Picture a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve.
That’s the kind of anticipation first-year Montana men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire is feeling on the eve of his first official practice as a head coach.
“I can’t wait,” DeCuire said. “I’ve been thinking about it all week. We had our last small group workout (Friday) morning. It was pretty intense. We kind of went into it as if it were our first practice. Everybody else in the country is pretty much starting this weekend. We’re excited, we’re ready to go.”
DeCuire takes over from Wayne Tinkle, who accepted the head job at Oregon State in May after eight successful seasons at Montana, including three trips to the NCAA tournament in the last five seasons.
The cupboard is hardly bare, however. The Griz return three starters – guards Jordan Gregory (13.6 points per game) and Mario Dunn (6.6 ppg), and forward Mike Weisner (8.1 ppg) – from a team that finished 17-13 last season.
In addition, Washington transfer Martin Breunig, a 6-foot-8, 217-pound junior forward, is eligible after sitting out a season. Senior forward Chris Kemp and sophomore guard Brandon Gfeller also played in nearly every game. The key loss was four-year starter and two-time Big Sky tournament MVP Kareem Jamar.
The returning players have helped DeCuire and his staff with the coaching transition.
“Definitely,” DeCuire said. “(Gregory) has probably been the most vocal. (Breunig) and (Dunn) are guys who tend to lead by example, but when they do say something, everyone listens. Michael Weisner has stepped up as someone who has a really great feel and IQ for the game, playing both positions at the forward spots. He’s helped us with depth and has been vocal at the right times.
“Our upper class right now is doing a good job with that. (Dunn) isn’t an upperclassman, but he’s kind of been pushed into that role.”
DeCuire has been able to work with the team during summer and fall conditioning, calling those workouts productive.
“We’ve gotten a lot out of them, a lot of player development since June,” he said. “I think we were able to throw a lot of new information at the team. We’re executing a few things right now a lot better than I would have thought. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Of the returners, you’d be surprised to hear who has looked the best so far.
“Coach Jones, his play has jumped out,” DeCuire said with a chuckle of Griz assistant Jono Metzger-Jones. “He’s stepped on the floor and practiced for us a little bit. He’s making open shots, diving on the floor for loose balls and demanding that guys make the extra pass when he’s open. He’ stood out the most at this point.”
Of the five newcomers to the program, DeCuire said junior college transfer Jermaine Edmonds, a 6-4 wing, and 6-10 freshman Bryden Boehning of Glendive have started figuring things out recently, DeCuire said.
“They got off to fairly slow starts and are completely different guys today than they were two months ago,” DeCuire said. “I think a lot of it is that I’ve thrown a lot of new information at guys and they’re expected to do things they’ve never done before, so you’re a little tentative sometimes while learning. They’re getting a little more comfortable with where they are, who they are at this level and have made practices more competitive here the last week or two.”
DeCuire said his practices will be “intense, competitive, but always productive.
“We’ll find creative ways to keep the intensity high, but always maintain a learning atmosphere. There will be a lot of communication from the staff and myself in terms of demanding perfection. You don’t always get perfection, but you always want to shoot for it. We’re big on execution. Everything we do is going to require guys to be in the right place at the right time so that we can trust each other.”
NOTES: Leaving the program during the offseason were guard Keron DeShields, forward Nick Emerson, center Andy Martin, and walk-on Morgan Young. ... DeCuire said a few of the players have nagging injuries, but that everybody should practice on Monday. ... The Maroon-Silver scrimmage is scheduled for Oct. 29. ... The Griz have exhibition games against Whitworth on Nov. 3 and Saint Martin’s on Nov. 8. ... The season opener is Nov. 15 at Colorado State.
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.