Hawks prepare for Big Sky game against top-seed Montana

RENO, Nev. — The University of North Dakota men’s basketball program joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012. UND was a relative newcomer to Division I basketball at the time, having spent a few seasons in the now-defunct Great West Conference — a league that amounted to nothing more than a scheduling alliance for programs looking for a permanent home.
When UND secured Big Sky membership, the University of Montana, Missoula, and Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, were the league powers. They remain in that role. But UND, perhaps more than any other Big Sky member, has managed to mix it up with the two powers in postseason play.
“When we got in this league, I wanted to study two teams — Weber State and Montana — because of how they have been able to sustain success year in and year out,” said UND Coach Brian Jones.
On Thursday, March 8, UND takes on top-seeded Montana in a Big Sky quarterfinal game at the Reno Events Center. Montana is the overwhelming favorite, winning the league regular-season title with a 16-2 record, and the Griz (23-7 overall) currently rank No. 95 in the latest Pomeroy rankings of all 351 Division I teams.
UND (12-19) enters the game on the heels of an improbable 76-74 win over Montana State University during its Tuesday, March 6, first-round game. The Hawks trailed by 19 points with 10 minutes to go before staging one of the biggest late-game rallies in program history.
Since the Big Sky Conference moved its postseason tournament to Reno in 2016, UND — the team that has to travel the farthest distance — has made itself right at home, more so than any other league team.
The Hawks are 6-1 in the Reno Events Center, the best record among the 12 Big Sky teams.
“We’ve been blessed, especially in this venue,” said Jones. “Our guys always seem to rise to the occasion here. Our staff has done a great job of getting our guys prepared.”
UND’s success in Reno may play to the Hawks’ advantage, even though they are an underdog.
“Teams know we’ve had success here,” said Jones. “Some teams may come in a little tight when they haven’t won a ball game in Reno. I think there are some teams here in Reno that have had that happen to them.”
UND is in its seventh conference tournament appearance at the Division I level, and Jones has guided his teams to three titles — two in the Great West and one in the Big Sky. Overall, his record in Division I conference tournaments is 14-4 (9-3 in the Big Sky).
However, Montana is the one program that has UND’s number. The Griz have won seven straight against UND, including a 109-79 win earlier this season in Missoula before the Griz escaped The Betty with a 72-67 win a month later.
Jones said he hopes his team can build off that second meeting.
Montana’s length and athleticism make the Griz a big tournament favorite, and league personnel believe Montana has the potential to pull off a win in the NCAA Tournament if it gets there.
“We are going to compete and do whatever we can to win that game, but because of their depth and their size, they are a team that can go on to win a game in the tournament, which is different for our league,” said Jones.
The Griz are led by guards Ahmaad Rorie (16.9 points per game) and Michael Oguine (15.3 points per game) but have good size up front in 6-foot-8 Fabijan Krslovic and 6-foot-8 Jamar Akoh (16.9 points per game).
UND will counter with its perimeter game, one that needs good 3-point shooting. The Hawks hit 10 three-pointers in their win over Montana, including a half-court basket by Geno Crandall at the first-half buzzer. That play was ranked No. 2 on ESPN SportsCenter late Tuesday night.
“I had no idea it was on before someone back home texted me,” said Crandall, who has reached double figures in all seven of his career Big Sky tournament games (14.7 points per game). “That’s something we practice every day, right?”
UND went through a practice Wednesday, March 7, at the former Nevada volleyball facility, knowing today’s game could be UND’s last in the Big Sky because the program is moving next season to the Summit League.
Then again, UND’s success in postseason Big Sky play may suggest otherwise.
“We have to jump on them early,” said Crandall. “We have to create our own energy.”