WICHITA, Kan. — It’s been over a decade since a team from the Big Sky Conference has won a game at the Big Dance.
Six different league teams have lost 12 straight games and haven’t won at the NCAA tournament since 2006.
The Montana Grizzlies earned the conference’s bid to play in the tournament this year and will open as a 14 seed against third-seeded Michigan 7:50 p.m. Thursday at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas.
At 26-7, the Griz are one win away from ending the league’s drought, tying the program record for most wins in a season and most importantly, continuing their season.
“I think we’re one of the better Montana teams ever,” Griz guard Ahmad Rorie said, “so we just want to prove that we are one of those, that we are a special team.”
The 2006 Griz, coached by Larry Krystkowiak, were the last Big Sky team to register a win in the NCAA Tournament. A 12th seed, they beat fifth-seeded Nevada, 87-79, in their opener. They then lost to fourth-seeded Boston College, 69-56, starting the current losing streak.
Since then, the next 11 Big Sky teams each lost the tournament opener. Montana went three more times and lost, Weber State made three unsuccessful trips and Portland State came up short twice. Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and North Dakota have each gone 0-1.
The Big Sky has struggled historically as a conference. Its teams have gone 3-33 since 1985, according to ESPN. Montana’s win in 2006 is the league's lone win this millennium.
Part of the struggles have come from getting low seeds in the tournaments. None of the teams since the 2006 Montana squad has garnered a 12 seed or higher; that was the highest seed ever awarded to the Big Sky. Those subsequent teams were seeded 13th four times, 14th once, 15th on four occasions and 16th twice.
The Griz were awarded a 14 seed this year despite their 19-2 record against conference teams, their No. 71 ranking by KenPom in adjusted efficiency margin and an RPI of 76, according to the NCAA.
“We're not happy with just showing up to the tournament,” said senior Fabijan Krslovic. “It's a dream for a lot of guys to play here, but I know none of us are content with that.
“We're gonna want to show what the Big Sky's capable of and show all the work we've put in and that we can play with anyone. We've shown we can play with some great teams, and I think we're more prepared that ever going into this tournament.”
The average margin of defeat during the current 12-game losing streak is 19.3 points. Only twice has a game been decided by single digits.
The Griz came the closest to getting a win, falling to third-seeded New Mexico, 62-57, in 2010. They also suffered the worst loss, losing to Syracuse, 81-34, in 2013.
Of the 12 opponents during the streak, one team went on to win the title: Kansas in 2008. Two teams made the Final Four — UCLA in 2007 and Syracuse in Syracuse — and one made the Elite Eight: Arizona in 2014. Five teams made the Sweet 16, and three teams lost their next game after beating their Big Sky opponent.
This year’s Michigan team, the Big Ten tournament champion, has been a trendy pick by national pundits to make the Final Four and potentially win the tournament.
While 14 seeds have picked off third-seeded teams approximately 16 percent of the time, according to ESPN, last year was the first time since 2012 they failed to win a game.
Third-seeded teams have lost to the 14 seed five times over the past five years, and the last three No. 3 seeds to lose to a No. 14 seed came from the Big 12: Baylor and Iowa State in 2015, and West Virginia in 2016.