May 23, 2012 11:57 AM by Derek Buerkle (KPAX Sports)
MISSOULA- After years of talking about conference expansion, it's finally time to do it in Montana and Derek Buerkle went on special assignment to find out how a bigger Big Sky Conference will change life for the Grizzlies.
The crazy changes in college conferences affect every sport, but they all happened because of one sport. Football controls the landscape and it is the biggest reason the Big Sky will add North Dakota and Southern Utah for everything, and Cal Poly and UC Davis on the gridiron. But with a 13 team league, the football schedule will not allow a matchup against every conference opponent.
"You're going to eliminate some people that the Griz have played forever in the Big Sky. For us this year it's Portland State particularly," Griz Interim football coach Mick Delaney said.
The Griz also won't play any of the California schools, Sacramento State, Cal Poly and UC Davis this fall. But the conference wanted to keep the Big Sky's best rivalries together, so every school has a pair of opponents they will play every year. For the Griz it was an easy choice.
They will always battle Montana State for the Great Divide Trophy. And their annual series with Eastern Washington is still alive. But that could give Montana a more difficult schedule than some other Big Sky schools.
"If somebody else is down a little bit, you know, then obviously there's going to be an advantage. Because for the most part, Montana State and Eastern Washington are not going to be down," Delaney told us.
The schedule allows everyone to play a true round-robin in every sport. Soccer and tennis will play every Big Sky opponent once. Basketball and volleyball will play everyone twice. Volleyball coach Jerry Wagner loves the fact that 20 of his games show up on the schedule for free. But the basketball coaches bring up some concerns.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword. It helps us with scheduling, because it's four less games that we have to worry about. But then on the other side, you really want those 13 non-league games to prepare for conference," Griz men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle commented.
"Everybody in the league is going to have some things you go, well this isn't good, and this isn't good. But we're all going to have that. What I'd really like to see is our league get to an even number. Eight or ten would be ideal, because that works for basketball scheduling," Lady Griz basketball coach Robin Selvig added.
With more conference games and less chances to schedule stiff competition, the Big Sky might need to improve top to bottom on the court or risk slipping to even worse seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"When we win games in our league, our RPI drops because there is so many losses built up over the season. So I think if we can strengthen our league from top to bottom, and win more non-league Division 1 games, then we go into league and we knock each other off, we won't drop as a conference," Tinkle explained.
The new teams also add a few more interesting road trips for the Grizzly student-athletes. It's not always easy to get to Cedar City, Utah and Grand Forks, North Dakota. But most coaches say it's no different then getting to Flagstaff or Pocatello.
"I always say that our travel in this conference is more than any other conference in the country. So adding two teams and a little more travel is, we're used to it," Wagner said.
The landscape could still change. The Big Sky wants to add another school, and conference commissioner Doug Fullerton admits they'll probably learn how to do things better during this first year of expansion. But Mick Delaney says the Grizzlies are right where they belong- in the same conference they helped start nearly 50 years ago.
The bigger Big Sky Conference will also mean a bigger postseason. In basketball, seven teams will now advance to the conference tournament instead of six while tennis and volleyball will go from four to six post-season berths.
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