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Montana sees preseason predictions as opportunity to move up

02 Dec 2021 | 07:57 | Basketball

FARMINGTON, Utah – The Big Sky Conference announced its preseason men’s basketball polls on Thursday morning, with Montana slotted fourth by both the coaches and media.

Southern Utah – the 2021 regular-season champion – earned eight of the 11 first-place votes to sit atop the coaches’ poll, followed by Weber State (two first-place votes) and Montana State (one).

Following Montana in the coaches’ poll is Northern Colorado, Idaho State, Portland State, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Idaho.

The media poll looks similar, with the top six teams being identical and only Eastern Washington/ Portland State and Sacramento State/Northern Arizona being flipped.

“The first thing that stands out is that the league is old,” head coach Travis DeCuire said. “You’re looking at a lot of fifth- and sixth-year players, and that’s advantageous to teams who were old last year and who brought so many guys back. The advantages are going to go to those teams this time around, and there are a lot of mature programs in our league that are more seasoned and hard to beat.”

Three of the top-four teams in the poll are teams that advanced to the semifinals of the 2021 Big Sky tournament. The other, Weber State, got knocked out by the No. 6 seed Grizzlies in the quarterfinals.

The No. 4 preseason ranking is Montana’s lowest since DeCuire’s first team was picked eighth by the coaches and fifth by the media. That year, the 2014-15 season, the Grizzlies went on to tie for the regular-season title and advance to the Big Sky championship game.

“It never really matters what anyone thinks; we all have to go out and perform,” DeCuire said. “These polls give you a sense of what other programs think of your team, and sometimes you can either look at it as respect or disrespect. With where we’re at, I’m not sure it’s either.”

Like it did in 2015, Montana feels like it has an opportunity to once again make some moves this season.

The Grizzlies finished the 2020-21 season strong, winning six consecutive games – including the upset win over No. 3 seed Weber State – before falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Eastern Washington. Of the group that finished the season with the team, the Grizzlies bring back 91.8 percent of their minutes, 94.4 percent of their scoring, 90.9 percent of their rebounding and 93.8 percent of their steals.

Overall, the team returns its top-three scorers and top-two rebounders, including a freshman class that set several school records for scoring and starts and was the only team in the nation to have three true freshmen average at least 25.0 minutes per game.

Montana – which set a school record at the charity stripe in 2020-21 – also brought in four freshmen and three transfers, including graduate transfer Scott Blakney (Idaho) and a junior-college addition in Lonnell Martin Jr.

The Grizzlies also have tradition and history on their side. Montana has won 23 Big Sky regular-season or tournament championships in its history, including 10 (five regular-season, five tournament) over the past 12 seasons.

“I think we can be where we were picked, or even do some things that we want and expect of ourselves, but we have to grow up,” DeCuire said. “You look at five, six games last year, and if a couple things go our way at the end of those games we could say we should have been competing for a championship last year. But we weren’t mature enough to do that. We weren’t a championship team. We had enough talent to be in games and even have leads, but we weren’t ready to close.

“For us, when I say grow up, we have to show a level of maturity after the last media (timeout) to go out and take games, and I hope we can go do that this year.”