OGDEN — They're less than a third of the way through their 2011-12 Big Sky Conference campaign, but tonight's Weber State-Montana men's basketball battle looms large in the grand scheme of things for the Wildcats.
After all, both teams are unbeaten thus far in Big Sky play, and either team could take a giant step toward possibly hosting this year's postseason championship tournament with a win this evening.
The Wildcats have won seven straight and are 9-0 at home this season. But the Grizzlies come to town fresh from a 25-point blowout on the road at Northern Arizona on Thursday, and Montana has won four of the last five games between the two schools, who have faced each other 111 previous times — more than any other opponent in WSU hoops history.
The Grizzlies are also the stingiest team in the Big Sky when it comes to opponents' scoring, allowing a Big Sky-best 62.4 points per game, while Weber State is the league's top scoring team, averaging 79 points per outing.
So, obviously, something's gotta give in tonight's showdown.
"It's a really good, early conference-season game, that's what it is," said WSU coach Randy Rahe. "I think it's a really good game. Obviously Montana's really good. They've got a great team with four starters back and are playing at a really high level right now. "Basically, what it means is it's going to be a good matchup of what we think are two pretty good teams early in the conference season. It'll be a good matchup."
Weber State junior guard Scott Bamforth, who scored a team-high 20 points in Thursday night's victory over Montana State, said the key thing for the Wildcats is to play a complete game — something they've had a tough time doing.
"It's a good early conference test for us," he said. "They're a good team. They're a really good team and they play hard. We've got to come ready, and we've got to put two halves together. I feel like we really haven't put two halves together.
"Against Eastern Washington, we played well early but then let them back in it. And at Portland State, obviously we were down the first half, so we need to come out ready to play and put two halves together because they'll beat us if we don't."
The Grizzlies are led by junior Will Cherry, who is sixth in the Big Sky in scoring at 14.5 points per game, leads the league in steals with 2.3 per game and also ranks among the league's top seven in assists and free-throw percentage. Kareem Jamar adds 13.4 points per game, and senior Robin Selvig is fifth in the league in both rebounds and blocked shots. The Grizzlies' roster also includes senior Shawn Stockton, the nephew of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton. Weber State owns a commanding 40-15 advantage over Montana in games played in Ogden, and the Wildcats' star junior guard Damian Lillard, who leads the nation in scoring at 25.8 points per game, says it's too early to get worked up about tonight's matchup.
"It's only the sixth game, so we've got a lot more games to play," he said. "This is obviously a big game, but we've got to just let it be what it is, another Big Sky game. And it's going to be a good test for us like Scottie said, but we're just going to prepare and work hard and get ready for it like we do every game."
Lillard, who scored 17 points in Thursday's win, moved into fifth place on the school's all-time scoring chart with 1,562 career points, passing Jimmie Watts. He needs just two more points to move past the late, great Willie Sojourner.
At tonight's game, Weber State will honor all public service officials and their families by offering up to four complimentary tickets to the game. Public officials need only to show an ID at the Dee Events Center Ticket Office for free admission to the game.