Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29. For the other available capsules, click here.
Three weeks before Montana’s season began in mid-November, it held an early morning intra squad scrimmage in front of a handful of fans at the Adams Center’s West Auxiliary Gym. It was the first scrimmage open to the public and it did not play out to head coach Travis DeCuire’s liking.
Montana was sloppy with the ball, its offensive execution suffered and defensive lapses occurred at a frustrating rate. Though the results would have little impact on the season, DeCuire left the scrimmage with a bad taste.
“I kind of went at each guy about his worth,” DeCuire remembered of the team meeting shortly after the scrimmage wrapped.
The message was sent: With the toughest non-conference schedule in program history butted up against a two-month grind for Montana’s first conference title under the third-year head coach, time was running out if the Grizzlies were to become the team they expected to be. There was little time for patience. They needed to hit the ground running.
A team built on internal competition was then in the early stages of preparing for a 13-game slate that included games against two Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 25, a team from the SEC, another from the ACC, a couple from the Mountain West and a few squads comparable to what the Griz expect to face during Big Sky play. Despite the allocation of individual roles, the pace at which the Grizzlies were coming together wasn’t satisfying the coach and it needed to be adjusted before Montana took the floor against USC in the season’s first game.
Now 5-8 as conference play begins Thursday night against Idaho State, Montana, picked to finish fourth in the conference, has solved many of the issues that plagued them that early Saturday morning in late October. They held a halftime lead over NC State, pushed Ole Miss to the brink, were within single digits of nationally ranked USC and Oregon late into both contests, and closed out their non-conference slate at Dahlberg Arena with three straight home wins.
“That’s one thing about our schedule is we showed we can play with anybody, it doesn’t matter,” UM sophomore guard Ahmaad Rorie said.
But most important to DeCuire is that his team is now on pace to be the squad he needs it to be in March.
“We’re happy with where we’re at — I don’t know that you can say you’re where you want to be,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re playing good basketball. We’re defending, the ball is moving around, we’re taking better care of the ball right now and some guys that we expected to start having some big games for us right now are starting to do that.”
Among those guys putting up consistent numbers is Rorie. A sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from Oregon, Rorie is leading the Grizzlies in scoring (15.5 points per game), much as he was projected to do shortly after the 2015-16 campaign ended. A gym rat with a long relationship with DeCuire, Rorie began the non-conference portion of the season with three consecutive threes at USC and ended it with consecutive 20-plus point games in wins over UC Riverside and Pepperdine.
It was expected that Rorie, once a top-flight recruit, would help Montana overcome the loss of two-time unanimous first-team All-Big Sky forward Martin Breunig. As Montana moved the focal point of its offense from the block to the perimeter, Rorie would need to score and provide a steady hand.
He began the season in the backcourt with preseason All-Big Sky guard Walter Wright, but as sophomore Michael Oguine returned from a broken hand in late November, and Wright struggled to perform as expected, DeCuire shuffled the lineup. It further cemented the notion that DeCuire would allow the players, each of whom has a capable backup lingering over his shoulder, to determine how minutes each would be allocated.
“It’s easier when the players make statements than when I make them,” said DeCuire, who became the first coach in program history to win at least 20 games in each of his first two seasons. “When someone rotates in and they make that play or that defensive rotation, or didn’t turn the ball over, or they got that rebound, then those minutes are earned that way as opposed to me just pulling a guy and another guy goes in and doesn’t perform.”
Given the chance to do so by a deep and talented backcourt and an experienced frontcourt, DeCuire played with his rotations throughout November and December to figure out which combinations worked best. At times Montana employed four guards and other times the lineup looked more traditional.
Even the demotion to the bench has appeared to spark Wright, who is now the team’s second-leading scorer.
“It was necessary,” was how Wright responded to his new role. “I wasn’t playing that well.”
Since a slow start to the season, Wright’s points and field goal percentage have increased while his turnovers have decreased. The former junior college transfer has resembled the guard that earned 2015-16 honorable mention all-league in his first Division I season, while the depth DeCuire was counting on in the backcourt has continually developed.
Oguine is regaining strength in his right hand and has resumed his role as a slasher and defensive menace. Senior Mario Dunn has become a consistent outside shooter, while locking down the perimeter defensively. And Sayeed Pridgett, a freshman who came to Missoula with high expectations, has provided Montana with versatility on offense and defense.
“I feel like more at first I had to do what I had to do,” said Pridgett, who has started Montana’s last six games. “These last six games it was time for somebody to step into the role. That’s what’s good about our team because a different guy can be on at anytime of the night.”
Without Breunig, the biggest concern for the coaching staff was where the Griz were going to find rebounds. To this point it hasn’t been much of a problem as Montana made it to conference play with a slight statistical disadvantage on the glass. A big reason why is the play of Fabijan Krslovic, the 6-foot-8 junior captain who has taken on an elevated leadership role. Krslovic’s rebounding average has nearly doubled. Oguine, Pridgett and Rorie have also provided help in a year when DeCuire knew his guards would have to be a factor on the glass.
DeCuire added to or molded the roles of every player on the team. He has asked sophomore Bobby Moorehead for more consistency, Krslovic for more leadership, senior sharp shooter Jack Lopez to be more of a factor offensively, redshirt freshman Jared Samuleson for minutes on the block, among other requests.
“It’s not easy for anyone to accept minutes and roles and play through it,” DeCuire said. “It’s just something that you talk about during the season and you figure out what your overall team goals are. You continue to have conversations about what is important for the team and keep winning as your No. 1 goal.
“If guys look at it that way then they know the decisions we’re making are about getting a W, it’s not about your feelings or any kind of special treatment or anything. It’s about results.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.