MISSOULA — The players were none the wiser.
The majority of the coaching staff didn’t know either.
As the Montana Grizzlies prepared to take on Weber State last March, head coach Travis DeCuire unilaterally and secretively decided to change the team’s defensive approach.
The Griz had won a regular-season title once and made the conference title game twice with the pack-line defense his assistant coaches implemented his first three years. But his team was limping toward a losing record for the first time and he didn’t like what he saw from the passive defense.
“I was looking at film and felt like my basketball team is soft,” DeCuire said. “There’s nothing about soft I like. That’s not how I play. It’s not how I am as a person.
“I decided I’m never playing basketball like that again, I’ll never coach a team like that again. I was waiting for my opportunity to get rid of that and go with what I know, what I fit, what I’ve been a part of for a long time.”
The Weber State matchup on the final road trip of the season was the impetus for the Griz to start altering their identity from that reactionary defense to the aggressive style they’re running this year.
Montana had given up too many open shots against Weber State in the past. The new defensive rules and principles implemented that week were meant to affect the Wildcats’ flow in their sets.
DeCuire didn’t tell the team they were scrapping the pack-line defense because they might not buy in. To them, it was simply the coach giving the scouting report on how they were going to play defense when Weber State ran certain plays.
“I knew going into the Weber game there was only one way to beat them,” DeCuire said. “It was to play defense the way we’re playing defense right now.
“And I knew if we were going to win the tournament last year, we would have to go through Weber and Idaho. That defense didn’t fit those two teams. I said, ‘To hell with it. It’s the end of the year, scrap what we’re doing, let’s get more aggressive.’”
The Griz beat Weber State and Idaho State to close the regular season. They forced Idaho into turnovers during the Big Sky tournament quarterfinals but ultimately lost by four points.
During the offseason, they went all in on switching defenses, adding more concepts to the few they started with last year. They had already scheduled a preseason trip to Costa Rica and the extra practices they were allowed were crucial in making a smooth transition.
The change in style, time to adapt and influx of more athletic talent have helped the new defense become the Grizzlies’ calling card.
They’ve lowered their scoring defense from 73.4 points per game last season to 68.5 this year.
Their 3-point field-goal defense has bumped up slightly from 34.5 percent to 35.6, but they’ve cut down the number of 3-pointers they’ve allowed from 6.31 per game to 6.07.
And they’ve increased their turnovers forced from 12.6 per game to 16.2, allowing them to win the transition game and control the pace.
The defense has been a key factor in helping them get within one win of capturing their first outright conference title since 2013. They’ll have the chance to secure that when they face Weber State for the first time this season 7 p.m. Thursday at Dahlberg Arena.
The Wildcats don’t run the same offense they did last year. Instead of playing close to the basket and trying to work the ball inside to their posts, they try to spread out defenses.
They still remain a potent 3-point shooting team and rank second in Division I at 42.9 percent. They do that by running a heavy dose of ball screens, and defending ball screens has been a key component of Montana’s defense with its traps and hedges.
“I’d assume they’d have some tricks up their sleeves,” DeCuire said. “We’ll have to make adjustments based on what they do. For us, it’s all about pressure, forcing turnovers, controlling the tempo and pace, and making it a high-scoring game.”