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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 13 Montana Grizzlies

The defending Big Sky champs return nearly everyone from a 26-8 season. Could a perfect conference record be in the cards?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Michigan vs Montana Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 26-8 (16-2), 14-seed in the NCAA Tournament

Key Returning Players: Jamar Akoh (F, Sr.), Michael Oguine (G, Sr.), Ahmaad Rorie (G, Sr.)

Key Loss: Fabijan Krslovic

Key Newcomers: Donaven Dorsey (via Washington), Kendal Manuel (via Oregon State)

With a 10-win turnaround, an undefeated record at home and an NCAA Tournament berth under his belt, it’s safe to say Travis DeCuire is building something special at Montana. This year’s team returns all but one of its starters from a 26-win campaign. A repeat Big Sky title should be on the horizon, but the Griz should aim higher: This team has what it takes to get the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2006.

In order to improve on last year’s 26-8 record (and make the tournament; this won’t be a given in a one-bid league), then they’re going to rely on their frenetic, trapping-heavy defense. Led by Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Michael Oguine and Oregon transfer Ahmaad Rorie, the Griz defense caused 15.4 turnovers per game and held opposing teams to 68.5 points per game on 43 FG%. Not only that, Montana brings in two more Power-5 transfers in Donaven Dorsey and Kendal Manuel, making them a quasi-Power-5 team in mid-major clothing. If everything goes according to plan, this will be a special season in Missoula.

Key Non-Conference Games

Montana’s non-conference slate should be fun. The Griz and their 15-game home winning streak — good for the fourth-longest active streak in the nation — will be put to the test on opening night against Georgia State, the team slotted beneath them in our preseason poll. They’ll then hit the road for an incredibly winnable Island of the Bahamas Showcase. Save for two non-Division I games and a visit from North Dakota State, the Griz will be on the road until Big Sky play.

11/9 vs Georgia State
11/28 at Creighton
12/8 at UC Irvine
12/19 at Arizona
12/21 at South Dakota State

Three things to watch:

Will Montana go undefeated in the Big Sky?

Montana should go undefeated in the Big Sky this season. Full stop.

Although DeCuire has said he doesn’t like to set expectations for his team, the possibility of an undefeated big sky season is not unfathomable. They were a three-day stretch from becoming the first undefeated BS team since the 2002-03 Weber State Wildcats, and as mentioned earlier, this year’s team is almost identical to last year’s two-loss squad that blew out opponents by an average of 13.3 PPG. Conference contenders Eastern Washington, Idaho and Northern Colorado will lose a ton of production from last season; Montana State needs to help out Tyler Hall; and Montana still plays cellar-dwellers Northern Arizona and Sacramento State twice a year.

As fate would have it, a Jerrick Harding-led Weber State team acts as the David to Montana’s Goliath. Not one but three high-stakes games between these teams seem inevitable in Montana’s pursuit of perfection.

What can Donaven Dorsey and Kendal Manuel bring to the table?

The rich get richer in Missoula. Despite returning 82% of their minutes from last season — good for No. 33 in the nation, per Bart Torvik’s metrics — Montana brings in two PAC-12 transfers that should be regulars in the rotation. Although injuries derailed Dorsey and Manuel’s plans to crack the rotations at Washington and Oregon State, respectively, both players are intriguing additions to the roster.

Of the two, Manuel took the more circuitous path to Montana. The Billings, MT native parlayed a Montana State AA title into an Oregon State scholarship coming out of high school, but a horrific tibia injury nearly derailed his college career before it started. Even though he bounced back with by averaging 7.8 PPG in an ancillary role for the Beavers, his usage declined.

Now, he’ll bolster Montana’s deep backcourt and feature prominently in DeCuire’s guard-heavy attack with his speed and scoring ability; if Manuel’s 21.7 PPG clip in this summer’s FIBA African Qualifiers is any indication of what’s to come, then Montana could have another legitimate scoring threat.

Dorsey, on the other hand, will provide plenty of versatility for the Griz. Praised as a “jack-of-all-trades” player coming out of high school, the 6’7 senior will probably make his mark on defense. His length should help on switches; plugging him into the lineup at the four seems reasonable if Montana keeps its four-guard approach from last season.

Can Montana defense improve?

This isn’t to say Montana’s defense is bad: The Griz leapt from No. 242 in defensive efficiency to No. 56 over the past two seasons, which is a phenomenal turnaround no matter how you slice it. But it’s not perfect.

Three-point defense was the only sub-par part about Montana’s defense; opponents shot 35.2% from beyond the arc, a mark somehow worse than teams like Siena, Dartmouth and Coppin State. It should come as no surprise that opponents averaged 40.6 3FG% in Montana’s six losses, which is a troubling trend considering they share the conference with Montana State’s Tyler Hall, Weber State’s Harding and Idaho State’s Jared Stutzman. Improve perimeter defense, and the Griz could find a new gear.

X Factor

It’s no secret that the Griz will only go as far as Akoh (12.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG), Oguine (15.5 PPG) and Rorie (17.2 PPG) will take them. However, this trio will probably need help to make up for not only the void left by forward Fabijan Krslovic, whose impact on the team went above and beyond his 7.4 PPG and 5.1 RPG statline.

Expect either senior Bobby Morehead or junior Sayeed Pridgett to answer the call this season. Both rotation players averaged around 7 PPG last year, and both added over a steal per game on defense. In particular, Morehead’s 6’7 frame coupled with his outside shooting give him breakout player potential: Morehead took twice as many three’s (145) as two’s (70) last season while converting at a 35.2% clip.