UND to host Montana State, league-leader Montana in basketball
GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota begins the second half of the Big Sky Conference men's basketball season Thursday night, Feb. 1, against Montana State.
The Fighting Hawks are 2-7 at the break and 7-14 overall. But the past three months can be forgiven, considering the Hawks—under coach Brian Jones—usually play their best basketball in February, which is labeled as the moving month in the collegiate ranks.
Also, Jones can remind his players of his coaching days at Iowa, where he was part of a program that caught fire in Mach.
"I lived that at Iowa," said Jones. "We won the Big 10 twice, winning four games in four days. Throughout the regular season, we were hurt and got healthy at the right time.
"And at a neutral site, anything can happen. This is moving month. Our job now is to build some momentum heading into Reno."
UND won the Big Sky postseason title last season at Reno and advanced to the semifinal round in 2016 after a so-so regular campaign.
UND is preparing for perhaps its biggest home weekend of the Big Sky season. Montana State is 5-4 and 12-10 overall but Montana comes into the week at 9-0 and 16-5. It's now clear that Montana, which has won nine in a row, has separated itself from the rest of the league.
No other Big Sky team, however, has won more than three in a row, giving credence to the fact that the league perhaps has more parity than ever.
"There is no question that Montana is the clear-cut favorite," said Jones. "And the rest of us, if we're healthy mentally and physically, have a chance to beat anyone.
"We have nine regular-season games left. I think we can go 7-2 if our minds are right, our bodies are right and we earn it every day. I believe in these guys and the guys believe in themselves."
Jones said the league is the toughest since the Hawks entered the Big Sky in 2012.
"If we had this team in years past, we wouldn't be 2-7 at the break," said Jones. "We'd have more wins. Making no excuses, we've had the toughest schedule as well. We've played all the heavy hitters and now we're about to play Montana State and Montana again. Some teams haven't even played Montana or Weber State yet."
UND's search for consistency continues. The Hawks, at times, look like a team that can beat any Big Sky opponent. At Idaho last week, UND bolted to a 33-17 lead before losing 96-71.
Dale Jones, a graduate transfer, scored a career-best 24 points against the Vandals. He's averaging 11.1 points and a team-best 6.5 rebounds per game.
"We've had some ups and downs but we need to stay the course," said Jones, a 6-foot-9 former Iowa player. "We can't let the small things take us out of our games. The refs called it a certain way (at Idaho) and that irritated some of the guys.
"I think we can turn things around and make a push for at the tournament."
Montana State may have the top player in the league in Tyler Hall, a guard who averages 18.5 points per game.
Hall has some familiarity with UND, having played AAU basketball with UND starters Cortez Seales and Marlon Stewart while growing up in the Quad Cities area.
Montana State at UND
• When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 1
• Where: Betty Engelstad Sioux Center
• Records: UND 2-7 Big Sky, 7-14 overall; Montana State 5-4, 12-10
• Radio: 1440 AM
• Of note: Neither team has won back-to-back games in the series since UND won the first three games as a Big Sky member during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.