MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies could’ve inflated their record.
They could’ve scheduled more NAIA, Division III, Division II or low-major basketball teams to give themselves an easy non-conference schedule. Instead, they had five Power Five teams on their schedule for the second straight year and still earned their first winning non-conference record in six seasons.
Although the game at UCLA was canceled, the Griz were competitive late into games with chances to win against Penn State, Stanford and Washington, and they beat Pitt in overtime. They also took down UC Irvine and came close to getting comeback wins against UC Santa Barbara and Georgia State, three teams that Griz head coach Travis DeCuire expects to compete for a conference title.
“Three years ago, everyone was wondering why I was scheduling these games,” DeCuire said after the Griz beat UC Irvine. “‘What are you doing? That’s not how you build confidence.’ … I think those are the types of games that build character and probably got us to the point where we’re at right now.”
The Griz enter Big Sky Conference play with a 7-5 record, and they open against Northern Arizona at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s when the quest begins to win their first conference regular-season title since 2014-15 and make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012-13.
As they’ve worked on finding an offensive balance and adapting to their new defensive style of play, the losses they’ve suffered are understandable — yet, they could’ve potentially won 10 games if not for slow starts or an inability to close some games.
They’ve looked like a much-improved team since the second half of the Georgia State game. They erased a 17-point halftime deficit but lost despite four chances to tie or take the lead in the closing 70 seconds.
Their defense reached another level and their post play came to life in a 16-point win over UC Riverside. They added to that a bench presence in their 18-point win against UC Irvine, which DeCuire called the most complete performance in his four years at Montana.
They closed non-conference play with a three-point loss at Washington despite outplaying the Huskies for the most part. They struggled to get to the free-throw line and were hurt by turnovers.
“Establishing Jamar (Akoh), establishing Fab (Krslovic) while the guards are aggressive and do what they do was important,” DeCuire said. “It took us 10 games to get to that point. I think we’re there now. Hopefully we can sustain it on the offensive end.
“On the defensive end, it’s level of intensity that we’ve finally reached. We need to do that every night for 18 games. We’re headed in the right direction. I feel good about it.
"But, success doesn’t breed success, so we’ve got to stay hungry. Even when we play well and accomplish something minor on a day-to-day basis, we need to stay hungry and look for more growth. That’s the question mark for our group.”
Under sixth-year head coach Jack Murphy, Northern Arizona is off to a 3-10 start and have gone 3-3 since starting 0-7. The Lumberjacks are the only Big Sky team with a losing home record, having gone 1-2 with a 12-point loss to Embry-Riddle, an NAIA team.
Their best win came when they beat CSU Bakersfield on the road. The Roadrunners defeated conference foe Idaho twice, are ranked No. 140 in the RPI and are 30-3 at home over the past two and a half seasons.
Paced by sophomore guard JoJo Anderson’s 13.1 points per game, the Lumberjacks are averaging just 65.9 points per game and are giving up 79.6 points. Their scoring margin of negative-13.7 is last among Big Sky teams.
Their field goal percentage of 39.8 is also last in the conference, and their 29.4 percent on 3-pointers in only better than Montana (28.4).
Sophomore 6-foot-9 forward Brooks Debisschop is averaging 6.2 rebounds, and junior 6-foot-9 forward Isaiah Thomas is adding 5.7 rebounds and 0.8 blocks. They’re both in the top five in the Big Sky for offensive rebounds.
The Griz have outrebounded 10 of their 12 opponents, and their 13.67 offensive rebounds rank 19th in Division I. Their 17.7 turnovers forced is 16th most in the NCAA, and they’re averaging 7.6 steals and 4.6 blocks.
“We always knew that we’re talented enough to compete for a championship,” DeCuire said before the Griz lost to Washington. “But the new defensive strategy that we’re playing, I think we’re just now getting comfortable with it. The consistency of being where we need to be when we need to be there and doing it with the level of intensity and confidence and trust in each other is still in question.
“But, I know we can do it. I think now these guys are starting to believe they can do it. I’m excited to see what happens.”