MISSOULA — Last week the Montana men's basketball team completed its non-conference schedule before the holiday break.
The Griz were able to breathe a quick sigh of relief after their game against Arizona. Montana was a rare NCAA Division I program that made it through its non-conference schedule without any cancellations, and the Griz (3-5, 0-2 Big Sky Conference) even added home matchups with Yellowstone Christian College and Dickinson State.
The non-conference portion of Montana's schedule was not initially released until just days before the season started. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into that planning, and, per UM, the Griz had eight different looks with their non-conference schedule.
In the end, Montana was able to complete its four games against high-major opponents that also generated guaranteed-game money. Per game contracts obtained by MTN Sports, the Griz earned $255,000 total for their matchups against USC, Georgia, Washington and Arizona.
That number is down from $355,000 from the 2019-20 season when Montana also had four high-major games with payouts from Stanford, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico.
Arizona and Georgia were already on Montana's books, and both honored their contracts with UM though Arizona did need a payout less than originally agreed to because of the pandemic. Georgia, which beat Montana on Dec. 8, agreed to pay Montana the most at $90,000, a typical going rate that Montana sees.
Arizona, which defeated Montana on Dec. 22, agreed to pay $70,000. For comparison, Arizona agreed to pay Montana $95,000 when the two teams met up in 2018.
Washington, which Montana upset on Dec. 16, agreed to a $50,000 payout, down from the $90,000 from the 2019 contest, while USC, which defeated UM in the season opener, rounded out the group with a $45,000 agreement.
The lower amounts for guaranteed-game payouts were something UM expected with universities now needing to tighten their budgets because of the pandemic which was well into effect when UW and USC were added.
"But we saw that coming," DeCuire told media on Dec. 11. "We knew that and it was part of the reason why we were trying to get games where we could bus, but we just couldn’t get them so we were forced to fly to a lot of places just because it was either not play non-conference games or get on a plane."
While building a schedule is never easy, DeCuire said scheduling Arizona, Georgia and Washington was not difficult, with two of those schools already honoring their contracts and Washington a familiar foe. USC added Montana after another game was dropped.
DeCuire said the difficult games to schedule are ones in the region and home-and-home games. Ryan Martin, the Senior Associate Athletic Director and Chief Financial Officer at the University of Montana, echoed those statements.
"The hard part was scheduling home-and-homes," Martin said. "We had some really good home-and-home games, but it makes no sense to have a really good home-and-home opponent when you can't have fans. So it was trying to find a balance of home-and-homes and guarantees, then all of a sudden you don't want a home-and-home because you can't have fans.
"The majority of universities throughout all of this have been really nice to work with. I think there's been this kind of cohesive understanding that we're all in this together."
At one point, Montana had 13 non-conference games scheduled which included seven home games, including a Mountain West Conference opponent that was not named.
The guaranteed-game payouts are directly tied to DeCuire's contract incentives with Montana. The first $86,000 of the guaranteed-game money goes back to the UM athletic department, with the remaining money going to DeCuire and his assistant coaches.
But outside of the payouts, for two straight seasons Montana has found itself playing four high-major opponents, something the Griz use as a recruiting tool that draws talent to Missoula. High-level non-conference slates continue to be more common and regular with the Griz.
"We play those teams because we want to play at a high level and prepare for what might be out there for us in March," DeCuire said. "I don't know that we would get the kids that we get if we only played Big Sky and like opponents, and our fans like to see us compete against high-level teams."
Even with payouts lower than normal, it was still a point of interest for Montana to take the games where they could get them. For the Griz, having games with reduced guarantees was better than no games at all.
"The whole market just went down," Martin said. "There weren't a lot of teams paying $90,000, and some paying $45,000, they basically with a snap of a finger all went down together."
Coaches typically handle the scheduling in college basketball. While scheduling is a challenge each year, this season teams couldn't be too picky, which ultimately still landed UM a challenging non-conference slate, though abridged.
"It wasn’t like a hard bargain but one of those situations where you have to be willing to compromise or else you’re not going to get anything done because nobody was in a situation to do any strong-arming," Martin said. "In the past, every coach has waited for that perfect game or they’ve been on the search for that perfect game. This year, I think as soon as you found a game that made sense, you grabbed it. And I know just seeing the contracts coming through, they were coming through faster and with more urgency than in years past."