By ERIC TABER
About a year ago, men’s basketball coaches around the Big Sky Conference looked at the Montana Grizzlies and saw a team with a new coaching staff, and only one returning starter. As such, the Griz were picked to finish eighth in the conference, and expectations in Missoula were thought to be low.
So Coach DeCuire and the Griz went out and proved the doubters wrong.
When March rolled around, the Grizzlies sat atop the Big Sky Conference with a regular season championship under its belt, and earned a trip to the NIT after falling two minutes shy of a trip to the NCAA tourney.
Coach DeCuire’s Griz went 20-13, and put together only the second 20-win season for a first year head coach in Grizzly history.
“When people project the possible success of a team, they look at the individuals,” reminisced Coach DeCuire of the 2014 preseason. “That’s what they did with our team is look at the individuals, and they didn’t fear anyone individually, and they didn’t fear me as a head coach. They never took into account our ability to come together as one unit.
“It took us some time, but we were able to do that, and we’re looking to do the same thing this year.”
Expectations for the 2015-16 Griz are a whole different story. The media overwhelmingly chose UM to win the Big Sky with 220 first place votes, senior Martin Breunig earned a spot on the preseason All-Big Sky team, and the Montana hoops magic of yesteryear seems to be returning to Missoula.
With one of the toughest non-conference schedules in program history, featuring three preseason top-30 teams, and four defending conference champions, the Montana hoops magic is also set to face a stern test against the nation’s best.
The 2015-16 edition of Grizzly men’s basketball returns four starters, and six lettermen overall, with 10 newcomers to bolster the squad, many of which are expected to make an immediate impact.
The Griz lose only one starter this season, but that one starter was Jordan Gregory, a first-team All-Conference and USBWA All-Region guard that etched his name in UM’s 1,000 point club with 1,234 career points, placing him just 87 points shy of a spot on the top-10 all-time scoring list at Montana.
“We need to replace 17 points a game, and they probably won’t come from one guy scoring the ball the way Jordan did,” says DeCuire. “But if each individual and returner can increase their production, and some new faces give us a little bit, those 17 points won’t be hard to replace.”
Also gone from last year’s squad due to graduation are Chris Kemp and Mike Weisner, as well as Daniel Nwosu who transferred to a D-2 school in search of playing time. The three accounted for 9.9 points-per-game in ‘14-’15.
Understatement of the day: Martin Breunig will play a role as a key returner for the Griz, bringing with him the 16.7 points-per-game that was sixth best in the league last year, as well as 7.3 rebounds.
The 6-8 senior transfer from Washington was the Grizzlies’ leading scorer with 534 points in his first season at UM, the eighth highest all-time single season scoring total in Griz history.
His role as a versatile post man who is able to shoot with a deft touch as well as he is able to muscle and maneuver in the paint will provide leadership to a young team of big men.
“You’ll see Martin slide down and allow us to play big at times. There’ll be some games where we’re going to have to play big against good teams just to stay in it and compete for balls, rebounds and defend,” said DeCuire.
Joining Breunig in the post is returning sophomore Fabijan Krslovic, the 6-8, 225 pound post player from Australia who enjoyed a breakout freshman season with the second most steals on the team (36) and the second most blocked shots (19).
“He was more of a defender, hustle guy for us,” said DeCuire of Krslovic. “He’s spent a lot of time working on his game down low facing the basket. I think he’ll be more productive for us around the hoop.”
Also back to lead the Griz are junior guards Brandon Gfeller and Mario Dunn who each averaged nearly nine points-per-contest in ’14-‘15.
The 6-4, 190 pound, hot-shooting Gfeller brings a team-best .421 three-point percentage to the floor this season on 83-197 attempts from the three-spot last year.
“Brandon provided us a lot of versatility last season. He’ll slide down to some two, and he could even slide up to some four if we want to open up the thing,” said DeCuire of the Colfax, Wash., native.
Dunn returns as one of the Grizzlies’ top defenders last year, with a team-high 59 steals, but will miss the first few weeks of the season as he recovers from off-season wrist surgery.
“Mario Dunn can defend 1-3. Even though he’s not the biggest guy on the floor, he’s got the biggest heart of all the perimeter players that we’re going to see. He’ll allow us to compete in a lot of areas,” adds DeCuire.
Adding depth to the UM backcourt is one of Coach DeCuire’s most improved players last season, Riley Bradshaw, the Corvallis native who returned to Montana after a year at Utah State. DeCuire expects a change in roles this year for the one-two man to add even more versatility to the UM attack.
“He’ll play off the ball 90 percent of the time, which I think will make him more aggressive, and hopefully his production increases as well. He’s kind of a wild card for us because he’s got the ability to create a shot for himself about as well as anyone on our team.”
One thing that Griz fans will immediately notice this year is the bevvy of new faces on the court. With only four players lost from last year, Coach DeCuire bolstered his roster with 10 newcomers of different stripes over the offseason. The additions top DeCuire’s roster off at 16 players.
After redshirting their freshman years, the Griz welcome back a pair of Montana natives with some serious physical presence down low in the 6-10, 230 pound Bryden Boehning from Glendive, and Gavin DeJong, a 6-6, 215 pound forward from Manhattan.
“Bryden changed his body, and gained weight, gained confidence with the ball in his hands on the block over the summer,” says DeCuire of his biggest player.
“Gavin provides us with athleticism and the ability to go get balls off the glass. With his athleticism, he can finish around the basket, above defenders and also shoot from mid range.
“Those three guys (Krslovic, DeJong & Boehning) will be go-to guys and low post scorers for us. They’ll provide us the ability to pound the ball and put a lot of pressure on team’s defenses. As they adjust to that, we can sub and go to a more perimeter-orientated offense.
“Diversity is going to be huge for us. We’ll be counting on the three headed posts for our offense.”
The Griz also welcome players who are expected to make an immediate impact in the backcourt in junior transfer Walter Wright (Snow College), and true freshman Michael Oguine (Porter Ranch, Calif.).
Wright set an all-time single game record at Snow College, scoring 49 points in a contest against Sheridan College last year. He averaged 21.8 points-per-game for the Badgers and six assists. With Dunn’s absence early on, Wright will give Coach DeCuire another option at point, a position where the battle for minutes is deep with talent.
Oguine, a 6-2, 175 pound, three-star recruit out of Chaminade Prep in Canoga Park, Calif. will also vie for playing time at the point, bringing athleticism and an average of 21.3 points per game in high school.
Adding even competition and preparedness to the point position is Ahmaad Rorie, a sophomore transfer from the University of Oregon, who was ranked by ESPN as one of the top three high school players to come out of the state of Washington in 2014.
Due to NCAA transfer rules, Rorie will sit out the ’15-’16 year, but according to DeCuire, will provide an X factor in practice at a position loaded with talent, and will only help the other point players improve.
“I look at it in terms of how I approached things when I was a redshirt transfer here, is every practice was my game,” reminisced DeCuire, Montana’s all-time assist leader as a player from ’91-’94. “So we’re encouraging him to do the same, is to just approach every practice as if it were a game, and make it as difficult as possible for those other guards every day, and we’ll get better on both sides of the ball because of that.
“I don’t know if we’ll see that type of competition on a daily basis outside of practice, so it’s going to be huge for our guys to improve. So at the one and the two, minutes are going to be up in the air and it’s going to be competitive.”
Expected to fight for minutes in the three-four spot is another true freshman, Bobby Moorehead (6-7, 190) out of Stadium High School in Tacoma, Wash. Moorehead averaged 26.5 points-per-game in high school and 11 rebounds, earning him a place on the All-State Honorable Mention team.
“Bobby Moorehead is another potential three man for us that can shoot the ball and give us a look that we kind of got from Brandon last year. He spreads the floor out and allows people to do what they do, and if they fall asleep on him he can make them pay.
“I think we need (Bobby) to play. I think that as another three point shooter we need to be able to put as many shooters on the floor as possible, and right now he’s catching on offensively and he’s competing, so I think he’s someone who can earn enough minutes to justify playing him as a freshman.”
Transferring from the JC level to play for the Griz this season is even more local talent in the form of Zachary Camel (Salish Kootenai College) and Aaron Misipeka-Ward (Wenatchee Valley JC), shooting guards who are expected to be in the mix for playing time as well.
Camel, the nephew of former Griz guard JR Camel, played for his uncle at Arlee High School, where he made four state championship appearances with the Warriors. Meanwhile, Misipeka-Ward was a two-time all-state selection at Florence-Carlton High School.
ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS
The ’14-1’15 Grizzlies answered the questions of last season in fine form. So what are this year’s questions as Coach DeCuire enters his second season?
“It’s about figuring out who your most productive players are and putting the ball in their hands in areas they can be affective. That’s the learning curve for us right now, is who is going to be productive for us other than Martin?
Is Brandon going to be more than just a spot shooter for us? Will Walter step in and be as productive as he was in junior college last year, and then Mike Oguine, who is a freshman coming in with a ton of talent, how quickly does he transition into the division 1 game?
“Our versatility I think will be our biggest weapon. As you look 1-7 on our perimeter players, the versatility that everyone can play more than one position is going to be huge.”
Undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights for Griz fans is the ’15-’16 schedule, featuring one of the most difficult non-conference lineups UM has ever faced.
Out of the blocks the Griz will get a shot at redemption on the Boise State Broncos, defending Mountain West Champions, and a team the Griz nearly upset on the road last season, falling in double-overtime in Boise.
This year the Broncos come calling to Missoula on Nov. 13 for the Grizzlies’ first regular season game of the year. The Griz are 2-0 over Boise in the Broncos’ last two trips to Montana.
Also highlighting the schedule are two USA Today preseason top-25 teams in perennial powerhouses Kansas and Gonzaga.
For Coach DeCuire, games against the best in non-conference action serve two purposes: prepare your team to fight, and expose the Griz name to new recruits and markets.
“Let’s go play solid competition. Let’s go on the road and play these guys in places that they probably never would have an opportunity to play. Taking a team to Kansas, taking a team into Gonzaga, those are two of the toughest places to play in their conference, not only because of their talent, but their environment. It think that’s part of a student athlete’s education, is the experience in and outside of the gym.
“The other piece for us is that it’s a huge recruiting tool. When you’re trying to convince kids that are being recruited into the Pac-12, the Mountain West, Conference USA, you have to give them a reason to say no to those conferences. For us it’s level of competition in November and December. It’s strength of schedule all around, and the opportunity to play for a championship. We’ll continue to play good teams for both reasons.”
The ’15-’16 Griz will take the court on October 27 for the first time in front of Griz Nation at the annual Maroon & Silver Scrimmage, followed by a home exhibition against Whitworth on Nov. 11.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited by this year’s Griz hoops team. Tickets are available now at Griztix.com and at the Adams Center Box Office.