Before it began its run to the 2014-15 regular season Big Sky Conference title, Montana first had to navigate a difficult schedule that left the Griz 3-7 as they departed for a brief Christmas break.
Travis DeCuire, then a first-year coach at his alma mater, embraced the challenges Montana encountered. For a team dealing with injuries and identity issues, the schedule would determine what DeCuire could expect once conference play commenced.
"You learn more from adversity than you do success I believe," DeCuire recently explained.
Entering his second year with a regular season conference title and an NIT appearance legitimizing his method, DeCuire is taking a very similar approach to the 2015-16 schedule.
In an 11-day stretch beginning Dec. 8, Montana will play in the gyms of two teams expected to begin the season in the top 15 as it travels to Gonzaga, Washington and Kansas in an ambitious non-conference schedule that should put DeCuire's theory to the test.
"Once again, we’re going to have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and there are two ways to look at it: One is an opportunity to play against some of the best teams in the region, or in the country," DeCuire said Wednesday morning about 15 hours after Montana released its schedule.
With four returning starters from a team that finished 20-13, Montana will venture to Spokane on the second Tuesday in December to play Gonzaga, which reached the Elite 8 last season. Highlighted by third-team All-American Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga boasts one of the nation's best returning frontcourts.
Four days after playing at McCarthey Athletic Center, the Griz travel to Washington to face a Huskies squad coming off a disappointing 16-15 campaign. One week later, Montana will make its second appearance at iconic Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas; The Jayhawks defeated the Griz 68-56 in 1962.
Coming off its 11th straight Big 12 title, Kansas is widely predicted to be a top-five team when preseason polls are released in early November.
Jamming what amounts to one of the toughest stretches of games Montana has played in recent memory into such a short period wasn't ideal, but DeCuire said it was more advantageous than trying to play them in November when Montana can enjoy its home-court advantage.
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"In a perfect world you don’t play those games back-to-back, you spread them out," Montana's coach said. "But for us, our games aren’t very well attended in December because our students are gone. We get a great deal of enthusiasm from them when they’re there and so for us it just makes more sense to be on the road while they’re gone."
In addition to the three December road games, Montana will make trips to San Jose State, North Dakota State and Pepperdine in November.
San Francisco and Boise State, which defeated the Griz in double overtime last season at Boise, are the only two Division I teams scheduled to visit Montana during the non-conference slate.
For various reasons, Montana was forced to schedule three NAIA teams -- Carroll College, Great Falls and Montana-Western -- to complete its home schedule.
"No. 1, it’s a tough place to play and No. 2, it’s tough travel and the third thing is there are some expectations for our team," DeCuire said.
Montana opens Big Sky play on New Year's Eve with a road trip to Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks are one of seven teams the Griz will play twice in the conference's 18-game unbalanced schedule.
Eastern Washington and Weber State, two teams expected to challenge Montana's regular season title defense, are not among the seven. Eastern comes to Missoula on Jan. 23. The Griz play Weber on Feb. 27 in their final road trip of the regular season.
"You just have to play the games you have and make the most of what you’ve got," DeCuire said.
Montana will play Montana State twice in the span of three weeks beginning with a trip to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Nov. 30. The Griz then host the Bobcats on Feb. 20 to close a three-game homestand that also includes Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.