MISSOULA — College basketball is back in Missoula as the Montana men's and women's basketball teams officially tipped off their seasons earlier this week.
The Griz men opened with a win on Tuesdayover Northwest Indian College to begin Travis DeCuire's 10th season as head coach.
"I think this is a unique team," DeCuire said. "The size and versatility, not quite as athletic as the group we had in '17 and '18 but bigger, probably a better shooting team, but they need to prove that they're as good defensively if we want to hang a banner."
UM was picked second and third in both preseason polls, and the Griz return a strong core of experienced players, headlined by an all-Big Sky performer in senior guard Aanen Moody. Moody, who joined UM last year after stops at North Dakota and Southern Utah, averaged 16.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last year while shooting at a 40.7% rate from deep. He was named second-team all-Big Sky, voted to the preseason all-league team coming into his final collegiate year and scored 25 points in the opener to lead UM.
He's joined by stalwart and three-year starting senior point guard Brandon Whitney (15.0 ppg, 4.0 apg), as well as veteran fifth-year guard Josh Vazquez (6.3 ppg), plus big men Dischon Thomas (11.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Laolu Oke (1.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg), who, like Moody, joined the program last year. Thomas started out of the gates thanks to his ability to shoot from deep, while Oke began to make an impact late in the season with his defense. Sophomore forward Jaxon Nap (11 points in the opener) also appears ready to take the next step.
"I think they've done a good job of mixing the new faces in, spending quality time on and off the court together, which creates a level of chemistry that these guys have done a good job of figuring out the strengths of the newer players," DeCuire said. "And also communicating some of the things in terms of how we do things, how we go about our day and also how we play on the floor, so I think this group is doing a good job of coming together. The question is how long before we're completely together."
Plus, there are the additions of transfers like Giordan Williams from Santa Clara and Te'Jon Sawyer of Cal Baptist, while freshman Money Williams has turned heads early and started in the opener and scored 19 points, not to mention the other young players who might see their number called during the year.
It's a mix of vets and young athletes, and familiar and fresh faces, as DeCuire looks to guide this group back to the top of the Big Sky for the first time since 2019.
"We just need to be gritty," DeCuire said. "We can't lose sight of what the ultimate goal is for the group and when we do that we're successful, and that's always something that's always difficult when you have a ton of young men that have individual goals, dreams and aspirations to be successful after college. The teams that can come together create a vibe and a level of chemistry, a level of togetherness, that allows you to play through adversity are the ones that win and we're trying to become that now."
The Lady Griz were picked third in both preseason polls as they enter Brian Holsinger's third year as head coach.
Montana sports a talented roster and an interesting bunch, with a stable of key players back from a year ago but also new faces that will figure into the mix and be impact members. UM opened the season with a 83-70 loss to Gonzaga.
"They've been good. This is so early, to ask them to execute perfectly is not fair at this point, first game of the season against this kind of competition," Holsinger said after the game. "They were going to make some mistakes. We needed to hit a few more shots tonight to overcome the mistakes defensively and we didn't."
Multi-year all-league pick and forward Carmen Gfeller (13.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is back for her final run as the team's premier leader. Gfeller was once again named to the preseason all-conference team.
She returns alongside fellow senior and former all-conference selection guard Gina Marxen (11.1 ppg, 3.3 apg), as well as last year's breakout player in Dani Bartsch (5.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg), who started strong with a double-double in UM's opener against Gonzaga on Monday with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Sophomores Mack Konig (8.8 ppg, 2.7 apg) and Libby Stump (10.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg) were game as ever and ready out of the gates to make immediate impacts as freshmen a year ago and are expected to be main contributors again. Konig was named the Big Sky freshman of the year last season.
Then, there's the new faces. Iowa State transfer Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw (eight points against Gonzaga) and Portland transfer MJ Bruno (12 points against Gonzaga) both started in Monday's opener and showcased their veteran college basketball experience had carried over. A number of other players like sophomore Alex Pirog (2.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg), Arizona State transfer Imogen Greenslade and freshman Macey Huard will figure into the mix as well.
It's a group that, like the men's team, has the potential to compete for a championship.
There will be growing pains, especially early, but if things click, Montana could be a force for the rest of the Big Sky Conference come late in the season.
"We're going to be hard to beat," Holsinger said. "I'm going to promise you, we're going to be hard to beat come January. I think if we can stay healthy, we've got a lot of pieces, we've got to figure out where those pieces fit, we've got to get more solid on defense just all the way around fundamentally."
Montana Grizzlies 2023-24 roster
No. 0, Money Williams, guard, FR, 6-4, 200 pounds, Oakland, CA
No. 2, Chase Henderson, guard, FR, 6-0, 165 pounds, Des Moines, IA
No. 3, Josh Vazquez, guard, GR, 6-3, 180 pounds, Torrance, CA
No. 4, Giordan Williams, guard, R-SR, 6-5, 195 pounds, Long Beach, CA
No. 5, Jaxon Nap, forward, SO, 6-7, 208 pounds, Renton, WA
No. 11, Aanen Moody, guard, GR, 6-3, 186 pounds, Dickinson, ND
No. 12, Brandon Whitney, guard, SR, 6-1, 183 pounds, Mission Hills, CA
No. 13, Rhett Reynolds, forward, R-FR, 6-9, 210 pounds, Shelby, MT
No. 14, Zack Davidson, forward, FR, 6-8, 224 pounds, Santa Ana, CA
No. 21, Laolu Oke, forward, R-SR, 6-8, 215 pounds, Aurora, CO
No. 22, Adam Shoff, guard, SR, 6-1, 167 pounds, Redding, CA
No. 23, Connor Dick, guard, FR, 6-3, 194 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 24, Dischon Thomas, forward, R-SR, 6-9, 230 pounds, Durham, NC
No. 30, Caden Bateman, forward, R-FR, 6-7, 204 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 32, Te'Jon Sawyer, forward, JR, 6-8, 252 pounds, San Francisco, CA
No. 34, Blake Jones, forward, JR, 6-10, 225 pounds, Canberra, Australia
Montana Lady Griz 2023-24 roster
No. 0, Keeli Burton-Oliver, forward, R-SO, 6-2, Sammamish, WA
No. 1, Libby Stump, guard, SO, 5-8, Ferndale, WA
No. 2, Mack Konig, guard, SO, 5-9, Milton, Ontario, Canada
No. 3, Draya Wacker, guard, R-FR, 5-8, Melstone, MT
No. 10, Haley Huard, guard, JR, 6-1, Highlands Ranch, CO
No. 11, Macy Donarski, guard, FR, 5-8, La Crosse, WI
No. 12, Macey Huard, guard, FR, 6-2, Highlands Ranch, CO
No. 13, Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw, guard, 5th, 5-10, Indianola, IA
No. 14, Lauren Dick, guard, SO, 5-10, Missoula, MT
No. 15, Imogen Greenslade, center, R-JR, 6-4, Sydney, Australia
No. 20, Carmen Gfeller, forward, GR, 6-1, Colfax, WA
No. 22, Gina Marxen, guard, 5th, 5-8, Sammamish, WA
No. 23, MJ Bruno, guard, JR, 5-11, Spokane, WA
No. 33, Adria Lincoln, forward, FR, 6-1, Monroe, WA
No. 34, Alex Pirog, forward, SO, 6-3, Highlands Ranch, CO
No. 40, Dani Bartsch, forward, JR, 6-2, Helena, MT