MISSOULA — After the Montana men's basketball team lost its first of two straight contests to Southern Utah last week to open Big Sky Conference play, the talk surrounding the game centered around fouls.
The Thunderbirds won 64-63 on a game-winning free throw from John Knight III in the first game. Knight drove into the lane and UM freshman Josh Bannan was whistled for a foul after trying to defend him, a foul that sent Knight to the line.
The game ended with Montana called for 28 fouls while SUU had 19, and 6-foot-10 Michael Steadman and 6-9 Mack Anderson both fouled out for the Griz. The Thunderbirds finished 26 for 40 from the free throw line while UM was 9 for 17.
Two days later, Montana lost to Southern Utah 75-74 on another game-winning free throw after Josh Vazquez was whistled for a foul on SUU's Nick Fleming, who grabbed an offensive rebound and heaved a desperation shot mid-air with the game tied. Like Knight, Fleming went 1 for 2 from the line to win it.
With the same officiating crew, Montana was called for 16 fouls and Southern Utah 13. The Griz went 12 for 15 from the line while the Thunderbirds were 13 for 16.
Two conference games into the already challenging 2020-21 season, Montana has more fouls and less free throws in its first two Big Sky games than its opponent, a continuation of a recent trend upward of fouls called on the Griz compared to their Big Sky foes.
In looking at stats from DeCuire's tenure at Montana -- now in his seventh season heading the Griz -- the Grizzlies saw a big disadvantage in fouls a season ago after back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament.
"Yeah, my relationship with the officials is getting better, stronger," DeCuire said when asked if he feels like UM has been officiated differently since that run of success. "We're in love with each other. I've thought about going over here to Albertson's and getting some sweets, some candy and chocolates and leaving it in the official's locker room."
Statistically, the Griz saw the gap widen sharply last season compared to seasons past in terms of fouls and free throws per team. Here is the foul data from UM's conference games in 2019-20. Included in the model are wins first, then losses, with each team's total fouls and free throw performance:
NAU @ UM (79-72 UM)
NAU: 19 fouls, 14-21; UM: 21 fouls, 16-23
Sac State @ UM (52-50 UM)
Sac State: 12 fouls, 9-15; UM: 14 fouls, 7-9
UM @ SUU (60-58 UM)
UM: 18 fouls, 6-8; SUU: 14 fouls, 15-21
UM @ EWU (90-63 UM)
UM: 25 fouls, 20-23; EWU: 22 fouls, 17-29
PSU @ UM (85-70 UM)
PSU: 16 fouls, 18-22; UM: 17 fouls, 12-16
Idaho @ UM (67-63 UM)
Idaho: 17 fouls, 13-21; UM: 18 fouls, 10-15
Montana @ ISU (77-74 UM)
UM: 26 fouls, 16-19; ISU: 17 fouls, 25-34
MSU @ UM (78-64 UM)
MSU: 19 fouls, 20-29; UM: 27 fouls, 13-16
EWU @ UM (92-82 UM)
EWU: 26 fouls, 20-28; UM: 29 fouls, 21-25
UM @ Idaho (82-71 UM)
UM: 17 fouls, 15-18; UI: 19 fouls, 17-24
WSU @ UM (72-37 UM)
WSU: 11 fouls, 8-12; UM: 16 fouls, 8-9
ISU @ UM (78-63 UM)
ISU: 9 fouls, 14-19; UM: 17 fouls, 6-6
UM @ MSU (59-54 UM)
UM: 20 fouls, 7-15; MSU: 15 fouls, 17-22
UM @ Sac State (79-71 UM)
UM: 18 fouls, 14-20; SAC: 19 fouls, 13-20
UM @ UNC (74-66 UNC)
UM: 16 fouls, 4-6; UNC: 13 fouls, 18-22
UM @ WSU (87-85 WSU in OT)
UM: 22 fouls, 7-11; WSU: 11 fouls, 24-28
UM @ PSU (88-81 PSU)
UM: 22 fouls, 11-16; PSU: 19 fouls, 23-26 (Holland Woods 21-21)
NAU @ UM (57-56 NAU)
NAU: 12 fouls, 12-17; UM: 17 fouls, 0-2
UNC @ UM (71-64 UNC)
UNC: 14 fouls, 18-26; UM: 18 fouls, 7-11
SUU @ UM (85-80 SUU in OT)
SUU: 26 fouls, 32-43; UM: 30 fouls, 19-26
So, in the 2019-20 season, Montana was called for more fouls in 18 of its 20 conference games. Because of that, opponents shot more free throws than UM in 18 of 20 games, with a 19th game a tie. Opponents shot 23.95 free throws against UM in 2019-20 while the Griz averaged 14.7 foul attempts.
In terms of comparison, here is how those numbers stack up against past DeCuire teams in regular-season conference games:
2019-20: More fouls: UM 18, Opponent 2. More FT: UM 1, Opponent 18, Tie 1. Avg. FPG: UM, 20.4, Opponents 16.5. Avg. FT: 14.7, Opponent: 23.95.
2018-19: More fouls: UM 12, Opponent 8. More FT: UM 10, Opponent 8, Tie 2. Avg. FPG: UM, 18.25, Opponent 17. Avg. FT: UM, 18.25, Opponent, 19.1
2017-18: More fouls: UM 9, Opponent 8, Tie 1. More FT: UM 10, Opponent 8. Avg. FPG: UM, 21.3, Opponent 20.8. Avg. FT: UM, 23.9, Opponent, 22.3.
2016-17: More fouls: UM 10, Opponent 8. More FT: UM 5, Opponent 12, Tie 1. Avg. FPG: UM 22.7, Opponent 19.9. Avg. FT: UM 21, Opponent 23.4.
2015-16: More fouls: UM 10, Opponent 4, Tie 4. More FT: UM 4, Opponent 13, Tie 1. Avg. FPG: UM 22.6, Opponent 20.9. Avg. FT: UM 20.6, Opponent 24.6.
2014-15: More fouls: UM 9, Opponent 6, Tie 3. More FT: UM 3, Opponent 14, Tie 1. Avg. FPG: UM 18.9, Opponent 17.8. Avg. FT: UM 17.6, Opponent 21.2.
Montana's style of play tends to lean on the physical side, with the Griz typically having more size as well as being one of the top defenses in the Big Sky most seasons. That intensity and physicality might also explain the upward trend, which DeCuire noted.
Still, DeCuire's philosophies haven't changed compared to seasons in the past when the gap was slimmer, and recently the foul trends have gone negatively for Montana in all categories.
"Some of it is style of play. Southern Utah's got some guys like John Knight where he's going to get into the paint and jump into defenders, obviously he's going to get a lot of those calls," DeCuire explained. "Brandon Whitney has done that a little bit for us. He did that against USC. We post up more than we drive and it's just fewer foul calls made on our post up."
"I have post players so I have different personnel than some of these guys. If I played five perimeter players, then yeah, I would try to draw more fouls," DeCuire continued. "If I had Mike Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie out there, then that would be a lot different, but I'm playing with guys that have their back to the basket so it's kind of hard to get downhill and drive when you've got low-post players down there. Those guys could draw more fouls themselves, but I don't go into the game trying to get to the free throw line, I go into the game playing basketball, and unfortunately we've been the victim of, really it's one team that put their head down and just drove.
"It comes down to your personnel and the kind of shot that the person you want to shoot and what kind of shot they get. I wanted Josh Vazquez to shoot the last shot for us in those two scenarios and he shoots jump shots. He made them. So we got three points instead of one or two, it just so happens we didn't have the last possession. But we made our last shot."
Montana sits at 1-4 after getting a 102-42 win over Yellowstone Christian College on Saturday at Dahlberg Arena in its first home game of the season. Montana is next scheduled to play at Washington on Wednesday.