MISSOULA -- The quest for a three-peat really begins now for the Montana Grizzlies.
UM hosts Northern Arizona on Saturday for its conference-opening men's basketball game as the Griz attempt to replicate the success they've had over the past two seasons.
Montana enters Big Sky Conference play with a 4-7 record after a rugged non-conference slate that saw UM play four Power 5 schools. With a younger roster, there was a lot of learning lessons along the way for Montana.
"For me, I break this down into fourths anyway in terms of our season," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. "And non-conference is over and conference has two halves to it, and then the conference tournament is your closure. So, for us a lot of bumps and bruises in the non-conference with such a young group on the floor, upperclassmen in new roles, I thought there was a lot of growth in that period of time.
"The question is how quickly can we recover, and we'll see that here pretty quickly."
DeCuire, who is in his sixth season as the team's head coach, has often compared this season to his first back in 2014-15. But he said this year's non-conference schedule was the most difficult he's experienced as a head coach for a number of reasons.
"It was a combination of both the level of competition that we played and there was so much teaching going on at a high level that it was very difficult for us to play consistently," DeCuire said. "No excuses. I thought there was some games we let get away that should've never gotten away. But I think for me, I think I became a better coach over that short period of time.
"If I could have some moments back, I think there's some learning moments for me as well as my team but definitely a positive experience."
Josh Vazquez, Derrick Carter-Hollinger and Kyle Owens, Montana's three true freshmen, as well as Eddy Egun who redshirted last season, all saw their first college basketball minutes at Stanford when Montana opened the season. Thrown into the fire, those four, along with sophomore Mack Anderson, who played sparingly last year for UM, were forced to learn and grow in new, expanded roles as Montana took on a challenging non-conference schedule that featured two currently ranked teams in Oregon and Washington, Stanford which received AP top 25 votes this week as well as Arkansas and New Mexico, teams that currently sit at 10-1 and 12-2, respectively.
So far, Vazquez has led that group with 7.1 points and 1.8 assists per game while shooting at a 39.5 percent clip from deep. Carter-Hollinger has been sharp on the glass with 4.5 boards per contest. Owens has started in nine of Montana's 11 contests, the most out of the group. All five average double-digit minutes per game.
The growth of that young core has been there as the season has moved along and DeCuire expects that trend to continue. And along with them, grad transfer Jared Samuelson has worked his way into the rotation after missing the first four contests with an injury in his first year back at the Division I level while Towson transfer Yagizhan Selcuk played his first minutes as a Grizzly against Omaha. Selcuk sat a year out after being a mid-year transfer for UM but scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds in 27 minutes of work in his debut.
So there have been a lot of factors coupled with Montana's schedule that have impacted the up-and-down non-conference months.
Senior Sayeed Pridgett has lived up to the hype so far coming into the season. Pridgett is averaging 19.4 points per game, second in the Big Sky behind Weber State's Jerrick Harding (20.7). Pridgett has already reset his career-high twice this season and did so most recently against Omaha when he scored 32 points. His 1,279 career points currently rank 13th in Montana school history and he is just 10 points away from tying Derrick Pope for 12th. Pridgett also leads Montana in rebounds (7.7), assists (3.2) and steals (2.2) per game.
It'll be the second year the Big Sky works with a 20-game conference schedule so each team plays everyone twice. And with Montana, many opponents are rivals of sorts, so DeCuire sees the intensity ramp up.
"Each one is different, right?" he said. "It's a different type of intensity. I think the Montana State game brings a level of intensity that no other game for us on our schedule ever will bring. Then Weber State with the tradition of the programs is a different level of intensity than any other game will bring. And then each year you have these different rivalries. Right now Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington have been big games for us.
"You've got new teams that have become more talented as of late. The Portland State's and Southern Utah's. So now everyone looks like a contender."
The Big Sky as a whole went 61-55 in non-conference, which according to a league press release is the second-most wins combined by the Big Sky since 2005-06.
The Griz and Lumberjacks tip-off at 7 p.m. in Missoula at Dahlberg Arena.