The Montana men’s basketball team officially opened up its defense of its Big Sky Conference title with its first and only exhibition of the season. UM dispatched of Division III Whitworth at Dahlberg Arena on Friday night. The Griz open the regular season on Friday November 3 against fellow 2018 NCAA Tournament qualifier Georgia State.
Some takeaways from Montana’s debut performance of the 2018-2019 campaign from Andrew Houghton of Skyline Sports.
Montana senior center Jamar Akoh arrived in street clothes after practicing with a heavily-bandaged wrist throughout the week. UM head coach Travis DeCuire said that he wasn’t injured, just “banged-up,” and suggested that his all-conference big man could have played if needed.
“We want to take a couple days to get him as close to 100 percent as possible for next week,” DeCuire said.
The loss left the Griz without much rim protection — evident early on when Whitworth opened the game with a layup inside — and defensive rebounding. Montana hauled in just 40 rebounds to Whitworth’s 38, not the expected margin against a Division-III team. The upside was that it let them play some different lineups to see what would work without a big man anchoring the team.
“Obviously, we love having him down there,” senior forward Bobby Moorehead said. “Having a bruiser helps us rebound, but obviously there are going to be times when we’re not going to be able to play with him. Trying different rotations was really good for us, and trying to play more guard-oriented, without a post, was different, but it was good. … We don’t have to run as many plays. We can just spread the ball out and just drive and kick.”
Akoh’s injury prompted the Griz to abandon traditional lineup construction early and show their versatility. The starters were senior Michael Oguine, senior Ahmaad Rorie, senior Bobby Moorehead, junior Sayeed Pridgett and sophomore Timmy Falls, none taller than Moorehead’s 6-foot-7. Going small emphasized pressure defense and shooting, and Montana forced five turnovers and hitting 3-of-4 3-pointers in the first five minutes. At 15 minutes left in the first half, the Griz brought Pridgett, Donaven Dorsey (6-foot-7), and Kelby Kramer (6-foot-10) on the floor with Rorie and Moorehead, switching instantly to a lineup with three players 6’7” or above. On their second possession with the trees in, Montana hauled in two offensive rebounds.
“We’re a versatile program, and even if [Akoh] was playing, we would have had stretches where we would have played small,” DeCuire said. “…That versatility is important, because we play so many different types of teams. In-conference, Weber State is a big team, [then you’re] playing a Northern Colorado that’s going to space you out and ball-screen you. So, we need to make adjustments and find strengths and advantages.”
An exhibition game won’t reveal everything, but the way DeCuire structured his lineup Friday seemed to point to how he’ll run his rotation, at least at the start of the season. Oguine, Falls, Pridgett, Rorie and Moorehead each played over 20 minutes. With Akoh, that’s the core of last year’s team and the top six on this year’s.
Washington transfer Dorsey played 15, scoring 12 points, and seems to be the key reserve. Freshman guard Eddy Egun actually played the sixth-most minutes on the team last night, with 16, and looks to be in the lead among true freshmen who might get time. He had a big fast-break dunk and drew a charge.
Bozeman freshman Mack Anderson played 12 minutes. Kramer played just 10, a particularly bad sign for him with Akoh out, but was one of the first players off the bench and should still play a role.
Walk-on Peter Jones, freshman post Ben Carter and freshman guard Freddy Brown entered in garbage time and played single-digit minutes.
“I think [the young guys] did a pretty good job,” DeCuire said. “I though Mack was a little nervous and tentative early, then came back on the second rotation and did a better job. … That’s why you play exhibition games, you get a chance to go out there and get your feet wet a little bit.”
The corner 3 is the most popular shot in basketball for a reason, and Montana appears to be embracing it. Moorehead hit two within the first four minutes of the game, and Oguine later had two in a quick stretch in the second half. The shot is important not just because it’s the closest 3-pointer available, but because it’s often unlocked by good ball movement, and that was the case for the Griz. It was usually an initial breakdown followed by a couple quick passes or an easy kick out, and that’s good offense. If the Griz can consistently get the ball to the corner for open looks, it will help good-but-not-great shooters like Moorehead and Oguine look better and make Montana even more dangerous.
“My teammates were getting me open shots, and when it’s open, it’s pretty easy to make,” Moorehead said. “The offense gets kind of stagnant when the ball stays with people, so getting the ball movement, you’re bound to get open shots.”
Montana’s high-pressure defensive system can be difficult for new players to learn because it requires such high levels of coordination and communication. With that in mind, DeCuire expects a little learning curve at the beginning of the season as players learn how to mesh together, play their roles, and make the right reads. He was cautiously optimistic after Friday, as the Griz were mostly able to pressure and run Whitworth’s shooters off their spots and out of range. The stats were rosy on their face, with Whitworth shooting just 3-of-20 from 3-point range, scoring .725 points per possession, and committing 20 turnovers. There were some breakdowns as the backups filtered into the game. Anderson and Carter, in particular, were guilty of hedging too hard on some ball screens, opening up gaps behind the play for Whitworth to attack.
“There were times when we had to change our ball-screen coverage on the fly, and most of the time, I’d say probably 80 or 85 percent of the time, we knew what we were doing,” DeCuire said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”