13 Dec 2021 | 07:52 | Baseball
Montana’s 2021 basketball season hasn’t gone the way the Grizzlies envisioned so far.
You can chalk it up to new talent. The Grizzlies’ three true freshmen have combined to start 32 games this season, more than all but eight schools in the entire nation. In fact, 60 percent of the Grizzlies’ starts on the season have come from players who were not on the court a season ago.
You can chalk it up to close losses. All six of Montana’s Big Sky losses have been decided in the final seconds, with three by two points or fewer, and none being by more than six points (a double-overtime defeat). The average margin in Montana’s six Big Sky losses is just 3.2 points.
Both are true of this Montana team, which has shown it has the potential to beat nearly anyone it faces, but also the inconsistency to lose to anyone.
“We’re showing some improvement in areas, just not in the win-loss column the way we’d like to see it,” seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire said. “It might not always feel that way, but I do see signs of growth in a team that is heading in the right direction.”
In each of the past three series, Montana has won the first game before losing in the second matchup, which has come two days later.
The road for the Grizzlies who, with four weeks to play before Boise, are vying for a top-five seed that would earn a bye into the quarterfinals, doesn’t get any easier.
First comes a Weber State team that has won four consecutive games and has just one loss dating back to Christmas. Next week is a home-and-home series with preseason favorite Eastern Washington, a team that has won five straight games and now is atop the Big Sky standings.
But for a team like Montana, DeCuire believes that daunting stretch could be the test that his team needs.
“We need a situation where the stage is set for high intensity and excitement,” DeCuire said. “We need to play a team that is at the top of the standings, where there’s a lot of hype surrounding the game. The youth that we have has probably shown up better for those higher-level games, so I’m hoping this brings the best out of us.”
While Montana and Montana State will always be rivals due to proximity and state pride, when it comes to basketball, Montana and Weber State have historically been the class of the Big Sky Conference.
The two teams rank first and second in Big Sky history for wins, conference championships and NCAA tournament berths. Over the past decade, either Montana or Weber State has been in the Big Sky tournament finals every season, with the two teams squaring off in the title game four times.
“There’s a lot of history and a lot of incredible games between these two schools,” DeCuire said. “I have a lot of respect for Coach (Randy) Rahe. His ability to put his guys on the floor and have them playing together the way they are, it deserves a high level of respect.”
Montana and Weber State will tip off from Dahlberg Arena on Thursday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Both games can be streamed on Pluto TV (channel 1056), with Saturday’s tilt also being broadcast across SWX Montana.
“My message for the team is to go for it,” DeCuire said. “The reality for us is there’s no one in this conference we can’t beat and there’s no one in this conference we can’t lose to. We’ve shown that. We just need to come in with a high level of confidence, play high-level basketball for 40 minutes and make the most of the opportunity.”
CLASS OF THE BIG SKY
Over the league’s history, Montana and Weber State have been the class of the Big Sky Conference, and it hasn’t been close:
Montana and Weber State rank first and second in Big Sky Conference history for all-time wins, conference championships, NCAA tournament appearances and average attendance.
Montana and Weber State have combined to win 21 Big Sky Conference tournament titles. Every other Big Sky school has combined to win 23.
Since 2010, at least one of the two teams has been in the Big Sky Conference tournament finals every season – including both teams four times, with Montana going 3-1 in those games. The two teams have met in the conference tournament seven times in the past 10 seasons overall.
Montana owns 12 regular-season conference championships, 11 tournament titles and 12 NCAA tournament appearances. Since the Grizzlies won their first title in 1975, they rank first for combined conference championships and NCAA tournament berths during that 45-year stretch.
Weber State owns 22 regular-season conference championships (first), 10 tournament titles (second) and 16 NCAA tournament appearances (first).
SERIES VS. THE WILDCATS
As good as the series has been historically, Montana has had its way with Weber State over the past four years. The Grizzlies are 6-1 dating back to March 2017, with its only loss coming last January on the road, 87-85, in overtime.
In a series that dates back to 1962-63 – the inaugural season of the Big Sky Conference – Weber State holds a 71-61 edge. Montana has been dominant in Missoula, however, holding a 40-23 advantage and winning 12 of the past 13 home meetings. The Grizzlies’ only loss during that period was the December 2016 overtime defeat, since rattling off three consecutive home wins.
Under Travis DeCuire, Montana is 8-5 against the Wildcats. The Grizzlies have four double-digit wins over Weber State during that span, winning by an average of 32.0 points per contest over their last two victories (78-49 in the 2019 Big Sky tournament semifinals and 72-37 last February in Missoula). On the other end, Weber State’s last two wins have come by a single possession and DeCuire has never lost to Weber State by more than eight points. Three of his five losses to the Wildcats have come in overtime.
MORE RECENT SERIES HISTORY
As mentioned above, Montana has won six of the past seven matchups with Weber State, but the way in which the Grizzlies have done so makes the feat even more impressive.
In all seven meetings, Montana has held double-digit leads, with the Grizzlies leading by at least 20 points in all six victories. Weber State was able to trim two of its deficits to single digits, including a three-point loss in Ogden in 2019, and more impressive turned a 12-point first-half deficit last January into an overtime win, despite Montana leading for 38 minutes of regulation. Weber State closed regulation on an 8-1 run.
In Montana’s six wins, though, the Grizzlies have won by an average of 15.3 points per game, and last February won by 35, holding Weber State to just 37 points. The total was the fewest points Montana had allowed in a game since 2010, and its best defensive performance in a Big Sky game since 1976. Josh Vazquez had four steals in that contest, and scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep in the January meeting in Ogden. Montana as a team shot .500 or better in both games last year.
GOOD ON GOOD
While Weber State leads the Big Sky Conference for scoring (83.6 points per league game), Montana ranks second for scoring defense (65.5). The Wildcats have scored 85 or more points in eight of their last nine contests, while Montana has gone 14 consecutive games without allowing more than 70 points in regulation.
Another intriguing statistical matchups:
Montana (.786) and Weber State (.784) both rank in the top three in Big Sky play for free-throw percentage.
The two teams also rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the league for field-goal defense (Weber State, .408; Montana, .415).
Weber State (.394) and Montana (.388) are the top two 3-point shooting teams in the Big Sky. However, the Wildcats average 7.9 makes per Big Sky game (third) while Montana averages 5.0 (11th).
SCOUTING WEBER STATE
Weber State is 11-4 overall and 6-2 in Big Sky Conference play. The Wildcats are coming off of a series sweep over previously unbeaten Montana State.
The Wildcats have won four consecutive games, averaging 85.0 points per game and winning by an average margin of 15.0.
While Weber State is undefeated on its home court (8-0), the Wildcats are 3-4 away from Ogden.
Weber State is lethal offensively, ranking seventh nationally for scoring (84.5 points per game). The Wildcats are great from anywhere on the floor, ranking 10th in the NCAA for field-goal shooting (.503), second for 3-point shooting (.410) and 14th for free-throw shooting (.785).
Weber State averages 9.5 made 3-pointers per game (25th in NCAA), with four players making at least 19 triples on the season.
It’s easy to see why Weber State is so good. During Big Sky Conference play, the Wildcats rank in the top three for scoring offense (first), scoring margin (first), field-goal percentage (first), field-goal defense (first), 3-point percentage (first), blocked shots (first), assists (second), steals (second), assist-to-turnover margin (second), defensive rebounds (second), 3-pointers made (third), free-throw percentage (third) and turnover margin (third).
Senior guard Isiah Brown, a Northwestern transfer, averages 17.7 points per game (fourth in the Big Sky and top 100 nationally). Brown also ranks second in Big Sky play for steals (1.9 per game), sixth for shooting (.500), sixth for assists (3.5) and ninth for free-throw percentage (.815).
Dedicated to players who are good on the court, in the classroom and in the community, Brown was recently named one of 30 finalists for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award.
Sophomore guard Seikou Sisoho Jawara was named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week on Monday. The Spain native and Loyola Marymount transfer averaged 21.0 points, 3.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game against Montana State, making 72 percent of his shot attempts, including six of seven from long range.
Senior center Dontay Bassett (14th in NCAA) and junior guard Zahir Porter (21st) both convert at a 90-percent clip from the free-throw line.
Bassett, a Florida transfer, scored a career-high 17 points in both games last week vs. Montana State, in addition to 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. He leads the Big Sky for blocked shots and is averaging 9.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
With Brown, Porter and Sisoho Jawara each averaging more than 14.0 points per game during Big Sky play, the Wildcats have three of the league’s top 15 scorers.
After going 12-20 and finishing eighth in the Big Sky a season ago, the Wildcats have turned things around with five Division-I transfers, who all start.
Randy Rahe is in his 15th season in Ogden. With nearly 300 all-time wins, he is the winningest coach in Big Sky history. Rahe has led Weber State to five Big Sky titles, nine postseason tournament appearances (three NCAA berths) and is the first coach in league history to be named the conference Coach of the Year four times.
STILL SEARCHING FOR CONSISTENCY
Montana is still looking to find consistency, splitting its fourth consecutive Big Sky Conference series last week, beating Portland State on Thursday (70-64) before losing on Saturday (61-56). Interestingly, Montana is 0-5 in Big Sky play on Saturdays, compared to 4-1 on other days of the week.
The Grizzlies haven’t lost consecutive games in more than a month, losing at Arizona on Dec. 22 before falling to Northern Colorado 11 days later, but also haven’t been able to string more than three consecutive wins together on the season.
Montana is 4-6 in Big Sky play, with all six of its losses coming in the final minute of the game. Montana’s losses have come by an average of 3.2 points per game, none by more than six points (a double-overtime loss).
Ten of Montana’s 14 Division-I games have been decided by single digits, including three in a row and eight of the past 10.
Montana ranks 11th nationally for free-throw percentage, connecting at a .790 clip.
After using the same starting lineup in 11 consecutive games from Dec. 5-Jan. 16, Montana has used a different lineup in five consecutive games. No player has started every game this season.
Montana ranks 36th nationally, allowing just 63.6 points per game. The Grizzlies have played 14 consecutive games without allowing more than 70 points during regulation. The only Big Sky school to surpass its season scoring average against the Griz was Sacramento State, which wouldn’t have if the game hadn’t gone to double overtime.
Montana is 0-4 on the season when allowing its opponent to score 70 points, compared to 6-0 when holding opponents under 61 points.
Montana has led at halftime in seven consecutive games (4-3 record) and has led at the intermission in 13 of 17 games overall this season (7-6).
Montana had out-shot its opponent in six consecutive games until allowing the Vikings to shoot .512 last Saturday. (3-2 record). The Grizzlies rank in the top 80 nationally for both field-goal shooting (.462, 71st) and field-goal defense .411, 77th).
Montana has recorded a better 3-point shooting percentage than its opponent in five of the past seven games. The Grizzlies also rank in the top 100 nationally for 3-point shooting (.356, 93rd).
Montana has shot better than its opponent from the free-throw line in 12 of the past 14 games, but more importantly, the Grizzlies are getting to the line with frequency. Montana is 8-2 when shooting more free throws than its opponent, compared to 0-7 when failing to do so. The Grizzlies have made more free throws than their opponent in 12 of the past 14 games.
Montana is unbeaten when out-rebounding its opponent, but has only done so five times in 17 games (twice against Division-I competition). One of the Grizzlies’ most impressive rebounding performances came last Thursday at Portland State, when Montana out-rebounded Portland State, 41-37, a team that ranked 18th nationally for rebounding.
Despite consistently recording fewer rebounds than its opponent, the Grizzlies have just a -0.6 rebounding margin over the past 11 Division-I games dating back to Dec. 16.
Montana has turned the ball over more times than its opponent 10 times this season, including a season-high 24 giveaways last week at Portland State. In comparison, the Grizzlies only turned the ball over more times than their opponent six times in 31 games a season ago.
From 2018-20, Montana recorded fewer turnovers than its opponent in 74 of 100 contests, and posted a 77-percent winning percentage when doing so.
A Montana player scored 20 points in three consecutive games from Jan. 16-23, after a Grizzly reached that threshold just once through the season’s first 12 contests. Freshman Brandon Whitney scored 22 points vs. Northern Arizona (Jan. 16), sophomore Kyle Owens scored a career-high 22 at Sacramento State (Jan. 21), and both Whitney (28) and junior Cameron Parker (20) eclipsed 20 points in the second game against the Hornets (Jan. 23).
Seven different Grizzlies have led Montana for scoring in a game this season, with none doing so more than four times.