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Montana's tough road trip will test Oguine

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Montana's Michael Oguine steals the ball from Eastern's Julian Harrell.

As Montana heads into its final road trip of the regular season, it begins a three-game stretch that will put its nearly year-long stay atop the Big Sky Conference standings to the test. 

"Like we said, every game is a championship game for us all year long, it has been in conference at least, and now there is truth to that," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said Tuesday afternoon.

The road trip begins with a game at 7 p.m. Thursday against the upstart Idaho State Bengals and continues Saturday at Weber State in a gym the Griz haven't walked out of with a regular season win in 12 years. They'll return to Missoula sometime Sunday evening, five days before North Dakota comes to Dahlberg Arena.

It's a string of games that will either knock Montana out of the top spot, or allow it to hang another banner from the Dahlberg rafters and add another trophy to the window ledge in DeCuire's office. While the outcome is far from certain, it is clear the games will continue Michael Oguine's baptism by fire.

Since replacing Riley Bradshaw in the starting lineup in the third game of the season, Oguine has routinely been assigned to lockdown the opposition's best perimeter player, which in Big Sky play generally means he is counted on to go head-to-head with some of the best point scorers in the conference. 

The last two times Oguine has laced them up, he has been assigned All-Big Sky guard Kris Yanku from Northern Arizona, and Montana State freshman scoring machine Tyler Hall. On the horizon are possible match ups with one of Idaho State's two-high scoring guards, Weber's sweet-shooting Jeremy Senglin and North Dakota's Quinton Hooker.

All five – or six, depending on who Oguine draws while the Griz are in Pocatello – are averaging at least 16 points per game during conference play and make up half of the Big Sky's dozen top scorers. 

For the ultra competitive and ever-confident freshman, who needed little time earning the respect and trust of his teammates during his first summer in Missoula, it's exactly the kind of challenge he craves.

"I take it as a sign of respect from my coaches," Oguine said after a night of guarding Yanku in a win over Northern Arizona. "They kind of trust me to start the game off on the best players and I do what I have to do on defense."

Montana recruited Oguine in part because DeCuire believed the guard's athleticism would allow the Griz to be a more aggressive defensive team along the perimeter, where this no shortage of talent in the conference. But it became apparent early on that Oguine possessed a maturity that has allowed him to become the team's defensive stopper – and has put him in on the short list of candidates for the conference's freshman of the year award.

While there are a handful of freshmen who have proven impactful this season, Oguine and Hall have seemingly separated themselves from the pack. DeCuire, for one, sees one major distinction between the two.

"I'll never take anything away from Tyler Hall, he's a really good basketball player and he is going to score a lot of points at Montana State," DeCuire said after the Griz beat the Bobcats 87-78 on Saturday despite Hall's 30 points. "I think Mike's role is different though. Mike knows he's not going to get 20 shots every night and we're not calling a play for him out of every huddle so he doesn't know where his shots are going to come from. And, by the way, he's going to guard the best player on the team and I don't know that Tyler is being asked to do that."

DeCuire's analysis came after Oguine scored a career-high 27 including a stretch where he scored 15 of the Grizzlies' 20 points to put them in the lead for good. It was the fourth time Oguine has scored at least 20 and increased his season average to 11.2, making him one of one of just two freshmen in school history to average double figures. Kevin Criswell, Montana's fifth all-time leading scorer averaged 15.1 in his first season.

But it's defense that matters most to Oguine.

"You want to pride yourself on defense," Oguine said. "That’s where you want to make your mark on the defensive end. People will respect that and will see that. It’s contagious when they see someone playing great defense. It’s like the team kind of follows suit with you."

Though he has made life difficult for some of the conference's best scorers – he held Hall to 4-of-11 shooting in the second half of Montana's comeback win on Jan. 30 – there is still plenty of room for improvement. Oguine spent Monday afternoon in assistant coach Ken Bone's offense watching film and trying to find ways to be a better off ball defender. 

It's Oguine's most glaring weakness on that side of the ball. But as DeCuire conceded, some of it is a product of Oguine's focus on one certain player, which isn't exactly inline with Montana's packline defense, a concept designed to prevent dribble penetration and not fixate on any one certain player.

Another aspect, DeCuire said is that Oguine is a freshman, and its difficult to teach a young player certain concepts when he's being asked to do something different than what the overall philosophy demands. 

"It’s definitely something that film is going to help," Oguine said. "Just sitting down and watching and at the same time in practice just recognizing it, recognizing when I’m not in position and making those adjustments. Hopefully that can carry over to the game."

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