The Montana men’s basketball team is one week into its fall practice routine, leading up to its exhibition opener in exactly one month. While the team is still a work in progress, and nothing can be fully accomplished in just one week’s time, head coach Travis DeCuire is pleased with where his team is at this early into the fall.
“Practices have been very competitive,” DeCuire said. “Usually when practices are competitive this early you lose execution, but we haven’t done that.”
The fourth-year head coach was quick to point out that the biggest area of improvement over the past week has been ball movement.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “The chemistry has been really good and everyone’s been on the same page.”
The Griz return plenty of production from last year’s squad, but the early continuity is especially impressive considering that the team is also bringing in seven newcomers.
The large incoming class was in response to Montana’s two biggest weaknesses in 2016-17: depth and height. DeCuire’s staff signed six true freshmen and a JUCO transfer to fill the depth, and two of them are long centers.
Admir Besovic, a 7-foot center from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, played the last two seasons at the Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Va., averaging 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a team captain. Kelby Kramer, at 6-10, was the No. 2 prospect in the state of Wyoming and was one of five players named to the USA Today All-USA Wyoming Boys Basketball Team.
“Kelby and Admir have shown flashes of promise, but they’re young as well,” DeCuire said. “So much of the offense goes through them, so it’s always hard on freshmen bigs. They’re improving though, and what they’ve brought to the defense has been really impressive.”
DeCuire noted Kramer’s ability to block shots and rebound, and how tough Besovic makes it for opposing offenses to penetrate to the rim because of how he clogs the lane. He also praised the defensive play of another tall freshman, 6-7 forward Karl Nicholas, a product of Pearland, Texas.
Last year, Montana had just four players 6-6 or taller. This year, that number is nine.
The height issue has been solved. As for the depth?
It was mentioned that the Griz brought in six freshmen (Besovic, G Lars Espe, G Timmy Falls, F Peter Jones, Kramer and Nicholas) and a sophomore JUCO transfer in sharp-shooter Niko Bevens. But the team will also benefit from two players who sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. Jamar Akoh and Donaven Dorsey – both taller than 6-6, by the way – will likely be key contributors to the Griz, much like Ahmaad Rorie was a year ago, after transferring from Oregon.
Akoh is a product of Cal State Fullerton. As a sophomore in 2015-16, he started 26 of 29 contests and led the Titans with 6.9 rebounds per game, in addition to 6.1 points per game and nine blocked shots. Dorsey comes to Montana from Washington, where he played in 55 games, many of which were against Pac-12 competition. Four-fifths of Dorsey’s made buckets were from long range.
With 15 players, all eligible and fighting for playing time, DeCuire’s task this year won’t be how to field a solid rotation, but how to find the best group and cycle them in.
That’s already begun, which remains as one of the biggest advantages of the team’s trip to Costa Rica over the summer. The foreign tour allowed for 10 summer practices that most NCAA teams are not afforded. During that time, the coaching staff got an early look at rotations, concepts and systems that work and don’t work, putting Montana ahead of the curve.
“We’re at a better place than where we’ve been in the past in terms of identifying roles,” DeCuire said. “While things can change, roles have already begun to be defined, and I think that’s why we’re playing with a decent amount of chemistry.”
The next step is consistency. With so much young talent, there will be some days when the young players look like they’re ready to play. Other times, they’re still lost and learning.
There are more bodies and more talent, but also inexperience.
DeCuire is heavily relying on the team’s veteran presence to get the young players up to speed.
The Griz have five players back who started at least 10 games last year, including senior Fabijan Krslovic (32), junior all-conference guards Rorie (31) and Michael Oguine (25), plus Sayeed Pridgett(11) and Bobby Moorehead (10).
“Us veterans are trying to lead in everything we do,” Rorie said. “We’re trying to show leadership, even outside of drills or outside of practice. The young guys have stepped up and competed. You see growth in them and a desire to get better.”
In practice, DeCuire often times won’t put the top players together on the court, but instead will split them up – perhaps the veteran guards with the young bigs or vice versa. Through this, it creates an opportunity for the young guys to see how it’s done.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m happy with where we’re at so far,” DeCuire said. “We’re able to put a blueprint on the floor and compete with some chemistry. We’re doing some good things. I walk away feeling like we actually have a basketball team.”
Montana will have four more weeks of practice leading up to its exhibition opener vs. Saskatchewan on Nov. 6 and its regular-season opener vs. Whitworth on Nov. 10. Fans’ first chance to see the team will be at the Maroon and Silver Scrimmage on Oct. 24.