MISSOULA – Long before Travis DeCuire took over the Montana’s men’s basketball program, defense was a staple of the Grizzlies.
Of late, the fifth-year head coach has been none too pleased about what he’s seen on the defensive end from his team as they’ve begun the year 4-2. But that’s not without some adversity along the way.
In UM’s last two games, both losses, the Griz have been without Jamar Akoh and Timmy Falls, who DeCuire described as “our two best defenders.” Montana lost to Creighton 98-72 on Wednesday, allowing the Bluejays to shoot 60.4 percent (32-53) from the floor and 54.2 percent (13-24) from beyond the arc.
“Timmy is the guy that slides his feet and can contain the best penetrator,” DeCuire said. “Jamar, on the backside, quarterbacks everything. He’s our best communicator, our best defender on the ball screens out of the post, and those two things are what make us go.”
As far as the rest of the team, DeCuire said “no” when asked if he’s been happy with what he’s seen from them defensively.
“Everybody needs to pick up the slack and we talk about that on and off the court,” DeCuire said. “’If it’s going to be a tough semester for me, I need you to do a little better in the classroom. If I’m down a little bit emotionally, you need to bring some energy to keep me going.’
“Right now we’re missing some bodies that we need to replace and the only way to do that is everybody’s got to give us a little something better. Right now we’re not getting that.”
Montana aims to get back on track Monday evening when it hosts the College of Idaho of the Cascade Collegiate Conference in the NAIA. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.
COI is a name familiar to Montana sports fans. The Coyotes compete in the Frontier Conference in football.
The Coyotes are 11-1 to begin the season and are riding a four-game winning streak. The game will count for Montana but is an exhibition for COI.
“We just can’t lose focus of the details and I feel like that’s what we did (against Creighton),” senior guard Michael Oguine, who scored 21 points against the Bluejays, said. “We kind of let it slip away. I feel like we didn’t do a good job of sustaining the effort. That was just a lack of focus and details.
“It’s been two losses in a row now and it’s never fun to lose two in a row but we’re going to have to try and find positives out of those. It was a tale of two halves in both games. So it’s really about learning from those losses and moving forward and getting better.”
Another area of improvement would be free throws. Montana shot 12 of 22 from the line against Creighton, a 54.5 percent clip. On the season, the Grizzlies are converting 63.2 percent of their chances from the line.
“Free throws are just mental,” Oguine said. “Everyone shoots free throws. You kind of just have to step up and make the free throws and that’s something we’ve struggled with. I feel like we’re not too worried. We’re definitely not going to ignore these two losses but we’re going to move forward.”
But in perspective, six games into their 11-game nonconference schedule, the Griz are sitting at 4-2. They led Creighton at one point in the first half despite the hot-shooting from the Bluejays, and Creighton is no slouch. Just a few days later on Saturday, the Bluejays went blow-for-blow with No. 1 Gonzaga before ultimately falling in the final minutes and losing 103-92.
In Montana’s contest with Creighton, junior guard Sayeed Pridgett gave Montana plenty to be excited about. Pridgett scored 23, the second-highest of his career with the Grizzlies, 21 of which came in the first half as he paced Montana offensively to keep them close.
With four of last year’s five starters back, Pridgett has been the lone change, replacing now graduated Fabijan Krslovic, though Pridgett did start 11 games his freshman year. So far, he’s averaged 14 points per game this season and his performance Wednesday night has the team excited going forward.
“We’re missing a big piece with Fab,” Pridgett, who chose UM over an offer from Creighton, said. “I’m trying to fill in his shoes but those are big shoes to fill. Just trying to bring the energy I’ve been having since freshman year and just doing what I can do to stay on the floor.
“We’re in a good spot (as a team) honestly. We just have to tighten up starting with College of Idaho just so we can show (DeCuire) that we’re listening to what he’s saying and doing everything right.”
So far, Akoh has appeared in only one game, which has hurt UM in the rebounding category as well, while Falls has missed the last two contests. DeCuire said he isn’t sure if Falls, who has been out for unspecified reasons, will play Monday night, but Falls was practicing with the team during the week.
“I think if you’d have told me in October that we’d be 4-2 right now I’d say, ‘Yeah I’d take that,’ based on the fact that we played a tough schedule” DeCuire said. “But I don’t like how we’re playing. We’re far away from being the team we could be.”
DeCuire did point out that this is only the second time in his tenure that UM ended November with a winning record. Last year the Grizzlies were 4-3 entering December.
The adversity isn’t something entirely new, either. DeCuire mentioned how two years ago guard Michael Oguine missed time with a hand injury, and the 2014-2015 season saw the team enter December down three players.
“So we’re used to it and what it does is it provides us an opportunity to create depth,” DeCuire said. “Guys are getting experience and minutes they probably wouldn’t get. One, it gives us a chance to evaluate them and two, it gives them a chance to improve.
“We’re fighting through it and I think we’ve been battling. I like the direction we’re headed.”