Grizzly Basketball Heads to the Big Stage

By Beacon Staff

After that record-setting individual Big Sky Conference Tournament performance by Montana Grizzly MVP Anthony Johnson, the 2009-10 edition of Montana basketball ventures into the hierarchy of Division-I collegiate basketball this week joining the elite 64 teams in one of this nation’s premier athletic events, the NCAA Tournament.

And while this year’s advancement to the postseason is by no means unprecedented, this group of deserving athletes will have an experience they will always treasure and never forget.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the NCAA Tournament and the regional and national exposure that accompanies the event are what every collegiate basketball player spends his life preparing for and what few at the Mid-Major Conference level ever get to enjoy as there have been a bevy of superb basketball players who never made it to the NCAA Tournament.

Each public scenario is carefully orchestrated by the NCAA, and while I often have problems with the hierarchy that the governing national body has become, you can’t argue with the exposure the event attracts and the storylines the games create.

From a public practice session the day before the games allowing regional fans to watch the differing styles of hoops that each school plays, to the coach and athlete press conferences, to the day-of-game shoot-arounds, to rubbing elbows with the game’s current and former stars and media personalities, it is a superb reward for the year’s success.

The tournament is indeed a huge national sports stage and rivals the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals.

Bracketology has become a life-form and, even many who never watch a game during the season, pick the game’s winners – some by the colors of their uniforms, others by the species of the school mascot or the location of the institution – trying to find that Cinderella team that advances to the next round with a magic buzzer-beating finish.

True seeding pits the highest versus the lowest seed of a region in a nerve-wracking, one-and-done formula that rewards success and punishes failure in 40-minute segments.

The joy and anticipation surrounding advancement from league play into the postseason, which in the case of this year’s Grizzly team lasted more than a week, quickly turns into a do-or-die scenario, where half of the tournament field is sent packing each round.

I won’t call this year’s team a dream edition of Grizzly basketball, although Johnson described them as a “team of destiny,” but there were many times this year that fans probably could not fathom that the Grizzlies would win the Big Sky Conference Tournament title and claim the league’s automatic bid.

Being an eternal optimist, the encouraging thing to me about this year’s group was their collective resilience during a horde of disappointments that saw them start 1-3 in league play, lose league games to two teams that didn’t make the six-team league tournament and drop both meetings against Montana State.

But not only did this group lose two straight only once all season – always bouncing back from adversity – it made amazing comebacks when many would have folded and never pointed fingers at each other or second-guessed the coaching staff.

It was as cohesive as any group I have been around and was rewarded by the ultimate plum after that miraculous 22-point reversal to claim the title in Ogden.

It is by no means entirely unprecedented for the Grizzlies to claim the tournament title away from Missoula – they did it in Flagstaff in 2006 and 1997 and Portland in 2005, but in those scenarios the tournament host already had been eliminated and it was a case of two teams meeting on a neutral floor.

But this year’s group did it in the best and most improbable style possible against overwhelming odds and in front of a passionate and involved enemy crowd and cut down the nets after beating a team in Weber State University that has dominated the league over the last several years and has been virtually unbeatable at Dee Event Center.

For me their tears and their smiles said it all.

The season’s ultimate success may be measured by some by their ability to continue this remarkable season with an upset in this week’s tournament, but the 2009-2010 edition of Grizzly basketball already has etched its name into the fabled annals of University of Montana sports.