MISSOULA — Montana and Portland State could create quite the turnover chain when two of the nation’s top 17 teams in forcing turnovers meet for a Saturday matinee.
The teams are scheduled to tip off 2 p.m. at Lewis and Clark College in Portland as the first-place Griz (12-5, 5-0) attempt to add a sixth link to their chain of conference wins. Only three teams in school history have started 6-0 or better in Big Sky play.
Montana is tasked with a quick turnaround after Thursday night’s 78-66 win at Sacramento State, which required a second-half comeback. They already pulled it off once in late December when they followed up an 87-69 win at Northern Arizona with a 79-49 beatdown of Southern Utah 42 hours later.
Portland State improved to 5-0 at home with Thursday's 93-74 blowout of Montana State while missing forwards Brandon Hollins, Traylin Farris and Jamie Orme to illness. The Vikings (12-5, 2-2) should be well rested since they didn’t have any players go over 30 minutes.
“I think the team that can get the most sweeps on the road tends to be the one that pulls away (in the standings),” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got one under our belt and another would be huge. This is a very difficult one.”
Portland State ranks second out of 351 Division I teams with 21.47 turnovers forced per game. Montana is close behind at No. 17 with an average of 17.12 forced per game.
Each team does its damage in a different way. The Vikings play 40 minutes of full-court press with traps to force turnovers. The Griz play an attacking half-court defense with active hands beyond the 3-point line to create fast break opportunities.
The Vikings’ scheme combined with their talent allowed them to beat Stanford and Cal, and play Duke, Butler and Oregon close. Their 12.0 steals per game and turnover margin of plus-9.2 both rank first in Division I.
Creating those extra possessions has helped them rank fourth in the country with 90.1 points per game. Montana is limiting teams to 69.1 points and hasn't given up over 80 this season.
The Griz closed practice on Monday by working on press break with a patient approach. They spent a healthy portion of Tuesday’s practice fine tuning their positioning, passing and catching while breaking the press.
They’ve seen flashes of a full-court press when they’ve been leading this season, but they haven’t seen such play for an extended period. One player who has is redshirt junior Ahmaad Rorie, who started against Shaka Smart’s VCU team and its "Havoc" press when he was a freshman at Oregon.
“You have to stay off of the corners, keep the ball in the middle,” Rorie said after Tuesday’s practice. “You have to be strong with the ball and have guys coming to the ball and have guys wanting the ball. It’s definitely beatable.”
One of the Vikings’ biggest areas for improvement was half-court execution and guarding deep into the shot clock, first-year head coach Barret Peery told 406mtsports.com heading into conference play.
If the Griz can score and force Portland State to take the ball out of the basket, they can slow down the pace and set up their defense. Montana has scored the ball at a high rate in league play, ranking first in scoring (88.4 points) and second in field-goal percentage (50.5).
“As long as we take care of the ball and get across half court at a high rate, we should get shots because in the half court, I don’t know that that’s their expertise,” DeCuire told KGVO Radio after Thursday’s win over Sacramento State. “We just got to get across half court and get the shot we want to get when we want to get it.”
The Vikings are led by senior guards Deontae North and Bryce Canda. North is averaging 21 points with 30 total steals, and Canda is scoring 15.8 points to go with 6.8 rebounds and 37 total steals, the latter two of which are team highs.
Freshman guard Holland Woods has been the leading facilitator with 100 total assists and has totaled 32 steals with 10.1 points per game.
Junior guard Michael Mayhew has added 28 total steals, and senior center Ryan Edwards, a Gonzaga transfer and Kalispell native, has blocked a team-high 28 shots.
“For us, it’s keep your eyes on the prize,” DeCuire said Thursday, “keep playing the way we play.”