MISSOULA — The Montana men's basketball season ended in disappointing fashion last week in Boise, Idaho, as the Griz were ousted by Weber State in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
Montana started out fast but ran into adversity which allowed Weber State to come back and eventually run with that win.
Symbolically, the result was a perfect metaphor for UM's season.
After an up-and-down non-conference slate, the Griz started Big Sky play 8-2 and looked like they'd be right back in the thick of a conference title chase.
But after that start, UM finished the season 3-8 in its final 11 games. The Grizzlies finished the year 18-14 overall.
Montana's offense and rebounding struggled throughout the year, with the Griz ranking dead-last in rebounding in the conference. Offensively, the Griz ranked ahead of only Idaho State, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona in terms of scoring, and were middle of the pack with 3-point baskets.
UM started strong on defense as one of the top teams in the conference, but after losing center Mack Anderson to injury late in the season, that side of the ball also began to slip.
Despite that, the Grizzlies were a team of youth again this year with three sophomores starting all season in Josh Bannan, Robby Beasley III and Brandon Whitney, and from last year to this year, Montana felt itself grow up especially in close games earlier in the year.
"Physically I think that we're a lot stronger than last year. I think a lot of the times down the stretch we'd turn the ball over and make silly little mistakes as well so we grew up a little bit and you saw that at the beginning of the season where we have a lot of close games and last year we'd end up giving those games up," Beasley said. "But as we saw in the beginning of the season, we learned how to win in crunch time but unfortunately, we couldn't keep that up throughout the season but I feel like in crunch time and when the game is close we stuck together way better than we did last year."
Going forward, the roster movement is already underway with UM.
Four Grizzlies have entered the transfer portal since the season ended including junior Kyle Owens, who saw his minutes decline this season after playing right away as a freshman two years ago and being named the team MVP in 2020-21. Senior Cameron Parker, who led the Big Sky Conference in assists this year and was named the co-Top Reserve in the Big Sky, also is transferring. Redshirt junior Freddie Brown III also entered the portal after four seasons with Montana while walk-on freshman Jack Wetzel also left.
Idaho transfer Scott Blakney is also gone after his lone year with Montana. Parker, Blakney and Brown were all honored on Senior Night for UM.
Montana has three incoming players signed to its 2022 class, including Shelby standout Rhett Reynolds. He is joined by Isaiah Kerr of California and Jaxon Nap of Washington. As of Saturday, the Griz had not landed any known transfers.
The Griz announced before the season ended that Anderson, a Bozeman native, will utilize his COVID year and return next season, and the core group of Bannan, Whitney and Beasley will also be back as will junior guard Lonnell Martin Jr., who joined UM this season after spending time in junior college and proved to be a reliable option from deep. After dealing with injury last year, junior Derrick Carter-Hollinger got back into familiar form this year as a key contributor. While his minutes declined, junior Josh Vazquez is another seasoned player who could be back next year for the Grizzlies.
Bannan especially began to break out this season and was named second-team all-conference for his performances this year.
Anderson missed the final seven games of the season due to an undisclosed arm injury. After UM's season ended, DeCuire noted how Anderson's defensive prowess is a big key to their team identity, and losing him hurt the team the most as they fell into a slump and lost out in the conference tournament.
So, that's where Montana stands as it heads into the roster makeup stage of its offseason, as head coach Travis DeCuire and his team look to build back to where they were in 2018 and 2019 when they advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Of note, DeCuire recently signed a contract extension that runs through 2025. This past season completed his eighth year as the head coach of the Griz.
"Size, athleticism, but also just time, age," DeCuire said about what the team needs going forward. "The guys that return need to get a little better. We need to put some juniors and seniors on the floor like everyone else and we'll be doing that next year because all of these guys will be a grade older so I think the biggest thing for us as the clock ticks is that we know when we put our group on the floor next year we'll be one of the two most experienced teams in the conference and so our level of expectation for ourselves will change."