MISSOULA – Everyone knew what expectations the Montana men’s basketball team had coming into the season.
Everyone knew there was cause for high expectations with so much of its core back from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. All the Grizzlies needed was to get healthy and the rest would play itself out.
Two conference games is a small sample size. But so far UM’s form has looked good as it began the most important part of its schedule.
Montana shot 53.6 percent (66-123) from the field in its opening conference matchups, including 35.4 percent (17-48) from deep. The Grizzlies held NAU and SUU to a combined 40 percent (44-110) from the field and 36.1 percent (17-47) from 3-point range.
They out-rebounded both opponents, grabbing a season-high 36 boards against the Lumberjacks, and forced 29 turnovers in both games combined.
Redshirt senior Jamar Akoh’s presence was missed after he led the team in scoring to open the season against Georgia State. He missed seven games.
Now with him consistently in the lineup again and looking stronger every day in recovery from his wrist injury, the team’s dynamic has changed drastically. Against Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, Akoh scored 45 points on 18 for 25 shooting. He dominated in the second halves of both games, scoring 16 and 15 points respectively.
Akoh overwhelmed the competition, especially on Monday. Southern Utah reserve post Andre Adams, who started on Saturday against Montana State, only notched 10 minutes of play against the Grizzlies and picked up five fouls. With a thin post presence, Akoh was able to take advantage, especially as fouls became an issue.
“That’s why you have to go at guys early,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO after the game. “If a team’s got length or a good low-post defender, you still have to go at them early and see if maybe you can draw some contact and get a foul and get a couple buckets early, see what’s going on and make some adjustments as you go.
“Anytime Jamar gets 14 shots he’s probably going to come out on the high end.”
With Akoh back, Montana has also out-rebounded three straight opponents after doing that only once against a Division I opponent in the opening 10 games.
Defensively, he’s Montana’s best post presence, and life has been more difficult for opponents at the rim with him back. NAU’s 37.1 percent field goal percentage was a season-low for a Division I foe against the Griz.
Fellow redshirt senior Ahmaad Rorie also came through with his best performances of the season in the past two contests. Rorie, the team’s point guard who hasn’t missed a game this year, scored 24 points against NAU and 23 against SUU on 19 for 33 combined shooting while knocking down 7 of his 17 3-point tries. Both scoring outputs were his highest of the year.
Opposite Akoh, Rorie has done most of his scoring in the first halves, scoring 15 against NAU and 14 against the Thunderbirds. Rorie also dished seven assists against the Thunderbirds and grabbed three steals and five rebounds.
DeCuire noted how Rorie’s offensive moves looked more in rhythm with the flow of the game.
“He was shooting a good field goal percentage earlier in the year but I just thought the shots he was getting sometimes were out of rhythm and they were forced,” DeCuire told KGVO after the win over NAU. “The last couple of games it’s come to him. He’s forcing the issue in transition, getting us down the floor quickly and because he’s looking to get it into the post or kick to wings, (the defense) doesn’t know when he’s going to shoot.”
On Monday, DeCuire added that Akoh’s presence has helped free up some of Rorie’s offensive game, too.
“In all honestly with the return of Jamar, when you play through Jamar you’re executing offense a little differently and the defense can’t key on you. They don’t know when you’re trying to shoot,” DeCuire told KGVO. “So there’s some deception when he’s slicing through the paint and he’s looking to draw and kick and then all of a sudden he finds himself open. So his offense isn’t forced, it’s coming to him which is more adhere to his position.
“When we don’t have Jamar in the middle then everyone’s going to try and generate offense off the bounce and the numbers just don’t come out that way.”
After playing only two non-conference games with a fully available roster, Montana is two for two in the conference season.
And with the Grizzlies (9-4, 2-0) at full strength once again, its full-steam ahead.