Montana opens Big Sky play at Northern Arizona

During the opening week of the season, following a program-defining win at Pitt, Travis DeCuire knew the significance of the victory, but also was cautious to make too much out of it. On one end, his team just beat an ACC school on its home court, Pitt’s first home-opening loss in the history of its arena.

The streak snapped Montana’s 14-game losing skid to Power-5 schools – many by narrow margins. At the same time, DeCuire noted that the victory would mean very little if his team didn’t build off of the victory, and use it as a building block throughout the course of the season.

Now, nearly two months later and entering the second phase of its season – conference play – DeCuire likes what he sees.

Sure, there have been some possessions and stretches of play he’d like a do-over on, and his team has had a couple more narrow defeats, squashing opportunities to pick up another signature victory or two, but there have also been the unexpected positives.

For the first time in six seasons, Montana is entering Big Sky Conference action with a winning record. Against stout competition, the Grizzlies went 7-5, including a 5-0 mark at home. DeCuire’s players have also picked up his revamped defensive scheme quicker and better than he expected.

Opponents are averaging 69.3 points per game, and most-recently, Montana limited a Washington squad that was averaging more than 80 points per game to a season-low 66.

Montana is among the nation’s elite for turnovers forced, steals, blocked shots and rebounding – and ranks in the top three in the conference for each category.

Finally, the Grizzlies are playing better today than they were on Nov. 13 when they knocked off Pitt.

“I think we’ve improved from November to December a lot, and I think we’re a little deeper now than we were then,” DeCuire said. “We learned a lot about our group. We know we’re capable of competing.”

The Grizzlies have won two of their last three games, with the lone loss coming in the final seconds at Washington – a game in which Montana out-rebounded the Huskies 41-27, had 12 assists to Washington’s four and had more points off turnovers, but also only shot six free throws compared to the Huskies’ 21.

“Our pressure has been huge,” DeCuire said. “The thing that’s been big for us is our ability to rebound, especially on the offensive end. It helps us create extra opportunities.”

Earlier in the week, Montana shot better than 50 percent from the floor in wins over UC Riverside and UC Irvine. The Grizzlies never trailed against the Highlanders and held the Anteaters to a season-low 29 rebounds, despite UC Irvine entering the game ranked No. 2 nationally for that category.

“We’ve been the aggressor in most of the games we’ve played in,” DeCuire said. “Our style of play sets the tone. If we can keep our opponents on their heels, we’ll have the opportunity to strike.”

The wins and accomplishments over the season’s first seven weeks are nice, and are used as confidence builders and to work out kinks, but the real season begins Thursday. Montana likes where it’s at, but so do a lot of teams in the Big Sky Conference. Seven teams currently have winning records, with the league posting five wins over Power-5 programs and a handful of others over high-majors. Portland State, a team picked to finish eighth in the coaches’ poll, is currently 10-3 with wins over a pair of Pac-12 teams.

“As you sit back and watch what other teams have been able to accomplish, this is probably one of the most competitive years as a conference,” DeCuire said. “The team that has the fewest hiccups will win the league, and we look forward to jumping in the middle of it and trying to rise to the top.”

In a league that is up for grabs, with numerous contenders but no clear-cut favorite, it will be imperative to win home games and steal as many on the road as one can. Montana is currently one of five teams unbeaten at home, including Southern Utah, which Montana will face on Saturday. Up first though, is a Northern Arizona squad that is 3-10 and the only team in the league with a losing record at home (1-2).

Despite some struggles early on, NAU did win its most-recent game – at Jacksonville – and leads the league for free-throw attempts. Additionally, two players, rank in the top five in the conference for offensive rebounding.

Following Montana’s game at Washington on Dec. 22, the team dispersed and had a couple days to spend with family and friends. They reconvened on Tuesday in Phoenix, where they will practice on Arizona State’s campus, before driving to Flagstaff on Wednesday and playing on Thursday. Tipoff is slated for 6:30 p.m. MT.

“We know JoJo Anderson will lead them, they’ve got some length and size and they’re always a physical team and will crash the glass,” DeCuire said of NAU. “Travel here’s always hard – it’s different from any other trip – so it’s nice getting here a day earlier to help us adjust.”

SERIES VS. THE LUMBERJACKS
Thursday will mark the 100th meeting between Montana and Northern Arizona, a series that dates back to 1970-71 and has featured two matchups most season since. The Grizzlies are 67-32 all-time, including 28-20 in Flagstaff.

Since 2008-09, the Grizzlies are 15-3 against the Lumberjacks, including 5-0 under Travis DeCuire. In last year’s meeting, the Grizzlies’ top-five returners combined for 43 points and 21 rebounds. Michael Oguine has scored 41 points in three career games vs. NAU, including 16 points and nine rebounds in his first meeting as a freshman.

SCOUTING NORTHERN ARIZONA

  • NAU is 3-10 on the season, but is 3- since beginning the year 0-7.
  • Aside from JoJo Anderson (13.1 points per game), NAU uses a balanced scoring attack.
  • Brooks Debisschop (6.3) and Isaiah Thomas (5.7) are NAU’s top rebounders. Both have more than 20 offensive boards. Both rank in the top five in the conference for offensive rebounding.
  • Five different players have at least nine steals.
  • NAU leads the Big Sky Conference for free throws made and attempted. JoJo Anderson leads the conference for attempts and makes.
  • Out of 12 teams, NAU ranks 11th or 12th in the conference for scoring offense, scoring margin, field-goal percentage, defensive rebounds, assists and turnover margin.
  • The Lumberjacks are coming off of a 9-23 campaign (6-12 Big Sky), and returned just one starter from that roster.
  • NAU is led by sixth-year head coach Jack Murphy.

STARTING STRONG

Montana closed its non-conference season with a winning record (7-5) for the first time in six seasons. In fact, despite a storied history that is littered with conference championships and postseason berths, this season marks just the fifth time since the turn of the century that the Grizzlies have posted a winning non-conference mark. The other times were in 2005-06, 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 – with Montana advancing to the NCAA tournament three of those seasons and the CBI in 2011.

The feat is even more impressive considering the level of competition Montana has faced thus far. The Grizzlies have played four Power-5 opponents (Pitt, Penn State, Stanford and Washington, all on the road). The Grizzlies also played six of their first nine games away from home, with an additional road game at No. 23 UCLA being canceled once the team was already on site. In addition to the Power-5 opponents, UC Santa Barbara is off to a 10-3 start while UC Irvine was predicted to win the Big West and Georgia State was selected to finish second in the Sun Belt.

BE LIKE MIKE

Junior guard Michael Oguine, a third-team All-Big Sky selection in 2016-17, scored in double figures in the first 11 games of the season, including 29 in a win at Pitt (Nov. 13).

Oguine ranks second on the team for scoring (14.4 points per game). Despite standing at just 6-2, he also ranks second for rebounding, averaging 5.3 boards per game. He ranks second for assists (26) and steals (16) and blocked shots (11).

AKOH TAKING OVER

The Grizzlies had high hopes for Jamar Akoh, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton who redshirted a year ago. In his first two games, however, he combined for just four points and two rebounds, being limited to 28 total minutes due to foul trouble.

Since those first two games, Akoh has begun to take over down low, averaging 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds, shooting 60.6 percent. He has eight double-figure scoring games during that 10-game span, including two double-doubles. In three games last week, he averaged 19.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, including a career-high 23 points vs. UC Irvine (Dec. 19) and career-high 12 rebounds vs. UC Riverside (Dec. 17).

ALL-AROUND RORIE

Ahmaad Rorie played in all 40 minutes vs. UC Santa Barbara and ranks 11th nationally for minutes played per game (37:00). He also ranks highly, however, for points (17.9 per game) and steals (1.7 per game). In fact, Rorie is one of 13 NCAA Division I players to rank in the top 150 nationally for both points and steals.

MORE MOOREHEAD

Bobby Moorehead struggled offensively for much of his sophomore season in 2016-17, averaging 3.9 points per game on .320 shooting. The junior has turned things around in 2017-18, however, ranking fourth on the team for points (9.5), second for minutes played (34.3) and shooting at a .410 clip.

In Montana’s recent win over UC Riverside (Dec. 17), he scored six points in a 10-second span to spark a 17-0 Griz scoring run. In the previous game, at Georgia State (Dec. 9), Moorehead hit back-to-back three-pointers to get the Griz within a single possession. At Stanford (Nov. 29), he scored 11 consecutive UM points in the second half to give the Griz a 40-37 advantage.

He is the team leader for three-pointers (24), ranks third for assists (17), rebounding (4.8 per game) and blocked shots (nine), and fourth for steals (13).

FORCING TURNOVERS

Montana has forced more turnovers than its opponents eight times this season, also tying Penn State with 15 apiece. The Grizzlies’ aggressive defense, which focuses on getting deflections, ranks 16th nationally with 17.67 turnovers forced per game and 49th nationally with a +3.3 turnover margin.

On three occasions, Montana has forced 20 or more turnovers in a game, and in a win at Pitt (Nov. 13), the Grizzlies forced the Panthers into 19 turnovers, converting them into 30 points – an average of 1.58 points per turnover.

CRASHING THE GLASS

Montana has out-rebounded its opponents in 10 of its last 11 games, which is particularly impressive considering four of those contests have come against Power-5 teams and another came against a UC Irvine team that ranked No. 2 nationally for total rebounds.

Well over one-third of Montana’s rebounds have come from the offensive end (37.9 percent). That number was 28.6 percent a year ago. Michael Oguine, UM’s second-leading rebounder, has more offensive boards (32) than defensive (31), as does freshman Karl Nicholas (20 to 13). Over their last eight games, the Grizzlies have out-rebounded their opponents 118-59 on the offensive glass. They are averaging 13.67 offensive rebounds per game this season (19th in NCAA). Nearly one-fifth of Montana’s points have been second-chance opportunities (172 points; 19.7 percent).

STOUT DEFENSE

Montana is allowing its opponents to shoot at too high of a percentage, particularly from the three-point line. However, the Grizzlies are doing a good job of preventing teams from getting shots.

  • 8 turnovers forced per game: 16th in NCAA (2nd in BSC)
  • +3.3 turnover margin: 49th (3rd)
  • 6 blocked shots per game: 61st (1st)
  • 6 steals per game: 72nd (3rd)

WELL CONDITIONED

Montana has three players who average at least 33:00 minutes played per game. Ahmaad Rorie is averaging 37:00 per game, including all 40 vs. UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 21). Fellow juniors Bobby Moorehead (34:20) and Michael Oguine (33:00) are also among the nation’s leaders. In fact, Montana is one of 14 Division-I schools nationally to have three players average 33:00 per game or better.

Montana has used a small rotation, with just eight players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and six with more than 13. Twelve different Grizzlies played at Penn State (Nov. 15), but just six played more than 7 minutes. It was the same two nights prior at Pitt (Nov. 13), as Travis DeCuireused the same five players throughout the final 7:34 of the second half and all 5 minutes of overtime.

NARROW DEFEATS

  • Montana finished non-conference play with its first winning record in six seasons, but the Griz can’t help but wonder, ‘What if?’ as well. Of Montana’s five losses, the Grizzlies have led or been within a single possession late in the second half in all five.
  • At Penn State (Big Ten), Montana held early leads and was within a single possession, 58-55, with under 4 minutes to play.
  • In the championship game of the Legends Classic Malibu Region, Montana overcame a 18-point deficit to take the lead, including 48-46 with 12:51 remaining.
  • At Stanford (Pac-12), Montana held multiple second-half leads, including by as many as six points, 50-44, with under 10 minutes on the clock.
  • Montana overcame a 17-point halftime deficit at Georgia State, tying the game and having the ball with under a minute to play.
  • At Washington (Pac-12), Montana led with 4:16 to play and had the chance to tie the game with two free-throw opportunities with 5.1 seconds left on the clock.

ROAD WARRIORS

  • The Grizzlies have already traveled more than 12,000 miles – taking two trips to the East Coast, three flights to the state of California and one to nearby Seattle. Through the first 30 days of the regular season, Montana was on the road for 19 of them.
  • Following a season-opening win over Whitworth (Nov. 10), Montana was on a plane nine hours later for a six-day trip to the state of Pennsylvania (Nov. 11-16).
  • After back-to-back games against Power-5 opponents (Pitt and Penn State), Montana had two home practices before flying to California to continue the Legends Classic (Nov. 19).
  • The Grizzlies returned from California and had two practices in Missoula to prepare for Carroll (Nov. 26).
  • Montana had just one day in between its game against Carroll and flying to Stanford (left on Nov. 28).
  • Montana returned from its trip to Stanford and had two home practices before hosting CSUN (Dec. 3).
  • Following its win over CSUN, the Grizzlies had one day at home before flying to UCLA and Georgia State for a six-day road trip (Dec. 5-10).

DYNAMIC DUO, PART I

Junior guards Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie enter Friday’s contest each averaging more than 14.0 points per game, both ranking in the top 300 of all NCAA Division I scorers.

Oguine has scored in double figures in 11 games, while Rorie has accomplished the feat 10 times – including 20-plus on six occasions.

HEARTBREAK VS. THE HUSKIES

Montana had several chances at an additional non-conference victory over a Power-5 program, taking Washington down to the wire (Dec. 22). In the three-point loss, Montana held multiple second-half leads, including with under 4 minutes to play.

Despite the loss, Montana out-rebounded the Huskies, 41-27, including 20-6 on the offensive glass. The Grizzlies also had 12 assists compared to Washington’s four, and converted 18 turnovers into 24 points. Washington, however, got to the free-throw line 21 times compared to just six for Montana.

LOOKING AHEAD

Montana will cap its three-game road trip at Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds enter conference play with a perfect record on their home court.