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Fabijan Krslovic and Montana started practice Thursday with a bulls eye on its back.

As people gathered outside the Adams Center and final tune-ups were being performed inside Dahlberg Arena for Neil Young's much-anticipated concert, the Montana Grizzlies were jettisoned to the West Auxiliary Gym for their first practice of the season.

The afternoon practice will likely mark the final time Montana is overshadowed this season.

On Thursday, the Grizzlies were selected by the media to repeat as Big Sky regular-season champions, while half of the conference's coaches predicted the Grizzlies to win their fourth title in five seasons. That might sound good to the team's fan base, but the polls largely fell on deaf ears inside the program.

"Polls are opinions," second-year coach Travis DeCuire said Thursday. "It's exciting to go into the season with expectations and to know that our peers think highly enough of us to vote for us in the top half of the conference. ... But at the end of the day, the ball is going to go in the air and you have to play every game. There's a reason why we play these games."

Forward Martin Breunig, the team's lone senior and a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection in his only season in maroon and silver, was a bit more succinct with his reaction.

"I honestly don't really care about media and coaches' polls," Breunig said.

Once practice started, players didn't seem to know what number was next to Montana in the preseason polls. The only number they were focused on was nine, as in the number of regular-season titles the program will have in early March if it matches the media's expectations.

"We won a championship when no one expected it to happen," DeCuire said Tuesday during Montana's weekly news conference. "Now all of a sudden you return four starters, you return the best player in the league and now all of a sudden the pressure is on us. That’s what being a Griz is about."

The lofty preseason praise no doubt presents a different set of pressures than last year when the Grizzlies were breaking in a new coach and were given marginal expectations by coaches and media. Montana battled through an early season identity crisis that left the team 3-7 before conference play began on New Years' Day.

DeCuire was unfamiliar with his roster and said it took time for the players to understand his personality and what he demanded and for him to realize what his roster was capable of. 

"We didn’t have history together," the former Montana point guard said. 

That won't be the case this year.

Gone is high-scoring guard Jordan Gregory, who was a first-team selection last year, but Montana returns its other four starters. Breunig anchors the post and honorable mention All-Big Sky guard Mario Dunn returns on the perimeter. Alongside the two in the starting lineup are center Fabijan Krslovic and sharpshooting wing Brandon Gfeller.

"Now, I think we’ll have some guys in the huddle that know what to expect of me down the stretch of a close game and I can look around and look in some guys’ eyes and some faces and know what to expect of them," DeCuire said. "For us now, we’re going to learn a lot about each other with a little more expectation stepping on the floor and expecting to win some of these games as opposed to stepping on the floor and seeing what happens."

Montana's annual Maroon/Silver scrimmage is slated for Oct. 27 and the first exhibition game is Nov. 3 against Whitworth. Montana opens its demanding nonconference schedule 10 days later against Boise State at Dahlberg Arena.

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