A couple of weeks back, I took a look at how strong some of the programs from outside the BCS conferences are this year, and the list was, frankly, quite long.
How many teams did I have on the list?
Well, enough that I completely blanked on mentioning Montana.
Last season, the Grizzlies rode the coattails of their talented back court duo, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, to the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles. In the span of eight days, they managed to knock off Damian Lillard’s Weber State team twice, by a total of 34 points, to win both of those titles.
The biggest loss for the Grizzlies heading into this season was starting center Derek Selvig, but that loss was mitigated by the addition of 6-foot-11 JuCo transfer Marko Kovacevic, a guy that had been pursued by some fairly big-time programs. With a healthy balance of back court talent, perimeter shooting and size up front, Montana had the look of a team that could potentially earn an at-large bid to the tournament and play their way into the top 25.
Maybe leaving them out of my initial post was a bit of foreshadowing, however, as news that came out today will be a tough pill to swallow. Not only did Montana lose Preseason Big Sky Player of the Year Will Cherry for up to three months with a broken foot, news that was first reported by CBSSports.com, word also leaked out that Kovacevic has been ruled ineligible for the season by the NCAA. He didn’t get a high enough grade in a math class at the JuCo, according to The Dagger, although Montana is appealing the ruling.
Even without Kovacevic this season, Montana should be the favorite to win the Big Sky if they are able to get Cherry back by the time league play starts (Dec. 19th). The problem? Montana will essentially be losing two starters for non-conference play. The Grizzlies don’t exactly play a murderer’s row, but they do get early-season matchups with South Dakota State, Colorado State and BYU, three teams that could end up making the NCAA tournament.
That, in turn, will affect their seeding and their at-large candidacy, which would make actually getting a win in the tournament that much more difficult.
It’s not a good day to be a hoops fan in Missoula.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.