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MEN'S BASKETBALL: UND looks for 'D' and a title as Big Sky play begins

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For the past few seasons, Montana and Weber State have grabbed the Big Sky Conference men's basketball headlines. And rightfully so.

The two teams have had more talent and depth than the other teams in the league. And last season, there was little -- if any -- difference between the two. Weber State's midseason slipup at Montana State cost the Wildcats the regular-season league title.

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As a result, Montana went on to win the regular-season title, hosted the postseason tournament and edged Weber in the title game to advance to the NCAA tournament.

UND opens Big Sky Conference play today at Northern Colorado. North Dakota, according to preseason polls, is expected to challenge Montana and Weber for this season's title. But the race may look different than past seasons.

"What you're going to see this year is no team will go through the league with one or two losses," said UND coach Brian Jones. "It won't happen. There will be a lot of teams battling with a handful of losses and they'll still have a chance to compete at the top of the league.

"There is more balance in the league this year and teams are older."

Northern Colorado enters league play with the best record at 6-3. Weber is struggling at 2-5 while Montana is at 5-4. UND is 3-7.

Weber, however, has played a demanding schedule, playing BYU, Colorado State, Utah State, San Jose State and UCLA during its nonconference season. The Wildcats beat San Jose but lost to the other teams. And Montana did not have a signature win in the preseason, although the Grizzlies did beat Idaho of the WAC 72-71 on Saturday.

Northern Colorado, however, beat Kansas State on the road to open the season, a win that served the league notice that the Bears may again return to the top of the league. The Bears also have the league's top scoring defense, allowing 65.5 points per game.

For UND, which was picked second and third in preseason Big Sky polls, success likely will be determined by the program's defense -- especially in the paint -- and by its health. UND played South Dakota State last week with three frontline players out of the lineup.

Earlier this season, UND opponents were shooting 57 percent on two-point attempts against UND.

But UND is regarded to have perhaps the most athletic lineup in the league, led by 6-foot-5 Troy Huff, who is averaging a league-best 22.7 points per game. He also ranks 12th nationally in Division I scoring.

"If we continue to buy in on what we need to do on defense, we can shine in our conference," said UND forward Jaron Nash. "There aren't too many teams that lock in on defense in the conference. It's pretty much an offensive conference. If we can buy in on both ends, I feel we can be pretty good."

Nelson reports on sports. Call him at (701) 780-1268, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1268 or send e-mail to wnelson@gfherald.com.

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