This is a story about a coach who had his dream job snatched from his fingertips, a promising freshman playmaker at Oregon, and two Southern California sensations who turned down name brand opportunities to head to the wilderness.
But mainly, it’s a story about trusting that things will be better down the road. And, this year, all of these stories came together to make Montana Grizzlies history.
To understand how these puzzle pieces came together, you have to rewind to the Spring of 2013, when Mike Montgomery retired as Cal’s basketball coach and his replacement seemed obvious: interim head coach Travis DeCuire. Montgomery’s faith in DeCuire was so unwavering that he pled his case to the Cal administration.
“Travis should have the job,” Montgomery said in a 2013 article by SF Gate. “Players in the program trust Travis.”
However, Cal didn’t hire DeCuire and away he went, back to his alma mater, the University of Montana. This time as its head coach.
Now, in his fourth season in Missoula, it’s clear the program has made great strides under his watch. The 21-7 Grizzlies have surpassed 20 wins in three out of DeCuire’s four years, and are frontrunners for the Big Sky championship for the first time since 2012.
Winning the conference tournament will present another challenge for the Grizzlies, but their thriving core of Michael Oguine, Ahmaad Rorie and Jamar Akoh is as good as any in the Big Sky. The hot shooting backcourt duo of Oguine and Rorie average 32 points per game combined, and both shoot over 40 percent from the field. Rorie, a transfer from Oregon, is also 36th nationally in free throw shooting, making 88.6 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
For his part, Akoh has seven double-doubles on the season and is nearly a lock for Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Cal State Fullerton. He’s ninth nationally in free throw rate because for every 100 shots from the field, he takes 75.2 from the line which means, well, he gets to the line a lot. The most exciting part for Montana fans? All parts of Montana’s three-headed machine will return next season.
Aside from elite scoring potential, the Grizzlies shine on the defensive end. According to KenPom, they are 19th in the country in two-point defense. In fact, their opponents convert only 45 percent of their shots inside the carc. Montana is also ninth in the country in steal percentage, taking away 11.4 precent of their opponents possessions.
“When we get stops, it opens up the floodgates,” Oguine said.
Montana’s hunger to score and defend like no other led the team to its first high major win this year against Pitt, as well as a close contest at Washington. Then, they won seven straight road games, making DeCuire the fastest coach to reach 50 wins in the Big Sky.
“We just call it being a road warrior,” Rorie said of the Grizzlies’ attitude on the road. “Don’t expect fans to be there.”
The Grizzlies’ strong season all comes back to DeCuire because this year, more than ever before, his players have bought in. Certainly it hasn’t always been smooth sailing in Missoula.
“Last year, I think, there were lots of individual goals rather than team goals,” Rorie said. “I think we had to have the year last year so we could come back this year and be successful.”
DeCuire also thrives on the recruiting trail. Oguine could’ve gone elsewhere. He held major interest from Santa Clara and Harvard but decided to forgo those bigger name opportunities to play under DeCuire.
“On my visit, when I left Montana, I realized I would never live it down if I passed up on the opportunity,” Oguine said. “No disrespect to the other coaches but there was something about Travis that put him in a position ahead of them no matter where they’ve been.”
These players defied the odds by choosing to come to the Big Sky conference, where an NCAA Tournament game hasn’t been won since 2006, and players rarely get national attention. They come because they see a vision, and they come because they see a road ahead, a road paved by Damian Lillard to potential stardom in professional basketball.
Life in slow-paced, rustic Missoula has been an adjustment for these three who are used to life in the Los Angeles and Seattle suburbs. Rorie passes the time by drawing and designing tattoos for himself, Oguine hits the movie theatre (and dreams about In-N-Out) and Akoh said he takes in all the Treasure State has to offer.
“Montana wasn’t the ideal location for a Southern California kid so it took some persuading,” Akoh said. “I’ve been on hikes, I’ve been in the mountains, hunting, out on jet skiing [and] snowmobiles.”
But, surely, the Big Sky breeds toughness.
“Here in the Big Sky, we really pay a lot of attention to detail,” Oguine said. “We scout all of our opponents very hard; they do the same for us.”
There are few state-of-the-art basketball facilities or famed recruits in the Big Sky but there are hidden gems and an abundance of potential because these guys play hard in the hopes of a better future.
“Each team has a guy who can go off for 30 each night,” Rorie said.
The Big Sky Tournament will provide a window into the unmined talent within the Big Sky. It’ll feature league favorite Montana, but also 30 point regulars like Victor Sanders of Idaho and Jerrick Harding of Weber State itching for their spot in the limelight. We may find that what happens in the Big Sky doesn’t stay in the Big Sky for long.