MISSOULA — Montana men's basketball coach Travis DeCuire half-seriously joked before Sunday’s game against UC Riverside that the Grizzlies may have played against more zone defenses than any team in the country.
They’ll face one more during non-conference play when they take on the Washington Huskies at 9 p.m. Friday in Seattle. They open Big Sky play on Thursday at Northern Arizona.
The Huskies have already matched last season’s win total at 9-3, including a victory over No. 2 Kansas, under first-year head coach Mike Hopkins. He was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s top assistant for the past 22 seasons and he brings the Orange’s 2-3 zone to the Pacific Northwest.
The biggest difference in Washington’s zone and the other zones Montana has faced is the Huskies’ length. They also disguise what they’re doing, so the Griz have to move them around to find the passing and driving lanes.
It’s a tough task in a quick turnaround, DeCuire acknowledged. The key will be making in-game adjustments against a defense that is averaging 9.1 steals (19th in Division I) and 5.6 blocked shots (28th).
“They’re going to have three, four guys on the floor at a time with 6-foot-10 to 7-foot wingspans in the passing lanes looking to deflect balls and block shots,” DeCuire said. “Their length is deceptive because you can’t emulate it in practice.
“It’s length with speed. That’s how that zone has always been successful with long, lanky guys that are active and anticipate. We’re going to need to find ways to space them and move them and find ways to attack without settling for just a ton of jump shots.”
The Huskies are averaging 81.8 points per game with a scoring margin of plus-4.8. The mature group of largely juniors is sure to get Griz defenders on islands and isolations, DeCuire said.
They’re shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 36.8 percent on 3-pointers. Their 317 free-throw attempts ranks eighth in Div. I.
The Huskies are paced offensively by freshman Jaylen Nowell, who leads the team with 17.3 points per game on 51 percent shooting. The 6-4 guard is DeCuire’s cousin.
Junior forward Noah Dickerson is averaging 16 points on 63 percent shooting — 27th in Division I — and a team-high eight rebounds per game.
Junior guard David Crisp, Ahmaad Rorie’s cousin, is averaging 13 points and a team-leading 3.6 assists.
Junior wing Matisse Thybulle leads the nation with 42 total steals. He’s adding 11.2 points and a team-high 21 total blocks.
“If we defend with the energy we’ve had the last two games and create extra opportunities for ourselves off of steals, turnovers and offensive rebounds, we’ll give ourselves a chance to stay in the game and adjust to the zone,” DeCuire said. “It’s going to take a while to adjust to the zone. It’s a tough zone to penetrate, to conquer, but we’re up for the challenge.”
The game at Washington is a return home for the redshirt junior guard Rorie, who is from Tacoma.
Junior wing Bobby Moorehead is also a Tacoma native. He played in the 2015 loss at Washington as a freshman and scored what was then a career-high 10 points in his eighth game with the Griz.
Redshirt junior guard Donaven Dorsey played two seasons at Washington before he transferred to Montana in 2016-17 and redshirted. The Lacey, Washington, native was ruled out for the season in November because of hip injuries that required two surgeries.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Peter Jones is from Seattle.
DeCuire played prep basketball at Mercer Island High School in Seattle. After playing for the Griz, he returned as an assistant coach at Mercer Island, had his first head coaching job at Sammamish High School and later coached at Green River Community College.
Assistant coach Rachi Wortham is from Tacoma. He played one season at Tacoma Community College and transferred to Eastern Washington, where he later coached.