Before three minutes had expired in what became a 90-84 win for Montana over its rival Montana State, the Bobcats buried four 3-pointers and appeared to have trivialized the hours of work the Grizzlies spent trying to fix its broken defensive principles.
In the days leading up to the first of two regular season matchups between the rivals, Montana coach Travis DeCuire took advantage of his single-game week. Instead of having to prepare for two opponents, DeCuire decided to utilize the schedule to improve some internal breakdowns. Most important, he found it necessary to remind the Griz about the team’s defensive rules and to find a way to revitalize the defensive intensity that had become the program’s identity in his three seasons as head coach.
“The last trip we had against Sac State and Portland State we did give up a lot of points,” freshman Sayeed Pridgett said Wednesday morning as the Griz prepared to leave home for the first time in two weeks for a road trip that brings them to Southern Utah on Thursday and Northern Arizona two days later. “We know that we can’t beat everybody by scoring so if our defense is on point we feel like we can beat anybody.”
With that in mind, Montana went back to defensive school. Long film sessions preceded intense practices filled with drills aimed at finishing possessions and at reestablishing the Grizzlies’ maxim that it is a team-first defense structured around very specific rules. Montana sophomore wing Bobby Moorehead said the Griz struggled to keep opponents in front of them and weren’t effectively guarding ball screens. DeCuire noticed certain hesitancy and offered the possibility that his players became more concerned stopping players like Montana State’s Tyler Hall or Idaho’s Victor Sanders instead of the team they played for.
Given time at his behest, DeCuire mixed in some five-on-five, switching up the teams up at the will of the staff. The intention was to replace some of the reputations Montana’s opponents have earned with just a team with players who could make plays and score points.
What caused the team to stray from its principles is anyone’s guess, but Moorehead offered up a theory DeCuire mentioned in the past.
“To be honest I don’t even know,” Moorehead said. “I think we got a little confident after we got a four-game win streak and felt like we probably didn’t need these rules as much and started to be more individual around it.”
During Montana’s four-game losing streak, there were plenty of reasons to explain the skid. At the top of that list was the 1-game suspension of guards Ahmaad Rorie and Walter Wright and how it affected the team’s ability to score. Temporary trust issues began to fester as the losses piled up. But after dissecting the game tape DeCuire saw more impactful reasons for the Grizzlies’ decline. Montana’s defense was often lackadaisical, allowing opposing guards to get into the gaps the Griz are designed to take away.
A team that jumped out to a 5-1 conference start in part because of the ability to cause havoc defensively, while flip turnovers into points was no longer exhibiting the same intensity that fueled its defense. Wright said the ball pressure Montana used in sporadic traps, but mostly on the perimeter decreased and opponents took advantage.
For DeCuire it was a disturbing conclusion.
“It was a major alarm because you can’t win without it,” Montana’s coach said. “It’s all in the personality. Defenders — it’s not really as much skill as it is a desire in your heart to not let the guy in front of you score. Then you’ve got to take it to another level when you’re a good team of defender to not let the other team score.”
The consensus Wednesday was the week produced favorable results. Though Montana State opened the game 5 of 5 from distance, Montana held the ‘Cats to just 29 first-half points and DeCuire and his players were more approving of how they handled all the actions the Bobcats showed.
While the current improvements will be tested Thursday night by Randy Onsuarsor and the myriad of methods Southern Utah uses to get the Big Sky’s second-leading scorer the ball, they will certainly be tested in eight days when a two-game home stand begins as the Hornets and Vikings come to town to complete the season series.
“We have to be in the right place,” DeCuire said, “five guys have to be locked in and whoever is guarding is going to have to help somebody out or we won’t win. I think we understand that.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj or noted. All Rights Reserved.