MISSOULA — While the Grizzly football team is currently wrapping up its season, the Montana men's and women's basketball programs recently began their campaigns and are about to head into the thick of their schedule with Big Sky Conference play beginning later this week.
The Griz men sit at 4-3 to start the season and recently wrapped up the Zootown Classic holiday tournament where they won a pair of games.
The team lost to Oregon on Monday night and also has a close loss to North Dakota from earlier in the year as well, but recent wins over NCAA Division I mid-majors Southern Miss, UC San Diego and Omaha were early highlights.
"We're trying to find our identity," junior forward Derrick Carter-Hollinger said. "I feel like that's something (head coach Travis DeCuire has) been talking about a lot especially since last year. Last year we were young, we had a lot of new guys so it was tough for us but this year I feel like with that same core we're gelling and finding that we play hard defense, we share the ball, it's what we do. We're trying to find out how to play the Montana way right now."
With the core group of players back from last year's Big Sky tournament semifinal run, the Grizzlies are also fitting in Idaho transfer forward Scott Blakney, a senior, and junior college transfer Lonnell Martin Jr, a junior, who has been an early spark plug and shown his ability to be a threat from deep for Montana including a 20-point outing against Southern Miss. Martin is also shooting at a 36.4% clip from deep while Robby Beasley III is shooting at a 34.2% rate. Josh Bannan also has showcased his ability with a 9-for-17 mark from deep this season.
"Just coming in and honestly feeling it out," Martin said about his acclimation to the team. "Just letting the guys accept me, feeling it out and letting them know that this is what I do and this is what they do."
Those two joins seniors Mack Anderson and Cameron Parker, juniors Kyle Owens, Josh Vazquez and Carter-Hollinger and sophomores Bannan, Beasley and Brandon Whitney as the major rotation players so far this year. Junior Freddy Brown III saw a career-high 14 minutes against Oregon as well after Whitney did not play.
Beasley, Bannan, Martin, Anderson and Whitney have been the team's starters this year with Parker starting in place of Whitney against Oregon.
It's a deep rotation for DeCuire, who typically plays just seven or eight players with heavy minutes.
"I think that there's 10 guys that are good enough to play basketball and so it's very difficult not to have everyone in rotation but I think one of the things to play well you kind of have to know when you're going to be in there and that's important to me but we feel good about where we're at right now," DeCuire explained. "Rotations can change. It's early. There's a lot of basketball to be played. Some guys can play themselves into rotations some guys can play themselves out."
Bannan leads UM with 12.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while Whitney is averaging 10.8 points per game. Parker leads the team in assists with 4.9 per game. Anderson leads the team in blocks with nine while Bannan leads the team in steals with 11.
DeCuire enters season No. 8 as Montana's head coach, and the Grizzlies once again enter with high hopes thanks to their returners. The Grizzlies were picked to finish fourth in both the media and coaches poll before the season started.
Last year Montana began to gel toward the end of the season with its young players, and they're hoping that experience and the added faces will help boost them again in March. The Grizzlies will carry that ideal forward when they begin conference play at Sacramento State and Northern Colorado on Thursday and Saturday.
"It's been great," Anderson said. "I think everyone is really bought in right now and I mean that's the biggest thing when you get a group of guys that all can contribute at different times. I mean someone will have a different night every night so it's pretty special and hopefully we can keep doing that."