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Travis DeCuire opens up about abrupt end to Montana basketball season, looks forward

Travis DeCuire
Posted at 4:36 PM, May 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-05 20:00:48-04

MISSOULA -- Travis DeCuire's view on the future of college basketball can be summed up in one sentence:

"I just hope we have a season and if we have a season I'll be excited about that."

The sporting world will take what it can get at this point after winter sports were abruptly ended back in mid-March due to the outbreak of COVID-19. And DeCuire is no different.

DeCuire, who now is heading into his seventh year as the head men's basketball coach for the Montana Grizzlies, met with the media via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a variety of topics pertaining to the end of the 2019-20 campaign while also taking a look ahead to what the Griz will put on the court when fall rolls around.

Starting with the obvious, DeCuire and the Griz were bound to take the court at the Big Sky Conference tournament for the quarterfinal round on Thursday, March 12, when the news hit that the tournament was canceled. Montana never even took the court as the Griz were looking to be the first Big Sky school since the late 1970s and early 80s to three-peat as tournament champs.

"You tend to say that you've had a run or streaks of success of postseasons and things like that," DeCuire said. "And you almost don't know what it feels like to end a season the way we ended one. And so it's very difficult.

"The toughest thing is just not really having closure for your seniors and that really is the toughest part for us. I'm not sure that we've gotten over that yet. I've had some conversations with the seniors but I owe each of them at least one or two more end-of-the year thank yous."

Sayeed Pridgett, Kendal Manuel and Jared Samuelson were the three seniors whose careers came to the quick end for Montana.

"It's hard to describe," DeCuire said. "I can't really tell you what it felt like or what it was we went through. I think every time someone asks me the question I give them a different answer."

Such is the case for most college basketball programs. For those coming back, DeCuire said the players returning have done a good job of moving forward and looking to next season.

One obstacle high school and college coaches and athletes have dealt with is how recruiting is done now. Coaches can't bring players in and must rely on communication over the phone. So DeCuire and his staff adjusted.

Montana has already signed four true freshmen for the 2020-21 season in Brandon Whitney, Robby Beasley III, Hunter Clarke and Josh Bannan. Then, the Griz went out and got two transfers in Cam Satterwhite of Northern Arizona and Cameron Parker from Sacred Heart to round out their roster.

DeCuire said he expects no more roster movement this offseason, saying, "all hands on deck," about whether he believed more changes were on the horizon and that he expects everyone back.

That means those six newcomers will join Timmy Falls, Mack Anderson, Josh Vazquez, Kyle Owens, Derrick Carter-Hollinger and Eddy Egun on next year's roster. Plus, transfers Naseem Gaskin and Michael Steadman, both of whom sat out last year, will be available while Darius Henderson joined the Griz as a mid-year transfer last season and will be eligible once the fall semester concludes.

The NCAA allows only 13 scholarships for each Division I program, so Montana will have to do some reshuffling with those players, meaning a pair from the aforementioned 15 will not be on scholarship officially. Walk-ons Freddy Brown III and Peter Jones round out the group. Walk-on Jett Briceno left the program shortly after the season ended, while Yagizhan Selcuk also transferred out before the conference tournament.

"I think the biggest strength with the group we have returning is chemistry," DeCuire said. "They all want to win and are all willing to make sacrifices for the team and they all have already done that in some way or another. So I think we have the right characteristics of a group that, on paper, may be very talented that will be willing to compete and share."

DeCuire said the addition of Satterwhite and Parker helps the Griz, "get older fast." With so many younger players last year and only a few vets, DeCuire said he sensed some burnout toward the end of the year. For this upcoming season, he pointed to Falls and Anderson as the two who return as the teams "vets" so Montana needed more experience and age within the group.

"We need to balance out our roster a little bit with some older guys," DeCuire said. "We knew we needed at least one grad transfer (Satterwhite) and the guard spot, we thought, was an area for us to improve on defensively."

Parker, who averaged almost eight assists per game in two years at Sacred Heart, was described as a "can't miss" addition by DeCuire, as well. Already there's a lot of hype around Steadman and Gaskin, and DeCuire said UM expects a lot out of those two, especially after the duo spent a year in Montana's systems to learn and grow in the program. But he mentioned bringing in players like Satterwhite and Parker will help ease the pressure and workload Gaskin and Steadman might feel and spread things out, especially offensively.

For the four incoming freshmen, DeCuire said each filled a role and need for Montana that gelled with the rest of the group. He said Whitney has strengths with his speed and ability to draw multiple defenders while Beasley is a gifted scorer. Clarke brings a high IQ level to the game while Bannan also brings a strong assortment of offensive skills to the team, according to DeCuire.

As far as going forward, DeCuire said he believed that attendance would be the area most affected by the pandemic as a whole in college basketball. However, he believes Montana might be in a different boat in terms of how drastically the Griz are affected.

"For us, Montana didn't get hit that hard," DeCuire said. "So I think that our typical fans and our community will be less hesitant than in some of the places that we'll go. So maybe that means the environment that we would typically see at an Arizona may be a little lighter than normal so that has a negative impact on the experience of the student-athlete. But time will tell."

If it came down to it, DeCuire said he wouldn't mind playing games with no fans. He said that might be more beneficial to teams because players wouldn't get caught up in the emotional side that fans bring. However, that money would be lost, which would hurt the program, and DeCuire said he wanted to avoid that outcome.

"But we'll play the game however we need to play, wherever we need to play it," he said. "I'll play outside, I have no problem with it. We just have to be ready to adjust."

As for life in quarantine, DeCuire described himself as a "third-grade tutor" for his daughter along with putting in full work days. But he said when his daughter gets bored and wants his attention, DeCuire said the two end up on the family trampoline, which he showed over Zoom, and even said he'll break out a flip occasionally and doesn't hurt himself.

He said he encourages his players to stay at home and accomplish whatever they can while safely within their homes. He said players, for the most part, have understood the severity of everything, but he checks in frequently to make sure everyone is staying healthy and taking care of themselves physically and mentally.

And also on the lighter side, DeCuire was asked about his thoughts on The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary that has captured the attention of sports fans everywhere during the pandemic. And when asked if Michael Jordan truly is the greatest basketball player of all-time ...

"It's not even open for discussion," he said with a smile. "If Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley say he's the GOAT, he's the GOAT."