MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies owned the title of worst 3-point field goal defense in the country earlier this season.
Through six games, they were allowing teams to shoot 46.9 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked 351st out of 351 Division I teams. They’ve lowered that number to 39 percent through 13 games, which is 320th. That percentage is still last in the Big Sky Conference, but the 71 made 3-pointers they’ve allowed are the third fewest.
The Griz (8-5, 1-0) are expecting to face possibly their biggest challenge guarding the 3-point line when they take on Southern Utah 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Cedar City, Utah.
The upstart Thunderbirds (6-6, 0-1) can play with four or five 3-point shooters on the court at one time, Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said. They’ve averaging 81.7 points, second most in the Big Sky, and 26.7 of those points — or 32.7 percent — come on 3-pointers. Montana hasn't allowed over 80 points in a game, and Southern Utah is giving up an average of 85.8 points, which is last in the conference.
“Southern Utah is as dangerous as anyone,” DeCuire told KGVO Radio before Thursday’s win at Northern Arizona. “They’re playing with a ton of confidence. They probably have the most offensive weapons in conference play.”
The Thunderbirds are shooting 36.6 percent from downtown with an average of 8.9 makes on 24.3 attempts per game. They made 41.4 percent (12 of 29) of the 3-pointers they attempted on Thursday in a 104-99 loss to Montana State, which was holding opponents to 32.1 percent entering that game.
No Montana opponent has made more than eight 3-pointers or attempted more than 20 in a game. Since the Griz allowed Carroll to shoot 66.7 percent (8 of 12), they’ve held their past seven opponents to 32.7 percent with a high of 41.2 percent against Northern Arizona.
Of Southern Utah’s six players attempting at least two 3-pointers per game, five of them are shooting 35.6 percent or higher. Among their starters, guard James McGee is shooting 40.6 percent (26 of 64) and averaging 10.3 points. Jacob Calloway, a 6-foot-8 forward, is making 40.5 percent (17 of 42). Guard Jadon Cohee is at 35.6 percent (16 of 45) and leads the team in points (16.7) and assists (4.2).
Off the bench, 6-foot-11 Ivan Madunic has made 45 percent (9 of 20) of his 3-point attempts and leads the team in rebounds (5.8) and total blocks (13). Guard Brandon Better is shooting 39.1 percent (27 of 69) and averaging 12.9 points. Forward Jamal Aytes has attempted just one 3-pointer this season but is averaging 11.3 points.
“It forces you to do some things differently defensively, especially since they run so many ball screens,” DeCuire said of the big men being capable 3-point shooters. “That’s a major adjustment for us. Once we make that adjustment, if we can execute it properly, we should be able to slow them down, and then we’ll be the ones in transition.”
Southern Utah has been one of a few surprises during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
The Thunderbirds were picked to finish last by both the coaches and the media in the preseason polls. They entered conference play with a 6-5 record and the second-highest RPI (89) among Big Sky teams before Thursday's loss.
Under second-year head coach Todd Simon, Southern Utah has focused on a team-centric approach this season. Last year, they were paced by Randy Onwuasor, who led the Big Sky in scoring (23.6 points per game) before he left for LSU as a grad transfer.
“The goal, what we want this thing to look like is we want to take our brand of basketball and have a trademark that we’re going to play selfless basketball and control what we can control, be mentally, physically tough, and play smart basketball, take care of the ball,” Simon said in a phone call with 406mtsports.com.
Dwayne Morgan, a 6-foot-8 forward, played in his first game on Thursday and scored 15 points in 19 minutes. He joined Southern Utah as a grad transfer after he finished his fall semester at UNLV.
Junior college transfer Jamil Jackson, a 6-foot-6 wing, was expected to be a contributor but hasn’t played since Nov. 25 because of injuries, Simon said.
Whether or not Southern Utah continues its strong non-conference start throughout Big Sky play, the more-established Griz should have the experience edge against the still-building Thunderbirds as they seek a conference title.
“We know what we’re playing for,” DeCuire said, “so you just got to bring it.”