MISSOULA -- Every freshman who steps on campus for a college sports team wants to start and play right away, but most don't realize just how difficult that is to achieve.
For the three true freshmen on Montana's men's basketball team, they know exactly how that feels.
Josh Vazquez, Kyle Owens and Derrick (DJ) Carter-Hollinger all joined the Grizzlies as a highly touted recruiting class, and head coach Travis DeCuire and his staff didn't waste any time in getting the trio big minutes in games. Vazquez and Owens both started in Montana's season opener against Stanford while Carter-Hollinger played 28 minutes in that game, and thus began their college basketball careers.
Now 17 games in, the three have been a key reason why the Grizzlies are 5-1 in league play and sit in first place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
There were a lot of questions how Montana would respond to losing such a core group of veterans in the offseason, a group of stars who led the Griz to back-to-back Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles and two straight berths in the NCAA Tournament.
Those questions are being answered maybe more quickly than most expected.
"The transition at the beginning was pretty tough because of physicality and me coming from high school playing against these big guys," Vazquez said. "It was something to adjust to, but now I feel pretty good and I feel like I've adjusted pretty well to it."
Speed and strength at the Division I level were the largest adjustments for the group. And Vazquez might've been tasked with filling the biggest shoes after the graduation of three-year starting point guard Ahmaad Rorie.
"Coming in as freshmen it's a little stressful, but the expectation they have for me, the coaching staff, is pretty high," Vazquez said. "But I know they trust me in everything I do and they're showing me a lot of stuff to help me out to fill in those shoes.
"It's just like the vibe I got. All of the people here, the coaches, the atmosphere just felt really good. When I came here, it was my first time ever coming here and I just felt like I knew everybody like right away, off the bat. I was getting this feeling like, 'I know you but it's my first time meeting you.'"
Vazquez, who hails from Torrance, California, has played the most of the three, averaging 29.1 minutes per game. He's started in 10 games, the first four and then the most recent six in conference play. He's shown his ability to handle the ball and pass and has also showcased his ability to shoot with range. He's dealt with a shoulder issue of late which he suffered against Eastern Washington, but he currently averages 5.2 points, 1.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game.
He scored a career-high 16 points at New Mexico on Dec. 1 and has dished out five assists twice, against both Omaha and Northern Arizona.
Owens, a Calabasas, California, native, has seen his minutes kind of jump around this year more than the others. He started in nine of Montana's non-conference games but has seen more of a reserve role off the bench in Big Sky play. Still, with his 6-foot-8 frame, Owens gives Montana depth in the post and has been able to step out beyond the arc and knock down a few 3-pointers as well. He's averaging 5.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in an average of 16.9 minutes per game. He scored a career-high 14 points against Montana Tech and went 10 for 10 from the free throw line and also scored eight and seven points, respectively, against Sacramento State and Portland State to give UM a scoring boost off the bench.
"(The transition) is going great so far, we're getting a lot of wins," Owens said. "We have a really strong bond with the three of us. Ever since we got here in the summer together, we've gotten along really well, so I think that transitions to the court with us and other guys as well."
For this group, knowing that there would be a chance to play right away was a big draw to joining the Grizzlies. That was something the coaching staff pitched them, and they've since taken advantage.
"I felt like he was giving me and my fellow freshmen an opportunity to play right away and to play a role that we could possibly help our team be successful," Carter-Hollinger said.
Along with the three true freshmen, Montana also sports second-year players in Mack Anderson, Eddy Egun and Yagizhan Selcuk, so the team's overall youth has been a theme all season. But having multiple guys to grow with while learning Division I basketball has been another key to each player's successes thus far.
"We all get along and still have years to come with them as well," Owens said. "I feel like starting off early now, by the time we're upperclassmen, we'll be really good together."
"It's always good having someone to grow up with," Carter-Hollinger added. "We all go through the same thing, so it's easy for us to kind of adjust to the same thing so it's a lot easier."
Carter-Hollinger's stock has been rising of late. After also seeing minutes fluctuate throughout the season, Carter-Hollinger, who hails from El Cajon, California, exploded for a 20-point, 14-rebound game off of the bench in Montana's 90-63 win over Eastern Washington. He had four blocks in that game as well. Then on Monday against Portland State, he scored 13 points off the bench again, and on Tuesday was awarded the Big Sky Conference player of the week award.
It's all the more remarkable considering he didn't turn 18 until Dec. 11. He currently averages 21 minutes, 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 62.1 percent from the floor.
"It felt great. That breakthrough helped me realize that I can score at this level and that I can play better than I have been," Carter-Hollinger said. "So that kind of made me feel a lot more confident in what I can do, so it felt great."
Defensively is where DeCuire has been most impressed with his freshmen. And their rapid growth comes a lot from their experience at the high schools they attended.
"They came in more prepared probably than most guys in terms of team concepts and understanding scouts," DeCuire said.
And the three like to have fun. After all, they are kids. So when asked who is the loudest, who jokes the most and who is the most quiet, the answers varied.
"Josh is probably the quietest and I'll take the loudest and likes to joke the most and I think DJ is up there too for joking the most as well, but I think I'll bank on them saying me," Owens said with a laugh.
"Oh, Lord," Carter-Hollinger added. "Kyle's for sure the loudest, Josh plays around the most, I'm probably the most quiet. For sure."
As guys who were stars at their respective high schools, the growing pains have been there. But the patience the three have shown and ability to adjust have paid dividends as conference play continues to heat up.
"It's a roller-coaster ride," Owens said. "Can't get too high on the highs, can't get too low on the lows. Just have to stay in the middle."