MISSOULA – Nearly a month of the non-conference schedule is in the books, and, with one month to go before Big Sky Conference play tips off, Montana basketball fans should like what they see. But the Grizzlies are still looking for a little more.
The Griz have jumped out to a 4-2 start, which includes an overtime victory at Pittsburgh, the first win for UM over a power conference opponent since 2010. A young roster still has a lot of room to grow and learn how to play together, so the Grizzlies could be on their way to many good nights this year.
But they also know they have taken a slight step back over the past few games. Head coach Travis DeCuire doesn’t think his team has put together a full 40 minutes lately.
“Two weeks ago I would have said yeah,” said DeCuire when asked if he thought the Griz were where they should be. “We’ve had long lulls where we have not played very well in terms of our intensity, our attention to detail. And it cost us the Penn State game, cost us the (UC) Santa Barbara game. When you look at the board and you say 4-2 based on our record, I’ll take it. But I think we could play better basketball at this point.”
“I think we’ve had a big problem with that this year, respecting our opponent no matter who we are playing,” added forward Bobby Moorehead, who has played his best basketball in a Griz jersey early in his junior season. “Carroll and Whitworth are two good examples.”
Montana beat the two smaller schools, but didn’t pull away until later in the second half both times.
“They’re really high level programs, although they’re not Division I,” Moorehead continued. “So that’s a problem we’ve got to fix is coming out and respecting our opponents. And I think we figured that out the second half (against Carroll) and fixed it.”
One of last year’s weaknesses looks much stronger for the Griz. The previous team had very few big bodies in the rotation, so UM was forced to play small ball even when it didn’t want to.
Now a few new additions are giving DeCuire more options. Freshman Karl Nicholas is providing a spark off the bench with tantalizing athleticism, and Jamar Akoh is settling into a starting role.
The 6-foot-8 forward had to sit out last year after transferring from Cal State Fullerton, so Akoh took a while to get back into form. But his 16 points and 10 rebounds versus Carroll on Sunday showed what he can bring to the Griz.
“My first couple games were kind of difficult for me,” said Akoh, who played only 28 total minutes and scored four points over Montana’s first two games before upping his averages to 25 minutes and nearly 12 points a night since. “Just figuring out flow and how hard I actually have to play again. I think I’m starting to figure it out. My role is to be a scorer, make plays offensively, rebound defensively, just dominate the game with my size.”
“Now that he has kind of prepared himself a little different and realizing the pace is a little more up-tempo, he’s been more aggressive and playing harder,” added DeCuire. “His numbers are starting to show. I think the last three or four games he’s been a lot better. (Versus Carroll) was the Jamar Akoh we would expect every night.”
Montana has a chance to pick up another impressive win Wednesday night. The Griz will head to Stanford. The Cardinal have already lost to two Big Sky opponents, Portland State and Eastern Washington. Then on Sunday, UM returns to Missoula to host struggling Cal State Northridge.