MOSCOW, Idaho — The offensive turnaround for the Montana men's basketball team over the past month and a half has been remarkable.
The Grizzlies’ shooting percentages were always going to improve once the team got out of an incredibly tough nonconference slate. But since Big Sky play has started, Montana leads the conference in points per game, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and turnover margin.
A number of things have gone into the Montana’s offensive prowess, but one of the biggest parts of the success is the ball has not been sticky.
That means, of course, the ball moves around the court and it is not just one player demanding it every time the Grizzlies head down the floor on offense.
“The games we’ve played well and done what we’re supposed to, we’ve moved the ball,” Montana guard Kendal Manuel said following the Grizzlies' win over Idaho on Saturday night. “It hasn’t got sticky and we haven’t let one person just do their thing. Its collective, as a unit.
"I think tonight (against the Vandals) we had three or four people score in double figures, so that just goes to show how we’ve been playing together lately and that’s been nice.”
One thing that has constantly been stressed by coaches this season is how well players around the team have responded to what both head coach Travis DeCuire and his staff are telling them.
When Montana runs its offense, the ball usually flows its way around the key and then into the post, if that’s what the play calls for. It is not getting stuck in the hands of any one player for too long, which allows spacing to open up as the Grizzlies work their way through possessions.
Of course there are times where senior swingman Sayeed Pridgett will get an isolation play and he crashes hard to the rim, but those are thrown in as an addition and do not become the entire offense.
“When it does get sticky, that’s when you don’t trust people. That’s what we’ve done well, is just being able to trust other people and knowing they’re gonna make shots and they’ve proven they can make shots,” Manuel said. “So, just understanding that and everyone else knowing their role ... those are our scorers, we’re going to move the ball and get them the ball, just everything has been going well overall as a collective unit.”
Pridgett leads the team in scoring, but he demands the ball in stretches and not constantly. Similarly, Manuel usually knows when he needs to go hunt for a shot and when to pass out of a bad one.
When Pridgett and Manuel were not shooting well at the beginning of the year, it spelled doom for the Grizzlies. Now, there are a variety of other pieces that have contributed in the scoring column as well and part of that comes down to trust.
DeCuire and his staff, for example, have no issue with true freshman forward Kyle Owens rising up for a 3-point shot, or DJ Carter-Hollinger getting to his spots and throwing a shot up. Confidence has risen among the entire team and just about anyone on the floor has the green light to shoot, as long as it is a shot DeCuire deems high percentage.
“You’ve got to defend percentage and shoot percentage to win championships and that’s always been our thing is to be on both sides of that,” DeCuire said. “For the most part, we’ve been in the top half and on the defensive end as well, percentage wise, we’ve had a little slippage here the last couple games and we need to get back to the right spot. But if you defend low percentages and shoot high percentages, you’ve always got a chance to win.”
Turnovers — or the lack of them by Montana — have also been crucial. At the beginning of the season, the Grizzlies were one of the very worst teams in the nation when it came to turning the ball over.
As of this weekend, they were 98th in the NCAA with an average of 12.5 turnovers per game and lead the Big Sky in turnover margin with a plus-1.96.
Winning that battle has led to open shots in transition and high shooting percentages on offense. It is a plan that has worked for Montana in the past and might just get them to a third straight Big Sky title.
“When we spread the ball out and let it find you, we shoot for percentage,” DeCuire said. “I think these guys are starting to figure that out.”