The Montana Grizzlies have swept their road trip to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah all three times under fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire.
This past weekend was unique in that they followed up their trip to the high elevation of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Thursday night with a quick turnaround and 12:30 p.m. tipoff on Saturday in Cedar City, Utah.
Despite any perceived obstacles, the Griz pulled out impressive victories at both stops, beating Northern Arizona and Southern Utah to open Big Sky Conference play.
Montana State, the Grizzlies’ travel partner, also went 2-0 with wins over the same teams. It’s the first time since the 2010-11 season that both the Griz and Cats have started 2-0 in conference play.
“It’s the toughest road trip, I think, travel-wise, in conference,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said on KGVO radio after the loss to Washington to close nonconference play. “Whoever wins this league is going to win there.”
For both teams to start 2-0, it gives them a leg up in the race for the conference title, especially when combined with upset losses by Weber State, Idaho and Portland State. Those teams are also expected to compete for the conference title and still have to make the trip south. North Dakota, the defending champion, is 0-2.
Before facing Northern Arizona, the Griz flew into Phoenix, practiced at Arizona State and drove up to Flagstaff a day early to adjust to the elevation. They left with an 87-69 victory Thursday night.
On Friday, they took a 5 1/2-hour bus ride to Southern Utah in the morning, went through a mostly mental practice and had a 9 p.m. curfew. They got a 7:30 a.m. wake-up call Saturday for a shootaround and then suffocated the Thunderbirds in a 79-49 win for their largest margin of victory this season.
It was the third time in four seasons under DeCuire that the Griz started 2-0 in conference and the third consecutive season that they started 2-0 on the road in conference.
“It was a more professional approach to this road trip,” DeCuire said after the win over Southern Utah. “I think it carried over into how they played on the floor.”
Montana State started its trip with a 104-99 win over Southern Utah on Thursday. The Bobcats had arguably the more challenging trip by heading immediately to the higher elevation of Flagstaff, although their tipoff time was nearly five hours after Montana’s.
After the game in Cedar City, Utah, — in which the guard combo of Tyler Hall and Harald Frey combined for 66 points — the Bobcats traveled by bus to Page, Arizona, where they stayed overnight. The team was in Flagstaff by mid-day Friday.
On Saturday, the Bobcats survived for a 76-73 overtime win after Northern Arizona missed a potentially game-winning free throw with 0.5 seconds left in regulation. Keljin Blevins scored 26 points and MSU won despite shooting 30 percent.
It was MSU’s first road sweep to open the conference schedule since the 2004-05 season.
“You start league play and it’s an 18-lap race and each game is one lap around the track,” Bobcats coach Brian Fish said on Tuesday. “It’s good. It gives the guys energy.”
“Our league is off-the-charts better than before,” Fish added. “I think teams are coming into league play with more confidence. There’s no easy opponents this year.”
Other teams that will make the trip to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah for back-to-back games are Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Portland State, Sacramento State and Weber State.
The only teams to not make the trip are North Dakota and Northern Colorado, a veteran-laden team expected to compete for the conference title.
“I don’t know how many teams are going to sweep this trip,” DeCuire said. “It’s tough. It’s a quick turnaround. NAU is a tough place to get to; depending on where you’re coming from, it’s difficult. (Southern Utah) is a better basketball team than this (79-49) score shows. I believe they’re going to win a lot of games at home and in conference, and so I don’t see eight teams coming in here and winning.”
Other upcoming road trips for the Griz and Cats include Sacramento State and Portland State, Northern Colorado and North Dakota — which would be the second-toughest trip, travel-wise, DeCuire said — and Eastern Washington and Idaho. They also play a home-and-home in the Brawl of the Wild series.
Before any of those trips, they return home to face North Dakota (Montana on Thursday, Montana State on Saturday) and Northern Colorado (MSU on Thursday, UM on Saturday).
“It’s going to be a big week. Those guys are talented,” DeCuire said of North Dakota. “They know how to win. They expect to win.
“Northern Colorado is playing very well and scoring a ton of points. We got to maintain our focus and hopefully when we bring these guys to the snow, we’ll be the aggressor again.”
MSU’s Fish said of UNC: “They’re playing with energy, they’re playing the right way, they know the pecking order of who to get shots for ... (I’m) just really impressed with what I see on film.”