MISSOULA – And now, the fun truly begins.
Montana’s quest for a second straight Big Sky Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth is finally underway as the Grizzly men’s basketball team will take on Northern Arizona in Flagstaff on Saturday to kick off league play.
UM just wrapped up a rugged nonconference journey that saw a brutal schedule and injuries test them early. According to kenpom.com, a website that takes a look at advanced statistics in college basketball, the Grizzlies sport the 44th most difficult nonconference schedule out of 353 Division I college basketball teams and are one spot ahead of No. 1 Duke. KenPom also ranks UM to have gone up against the 11th toughest offensive schedule in the country with the Grizzlies’ holding teams to 67.6 points per game, good enough for 93rd in the nation.
Three of Montana’s opponents in Georgia Southern, Creighton and South Dakota State, rank in the top 20 in points per game.
Despite some setbacks early, the Grizzlies ended the nonconference portion with a huge 85-74 win over South Dakota State, snapping the nation’s longest home winning streak at 26 games.
So 11 games in and sitting at 7-4, Montana coach Travis DeCuire likes where the team is at as it gears up for the true grind of its season.
“We’re in a good place,” DeCuire told 406mtsports.com over the phone on Thursday. “We’re ready to compete and fight together. Looking forward to NAU. It’s still one game at a time for us, it’s just the beginning of our second season.”
In his fifth year at the helm, DeCuire said this past nonconference season was the “the most competitive” he’s seen with the Griz. According to the athletic department, Montana’s .636 winning percentage is the program’s best since the 2010-2011 season.
“And we had injuries and guys missing games,” DeCuire added. “If you have that much adversity to deal with it’s definitely going to be an issue for you.”
Only twice this season have the Grizzlies had their entire roster available — when they hosted Georgia State and North Dakota State.
Things began clicking last week for the Griz and came to a head against SDSU. The Grizzlies’ defense looked sharp earlier last week against NDSU and Arizona, but had troubles offensively. So against the Jackrabbits, Montana played its most complete game of the year.
Even on defense the Griz seemed to get better. Going into Saturday’s game, South Dakota State was the only team in the country to be in the top 10 for field goal, 3-point and free throw percentage. Montana held SDSU below its averages in all three categories. The Jackrabbits thrive from beyond the arc, averaging about 10 per game, but the Grizzlies held them to 6 of 19 shooting from deep.
“It’s the healthiest we’ve been all year physically and mentally,” DeCuire said. “You see it in the results of how we play. We executed probably as well as we have all year on both sides of the ball. Our instincts were at a high level.
“I thought we could’ve played that way in November but we just haven’t had the personnel on the floor to do it.”
Offensively, UM jumped from a 26.9 percent shooting performance against Arizona to a 47.5 percent outing against the Jackrabbits. Rebounds have also been a struggle this year, but after being out-rebounded by six straight Division I opponents, Montana won the battle against SDSU 37-34.
A lot of that was thanks to efforts from redshirt senior Jamar Akoh and senior Michael Oguine. Akoh has missed seven games – including at Arizona last week – with a wrist injury but he returned Saturday to pace the Griz. His absence has been the biggest reason winning the rebounding battles have been so difficult. Oguine, a guard, was one rebound short of a double-double as he finished the game leading the Griz in points (23) and rebounds (9).
But the Grizzlies have moved past that and now are solely focused on the Lumberjacks.
The Big Sky has a 20-game conference schedule this year so every team plays each other twice. DeCuire said he’s “not a big fan of 20 games” because “that’s a long conference season for a one-bid league.”
NAU has been off to a rough 2-8 start to begin the year. The Lumberjacks have lost seven games in a row, most recently on Dec. 21 at Utah.
The Lumberjacks have four seniors but only underclassmen — including two freshmen and two sophomores — started against Utah. Sophomore guard Carlos Hines averages 13 points per contest to lead NAU. According to Montana's athletic department, DeCuire is 7-0 in his career against the Lumberjacks.
“They’re going to have athletes,” DeCuire said. “A lot of ball screens and changing of defenses and so we’re going to have to be prepared to execute through the changes.”
Coming into the season, Montana was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite to repeat as the Big Sky Conference champion. Those expectations will finally be put to the test beginning on Saturday.