Montana Returns Home With Clean Slate

The first seven weeks of Montana’s 2019-20 basketball campaign featured several ups and downs. The valleys are understandable, considering Montana’s strength of schedule and the young rotation the Grizzlies have pieced together. But is still wasn’t the record Griz fans have come to expect under Travis DeCuire‘s teams, which have never had a losing overall record and won 52 combined games over the past two championship seasons.

It would be easy to be down on this year’s Grizzlies after a 4-7 non-conference mark including a home loss to Montana Tech. The good news, though, is that Montana’s season starts with a clean slate this week when Big Sky Conference play begins.

“We schedule the way we do in order to prepare us for conference play,” DeCuire said. “We’ve been tested, and we believe that will be an advantage for us as we move into the next portion of our season. It’s a new season for us now, and we’re excited for that.”

Montana’s four non-conference wins were its fewest since also going 4-7 in 2014-15.

Photo Courtesy of Grizzly Athletics.

The encouraging thing, though, is that a team’s record essentially now resets. That 2014-15 season when the Grizzlies went 4-7? They also went on to share a Big Sky title while winning 20 games and qualifying for the NIT.

DeCuire has always challenged his team during non-conference, but nothing compares to this year.

Montana in 2019-20 played the eighth-toughest schedule in the entire country during non-conference play, facing four Power-5 teams who have all been ranked or have received top-25 votes this season. Over the past decade, Montana’s average non-conference strength of schedule has been a respectable 132, but far from this year’s number.

Overall, Montana’s six road losses came to teams with a combined mark of 58-17 (.773). Even more impressive, the six road losses have come against opponents who are a combined 45-1 on their home court. The lone loss was by Washington, which lost to Gonzaga, the current No. 1 team in the country.

Take the stiff competition, in addition to the fact that true freshmen have accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s starts, and the outlook looks much brighter than by quickly glancing at the record.

Following an overtime loss at Omaha last Saturday, Montana dispersed for a couple days with family to celebrate the holidays. The team returned Christmas night and practiced Thursday and Friday morning in preparation for its conference opener.

Photo Courtesy of Grizzly Athletics.

“It’s time to hit the reset button,” DeCuire said. “Hopefully we came back with fresh legs and a fresh mind and we’re ready to go.”

Montana opens Big Sky play at home against Northern Arizona (Saturday) and Sacramento State (Monday). Saturday is Montana’s Hero Game, honoring all military, first responders and educators – who can receive one free general-admission ticket with a valid ID. To celebrate New Year’s early, Montana is giving away 500 free general-admission tickets to Monday’s game against the Hornets. Tip is at 7 p.m. both nights.

The 11 Big Sky teams posted a combined 61-55 record during non-conference play (.526), the second-most wins ever and the best winning percentage since 2005-06.

Given the range in competition played, it’s hard to fully gauge a team’s non-conference success, but Sacramento State (7-2) and Northern Arizona (6-3) – Montana’s first two opponents and two teams ranked in the bottom four of the preseason polls – rank first and second in the current league standings. Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah all have 7-4 records, while Montana State is 6-5 and Portland State is 6-6.

Montana, Idaho and Weber State have 4-7 records, followed by Idaho State at 3-6. The Big Sky owns three victories over Mountain West schools and an 8-5 record against the Big West and 8-4 mark against the Summit League. Perhaps most notable, Southern Utah beat Nebraska of the Big Ten.

Eastern Washington currently leads the nation for scoring, while Sacramento State has one of the country’s best defenses, ranking third for scoring defense, fourth for field-goal defense and first for three-point defense. The Hornets are one of three Big Sky schools to rank in the top 10 nationally for three-point defense, while Portland State is the nation’s leader for offensive rebounds.

Montana has won nine consecutive Big Sky openers dating back to the 2010-11 season. Saturday will mark the sixth time in the past 10 years that the Grizzlies have opened league play against the Lumberjacks (5-0), including the third year in a row.


  • NAU opens Big Sky play with a 6-3 mark, including home wins over South Dakota and Omaha and road victories at Utah Valley and UC Riverside.
  • The Lumberjacks have won three of their past four games, two of which came on the road.
  • NAU’s 6-3 record is the second-best in the Big Sky and NAU’s best non-conference mark since 2010-11.
  • Sophomore Cameron Shelton ranks in the top 15 in the Big Sky for scoring (14.4), rebounding (6.1), assists (3.8) and steals (1.3). He has been in double figures for scoring every game this season. He also has a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
  • Sophomore Luke Avdalovic (11.9) and senior Ted McCree (11.3) are also in double figures for scoring.
  • NAU ranks 33rd nationally with a .377 three-point shooting percentage, led by Avdalovic’s .513 clip, which ranks sixth in the nation. He averages 2.86 makes per game.
  • McCree has been in double figures in four consecutive games, averaging 15.3 points per game during that span.
  • Senior Brooks DeBisschop is averaging 8.0 rebounds per game (61st in NCAA), including 3.3 offensive boards per contest (26th).
  • Following a 10-21 campaign a season ago (8-12 in Big Sky play), the Lumberjacks were predicted to finish eighth in the Big Sky by both the coaches and media.
  • Shane Burcar is in his second season with the Lumberjacks, including his first as interim head coach.

In a series that dates back to 1970-71, the Griz and Lumberjacks have played 104 times. Montana holds a 73-31 edge, including a 9-0 record under Travis DeCuire. In fact, since 2009 Montana is 19-3 against the Lumberjacks, losing at home just once.

In two wins a season ago, Montana shot a combined .504 from the floor while holding the Lumberjacks under .400 in both games. Sayeed Pridgett scored 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting last March, in a 66-64 home victory that ended with a missed game-winning, three-point attempt at the buzzer by NAU’s Carlos Hines.