The Montana men's basketball team finds itself in an unusual position as Big Sky Conference play looms in less than two weeks: near the bottom of the league in the two major defensive categories -- points allowed and opponents' field goal percentage.
It's something the Griz spent last week fine-tuning.
"Just getting back to our fundamentals on defense," senior guard Jordan Gregory said when asked what the Griz have been working on. "We started out well and kind of had some slippage, but we’ve really been working on that these last few days. I’ve seen a lot of improvement."
The Griz (3-6) will see if the work has paid off Sunday at 1 p.m. when South Dakota visits Dahlberg Arena for Montana's final preconference game.
Over the past seven seasons the Griz have ranked no worse than third in the league in points allowed and ranked first four straight seasons from 2009-12. So far this season, the Griz are 10th out of 12 teams at 73.7 points a game. Over those same seven seasons, the Griz ranked first in opponents' field goal percentage four times and were second once. This season the Griz rank ninth at 47.1 percent.
To be fair, Montana's early schedule is ranked as the 25th toughest in the nation, tops in the Big Sky. Eastern Washington's slate is the next closest at 112th.
"It comes and goes," first-year coach Travis DeCuire said of his team's defense. "At moments it looks good and we’re holding teams to low percentages and then there’s moments where we’re giving up over 50 percent from the floor. We’re trying to create habits and it’s hard to do because everyone’s pretty much a freshman. We’re probably another 30, 40 days away from actually having habits."
Another related problem the Griz have encountered in the early going has been foul trouble, particularly to leading scorer Martin Breunig and starting point guard Mario Dunn.
As a team, the Griz are being called for 20.9 fouls a game, which ranks 284th in the country. In other words, 283 teams are averaging fewer fouls per game.
That foul trouble led DeCuire to employ a zone defense in Montana's last game at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a 73-58 loss. At the time DeCuire said he had hoped to be able to wait until the Griz had worked on their zone a little more before unveiling it in a game.
"We’re spending some time on it," DeCuire said Friday. "I don’t know that we’ll play it at this point in time, but that was a game where we couldn’t get stops. Martin had two fouls and the only way to stay in that game was to keep him on the floor, so we went zone to protect him."
A zone defense might take the pressure off some individuals and allow the Griz to stay out of foul trouble.
"I definitely think so," Gregory said. "Sometimes we put ourselves in positions where maybe we can get called for a foul. We might not necessarily think it’s a foul, but we can’t put ourselves in that position. With a zone, you pack it in a little more and you definitely protect a couple of guys that might be gambling or getting out of position. It can save ourselves a couple of fouls."
After a little bit of a slow start to the season, Gregory has found his range. He has scored 20 or more points in four straight games and ranks sixth in the league in scoring at 16.2 points a game, one spot below Breunig (16.7).
"I knew it was going to come," said Gregory, who ranks 11th in the league with 2.2 treys a game. "I think I was just going too fast. Once I finally told myself to slow down and relax and just take my time and smooth out my shot, then the ball’s going to start going in the net and sure enough, it’s started doing that."
DeCuire said Friday he's not sure when senior forward Mike Weisner will be able to return from the sprained ankle that's kept him out of the last two games.
"Not sure yet," DeCuire said. "He’s getting better."
Everyone else is available to face the Coyotes on Sunday, he said.
"I just want to see the team go out and compete, play with confidence and continue to do the things we’ve worked on -- sticking together as a unit, not necessarily playing to the score or to our record," DeCuire said. "If we continue to play basketball the right way, everything will work out for us."
NOTES: After Sunday's game, the Griz will take a break until Dec. 26. "We'll get together on the evening of the 26th and run out our vacation meals," DeCuire said. ... Eastern Washington is ranked 16th in the latest mid-major poll. The Eagles are the only Big Sky team ranked. ... Eastern has the league's best RPI at 39. Montana is next at 150. ... Weber State drew 10,122 fans for its home game against BYU.