Montana Picked to Repeat as Big Sky Champions

By NIC HALLISEY

If it wasn’t already – after winning the 2018 regular-season and tournament titles – the target is officially on Montana’s back. The Grizzlies were picked to repeat as Big Sky Conference champions in 2019, earning a near-unanimous selection by both the league’s coaches and media members.

Among the league’s coaches, Montana earned 10 of the 11 first-place votes (teams weren’t allowed to vote for their own team), with Weber State earning the other first-place vote and placing second on every other ballot. The Wildcats were followed by Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington, Portland State and a sixth-place tie between Montana and Southern Utah. Idaho State, Idaho, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona rounded out the coaches’ poll.

The media poll was much of the same, with the Grizzlies earning 33 of 35 first-place picks. Weber State earned the other two selections. The biggest difference was the placing of Idaho (sixth in the media poll compared to ninth in the coaches’) and Southern Utah (ninth instead of sixth).

Photo by Todd Goodrich; courtesy of GrizzlyAthletics

“Survival mode is hard to sustain when the bullseye is on your back,” said Travis DeCuire, the 2018 Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year. “We have to find ways in practice every day to compete in a competitive environment that forces us to get better. You know our motto: Compete with desperation every day.”

The last time a team earned as many first-place votes was Weber State in 2013-14. The last time Montana was picked to win the league was in 2015-16 (first in the media poll, tied for first in the coaches’).

Weber State three starters, plus a 2016-17 starter who missed last season, while Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington also bring back plenty of production.

“Weber will have some of the best guard play in the country, and then Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington return a lot of weapons with experience,” DeCuire said. “We’re one of four teams that returns a ton of experience, which makes for a fun race, but you also can’t look past anyone in this league.”

It’s easy to see why Montana received the attention it did. The Grizzlies won their first 13 league games a year ago en route to a 16-2 record that culminated with a Big Sky regular-season title. They then went to Reno and won three games in three nights to win the tournament championship and earn the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

From that team, Montana returns four starters, including a pair of preseason all-conference selections – one being the preseason player of the year. Overall, Montana brings back 81.3 percent of its minutes played, 85.2 percent of its scoring, 85.2 percent of its assists, 86.0 percent of its steals, 71.4 percent of its rebounding and 70.2 percent of its blocked shots.

In addition to Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine – two of the six players named to the preseason all-conference team on Wednesday – Montana also brings back 2018 All-Big Sky third-team selection Jamar Akoh and lock-down defender/three-point shooter Bobby Moorehead. Off the bench, Timmy Falls (40.7-percent three-point shooting and team-best assist-to-minute average) and Sayeed Pridgett (8.4 points per game, 1.2 steals per game) played key roles for the Griz in 2017-18, while Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey– who sat out last year due to injury – is also back on the court.

Montana welcomed six new players this summer, as well. The Grizzlies signed freshmen Mack Anderson (Bozeman, Mont.), Freddy Brown III (Seattle, Wash.), Ben Carter (Adelaide, Australia) and Eddy Egun (Woodland Hills, California). They also added transfers Tony Miller (Seattle Pacific) and Kendal Manuel (Oregon State), although Manuel will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Adding to the depth are big men Kelby Kramer and Peter Jones, who both redshirted during their first collegiate season.

The Grizzlies are currently completing their third week of practices. They will hold their annual public scrimmage on Tuesday before hosting Whitworth in an exhibition game on Nov. 2. The team officially opens the season vs. 2018 NCAA tournament team Georgia State on Nov. 9.

“I think our non-conference schedule will challenge us and force us to play at a high level right away,” DeCuire said. “If we want to win, we have to play tournament-level basketball in November, which will hopefully lead to good results come conference.”

Coaches’ Poll

Place Team Points (1st-Place Votes)
1. Montana 100 (10)
2. Weber State 90 (1)
3. Northern Colorado 70
4. Eastern Washington 63
5. Portland State 55
T6. Montana State 53
Southern Utah 53
8. Idaho State 50
9. Idaho 34
10. Sacramento State 27
11. Northern Arizona 10

Media Poll

Place Team Points (1st-Place Votes)
1. Montana 383 (33
2. Weber State 346 (2)
3. Northern Colorado 280
4. Eastern Washington 261
5. Montana State 194
6. Idaho 192
7. Portland State 189
8. Idaho State 176
9. Southern Utah 128
10. Sacramento State 115
11. Northern Arizona 46