MISSOULA — His white Oxford button down shirt soaked with the ice bath he just received, Travis DeCuire sat at the podium following his first championship as a head coach and remembered an old comrade.
DeCuire lost one of his best friends, former Big Sky Conference MVP Delvon Anderson, the best player on Montana’s 1992 league title team. DeCuire was a junior point guard on that squad, a hard-nosed group coached by Blaine Taylor and led by Anderson, a tough player who earned the nickname the “Junkyard Dog.”
Following DeCuire’s Montana Grizzlies rallying against Eastern Washington with an unforgettable defensive performance to win the 10th Big Sky Tournament title in school history, DeCuire said this was the first step in fulfilling his vision. And a part of that vision came from the memories of his late pal.
“It brought back some memories,” DeCuire said when asked about the post-game celebration last Saturday in Reno. ”It’s been a hard year for me. Emotionally, going into the year, I lost a very close friend who I played in an NCAA tournament with. We dedicated this season to him. Sometimes when you do that, you put pressure on yourself to be successful.
“I wanted this for Delvon Anderson as much as anyone because I believed in what we call the tradition of Montana. He plays as much of an important role in that as any player who has ever put on this jersey. The heart and passion he played with is what I search for in every young man I coach and I try to pull it out of them.”
DeCuire, Anderson and those Grizzlies faced an almost identical situation as the one DeCuire’s current squad faces this week. Those Grizzlies won 27 games, still a school record at Montana, yet were awarded a No. 14 seed and a first-round matchup against No. 3 Florida State. The current Griz are one win away from tying that school record for victories and just completed one of the best Big Sky runs of the last 20 years.
Yet the current Montana team got slighted in the eyes of many, receiving a No. 14 seed, a trip to Wichita, Kansas and a first-round matchup against No. 3 Michigan, the recently crowned Big Ten Tournament champions.
“I think I have a group that has been biting at the bit for this opportunity,” DeCuire said before Monday’s practice, his team’s only session in Missoula before taking a charter flight to the Jayhawk State on Tuesday morning.. “I think they have a huge chip on their shoulder…They are hungry for this opportunity and this time, it’s on the national stage.”
Back in 1992, DeCuire, Anderson and the Griz stepped on to the national stage with no fear, pushing a squad led by three future NBA veterans and future Griz head coach down to the wire before losing 78-68. DeCuire hopes to use that experience to light a fire under his players in Wichita, Kansas on Thursday night. Tipoff is scheduled at 7:50 p.m. MST and the game will be broadcast on TBS.
“You want to be loose, you want to go in with confidence,” DeCuire said. “We are not the ones with the pressure. We are not the ones with the expectations.”
Playing at Boise State’s home arena when Boise State still played in the Big Sky, the Grizzlies took on a Florida State team led by future NBA stars Sam Cassell, Charlie Ward and Bob Sura.
Pat Kennedy was the head coach for the Seminoles, who he would lead five NCAA Tournament appearances, including a run to the Elite Eight the following March. Six years after his final season at FSU and after a five-year stint at DePaul, Kennedy would take over as the head coach at Montana in 2002. He was the only coach that did not come from Jud Heathcote’s tree. He lasted two years before giving way to Larry Krystkowiak, a legendary Griz that helped refortify the foundation DeCuire’s program rests upon.
On the afternoon of March 19, 1992 at Taco Bell Arena, Florida State’s speed and athleticism overwhelmed the Grizzlies early. The Seminoles took a 37-25 lead to halftime. But it was nothing compared to the Grizzlies’ 99-65 first round loss to UNLV, the undefeated juggernaut of college hoops in the early 1990s.
In the second half, Montana came storming back, cutting the lead to six points on thunderous a one-handed dunk by Anderson off an assist in transition from DeCuire, at the time a sophomore point guard in his first year in the program. After the assist, DeCuire pumped up a partisan crowd largely rooting their usual Big Sky rival on to an upset.
On their jerseys, the Grizzlies wore a black buttons pinned in honor of legendary trainer Naseby Rhinehart, a staple of UM athletics for 47 years spent pioneering an industry as one of the first black men to hold his position in Division I athletics. A team that also featured first-team All-Big Sky selections Daren Engellant and Roger Fasting — a pair of in-state products from Geraldine and Glendive, respectively — hung with the Seminoles before eventually falling by 10 points.
“I remember we should’ve won,” DeCuire said. “I remember we went into that game hoping we could keep it close as opposed to going in expecting to win. We made two runs to get ourselves back into the game.
“If we would have had that mentality to start that game, we would’ve found ourselves down the stretch with an opportunity to win. My learning experience was that you go into every game expecting to win, playing to win rather than trying to just keep things close.”
DeCuire finished that game with six points on two second-half 3-pointers during Montana’s late run. He remembers the regret of a slow start and the atmosphere his Griz were able to swing their way. Montana’s fourth-year head coach also remembers the experiences of traveling with his teammates and being on a national stage.
It’s something DeCuire wants is players to soak up in Wichita.
“There’s a bunch of parts to this thing before you touch the floor that they will never forget,” DeCuire said. “We have to enjoy that. We are still competing. We are going to go play this game like a game in November with expectations that we will compete for a win. You never know if you are going to have this experience again. You have to digest it.”
DeCuire did not have the experience again as a player. Taylor would lead the Griz to 20 or more wins three more times, including the 1997 team’s trip to the NCAA Tournament. But DeCuire would not experience the Big Dance again until 2005 as an assistant for Taylor at Old Dominion. He has gone four more times (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013) as an assistant for Mike Montgomery, himself a former Griz head coach, during their six seasons at Cal.
“This is huge because I wanted to do it my way,” DeCuire said about qualifying as a head coach. “I wanted to build the culture I was comfortable with on and off the court. Sometimes when you fight for culture and how you want young men to be or become, sometimes, you might end up with less talent down the road and you never go win. For us to be sitting where we are at right now, based on that, there’s a lot of excitement.”
That excitement was accentuated Wednesday as the Griz took the floor for their official practice at INTRUST Arena. Crowds throughout the day for a first round site that also includes Michigan, Houston, San Diego State, Seton Hall, NC State, Penn and virtual host Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest region reached as many as 13,500 at one time.
DeCuire has assembled challenging schedules each of the last three years. Montana has played in challenging atmospheres like Gonzaga, Oregon, Kansas, Washington, USC, Ole Miss, Stanford and Cal. But the highest attendance number did not crack 7,000.
“We are not happy just showing up to the tournament,” UM forward Fabijan Krslovic said on Sunday. “It’s a dream for a lot of guys to play here but I know none of us are satisfied with that. We want to show what the Big Sky is capable of and show all the work we have put in, that we can play with anyone.”
For Montana to play with Michigan, the Griz will have to figure out a way to penetrate and create shots against the Wolverines’ pack-line defense. In the 10 prior seasons under well-respected head coach John Beilein, the Wolverines have been known for their crisp offensive execution and ability to shoot the ball. This year’s Wolverine team led the Big Ten in scoring defense.
“We are probably playing the most well coached basketball team we have played all year,” DeCuire said. “They are talented, they are skilled, they shoot the ball, they are long, they defend, they know what they want to accomplish this year. We can’t expect them to make a lot of mistakes so we will have to force the issue and create some situations maybe they are not prepared for.”
Offensively, the Michigan catalyst is Moritz Wagner, a 6-foot-11 power forward from Berlin who UM assistant Rachi Wortham calls “a tougher Dirk Nowitzki”, an ode to the German sharpshooter who will become an NBA Hall of Famer following his career with the Dallas Mavericks.
Ann Arbor radio personality Michael Spath said locals describe Wagner as “a skilled Bill Lambeer”, an ode to the hard-nosed power forward for the NBA champion Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s. Regardless of how one describes Wagner, he’s a skilled big man who can shoot out beyond the 3-point line and is a likely first-round NBA Draft pick when he decides to go pro.
“We are going to approach it the same way we always have,” UM junior center Jamar Akoh said on Monday. “We believe we can compete with anybody. I’ve played against NBA prospects my whole life, high-level athletes, people in the high majors and all that. I don’t think there’s anything to be scared of. This is the first time in three months we aren’t expected to win. We feel a little less pressure on us.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life. We will go out there and see what happens.”
For most of the last few years, DeCuire has talked about roster construction through the analogy of a chessboard. The recently named Big Sky Coach of the Year wants to assemble a board full of weapons that do different things but fit together seamlessly. Beilein recognized that blueprint right away, stating “They only play seven players but those seven are fitting the pieces perfectly”, in his press conference on Wednesday.
DeCuire has exuded confidence since the moment he learned of the draw even if the Wolverines, winners of 11 straight, are one of the hottest teams in the country. He has repeated over and over Thursday night will come down to doing what Montana has done on the way to 26 wins and an outright Big Sky championship: guarding fervently, never relenting and competing with desperation.
“It’s our culture. We’ve played every game for 33 games, it’s been win or go home,” DeCuire said Wednesday. “Every practice, every game prep, every game, we’ve treated like an NCAA Tournament game so that when we got here, this wouldn’t’ be any different than any game we have played. I didn’t want to get here and figure out a way to play differently. Our defense will be the same, our offense will be the same. We just have to believe, stick together and fight.
“I’m not guaranteeing it. I just believe.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and courtesy of Montana Sports Information. All Rights Reserved.