These two clubs enjoyed strong finishes to their seasons last year. Montana even manhandled Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tourney last year en route to a final 32 showing. SIU has been an NCAA mainstay for what seems like an eternity. Both expect to be pretty decent this season.
Montana Grizzlies (24-7, 10-4 Big Sky, 2nd Round NCAA)
The Grizzlies lost their two best backcourt players in Kevin Criswell (16.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Virgil Matthews (10.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, team leader in assists and steals), but their biggest loss might have been coach Larry Krystkowiak. Krystko took a position as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks over the summer and he is replaced by one his former assistants, Wayne Tinkle. UM does return their leading scorer and rebounder in 6-8 All-Big Sky F/C Andrew Strait (16.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Forward Jordan Hasquet, G/F Matt Dlouhy, and G Matt Martin are capable returning role players. Reserve PG Brian Ellis is not much of a shooting threat, but he handed out over 3 apg while playing just 16 mins per contest last season. Folks in Missoula also seem pretty excited about adding a top JUCO in the healthy form of a 6-4, 240 lb, mack truck named Gus Chase. The Griz have enough returning to make a strong defense of their Big Sky crown.
Tinkle was a Krystko assistant, so fans can expect more of the razor-sharp offensive execution and shooting (#11 nationally in Adj Off Eff) they have grown to love. The defense was only average (#166), but it was good enough to win 24 games. The Griz will need some folks to step up in the backcourt, but the frontcourt is stacked with size and skill, and the bench has some meat on it. The most jarring part for Topper fans is that Montana was 13-1 at home last season (including a 19-point pasting of Stanford), and that lone loss was by 4 points to a very good UW-Milwaukee team. It will be tough to come out of Missoula with a win.
Southern Illinois Salukis (22-11, 12-6 MVC, NCAA First Round)
Like the Florida Gators earlier this week, SIU returns a full boat. All five starters return from last year's roller coaster ride that ended as MVC Tourney champs. It starts with Jamaal Tatum (15.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.2 apg), who has been suspended for the first three games, but will be back for the Old Spice Classic and SIU's first real tests. Senior G Tony Young (11.6 ppg) and SO G Brian Mullins (All-MVC Freshman and All-MVC Defensive Team) join Tatum to form a tough, seasoned backcourt to lead the charge. There is depth with Wesley Clemmons along with freshmen Joshua Bone and Tyrone Green.
Up front, the Salukis possess twin threats in Matt Shaw (10.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Randal Falker (9.8 ppg, 7.8). Falker was a force in the MVC Tourney, outplaying Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant to help seal the NCAA invite in the MVC title game. There is depth up front as well with Jamaal Foster, Tony Boyle, Jordan Armstrong and Chris Cornelius. This is a likely NCAA team.
Statistically, it is no secret that SIU does it with a grinding pace (#16 slowest) and some of the best defense in the country (#10 in Adj Def Eff). The offense is just average, but it scores enough for the stifling D. The eye-popping stat is that opponents shot just 30.0% from 3-land last year against SIU (#4 nationally). That has to be a concern for Topper fans. But, this one is in Bowling Green, and it should be a dandy.
Tomorrow, we look at Tennessee and Nebraska and preview tomorrow night's Hilltopper Hysteria.