MISSOULA — Typically in the college basketball season, Big Sky Conference play won't begin until late December or early January.
But the Montana men's basketball team will get Big Sky play under way on Thursday and Saturday at Southern Utah in the unusual format the 2020-21 season is already dealing with.
For a while, the games against Southern Utah looked like they might be Montana's first games of the season before the Griz announced four non-conference games. Montana opened the season with a 76-62 loss at USC on Saturday.
So the Griz (0-1) hit the road to open conference play against the Thunderbirds (1-1) in Cedar City, Utah, in what will be the earliest conference opener on the calendar ever for UM. With the new league 20-game format, teams play two games in three days at the same location to avoid more traveling while fitting in the same number of conference games during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Southern Utah is going to be a team that will be playing with confidence," UM head coach Travis DeCuire said in a media release. "They're playing well, and they're at home. We have to go in there with confidence, as well, and be physical and play the best we can."
Montana and Southern Utah split the season series a year ago as each team won on the road. Southern Utah's win over Montana to end the regular season snapped a 15-game winning streak for the Griz in the series between the two schools. Due to the cancellation of the Big Sky tournament in Boise, Idaho, the game ended up being the final contest of the season for the Griz.
True freshmen Josh Bannan and Brandon Whitney were early bright spots for the Griz in the opener. Whitney, a 6-foot-1 guard from Mission Hills, California, played 34 minutes off of the bench, scoring 17 points on 4-for-10 shooting to lead UM in scoring while tallying three assists as well. Whitney's performance was the first time in UM history that a freshman led the team in scoring in a season opener, while also tying the highest-scoring total by a player making his debut in the first game of the season. Bannan, a 6-9 forward from Australia, started in his first college game and added 13 points after shooting 5 for 11 from the field and grabbed four rebounds.
Sophomore Kyle Owens provided depth on the bench with 11 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes, while transfers Cam Parker and Michael Steadman started and Cameron Satterwhite produced 18 minutes off of the bench. Redshirt sophomore Eddy Egun also made his first career start for the Griz and played 11 minutes.
In short, minutes were all over the place in UM's first 2020-21 game, but that's to be expected with a team learning to gel together as well as with a small sample size against a Pac-12 opponent like USC. In the opener, the Griz shot 33.9 percent from the field and were out-rebounded by USC 43-29. The Trojans shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range and 50 percent from the field.
"We can't shoot 30 percent in a half and think we can win a game," DeCuire said in the release. "But if we can tighten that up a bit and introduce a few more concepts to the guys, I think we'll be ready, but we have some work to do."
After the two games against Southern Utah, UM is scheduled for non-conference games against Georgia on Dec. 8, Washington on Dec. 16 and Arizona on Dec. 22 before continuing conference play against Northern Colorado on Jan. 2 and 4.
Notes: The last time Montana's second game of the season was a conference game was the 1963-64 season, per UM. ... Thursday's game will be DeCuire's 200th as the head coach at UM, making him the fifth coach to reach that milestone.