MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies never appeared outclassed on the court this season.
Even with expected rough stretches, they looked like they belonged in every contest they played, no matter how high the level of competition.
But for how memorable a season the revamped Griz posted, it was the near misses that are sure to linger in the aftermath, leaving a feeling of what could have been.
With six returners, a slew a newcomers and a newly implemented defensive scheme, the Griz had hoped to have a successful season. Not many saw the them running through the Big Sky regular season, going undefeated at home for the first time since 1992, winning the conference tournament title, posting the third-most wins (26-8) in program history and hanging with Michigan in the NCAA tournament.
Even head coach Travis DeCuire, who rarely discussed the larger picture — instead focusing on a next-game approach — lodged this into the middle of one of his winded answers after last Monday’s practice before the Griz left for the NCAA tournament:
“With one senior, it might be a year earlier than we expected, but I do think we have the talent to go in and compete.”
It sure was a year earlier than others around the conference expected. Led by all-conference guards Ahmaad Rorie and Mike Oguine, the Griz were picked third in the preseason coaches poll and the preseason media poll, behind Idaho and Weber State.
This was supposed to be Idaho’s year, the season to which head coach Don Verlin and the veteran-laden Vandals had been building to make a final push to the national tournament.
It was Eastern Washington which beat Stanford, Idaho which defeated Washington State, and Portland State which took down Cal and Stanford. But it was the Griz who emerged on top in a loaded conference.
Montana kept its poise under pressure to knock off Pitt, which in retrospect seems like a game the Griz should have won with how far Pitt fell, even though it was just the second game together for the young Montana group.
But the non-conference losses felt more memorable than the wins.
The Griz had an opportunity to beat Washington but split free throws in the final seconds. They hung with Penn State and Stanford before they ran out of gas. And they plodded their way to slow starts against UC Santa Barbara and Georgia State before coming up short in their comeback attempts.
Any combination of two wins from those games, or even just one more Power Five victory, could have gone a long way in helping the Griz earn a 12 or 13 seed in the NCAA tournament. With a more favorable draw, they could have made a special season more memorable with a win in the Big Dance.
Despite those shortcomings in the first dozen games, the defense-first, team-oriented, compete-with-desperation approach DeCuire preached finally blossomed as the Griz went on a 13-game win streak to open league play.
As players bought into their roles and traded in daily 25-point performances to make that extra pass and get other teammates involved, the Griz looked like something special.
While the defensive contests didn’t always look pretty, the Griz had their fair share of offensive nights and clutch baskets. They scored 109 points against North Dakota, emerging post presence Jamar Akoh pounded the paint for 34 points against Northern Colorado and Oguine took over on the road with 39 points at Portland State.
In the conference tournament, Rorie dropped 30 points in the quarterfinals, Bobby Moorehead hit a seemingly no-look 3-pointer in the final minute of the semifinals, and the team rallied in the second half of the title game.
But it was ultimately the offense that spelled their doom. Because of their unselfishness, they never relied on a go-to player to take over a game down the stretch on a consistent basis.
So when they found themselves trailing by double digits late in games, they weren’t always able to muster that instant firepower. That exact situation reared its head on the big stage against Michigan in a 61-47 loss that included a long stretch of despairing offensive possessions.
Left with a feeling of what could have been, there will soon be a feeling of what could be. The Griz return all but one of their regular rotation players and could be on their way to another special season.
But whatever that group accomplishes, the sense of pride, joy and excitement this year’s team brought DeCuire, the university and the community could be hard to top.
“Their heart, their passion, their desire to perform,” DeCuire said about what he’s going to remember most about this team and this season. “I think I have a group of young men that gave me everything they had. And you can't say that for every team every year. And these guys were all in.
“They say family, and most of the time when you have a team that says family, because pretty much every team I've had says that, sometimes you have to define it for them. And I didn't have to do that for this team. They act like family on and off the court and they play like family.
“And I'm proud of these young men, and, you know, we got a tough draw. And it was a tough basketball game. They showed up; they performed. They gave us everything they had.
“I'll be talking about this team for a long time.”