the Vikings. While they scored just 1.01 PPP in the first meeting, they had 1.22 PPP in the second meeting. During conference play, Montana had the second best offense in the conference, while PSU's defense was seventh. Moreover, PSU's strength as a defense is in forcing turnovers, but the Grizzlies had the lowest turnover rate in the Big Sky thanks to their many ballhandlers. They can handle any Vikings pressure, and should be able to break down the defense and get to the hoop, with no real rim protectors for the Vikings.
Defensively, the Vikings aren't built to take advantage of Montana's weaknesses - in the post and on the glass. PSU is not a good offensive rebounding team, which is good for Montana because they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference. While Kyle Richardson could have a big game for PSU, no other big is able to take advantage of Montana's lack of frontcourt power.
The other factor is simply that Montana plays their best in the conference tournament. They are the two time reigning champion, so you know they'll be confident heading into this game. Wayne Tinkle is a great coach, and he should have a great gameplan ready. Kareem Jamar has had some of his best games when it matters most, so you know he will be bringing it. That experience will be huge.
Why Portland State Can Win:
Of all the first round matchups PSU could have drawn, Montana might be the best. For the same reasons that PSU isn't really built to take advantage of Montana's weaknesses, the reverse is true. PSU will sometimes play four and five guard sets, and the Grizzlies don't have any big men skilled enough to take advantage of that. Heck, the Grizzlies would probably prefer to play four guard sets themselves with Kareem Jamar at the four! That suits Portland State just fine.
Portland State is a good but not great outside shooting team (though they do have a few guys that can hurt you if you give them looks) but they have been excelling at getting easy baskets. They have shot 54.0% on two-pointers in Big Sky play, second best in the league. Montana's defense has been allowing teams to shoot 53.4% on twos, third worst in the league. You can make the connection. Without much in the way of interior defense, PSU will have opportunities to get to the rim and get easy baskets in the half-court.
Last, momentum is an overrated concept, but the Vikings do come into this game playing their best ball of the season. They won 5 of 6 just to make the tournament, including three of four away from home. They really have a nice rotation now that Richardson has established himself in the post, and they have a lot of guys that can hurt you around him. They know they can win this game.
This game will be fun because the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both are very guard-oriented, both have struggle defensively, and both have a lot of backcourt options. We could see 8-9 guards on the court at times. Both meetings were epic this year, and another great battle should be coming. I'll take the Grizzlies for two reasons. One, as mentioned, they have the best coach in the Big Sky and a ton of experience in this spot. Many of PSU's guys have not played in the Big Sky tournament, while Montana obviously has won it two straight years. Second, I think Montana's offense is a little bit better than the Vikings. They will have the best player in this game in Jamar, and I think when things get bogged down, they are more equipped to deal with it. For those reasons, Montana is the pick. Montana 75, Portland State 73.
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