MISSOULA – The first-place Montana Grizzlies rank No. 1 in many categories during Big Sky Conference play. But while they’re scoring and shooting at a high rate, it’s the defensive dominance that has Montana in the running for a championship.
You can largely measure defensive success by one category: effort. Montana has forced the issue all year, putting opponents on their heels with non-stop intensity.
“The ball pressure, I think, is the biggest thing for us this year,” said head coach Travis DeCuire when asked how his team has stepped it up a notch. “We’re getting our hands on a lot of balls. We’re getting out. We’re contesting passes. We’re not letting guys dribble where they might want to dribble to run their offense.”
But the key to playing harder and smarter came with one simple switch in philosophy that has made a huge difference.
“Now we don’t allow middle,” explained forward Bobby Moorehead. “That’s our main goal is to not let people drive middle, whereas in the past we weren’t letting people drive baseline. So it’s kind of a complete different scheme.”
“It’s pretty good, because it kind of gives us something to work towards,” added guard Michael Oguine. “On defense when we’re out there we’re kind of thinking, ‘OK, don’t let my man go middle.’”
The style works particularly well because of Montana’s quick guards and versatile big men who are willing to step out and defend away from the basket. It also masks their lack of a true rim protector, because the Griz don’t let opponents get to the rim.
One Grizzly has benefited most from the switch. Moorehead came to Montana as a 3-point shooter without much else to add. Now his 6-foot-7 frame has become a defensive weapon. He helped hold Montana State star Tyler Hall to 10 points last Saturday, because he’s not afraid of getting burned off the dribble.
“It’s been huge, because I know that the way I’m going to push them I’m going to have help defense there,” said Moorehead. “So that makes each individual defender look better. On an island one-on-one with a really good player, there’s not a whole lot I could do besides use my length. I think just naturally having my team in the gaps and helping me line of ball is what’s making me look like a pretty good defender.”
The Griz have a set of defensive rules they follow, but they also change some of their strategy each game — and often multiple times during the game. For example, Montana has many different ways it reacts to ball screens, so its man-to-man can look like several different defenses.
“We change our coverage out of timeouts, dead balls, sometimes on the fly,” said DeCuire. “We also change coverage in terms of penetration and post defense, so it’s still man-to-man, but at the same time you’re not sure where we’re coming from, where the help is coming from, or if any is coming at all. Then we top it off with pressure full-court, which we tweak that possession by possession.”
Every team gets fired up by a big dunk or a scoring run. The Grizzlies can do that, too, but defense is the main fuel for their fun.
“Those stops we get in a row, they start to add up, and it really just gets us hyped,” said Oguine. “It makes us want to keep on going and keep stringing those stops together. When we do that, I think we’re pretty special.”
Montana’s defense dominated Southern Utah and Northern Arizona on the road back in December, beating NAU 87-69 and SUU 79-49. Now the Griz host the two struggling squads. The 7-0 Griz take on the 2-5 Thunderbirds at 7 p.m. Thursday and then wrap up the week versus the 0-7 Lumberjacks at 7 p.m. Saturday.