Just six of Montana’s 14 men’s basketball players saw game action a year ago, with two redshirting and another half dozen joining the program during the offseason. Even so, the Griz return three starters, their top two scorers and more than two-thirds of their defense.
It’s a unique combination of returnees and newbies, and that’s what makes UM’s current time in the gym so valuable.
Over the past nine days, the Griz have held eight practices and a scrimmage, a rare possibility thanks to a foreign tour the team is taking to Costa Rica. The NCAA allows for college teams to take a foreign tour once every four years, should they choose. UM will depart for San Jose, Costa Rica on Thursday. While in Central America, the Griz will compete in two scrimmages, spend a day serving at an orphanage and have time away from the court with fun team-bonding activities.
For Lars Espe, one of Montana’s handful of freshmen, the team bonding is critical.
“I think it’s just as important to get to know your teammates off the court as it is on the court,” he said. “We have so many new guys, which makes bonding in Costa Rica even more important.”
Head coach Travis DeCuire agrees that team bonding is essential. It’s why he and his staff are devoting two entire days to team activities – allowing them to get to know each other in a foreign country, with no basketball involved.
But equally important to DeCuire is the extra practice time. The NCAA allows for teams taking foreign tours to conduct 10 practices leading up to the trip. The Griz have completed nine of those sessions, including a scrimmage Tuesday evening for the program’s Roundball Club members.
“It’s been nice to sit back as coaches and see the development and improvement from our returners, and see some of the new guys in action,” DeCuire said. “It’s been an opportunity to see some guys in new situations, too, and see if maybe there are new roles this year.”
It’s too early to single out specific players, but the head coach has been impressed with the newcomers across the board.
“Lars is handling the ball and creating shots for others,” DeCuire said. “He was a big pickup for us and is living up to those expectations. The bigs have been very active. Kelby (Kramer) is blocking shots and owning the middle and Karl (Nicholas) has been dominant defensively with his activity. Timmy Falls and Nico (Bevens) are putting the ball in the basket.”
The practice time has been key, but it’s useless if the student-athletes don’t take advantage of it. Once returning to the United States, the team won’t be able to practice again until the final days of September, making the seven weeks in between a valuable opportunity for them to continue working on what was implemented. The idea is that when fall practices begin and everyone regroups, the team is that much further along because of what was implemented in July and worked on solo throughout August and September.
The learning curve for the newcomers is a steep one. Espe, from Euorpe, and Kramer, from Wyoming, both have noticed how different Division-I basketball is from what they’re used to. Kramer noted the physicality of the college game, not to mention all there is to learn conceptually.
But he’s learning on the fly, and says the upperclassmen have made the transition easier.
DeCuire has noticed the leadership of the returners, as well.
“All of our returners have done a good job vocalizing and explaining the process,” he said. “Sometimes the best thing about leadership is when you have guys communicate before mistakes are made, and I see our veterans doing some of that.”
But it’s not just the new guys who are absorbing new information. Senior Fabijan Krslovic says that he’s learning too, with the team making tweaks to the systems they run.
“Everyone is learning,” he said. “But I’m excited to be learning now rather than in a few months, when the season is right around the corner.”
The early practices also freshens things up, according to Krslovic.
“The season ends in March and we don’t play games again until October or November. It can get stale at times and can become more of a grind,” he said. “I’m excited for this year. This trip will help keep things fresh and exciting.”
The Griz will practice once more on Wednesday before departing Thursday morning for Costa Rica. Check back to GoGriz.com and follow UM men’s basketball on Facebook and Twitter for updates from their trip.