MISSOULA — Defense has been the underpinning of the Montana men's basketball team's success, especially during the non-conference portion of its schedule.
The Grizzlies reaching the midway point of Big Sky Conference play Saturday and their offense has come along to create a more balanced team that leads the league in 10 statistical categories. That combination has led to a 9-0 start in league play, although they know they have a tougher schedule ahead, having faced just two teams with a winning conference record.
"We're competing at a high level," Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said after Saturday's win over Northern Arizona. "There's still room for growth, which is a good thing because you don't want to peak now."
The Griz have relied on an eight-man rotation, which ranks first in scoring offense (83.8 points) — 6.3 points higher than their average in non-conference play — and scoring defense (66.1) through nine league games.
They’re the only team to have more than one player in the top 11 in scoring during conference play — and they have three. Ahmaad Rorie is eighth (18.6 points), Mike Oguine is ninth (17.9) and Jamar Akoh is 11th (16.4).
Despite a league-best scoring margin of plus-17.7 points per game, they’ve still had their share of adversity. They made eight of 10 free throws in the final two minutes to secure a 92-89 road win against Portland State, which got within one point after trailing by 13.
Against Northern Colorado, a minor scuffle led to a six-point possession for the Bears, who cut Montana’s lead from 59-38 to 59-50. The Griz got a career-high 34 points from forward Jamar Akoh and held off the Bears, who were 14 of 26 on 3-pointers, for an 89-80 home win.
“It’s not like we’ve just come out and we’re shooting the lights out every night and blowing people out,” DeCuire said. “If that were the case, I’d be afraid because that’s hard to sustain. When you’re winning with defense, when you’re winning with a group effort offensively, you’ve got multiple guys in double figures, different guys leading you offensively on different nights, that’s a sign of balance. When you’ve got balance, you’ve got a chance to sustain it.”
They use their defense to create more offensive opportunities by forcing turnovers. In league play, they rank first in steals (9.2) and turnover margin (plus-4.89).
The difference since league play began is they’re knocking down their shots at a higher clip. They lead all Big Sky teams in field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage.
The bigger jump is at the 3-point line, where they’re shooting 43.8 percent compared to 34 percent in non-league play. Oguine is making 50 percent (18 of 36) and Rorie is shooting 48.6 (18 of 37). They shot 24.4 and 27.6 percent, respectively, in non-league play.
The emergence of Akoh has led to a better inside-out game, and Falls’ increasing role as a ball handler and outside shooter can free up looks for others. Rorie also leads all Big Sky players in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7), which has helped the Griz rank first in that category as a team.
Their defense has continued to develop with Bobby Moorehead’s improvement as a lock-down defender, Karl Nicholas’ ability to clog the paint as he avoids foul trouble and Sayeed Pridgett’s versatility to play multiple positions as a sixth man. Pridgett ranks third in the league in steals (1.8), while Oguine is second (1.9).
The Griz have also made progress defending the 3-point line. They’re limiting teams to 32.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc, first in the conference. They ranked 351st out of 351 Division I teams in late November. Lowering that percentage has helped them also rank first in field-goal percentage defense (37.8 percent).
“We have a lot of options on offense,” senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “Defensively, I think we’ve shown times where we can be very tough to score on. We’ve had stretches where it’s almost like we’re suffocating teams. That’s what we’ve built our foundation on.”